Deep focus

IF NOTHING ELSE, the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival illustrated both the strengths and weaknesses of the cinema d’auteur. Perhaps preeminently among festivals, Cannes promotes its entries on the often considerable reputations of their directors, so it is with the directors that the festival itself must rise or fall.

Even though the relative status of the director as the creator of a motion picture has been debated since the silent days, the French take a proprietary view of the politique des auteurs (or auteur theory, as it was christened in the United States, with its remaining half-French wording), and many French film credits read “un film de” rather than “directed by.” At Cannes press conferences , directors get nearly all the questions, and cinephiles ask if you’ve yet seen “le Wenders” or “le Joel Schumacher.”

As it happens, the best films in Cannes this year were those in which the tenacity and artistic rigor of strong-willed directors were boldly in evidence. Clear-headed views of their stories, bracingly critical takes on the societies depicted, and technique supple enough to express their ideas are the common links among the most exciting entries in the festival — the Palme d’Or winners, Chen Kaige’s “Farewell to My Concubine” and Jane Campion’s “The Piano”; Mike Leigh’s “Naked”; Ken Loach’s “Raining Stones”– as well as the films that divided critical opinion but were still of compelling interest — Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “The Puppetmaster” and Steven Soderbergh’s “King of the Hill.”

Of course, detractors could easily argue that unbridled directorial power also resulted in some films of flagrant excess and slack discipline — Peter Greenaway’s “The Baby of Macon,” Akira Kurosawa’s “Madadayo” and, in my opinion if not the jury’s, le Wenders, “Faraway, So Close!” Of course, that’s the chance one takes when directors reach a certain eminence. Once they’re proclaimed auteurs, nothing — least of all a producer — can hold them back.

The questions of how directors do their best work, how much power and control they should have, and the usefulness of creative tension between a director and producer, lie at the heart of the filmmaking process. In a purist environment such as a film festival, any talk of curbing a filmmaker’s artistic instincts is heresy. But Cannes does provide a forum for learning about the intrigue involved in the production of foreign films, a reminder that even filmmakers operating outside the supposedly crass, mercenary sphere of Hollywood have to cope with the same commercial pressures, and must confront the realities of making art within an industry.

Some great international directors, ranging from John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock to Stanley Kubrick and Francois Truffaut, have always known that their ability to continue practicing their art rested in the profitability of their films, and behaved accordingly.

Others, such as Satyajit Ray, Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman, exploded upon the scene with such force that they were able to extend their careers indefinitely despite the general uncommerciality of their films. A few highly individualistic filmmakers, including Luis Bunuel and Michelangelo Antonioni, have spoken to very particular audiences, but once in a while had what I can only call successes of coincidence, where, without compromising themselves or deliberately aiming at a wider public, they nevertheless managed to connect with something in the zeitgeist and create, by fluke, box office hits.

When he was running Paramount, Robert Evans used to deliberately hire top directors (Roman Polanski, John Schlesinger) who had just had a flop or two and who he felt would try extra hard to make a winner. Conversely, there is certainly an art to avoiding certain directors’ dream projects, the sort of follies that many filmmakers work a decade to earn the right to do and then fall flat on their faces (Barry Levinson’s “Toys” is only the most recent example).

ALL THESE CONSIDERATIONS pertain to an intriguing young company that is linked to big-name directors at least as much as is the Cannes festival itself, and which happened to do very well there this year. CIBY 2000 — whose name in French is a pun, as it’s pronounced like C.B. De Mille — was started up three years ago by the billionaire French industrialist Francis Bouygues. Bouygues, so the story goes, rather late in his career began to fancy getting into the film business, and what better way to put himself on the map than by backing films by the world’s greatest directors?

For a while, CIBY 2000 maintained an office in Hollywood, but when David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” didn’t set the world on fire, the company consolidated to its Paris base. This year in Cannes, CIBY’s fortunes looked very different, as “The Piano” was its standard bearer. Less noticed was the fact that CIBY was originally on board to finance Wenders’ film, but, in what will likely turn out to be a lucky move, parted ways with the pricy production early on.

CIBY’s upcoming lineup is unique in that I can think of no other company in the history of the cinema whose projects have been solely selected and defined on the basis of their distinguished, but not necessarily commercial, directors.

Some maverick international producers, including Alberto Grimaldi, Anatole Dauman and Serge Silberman, have been known for consistently collaborating with leading directors, but the case of CIBY is the first I’ve encountered where the stated corporate policy is to make only auteur films or, as its publicity material states, to give “real opportunities to talented filmmakers with or in search of an international audience.”

Soon to come from CIBY are Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Little Buddha,” Pedro Almodovar’s “Kika,” Charles Burnett’s “The Glass Shield,” Emir Kusturica’s “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Country,” Jim McBride’s “The Flemish Board” and the next films by Lynch, Wenders and Maurice Pialat.

I have little idea how CIBY exercises control over its projects, when it decides to back a given director and when to pass, and how important its bottom line is. Given how difficult it’s been over the years for directors such as Burnett and McBride to find backing in Hollywood, it’s heartening that they’ve been able to find actual financial backing from abroad, not just critical support. One can only regret that such a company didn’t exist during the 1950s, for example, to get behind the struggling careers of such commercially blighted talents as Orson Welles, Carl Dreyer and, perhaps, the blacklisted writers and directors.

The best one can usually expect from any company is a reasonable, if not enlightened, mix of the overtly commercial and the occasionally artistic. CIBY 2000 has chosen to think like a film festival in selecting its projects. A bunch of independent American companies came and went during the 1980s pursuing similar policies, but they were generally underfunded to begin with. CIBY theoretically has the money to see its program through, so anyone with a rooting interest in quality personal films might want to keep their fingers crossed over the next couple of years to see if CIBY can pull off something that’s never been done before.