Key creatives continue the edgy Eurofilm tradition

Pedro Almodovar
Pedro Almodovar’s 2001 screenplay Oscar for “All About My Mother” was the culmination of a slow but steady rise stretching back to the early 1980s, when his early brash efforts captured the mood of a nation in the swing of postdictatorship fun.

Solidifying with 1988’s groundbreaking “Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” the man from La Mancha established a house style — outre storylines, kitsch aesthetics, strong emotions — that repped a view of Spain both contempo and, in its concern with passion, death and bullfighting, oddly conservative.

Since the mid-1990s, auds and critics have hoisted him onto a critical and commercial pedestal previously unheard of for a Spanish helmer. The term “masterpiece” has been repeatedly been applied to the quietly accomplished “Talk to Her,” which took the 2002 Oscar for original screenplay and grossed close to $10 million in the U.S. — very impressive for a non-English-lingo film — and $53.3 million worldwide.

Almodovar’s relationship with Sony Pictures Classics continues with his next feature, “Bad Education,” slated as a Cannes prospect.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
“We see ourselves as cows; we have to ruminate a lot,” helmers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne state of their notoriously slow working methods. The Belgian brothers (both in their 50s) are Benelux’s answer to Ken Loach. Their brand of naturalistic, socially committed drama has earned critical plaudits in recent years.

Two decades after they formed production company Desrives in 1975, the siblings’ international breakthrough came with “La promesse” in 1996, a Loach-style study of a teenage boy whose father’s business is ripping off illegal foreign workers. A rigorous and austere affair, it was shot on location in Belgian’s industrial heartland. Next came their even grimmer Palme d’Or winner “Rosetta” (1999), about an alienated teen living with her drunken mom in a trailer park and battling to hold down a job. Their subsequent, and most pared-down, movie “Le fils,” was a 2002 Cannes entrant. Pic is a contempo parable about a carpenter who realizes his teenage apprentice was responsible for the death of his son.

Michael Haneke
A poet of the apocalyptic, Michael Haneke nurses an unholy relish for challenging auds with acts of extreme cinematic violence. This aesthetic reached its apotheosis with “Funny Games” (1997), in which two young men torture and kill members of a family on holiday in Haneke’s home country of Austria.

Born in Munich in 1942, Haneke majored in philosophy at Vienna U. before embarking on a career in telepics. His debut feature, 1989’s “The Seventh Continent,” was the first film of what he calls a glaciation trilogy that includes “Benny’s Video” (1992) and “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance” (1994). All are major works of frightening austerity.

The European success of “Funny Games” led Haneke away from Austrian funding to the larger coffers of France, where he made “Code Unknown,” with Juliette Binoche, and Isabelle Huppert-toplined “The Piano Teacher.” “Piano Teacher” took the Cannes grand prize in 2001 and is his greatest B.O. success ($2.5 million in Europe).

His latest, “The Time of the Wolf,” again starring Huppert, recently rolled out theatrically after a Cannes preem.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet
It almost seems like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s bittersweet Paris-set “Amelie” could have been the first foreign-language film for some Americans.

Jeunet’s first solo Euro project (after his collaborations with Marc Caro, “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children,” and “Alien Resurrection” in Hollywood) was at the very least one of the most popular pix to come from Europe in the past several years.

While “looking for the next ‘Amelie'” grew to be an industry mantra, Jeunet has been in the trenches — literally — shooting “A Very Long Engagement.” The melancholy WWI romance features a hefty cross-section of distinctive performers, from Audrey Tautou to Jodie Foster. Shot in French in France, the $45 million production has attracted sniping and griping from outfits and individuals outraged that U.S. major Warner Bros. has successfully formed a French subsidiary that may henceforth tap into funding sources earmarked for Gallic fare.

Depending on geopolitical events, by the time the film is released in October, a tale of soldiers whose shattered morale inspires desperate measures — and the young woman who tries to get to the bottom of what really happened to her fiance — may be more resonant.

Nanni Moretti
As time goes on, Nanni Moretti looks increasingly like the most significant Italian filmmaker of the post-Bertolucci, post-Bellocchio generation. International interest in his work started remarkably late, with “Dear Diary” in 1993 and notably “The Son’s Room,” which won the 2001 Palme d’Or at Cannes and grossed over $1 million in the U.S. alone.

Yet with 10 pics under his belt, this complex actor-director who has long been recognized by disenchanted, politically exasperated Italians as their most honest spokesman. From his early student super-8 films and 1976 feature “I’m Autarkic” screened at underground film clubs, the Moretti world view spread to the public at large, who embraced his comic alter-ego Michele Apicella.

At their fashionable Trastevere arthouse venue in Rome, the Sacher Cinema, Moretti and partner Angelo Barbagallo screen challenging foreign films as well as their own Sacher Film productions.

In the past few years, Moretti also has expanded his political role. He is the vocal figurehead of a popular grassroots movement known as the girotondo (merry-go-rounders), uniting citizens of all ages and parties who join hands and circle public buildings to protest Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s policies.

Aki Kaurismaki
“The Man Without a Past” brought Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki pan-European acclaim, the 2002 Cannes Grand Prix, arthouse fame in America and an Oscar nomination in America. It also did fine at the box office, grossing $4.4 million worldwide.

Born in Orimattila, Finland, in 1957, Kaurismaki, whose brother Mika is also a filmmaker, found international recognition in the late 1980s producing his films through his Sputnik Oy Co. He never rehearses his actors and usually shoots only one or two takes, bringing freshness and surprise to his eccentric stories of Scandinavian life. 

He’s shot 13 features so far, including musical fare, and literary projects that include adaptations of Sartre and Dostoevsky.

Emir Kusturica
He plays in a Gypsy rock band and he’s not a bad actor (Juliette Binoche’s love interest in 2002’s “The Widow of St. Pierre”), so it’s a wonder that Emir Kusturica has any time to helm his own movies.

Recently he wrapped French-funded “Hungry Heart,” reteaming with actor Slavko Stimac from his “Underground” (1995). A Palme d’Or winner, “Underground” garnered Kusturica unwelcome accusations of spreading Serbian propaganda, which he strongly denied. The controversy led him to threaten to quit movies altogether.

Kusturica was born into a Serbian family in Sarajevo in 1955. His interest in anarchic Gypsy culture — so striking in films like “Black Cat, White Cat” (1998) and “Time of the Gypsies” (1989) — draws heavily on his childhood experiences living among the Gypsies outside Sarajevo. His “When Father Is Away on Business” (1985) was Oscar-nominated for foreign-lingo pic.

U.S.-shot “Arizona Dream” (1993) failed with critics and at the B.O., yet topliner Johnny Depp never got over his exposure to Gypsy culture.

Bela Tarr
Hungarian Bela Tarr has his fans in the U.S., including big-hitting scribe Susan Sontag. But when the New York Times Magazine reprinted her essay on failing arthouse film audiences, the editors replaced his name, along with Theo Angelopoulos and Nanni Moretti’s with the more familiar-sounding Francis Coppola and Paul Schrader. It was ironic to say the least as the essay bemoaned U.S. indifference to world cinema.

Some Euro critics and Cahiers du Cinema readers revere solemn and serious-minded Tarr above all others. Born in 1955, his 1979 feature debut, “Family Nest,” owed a debt to director John Cassavetes and the dreamlike fables of Andrei Tarkovsky. In turn his austere style is a key influence on Gus Van Sant’s last two titles, “Gerry” and “Elephant.”

His black-and-white films can be taxing: The 7½-hour “Satan’s Tango” is an endurance test. But his latest lighter work, “Werckmeister Harmonies” (2001), collected S1.4 million ($1.7 million) in Europe and points to Tarr reaching a new audience.

Lars von Trier
Love or loathe his work, there’s no escaping the fact that impish 47-year-old Danish helmer Lars von Trier has been one of the most influential European directors of his generation.

The Dogma 95 manifesto, which he cooked up with cohort Thomas Vinterberg and was the guiding aesthetic behind the latter’s “Celebration” and von Trier’s “The Idiots” (both 1998), launched one of the first out-and-out filmmaking movements since the New Wave in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, von Trier’s innovative, spontaneous work with digital cameras has helped make the technique respectable, even sort of marketable, internationally.

Von Trier’s career has been marked by abrupt, seismic stylistic shifts. His early shorts and first features (1984’s “Element of Crime,” 1991’s Cannes jury prize winner “Europa”) were excessively stylized affairs, emotionally remote. The artistic fulcrum of his career was angst-drenched “Breaking the Waves” (1996), digitally shot but still full of post-production tricks, which picked up an Oscar nom for Emily Watson and truly brought von Trier to international prominence.

Dogma days followed, then his Palme d’Or-winning outrageous musical “Dancer in the Dark” (2000), which used hundreds of DV cams. The Nicole Kidman starrer “Dogville,” which reaped controversy and kudos at Cannes, forms the first part of projected trilogy (now sans Kidman), with “Manderlay,” as yet uncast, the second part.

Few of von Trier’s films make much money, but his producer, Zentropa chief Peter Aalbeck Jensen, notes that they always have buyers — even if the price is decided via a game of table tennis, as was allegedly the case for the pricetag to Japan for “Dancer in the Dark.”

“It’s very seldom that a Lars von Trier film really hits,” Aalbeck Jensen says. “But we’ve had the same buyers for 10 years. They must be masochists. But they say, ‘OK, we need to have something that’s weird. Then we can have five stupid commercial films that will make us some money, but we can survive mentally on having a Lars von Trier film also and a couple of other lunatics.’

“The buyers are really the connoisseurs, they are the No. 1 film lovers, because they actually pay for doing it.”

But it’s in Europe that von Trier’s most loyal fans reside: “Without this European imperialist base, he would be nothing, nothing at all,” says Aalbeck Jensen.

Michael Winterbottom
The most versatile and prolific British helmer of his generation, Michael Winterbottom has tackled every genre from the horse opera (“The Claim”) to sci-fi (“Code 46″) to pop music biopic (“24 Hour Party People”) to romantic drama (“I Want You”). He may not have marked a big B.O. hit, but critics love him. Earlier this year, he won the Golden Bear for “In This World,” his docu-like drama about Afghan refugees.

Some have likened Winterbottom to Mike Newell, Michael Apted and Stephen Frears, helmers who leave no footprints, who can turn their hands to any subject but don’t have a strong personal vision. “People accuse him of making a different film every time when, in fact, there are a lot of common themes and similarities which run through the films,” protests his producer partner Andrew Eaton.

Like Ken Loach, Winterbottom is more loved on the continent than at home in the U.K. where, Eaton argues, homegrown auteurs have always struggled to be noticed.

As ever, Winterbottom has various projects in development, among them an adaptation of David Sherwin’s classic memoir “Going Mad in Hollywood,” but for once is taking a break between pics.

“Code 46″ will be released in the U.S. by United Artists early next year.

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