MONTREAL — “Colonel Chabert” helmer Yves Angelo’s highly anticipated “An Air So Pure” (Un Air Si Pur) kicked off this year’s Montreal World Film Festival Friday night.

The strange black comedy, about a hotel/health spa in the mountains of Europe during World War I, elicited fairly positive reaction from the media and industryites gathered for the Canadian fest (see review, page 6). Local newspaper reviews were generally upbeat regarding the Gallic pic, which is set to open across France and in Quebec on Sept. 3.

The world preem of “An Air So Pure” in Montreal is expected to help stir up added B.O. heat for the French-Canadian release, said John Kochman, director of foreign sales at Le Studio Canal Plus, which has all world rights to the feature.

The fest preem “is particularly important for a film that has French-Canadian distribution in place,” Kochman said. “For a French-speaking film in Canada, it’s an important springboard for the Canadian release, and that’s one of the main reasons for doing it.”

France Film of Montreal has the French-Canadian rights to the film. There is no U.S. sale yet.

Angelo and thesp Marie Gillain were on hand for the screening Friday night at Place des Arts in downtown Montreal, but star Fabrice Luchini was a no-show due to prior commitments.

Director Brian De Palma and Oscar-winning thesp Nicolas Cage, both in town filming the Paramount boxing epic “Snake Eyes” at the old Forum, took a break from shooting to attend the premiere and party, which was held as usual at the chalet atop picturesque Mount Royal overlooking the city. Other notables on hand for opening night festivities included Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, Quebec culture czarina Louise Beaudoin, Quebec thesps Serge Dupire and David LaHaye, veteran Montreal writer-director Gilles Carle and his on-and-off-screen partner Chloe St. Marie, and Just For Laughs comedy festival topper Andy Nulman.

‘Gang’ garners raves

British first-time director Mike Barker’s “The James Gang” was the second pic to screen in the festival’s official competition (after “Air”), and the gritty road movie also garnered enthusiastic response after its initial screenings on Saturday.

“The James Gang,” produced by hot British production house Revolution Films, was the subject of some controversy earlier this year when Miramax acquired some rights in English-lingo territories to the pic and then sold the pic back to HandMade Films, which handles foreign sales on the title. U.S. rights are still available for the film.

In the first significant deal at the festival, leading Canadian distrib Alliance Releasing on Saturday acquired Canuck rights to Japanese helmer Yoshimitsu Morita’s “Lost Paradise” several days before the drama screens as part of the official competition. The pic, the story of an illicit affair that turns the two lovers’ lives upside-down, was sold to Alliance by Ace Pictures of Tokyo. Alliance Communications vice chairman Victor Loewy described Morita’s pic as “very powerful.”

Jacqueline Bisset, who is president of the competition jury this year, held a press conference in front of the public Saturday afternoon, in which she bemoaned the amount of violence in today’s cinema.

Bisset’s beef

“I am not at all seduced by the violence in the movies today,” Bisset said. “It’s getting way out of hand. I love emotional conflict because films that are always cheerful tend to be uninteresting. Still, there appears to be a black hole at the movies.”

One of the major events at the Montreal festival will be the tribute to actor Rod Steiger, set to take place Sunday at the Jean Duceppe Theater in Place des Arts. Longtime fest tribute host Darrah Meeley will chat onstage with the star of “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Pawnbroker.”

Guests headed to Montreal this week include a couple of actors-turned-directors: Liv Ullmann, here with her pic “Private Confessions,” and Alan Rickman, accompanying his directorial debut, “The Winter Guest,” the fest’s closing-night selection. Others on the guest list this week include “The People vs. Larry Flynt” helmer Milos Forman, Daniel Bergman (Ingmar Bergman’s son) with his pic “Expectations,” “Kiss or Kill” helmer Bill Bennett and director Carlos Saura, here for the competition entry “Pajarico.”

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