Master class

For auteur vets, this year reps either a return to form or a break from it

Cannes Film Festival co-president Thierry Fremaux may be downplaying the “back to the classics” theme of this year’s selection, but arguably he has constructed a 2005 lineup that is both radically conservative and, conservatively speaking, radical.

Ten of the 20 directors or directing teams represented in this year’s Competition have been there before; five have won the vaunted Palme d’Or. The Official Selection’s main Competition features what are, if not household names, ones well known on the Croisette: Wim Wenders, for instance, the ’84 Palme d’Or winner for “Paris, Texas” and a six-time festival competitor, and Michael Haneke, who has competed three times and won the 2001 Grand Prix for “The Piano Teacher.” Jim Jarmusch, awarded the first-timer’s Camera d’Or in 1984 for “Stranger Than Paradise,” returns with “Broken Flowers.” Near-perennial Hou Hsiao-Hsien, absent last year, returns with “The Best of Our Times.”

And Danish iconoclast Lars von Trier, who’s had something of a love-hate relationship with Cannes and longtime fest director Gilles Jacob, will drive to France with “Manderlay.” Another installment of his so-called USA trilogy, “Manderlay” tackles slavery and the American South and stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Willem Dafoe and Lauren Bacall. Howard takes up where Nicole Kidman left off in “Dogville.” At a Cannes press conference for “Dogville” two years ago, Von Trier famously — and publicly — coerced Kidman to promise to work with him again on “Manderlay”; she later dropped out. Expect Von Trier and Howard to get plenty of Kidman questions from the press corps this year.

With all this in mind — controversy included — some longtime Cannes watchers are seeing this year as a return to form. “There are a lot more movies that I want to see,” says Tom Bernard, co-prexy of Sony Pictures Classics, U.S. distributor of the Wenders film. It will be his 25th festival. He notes that many of the competition’s directors are “people who’ve earned their reputations,” comparing it to the way it had been when the festival screened “Fellini and Truffaut and Louis Malle — every year, or every two, you would see what they are up to. There hadn’t been that consistency of directors for the last few years.”

“We’re the young generation who got older,” says Gus Van Sant, 2003’s Palme d’Or winner (“Elephant”), observing how he and so many of his contemporaries will angst over rose and croissants during the 10-day siege at the Lumiere theater.

Many of the names might be familiar, but there’s a number of helmers tackling unexpected genres. And genre seems to be everywhere: David Cronenberg (whose psychologically intense “Crash” and “Spider” had auspicious debuts at Cannes, with the former winning a special jury prize) is one of cinema’s rugged individualists, yet he describes his “A History of Violence” as having almost “a classic Western feel” to it. Three-time competitor Egoyan (1999’s “Felicia’s Journey,” ’97’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and ’94’s “Exotica”), whose last Cannes feature was the Armenian genocide drama “Ararat,” is presenting “Where the Truth Lies,” a period mystery-thriller about a celebrity sex scandal. And Hong Kong action-comedy king Johnnie To enters the Competition with a policer.

As for the Yanks, Jarmusch and Van Sant once represented the vanguard of the American independent movement. Van Sant returns with “Last Days,” a thinly veiled account of the final chapter in the life of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Jarmusch, contributing to the flourishing indie career of Bill Murray, casts him as a womanizing bachelor who learns he may have a son. Mixing the downtown (Larry Fessenden, Chloe Sevigny) with the uptown (Sharon Stone, Jessica Lange), Jarmusch sets Murray on the road to self-reflection.

Meanwhile, Fremaux, now in his fifth year as co-director of the festival and the person chiefly responsible for what has been, especially for the last two years, a much-criticized selection, says he’d rather not put a label on this year’s lineup.

“Every (selection) feels like the first one, because every year the films are different,” he says. “I’ve tried some experimentation — documentaries, animation, even some extreme film like ‘Irreversible’ or ‘Brown Bunny.’ But this year, the artistic creation was different. I’m not saying it’s ‘back to the classics’ but this year’s competition is full of wonderful filmmakers. Next year, maybe, we will have documentaries and animation.”

Fremaux stresses the inclusive nature of the Competition lineup — although it lacks, notably, documentaries, animation or women. (Director Martha Fiennes’ closing-night film, “Chromophobia,” plays out of competition.) But there is some evidence of outreach: Among the first-time competitors are brothers Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu (“Peindre ou Faire L’Amour”), Hong Kong helmer To (“Election”) and “Beijing Bicycle” director Wang Xiaoshuai (“Shanghai Dreams”). And, in keeping with the festival’s penchant for discovering and then promoting certain directors, Japan’s Masahiro Kobayashi (“Bashing”).

Meanwhile, at least one exclusion from the Competition has sparked the first contretemps of the festival. Sources say that Kohei Oguri was so appalled by the placement of his “The Forgotten Forest” in Un Certain Regard — the more adventurous if perhaps less prestigious district of the Official Selection — that he pulled his film from Official Selection and gave it to Directors Fortnight instead. (“Forest” was replaced by Shinji Aoyama’s “Eli, Eli, Lema Sabachthani?”)

Fremaux won’t comment on Oguri’s reasons for the move but says the festival is taking the unusual step of co-presenting the film with Directors Fortnight, as an Official Selection but off the regular map.

Adds Fortnight topper Olivier Pere: “Because of the exceptional admiration and excitement we share about the film, we have decided to introduce ‘The Forgotten Forest’ together on Friday, May 13th, at 7 p.m. I am very happy that this masterpiece of poetry and cinema could be the moment of a friendly association between Festival de Cannes and Directors Fortnight.”

Two noted director absences from Competition, Kim Ki-duk and Francois Ozon, have new films in Un Certain Regard, but Fremaux says the placement was their decision. “First of all,” he notes, “Un Certain Regard is not a second league; it’s not where you go when you are not chosen for the Competition. Francois asked me to be in Un Certain Regard. Maybe he will come back to Competition, but for this film, maybe it’s better to be protected, not be exposed in that way: When you are in Competition, everything is documented and discussed and he just wanted to be more discreet.

“The same for Kim Ki-duk,” Fremaux added. “His film is a piece of poetry. It’s different. And Un Certain Regard is for different movies.”

But while these fest circuit faves are MIA from Competition this year, first-time helmer Tommy Lee Jones — defying longtime Cannes topper Gilles Jacob’s admonishment that “newcomers cannot be received in the (Competition) lineup as soon as they arrive” — will compete with his first feature, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” (scripted by Guillermo Arriaga, who penned “21 Grams” and “Amores Perros”).

Fremaux says the reason Jones’ film is in Competition is “because we love the film,” but long-time Cannes watchers — and cynics in general — will see a traditional appetite for star-power behind the festival’s most talked-about choice. Likewise, some would say, the inclusion of comic book adaptation “Sin City” and the stars who may accompany it — including Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Clive Owen, Mickey Rourke and Benicio del Toro.

Star power and art have a near-paradoxical relationship at Cannes. The Marche du Film, Cannes’ biz component that runs parallel the festival, is a huge marketplace for indie film. But the fest has showcased very few available films over the last few years that have made any kind of splash in American theaters. Many — Michael Moore’s docs notwithstanding — already had U.S. distribution in place or had been released Stateside (as with “Sin City” this year).

Even English-language films have floundered in the sea of Cannes. The fact that the biggest feature film pickup in recent years has been Von Trier’s “Dogville” doesn’t promise much for the available fest films that don’t star Nicole Kidman.

“One of the problems of Cannes,” says Mark Urman, ThinkFilm’s head of U.S. distribution, “is that often the very best films — when you get them back home — there’s nothing to do with them. They play other festivals, they get acclaim for eight months on the festival circuit, they open in a theater … and people just don’t go. Or, they don’t go in sufficient numbers to justify the whole undertaking. So one has to be wary. I remember seeing ‘Dogville’ two years ago, and adored it. But it came with a very high price tag. It made no sense to pay that amount; and somebody lost a lot of money.”

So it is the vast Marche du Film, Urman says, where he — and others who come to spend money — will be focusing their attention. That, and sidebar programs such as Critics Week, where even some of those selections — Miranda July’s Sundance awardee “You, Me and Everyone We Know,” and its Utah festival mate “Junebug” — already have U.S. distribution (IFP Films and Sony Classics, respectively).

It will be a big Cannes for big names, and perhaps a big Cannes for small films. But where they’re coming from is anyone’s guess.

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