LONDON — If you’re looking for exciting British films at Cannes this year, you can chuck your fest badge into the bin and head for the market.

That’s where you’ll find highly anticipated Brit pics like FilmFour’s “Crush.” But, in 2001, whether it’s the Competition, Un Certain Regard or the Directors’ Fortnight, the Brits are cinema non grata.

Has British film sold its soul for Hollywood gold and turned its back on the artistic glories of the Croisette? It’s a subject of heated discussion here in London, and one assumes the debate will continue on to the terraces of the Hotel du Cap.

Some say this year is an anomaly.

“Last year there were no Italian films. This year it’s the U.K. It has more to do with the fact that several important films weren’t ready in time,” says one optimist. Some wags will insist “not ready” is a euphemism for “Cannes said no.”

Aim is off

“The odd, damning and depressing thing,” says one not-so-optimistic Brit filmmaker, “is that no one can tell us which British films are missing from the lineup. If we just don’t have anything of quality, it’s to our discredit.”

There are also those in the British film scene who think the rebuff is a just French dessert. “We have, to some extent, lost our way,” says Alison Thompson, head of sales for Pathe International, the U.K.-French outfit behind “Chicken Run.”

This being her 15th visit to Cannes, the former Sales Co. exec says her view is backed up by those few who attend Cannes with pocketbooks, not palms, outstretched.

“Ask the international buyers,” says Thompson. “They’ve been staunch supporters of British films, even more staunch in some cases than the British. But tastes do change, and British film, after creating audiences for its products, hasn’t progressed or grown significantly.”

This matches the view of new Cannes programmer Thierry Fremaux, who tells Variety‘s Derek Elley that the paucity of fest-quality U.K. product is because there’s “no ambition.”

Market-minded

Fremaux’s comment will no doubt feed the U.K. controversy over the nascent Film Council, which has loudly and unapologetically been flying the flag for more box office-oriented fare.

Says one insider, “Essentially, the Film Council is the only place to go for funding, and they’re looking at things with a commercial eye.”

If there’s one person who should be most susceptible to the reduced visibility and diminished prestige of Brit product, it’s someone whose charge is the publicizing and promoting of same. But publicist Matthew Freud doesn’t seem fazed getting the back of the French hand.

“I don’t think it’s any enormous coincidence that the British films aren’t in the Cannes festival at the same time that the British industry is having such great success,” says Freud.

As chief of Freud Communications, whose clients include Working Title, the U.K. powerhouse behind “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Notting Hill” “and the upcoming “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” Freud knows the value of Cote d’Azur press clippings. And the limitations of same.

Different playground

“Not to diminish Cannes, but the festival was essentially the only payoff that British filmmakers were getting,” says Freud. “You worked your ass off to make something that Gilles Jacob liked. But now, the horizon’s been raised.”

Along that horizon, Freud lists “gross points participation, better projects and increased access to the power base of Los Angeles.”

A recent study by the European Audiovisual Observatory, offers even more good news for the Brit biz: The U.K. is the only major territory in Europe where homegrown pics showed an increased share of the box office.

Let’s hope that fact and the perks of box office power provide consolation as the Brits wave at other countries’ filmmakers posing at the doors of the Palais.

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