With Bertrand Tavernier’s tough drama “The Bait” and Agnes Varda’s cinehommage “A Hundred and One Nights” going head-to-head in Competition, and some half-dozen titles in other sections, French movies are well bannered at the Berlinale. But after a year that saw too many films and first-time directors written off as Americans grabbed 61% of the market, the overriding theme behind this year’s upcoming pix is prudence.

Producers largely are relying on proven names. That translates into Jacques Rivette (“Haut, bas, fragile,” bowing March 22) and Eric Rohmer (“Les rendez-vous de Paris,” March 15) for the arthouses and Tavernier (“The Bait,” “Captain Conan”) for the crossovers. Also stand by for a heavyweight lineup of names on the Croisette.

On French marquees, only four stars have clout – Catherine Deneuve, Emmanuelle Beart, Daniel Auteuil and the indefatigable Gerard Depardieu. Auteuil, 45, now is as much in demand as his old “Jean de Florette” partner, Depardieu, 46. Thesp has even recently formed his own company, DA Prods. (Depardieu’s is DD.)

Auteuil reteams with director Andre Techine and actress Deneuve (previously in the 1993 Cannes entry, “My Favorite Season”) in “Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” already penciled in for Cannes. He’s also in “Eighth Day,” a “subversive” movie from Belgium’s Jaco Van Dormael (“Toto the Hero”); the comicbook-hero pic, “Asterix,” produced by Claude Berri; and an adaptation of two of Quebec writer Michael Tremblay’s novels.

Depardieu kick-starts another packed year with the much-hyped drama “Elisa,” helmer Jean Becker’s first movie since his 1983 Cesar-winner “One Deadly Summer.” Solo on the Gaumont one-sheet however, is singer/teen icon Vanessa Paradis, last seen pouting in the 1989 “Noce blanche.” Paradis plays a parentless drifter in search of her dad.

Depardieu however, will be big in Gaumont’s ads for “Guardian Angels,” the newest comedy from the “Les Visiteurs” team of Christian Clavier and director Jean-Marie Poire. The $25 million action romp set in the Far East bows March 29.

Depardieu was too busy to join Deneuve in Manoel de 0liveira’s “Pierre de touche” in Portugal. John Malkovich subbed as Depardieu stayed home for his fourth pic for helmer Maurice Pialat, “Le garcu.” The Cannes contender also stars Depardieu’s wife, Elisabeth, and Fabienne Babe. Later this year, the Big Fella is set to incarnate the giant Obelix in “Asterix.”

Depardieu’s son Guillaume reteams with director Pierre Salvadori in “The Apprentices.” Salvadori’s previous black comedy, the hit-men yarn “Moving Target,” is up for a remake.

Chief flag-waver at Cannes in May is expected to be the $33 million “Hussard sur le toit,” from the “Cyrano de Bergerac” team. Matra chief Jean-Luc Lagardere personally approved the coin for the costume romp, already sold by President Film to about 39 territories, including Miramax for North America.

Previously, the pic was almost made with Gerard Philippe and Alain Delon. This time, the swashbuckling hero is played by Olivier Martinez, who’s only starred in one other movie, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “IP5.” Producer Rene Cleitman and director Jean-Paul Rappeneau have steered the Hachette production.

Also penciled in for Cannes is Caro & Jeunet’s eagerly awaited “Delicatessen” follow-up, “City of the Lost Children,” an f/x heavy offering lensed in secrecy.

Pascal Quignard and Alain Corneau, writer and director of “Tous les matins du monde,” are gambling on music again – the influence of G.I.s’ music on French kids in the ’50s in “The New World,” opening Feb. 22.

Following the Oscar-laureled “Indochine,” helmer Regis Wargnier has turned to an occupation-set drama, “A French Woman” (March 15), toplining Auteuil and Beart. Beart, teaming again with 70-year-old director Claude Sautet (“A Heart in Winter”), also joins Michel Serrault and Jean-Hugues Anglade in “Nelly and Mr. Arnaud,” about a writer who offers a woman a pile of money.

Other pix coming down the pike include Claude Lelouch with the splashy update, “Les Miserables of the 20th Century” (March 15); Pierre Schoendoerffer with the Joseph Conrad adaptation “Typhoon”; Nadine Trintignant with the Irene Jacob starrer “Une fille galante”; Arnaud Desplechin regrouping his “Sentinelle” cast in “Comme je me suis dispute”; and Aline Issermann (“A Shadow of Doubt”) with the exotically titled “God, My Mother’s Lover, and the Pork Butcher’s Son.”

Derek Elley contributed to this report.