Some pics get bashed before the reviewers ever see them

Storms are brewing over Cannes, and not just on the beaches.

Filmmakers and distribs are complaining that their competition films are being tried in the press and judged by politicians before they’ve even screened. The dustup is particularly touchy during a difficult period for arthouse films, when bad press can be fatal for pics that need special care and handling in the worldwide market.

Politicians have said Rachid Bouchareb’s competition player “Outside the Law” should be banned, Wild Bunch sales agent Vincent Maraval says there’s a campaign to discredit Nikita Mikhalkov’s Cannes competition player, “Burnt by the Sun 2,” and American films are coming in for harsh criticism, sight unseen.

The claim against Bouchareb’s pic is that it “falsifies” history. Lionel Luca, a member of Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party, lashed out at the pic’s portrayal of the French army’s 1945 Setif massacre of at least 8,000 Algerians, while Andre Mayet, a UMP MP for Cannes, said the festival should pull the film.

Bouchareb’s follow-up to Oscar-nommed “Days of Glory,” the mainly Paris-set “Law” is really “a gangster-style movie in the vein of ‘Heat,’?” says producer Jean Brehat. The Algerian War of Independence merely forms “a subplot,” he adds.

Says Mayet: “I am not happy when a film denigrates France and the French military.”

“Outside the Law” bows Sept. 22 in France on a wide 500-print run.

Of “Burnt by the Sun 2,” a sequel to the 1995 Oscar winner, Maraval cites French newspaper Liberation’s criticism of Mikhalkov’s “mysterious Competition presence” as soon as the Cannes Official Selection lineup was announced, and Le Monde’s claim that “Sun 2″ reps a “hymn to Stalin.”

“Anyone who’s ever seen a Nikita Mikhalkov film knows his films are anti-Stalin,” a furious Maraval told Variety.

Controversy is a Cannes tradition. But the “Law” and “Sun 2″ spats underscore far larger issues.

“It’s truly disturbing how the French press criticizes films they haven’t even seen,” says Maraval.

A case in point: Liberation’s withering putdown of America’s only Palme d’Or candidate, which hasn’t screened for anyone yet: “Only utter optimists can hope that American Doug Liman, who directed the calamitous ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith,’ has made a watchable ‘Fair Game,’?” the paper’s Bruno Icher and Gerard Lefort wrote April 16.

Lefort shrugs off criticism.

“I may not know the films, but I know the directors,” he says. “Cannes’ mandate is to shed light on auteur films and new talents. This year’s selection seems lazy and unsurprising.”

Maraval contends that French critics “don’t like Mikhalkov, Bouchareb or Tavernier because they make popular films, reaching general audiences.”

He points out the danger of exposing a film to the world’s press: “American studios or French producers with popular films don’t want to be in competition.

“We’re scared of going to Cannes. It’s ruled by four or five French journalists who only have any impact on audiences during Cannes, when they can destroy a film.”

“Save for a few exceptions, there’s a huge gulf between movies made for audiences and movies made for festivals, and that gap is getting bigger and bigger,” says Martin Moszkowicz, head of film and TV at Germany’s Constantin.

One reason may be that for arthouse audiences, there seems to be a decided shortage of auteurs to go around.

Says Matthias Elwardt, at Hamburg’s Abaton-Kino arthouse: “Beyond Pedro Almodovar, Fatih Akin and Quentin Tarantino, we don’t have directors whom audiences are really waiting for.”

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