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Venice Fest shines light on youth, sex

'Eyes' opens, M'max unveiling 'Rules,' 'Smoke,' 'Heart'

Visit Film Fest Preview – Venice

ROME — At 56, Venice is the world’s oldest film festival, but the middle-aged doyenne has a fresh look this year and a new director. Gone are the days of mechanically trotting out tired auteurs regardless of the merits of their latest works — instead, neophyte chief Alberto Barbera promises a leaner, younger Venice Intl. Film Festival, sharing the spotlight equally between celebrated veterans and cutting-edge talent.

Venice, which bows tonight and runs through Sept. 11, also continues to ride its reputation as the fall launchpad for studio fare, with opening night film “Eyes Wide Shut” making its Euro bow, as well as other upscale fare from the majors, but not in such massive quantities as years past.

No more market

The fest has also dropped its official market after last year’s debut attempt was met with tepid response. Instead, it will set up an industry office to facilitate contacts.

The Lido lineup looks like an audacious mix, with fest habitues such as Jane Campion, Mike Leigh, Abbas Kiarostami and Zhang Yimou competing alongside newcomers like Austria’s Barbara Albert, Belgium’s Frederic Fonteyne, Italian Gianni Zanasi and actor Antonio Banderas with his first foray behind the camera as director.

“Choices such as presenting Jane Campion alongside a young first-time director like Barbara Albert are a fundamental part of a festival’s responsibility,” Barbera maintained. “A festival must not simply repropose recognized talents, but help to uncover new ones and introduce audiences to filmmakers that represent the promise of the cinema of tomorrow.”

Studios stumble

While tyro talent will have ample visibility on the Lido, studio features have momentarily lost some of their muscle in an event that, despite perceiving itself as a bastion of art, has become a strategic fall launch pad for the U.S. majors in Europe.

Venice’s relationship with Hollywood may have always been ambivalent, but studio blockbusters almost invariably have constituted a significant presence. Last year, the majors staged a virtual occupation of the Lido, unveiling “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Truman Show,” “Out of Sight” and “Ronin,” among others. This time around, Barbera intentionally has harvested a less plentiful crop, but he insisted that the relatively low profile given the studios this year is not due to a snub on his part, but to bad timing.

The major U.S. pics on Barbera’s wish list — from helmers Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Milos Forman, Alan Parker, Kenneth Branagh and Anthony Minghella — were not completed in time or did not factor Venice into their marketing plans.

‘Muse’ reconsiders

Such was the case with “The Muse.” When the film’s Italian distrib decided not to release the picture until the new year, Good Machine Intl. withdrew it from the festival.

“I’m a huge believer in Venice, but the marketplace is changing,” said David Linde, Good Machine Intl.’s president. “When you’re talking about movies that cost $25 (million) to $30 million, you have to analyze the best way of bringing them to theatrical market.”

Venice also wanted to premiere Roman Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate,” but it was stymied for the same reason.

“We have to work with the Italian distributor,” said Christina Petropoulos, vice president of marketing for Summit Entertainment, which is handling “Ninth Gate.” “The film won’t be released until Christmas (in Italy) so it didn’t make sense to premiere it at Venice. You have to release within two months or the awareness and excitement die off.”

But others are not deterred.

For Miramax, which is releasing six films in Europe this fall, the opportunity to debut three of them — Campion’s “Holy Smoke,” Lasse Hallstrom’s “The Cider House Rules” and Wes Craven’s “Music of the Heart” — at Venice is invaluable.

“Venice this year is among the most important we’ve had there,” says Rick Sands, Miramax chairman of worldwide distribution. “For Academy films, we go to Berlin, but Venice is great because we get to set up our fall there.”

Duncan Clark, president of Columbia TriStar Distribution Intl. echoed the sentiment: “Venice is an ideal opportunity for profiling certain products in Europe.”

Representing the majors on the Lido are Joe Johnston’s “October Sky,” from Universal; David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” Fox; Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” Universal Pictures Intl.; Kim Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” for Fox Searchlight; and Banderas’ “Crazy in Alabama,” from Columbia.

Venice stalwart Woody Allen also makes a return with his latest comedy, “Sweet and Lowdown,” a recent Sony Pictures Classics pickup.

Undoubtedly, the most muscular U.S. contingent and the brightest star wattage will hit town tonight for the European premiere of Warner Bros.’ “Eyes Wide Shut.” Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman will attend, along with members of Stanley Kubrick’s family and creative team in an evening being planned as a tribute to the late director.

Curiously, while many recent fests have highlighted a preoccupation with end-of-the-century angst, Barbera said the Venice lineup has taken its cue from the opening film’s steamy sexual content, and an abundance of erotica will be keeping weary festgoers awake this year.

Erotic undercurrents charge controversial South Korean competition entry “Lies” by Jang Sun-Woo, based on a novel about a sadomasochistic relationship (the author was imprisoned on obscenity charges); director Fonteyne’s “A Pornographic Affair,” about the erotic rapport between two strangers; and Italian Davide Ferrario’s “Look at Me,” which centers on a porn star.

“If the 1960s and ’70s were the years of sexual liberation and breaking down barriers, the ’80s and ’90s represented a backwards step, with the spread of AIDS and all the fear that entailed translating into self-censorship and the suffocation of sexual themes,” Barbera observed. “Now there’s a return to explicitly addressing sexuality again, with several films in the festival examining extreme forms of sexual experience.”

(Braden Phillips in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)