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U.S. stars flock to silver edition of coastal fest

Much as conversation stops when a beautiful woman enters a room, so does Gallic griping about American cultural imperialism politely cease for 10 days each September as the Deauville Festival of American Cinema (Sept. 3-12) welcomes films and filmmakers from the U.S. with open arms.

And when Sept. 13 comes and these very same arms will resume flailing in dismay over the way Hollywood colonizes the world, what should be a contradiction is instead — at the fest’s quarter-century mark — an honored tradition. As love-hate relationships go, this one couldn’t be healthier.

“We’d cut back on tributes in recent years, but there are so many great people to honor and this is the year to do it,” explains Ruda Dauphin, the fest’s year-round liaison in the U.S.

Honorees for the 25th edition will be Al Pacino, Michael Caine, composer Maurice Jarre, Robin Williams (who stars in “Jakob the Liar,” a world preem from director Peter Kassovitz) and Ang Lee, whose “Ride with the Devil” also bows at Deauville.

A director’s cut of “Blood Simple” will kick off a “carte blanche” of fave films that influenced the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel. And Kirk Douglas — the subject of a Deauville tribute 21 years ago — is back to pick up the fest’s juried literary award for the second volume of his memoirs.

In his 11th and final year as programmer, Daniel Benzakein emphasizes that every festival is at the mercy of films that happen to be completed and available.

“(Programmer) Gilles Jacob was very enthusiastic about ‘Being John Malkovich,’ but it wasn’t ready in time for Cannes,” Benzakein says. “That’s a lucky break for us. On the other hand, a lot of people assumed they’d be seeing ‘The Phantom Menace’ (French release: Oct. 13) and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (Sept 15) in Deauville, but we couldn’t get either one. Kubrick’s ‘Venice only’ wishes are being respected and Lucas declined. We tried.”

How about the stars themselves? Cannes took a lot of flak this May for what many called an insufficient glamour quotient.

“Stars work — they make movies,” Benzakein points out. “That’s why they’re not always available to drop everything to attend a festival.”

Whether they drop everything or just a portion thereof, personalities planning to grace Deauville include Billy Crystal, Steve Martin, Kevin Kline, Pierce Brosnan, Rene Russo, James Coburn, Robert Wise, Cyd Charisse, John Hurt, Harvey Keitel, Gena Rowlands, Lauren Bacall, John Cusack, Gabrielle Anwar, Frances McDormand, Halle Berry, Adam Sandler, Jewel and Sydney Pollack.

Since Sandler is a virtual unknown in Gaul (“The Wedding Singer” and “Waterboy” tanked in record time), fest press releases have endeavored to convey his popularity with Yank auds. In a nation where average citizens absorb film lore the way Americans play the stock market, Deauville is the kind of place where Cyd Charisse might find herself mobbed by admirers while Sandler eats a crepe or strolls the boardwalk unmolested.

If Sandler’s profile needs to be built from scratch, Deauville’s is increasingly well-established.

“In the five years since we launched the competition, submissions have increased by 20% each year but this year it’s 60% higher than last year,” Benzakein says. “Awareness of Deauville is booming — the Internet helps, as do positive reports from participants.”

This said, the overwhelming increase didn’t necessarily translate into major discoveries.

“This year, the shorts are great,” Benzakein enthuses, “but I’m not very happy about the American features we’ve seen. There’s been nothing really striking — except perhaps Spike Jonze’s ‘Malkovich,’ which is one of the most surprising films I’ve seen in years.”

Banzakein adds, “Ninety-five percent of the indies we present here now get distributed in France — that wasn’t the case when we started.”

Amos Kollek’s “Sue,” a melancholy portrait of a smarter and prettier than average woman’s inexorable decline in New York starring Anna Thomson, has been playing for nearly a year in Paris after its appearance in competition at Deauville in 1998. Kollek is back this year with “Fiona,” for which there will presumably be a built-in audience.

Benzakein also emphasizes, “French distribs are putting money into American production. Deauville isn’t a market, but it is a meeting place.”

The Michel d’Ornano Screenwriting Prize, which Motion Picture Assn. of America topper Jack Valenti will award Sept. 5, will go to “Le bleu des villes” (“Hometown Blue”), co-written by Stephane Brize and Florence Vignon, and directed by Brize. The bittersweet comedy, about a provincial meter maid (Vignon) who rethinks her career and marriage, preemed in Directors Fortnight at Cannes.

Jury president Regis Wargnier, who helmed “Indochine” and whose dramatic costumer “Est ouest” (East-West) with Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menshikov and Catherine Deneuve will open in Gaul on Sept. 1, will be joined by thesps Marie Gillain, Marie-France Pisier, Elsa Zylberstein, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Richard Berry, Gabriel Byrne, producer Humbert Balsan and writer Michel Houellebecq.

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