No French kisses from H’wood

Studios sparsely repped as some big names wait out fest

With only a month to go before opening night, the clock is ticking loudly for the organizers of the Cannes Film Festival. Although Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremaux won’t be revealing any titles until the press conference on April 23, word on the street is that filmdom’s most pre-eminent fest is having an unusually hard time coming up with a sufficiently lustrous lineup.

Reasons range from the many unfinished films by big-name auteurs, mutual wariness between America and France, and significant disagreement within the fest hierarchy over individual pictures.

The paucity of official invitations at this late date is unprecedented. Many filmmakers who long ago submitted films for consideration still haven’t heard anything definite.

As of this week, fewer than a half-dozen films were sure bets for competition slots. Known to be set are Lars Von Trier’s “Dogville,” starring Nicole Kidman and Stellan Skarsgard, which will be screened on the first weekend; Gus Van Sant’s HBO-produced teen violence drama, “Elephant”; Italian helmer Pupi Avati’s “The Heart Is Elsewhere,” about the son of the Pope’s tailor in the early 20th century; and French-Canadian director Denys Arcand’s “Invasion of the Barbarians,” a revisit with the characters from his 1986 success, “Decline of the American Empire.”

Portuguese icon Manoel de Oliveria’s latest, “A Talking Film,” will likely be in the Official Selection, as will Michael Hanecke’s “Time of the Wolves” with Isabelle Huppert, Alexander Sokurov’s “Father and Son,” Peter Greenaway’s “The Tulse Luper Suitcases” and Samira Makhmalbaf’s Kabul-set “Five in the Afternoon.” Also, a certain number from among the new films by French directors Andre Techine, Catherine Breillat, Claude Miller, Jacques Rivette, Arnaud Desplechin, Damien Odoul, Noemie Lvoski, Bruno Dumont — whose “29 Palms” was shot in English in California — and Francois Ozon’s predominately English-lingo “The Swimming Pool,” with Charlotte Rampling.

Just as noteworthy are the Cannes favorites will not be present. New films by Jane Campion (“In the Cut”), Emir Kusturica (“Hungry Heart”), Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”), Theo Angelopoulos (“The Weeping Field”), Robert Altman (“The Company”), Wong Kar-wai (“2046”) and the Coen Brothers (“Intolerable Cruelty”) will definitely not be on the Croisette, mostly because they are far from being finished. Nor will Christopher Hampton’s “Imagining Argentina” nor Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” be on hand, as the Italian director apparently decided to not even submit his erotic drama about Paris ’68 to Cannes, preferring to aim for Venice instead.

Also playing coy is Ingmar Bergman, whose Swedish TV production “Saraband,” a sequel to “Scenes From a Marriage” toplining Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann, Cannes desperately wants. Bergman is mulling a digital-to-35mm transfer, but it remains unclear whether Cannes toppers have even seen the film or whether Bergman will agree to a showing.

Similarly, Cannes is thought to be very interested in Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” a drama starring Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, but the willingness of Warner Bros. to premiere the film several months before its U.S. opening remains uncertain.

Hollywood presence promises to be at an all-time low, despite Warners’ second-night splash with “Matrix Reloaded” and a huge Saturday night MTV party with Arnold Schwarzenegger to promote “Terminator 3.” Fox, Universal, DreamWorks, Paramount and even Miramax have nothing going to the festival, although a few indie productions appear to be on the launching pad. These include Errol Morris’ docu about Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara from Sony Pictures Classics, “The Fog of War”; Sundance winner “American Splendor” from Fine Line, which looks headed to Un Certain Regard; Vincent Gallo’s reportedly extreme “Brown Bunny,” which toplines Chloe Sevigny and Gallo; and Slamdance-screener “Milwaukee, Minnesota,” directed by Allen Mindel.

There is the feeling among filmmakers and studio execs that perhaps large-scale American pictures wouldn’t get a fair shake this year due to cultural fallout over the Iraq dispute, so they’d be better off to sit this Cannes out. By the same token, some on the French side might feel that they can do without the Yanks this year.

But it’s not only the Americans who may be coming up short this year. There is conspicuous silence surrounding entries from the Far East, although China has several possibilities, including Zhang Yuan’s “Green Tea,” “Suzhou River” helmer Lou Ye’s “Purple Butterfly” and He Ping’s “Heroes of Heaven & Earth.” Cult Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa has two films ready, “Bright Future” and “Doppelganger.”

Other films waiting at the gate for their admission slips are Hector Babenco’s Brazilian prison drama “Carindiru”; James Ivory’s “Le Divorce” starring Glenn Close, Matthew Modine, Stephen Fry, Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson; David Mackenzie’s “Young Adam” with Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton; Sue Brooks’ Aussie entry “Japanese Story” with Toni Collette; Roger Michell’s “The Mother”; Francois Girard’s Canadian-Chinese “The Far Road”; and Emily Young’s “Helen of Peckham,” a Croatian/U.K. venture with Peter Mullan.

There are two ways of looking at the fact Cannes can’t rely on its standby auteur names for this edition. The first reaction might well have been panic and frustration. But it’s also an opportunity to dig a little deeper and show some titles by filmmakers that wouldn’t otherwise be considered for primetime Cannes. The glamour, stars and credentials may not be as impressive on paper, but their scarcity might force the fest to become a little more adventurous.

(Adam Dawtrey and Derek Elley in London, Alison James in Paris, Deborah Young in Rome, John Hopewell and Jonathan Holland in Madrid, and Gunnar Rehlin in Stockholm contributed to this report.)

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