Lineup shouts: Auteur! Auteur!

Vets rule but tyros dominate sidebars

LONDON — Lots of old favorites, a wide spread of rookie appetizers and a traditional main course in which French- and English-lingo filmmakers dominate make up the official menu at the 55th Cannes Film Festival (May 15-26).

Rolling into town a week later than usual, due to Gaul’s presidential election, the event will open and close in grand style with two popular (and populist) auteurs.

Making his first trip to the Croisette since 1987, when “Radio Days” played out of competition, Woody Allen will open the fest with “Hollywood Ending,” while Cannes vet Claude Lelouch will end it with his all-round entertainment, “And Now … Ladies & Gentlemen,” starring Jeremy Irons.

With the average age of directors in Competition being 52 (the youngest are Paul Thomas Anderson and Jia Zhangke at 32; the oldest is Manoel de Oliveira at 93), “vet” is the operative word at Cannes this year.

The Competition is largely an unashamed celebration of Big Name Auteurs, as 14½ of the 22 helmers are previous Palme d’Or contenders (Nicole Garcia once competed with a short). Unlike last year, there’s not a single first-timer.

Contrast that with Un Certain Regard, whose 20 titles this year mark a celebration of Middle East, Asian and first-time directors (seven of the 20).

What’s lacking this year are any established names to give the section some heft — a stated desire of artistic director Thierry Fremaux last year but clearly not happening this time around. Fremaux insists the two sections, Competition and Un Certain Regard, have to be viewed as complementary this year.

“There’s no message, no strategy,” he tells Variety when asked to explain the yawning gap between the two sections. “It’s been a strange year (in international cinema); maybe a year of transition. And by chance we ended up with more young filmmakers and first-time films in Certain Regard.”

He adds, “Everyone always says the Competition is dominated by the same old names. And before I started the job at Cannes, I also thought that maybe one thing to do would be to break this tendency. But it’s like questioning why Lazio or Beckham are always chosen to represent their countries in soccer: The great auteurs always make the best films.”

Subtle tastes

After two years as artistic director, Fremaux has yet to make his presence visibly felt in the official selection, over which fest prez Gilles Jacob, 71, and the long-entrenched main selection committee have considerable influence. (French titles are selected by a separate committee, over which neither Fremaux nor Jacob have power of veto.)

However, Fremaux’s hand is especially visible in the mushrooming number of side events that increasingly decorate the Cannes cake.

As well as film-music concerts and open-air screenings on Mace Beach (of films by Jacques Tati and Billy Wilder), these include a three-pic tribute to Paul Morrissey on May 19 (“Flesh,” “Trash,” “Heat”); a similar homage to late Bollywood actor-director-producer Raj Kapoor on May 21 (“Aag,” “Barsaat,” “Awaara”); and a tip of the hat to the very first 1939 Cannes fest, which was cancelled at the last moment because of the outbreak of World War II.

Seven of the 24 features that would have played will be judged by a separate jury including Berlin fest topper Dieter Kosslick and former Venice head Alberto Barbera.

It’s when talking about the other major side attraction — a selection of remastered and restored classics — that Fremaux, whose day job is director of the Institut Lumiere, a noted archive-cum-museum in Lyon, becomes animated.

“Yes, it’s a personal passion, and I hope it will become a regular part of the festival,” he says. “It’s a way of drawing attention to the splendid work that people are doing around the world, in archives, studios and other collections. It’s also a way of saying that the history of film is very important. In the age of DVD, there’s now a new life for old films, not just for modern blockbusters.”

Talking to the 41-year-old Fremaux, one senses a film buff for whom contemporary cinema is just one of several interests. He is a patient reformer who recognizes that the value and power of the Cannes brand name should not be allowed to degrade as a result of self-satisfied neglect or Luddite arrogance.

“I really am trying to bring some different elements to the festival, to make it more user-friendly,” he enthuses.

Surprise midnight screenings are among these elements — with two prime possibilities being Neil Jordan’s Nick Nolte starrer “The Good Thief” and George Lucas’ “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones.”

However, three weeks before the fest, Fremaux wouldn’t even confirm to Variety the possibility of such screenings, let alone their timeslots. “Maybe, maybe not!” is all he’ll say.

This year’s Competition is light on East Asian fare (with Japan totally absent), and thin on Scandinavian and Central European titles. Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa are both MIA.

The big winner compared with last year is the U.K., with three name directors (Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Michael Winterbottom) vs. last year’s zero representation. A younger name, Lynne Ramsay, was offered a slot in Un Certain Regard; Ramsay chose to take her sophomore feature, “Morvern Callar,” to Directors Fortnight instead.

Although the American representation is about on par with last year’s, and a U.S.-financed pic again opens the fest, there’s a slightly lower-wattage feel to the American presence, which includes three documentaries and lacks a razzle-dazzle title like 2001’s “Moulin Rouge.”

U.S. representation in Competition was boosted by the 11th-hour inclusion of Jack Nicholson starrer “About Schmidt,” from “Election” director Alexander Payne. The screening, as part of the fest, of 20 minutes of Martin Scorsese’s much delayed epic, “Gangs of New York” will further boost the Yank profile.

At one point in the selection process, it looked like Anderson’s ensembler, “Punch-Drunk Love,” was going to be the only U.S. competitor.

Though there’s nothing from the States in this year’s Critics Week, the Stars & Stripes are solidly repped by three titles in Directors Fortnight, including Lisa Cholodenko’s relationship drama “Laurel Canyon,” starring Frances McDormand, Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale, and the D.A. Pennebaker-Chris Hegedus music docu “Only the Strong Survive.”

The Russo brothers’ crimer “Welcome to Collinwood,” based on Mario Monicelli’s 1958 “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” and produced by Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, will close the Fortnight, which this year features an unusual number of accessible relationship movies in its geographically broad spread.

The sidebar will kick off May 16 with Catherine Breillat’s latest headline-maker, “Sex Is Comedy,” with Anne Parillaud as a movie director having trouble with a sex scene.

While there’s no getting away in the official selection from the forest of names returning yet again with their latest works — among them, David Cronenberg, Oliveira, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Olivier Assayas, Alexander Sokurov, Aki Kaurismaki, Loach, Leigh and Winterbottom — beneath the fest’s seemingly immobile exterior the termites of change are quietly burrowing.

Acknowledging a growing trend in which Berlin, among the major fests, has been a pioneer, the Competition alone has no fewer than four titles originally shot on digital video: Abbas Kiarostami’s femme-centered “10,” Sokurov’s “Russian Ark,” Jia’s country-kids-in-the-big-city drama “Unknown Pleasures” and Winterbottom’s Manchester music pic “24 Hour Party People.”

Some other titles, such as the British “Tomorrow La Scala!” in Un Certain Regard will even be projected digitally.

Among the fest’s potential flash points, the biggest surprise is the appearance in Competition of maverick director Gaspar Noe, whose bleak shocker “I Stand Alone” made headlines in 1998’s Critics Week. His sophomore feature, “Irreversible,” whose production has been swathed in secrecy, features real-life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, an
d is reputed to be powerful.

Shock films

Other fest shockers look to be Certain Regard’s “The Pussy With Two Heads,” set among clients in a hard-core porno joint, and Critics Week’s “Too Young to Die,” centered on two sexagenarian Koreans in an explicit sexual relationship.

Politically, the official selection has two sensitive areas: a pair of “unauthorized” mainland Chinese films (Jia’s “Unknown Pleasures” and Liu Bingjian’s “Cry Woman”) could cause ruptures with the Beijing authorities, though Fremaux tells Variety he isn’t expecting any trouble. “We just want to show them.”

Michael Moore’s gun-control investigation, “Bowling for Columbine,” the first documentary to compete at Cannes in memory, is getting Euro tongues wagging. And so has the presence of a Palestinian (Elia Suleiman) and Israeli director (Amos Gitai) duking it out for the first time for a Palme. Fremaux denies there was any strategy behind this timely coincidence, though the Gitai film is understood to have been invited at a late stage and the Suleiman pic was originally slated for Un Certain Regard.

The out of competition and special screenings sections — usually a dumping ground for U.S. and other crowd-pleasers — have been programmed with more care this year.

Docs dominate

The eight special screenings are dominated by docs (effectively creating a wall between Competition and Un Certain Regard), and noncompeting titles include another DreamWorks toon (“Spirit: The Stallion of the Cimarron,” following on the success of “Shrek” last year) and the Bollywood megaproduction “Devdas,” an acknowledgement of the rising profile of commercial Hindi cinema.

The only questionable noncompeting entry is Barbet Schroeder’s “Murder by Numbers,” though its inclusion links the official selection with Critics Week, where Schroeder is the “godfather” this year.