CANNES — A small circle of hardcore exhibitionists inhabits every film festival or market — individuals who will stop at nothing in their quest for attention.

Then there’s Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. For some 25 years these occasionally misanthropic partners have been bonded in a carefully crafted semi-anonymity.

As co-heads of Sony Classics, they’ve deftly plied their trade in the arthouse business, picking up a myriad of films, some obscure, some destined to be hits. Think “Kung Fu Hustle,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” “House of Flying Daggers” or “Bad Education.”

In a business of complex reporting structures, they operate with a unique degree of autonomy. At Cannes last week they were in evidence at all the “hot” screenings, with producers gazing their way, trying to deduce their reactions. Bernard navigates the hectic back streets on his rented bike while Barker trudges behind him. The duo landed two of the fest’s highest-profile pics, Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” and Christian Carion’s “Merry Christmas.”

Responding to questions, they disclosed their intention to enhance their long-standing relationship with Pedro Almodovar, acquiring rights in North America to his next film, “Volver.” They plan an eight-film retrospective for the Spanish filmmaker in 2006 that will encompass “All About My Mother” and “Women on the Verge.”

At a moment when the specialty film business grows ever more turbulent, the record of Sony Classics is an enviable one in terms of continuity and profitability, and the partners are firmly resolved to guard their turf.

A growing number of labels chase a relatively modest output of independently made pictures. It’s no secret that Barker and Bernard are wary about the profusion of specialty labels within Sony itself, keeping a cautious eye on the release schedules of TriStar and Screen Gems. Their perspective: They got there first and intend to stay.

But not in high style. Try having lunch with Barker and Bernard and you may end up at Wendy’s — unless you pick up the check.

Other companies operating in the specialty film business have gone on spending sprees, scuttling their business plans. After their quarter-century partnership, however, the two mavens of Sony Classics have no intention of wandering. After all, they’re the “Steady Eddies” in a business of exhibitionists and neurotics.

Cannes-do spirit

At a time when the world press grows ever more snarky and prone to faux pas, the vast aggregation of reporters and critics gathered in Cannes displays a tendency toward ’50s passivity. Questions at news conferences are obsequious when directed to self-anointed auteurs, and even the critics seem benign.

Lars von Trier, who could use a year at UCLA Film School, projects a godlike presence as he intones comments like “America is shitting on the world.”

Reviewers strain to put a saving spin on every review, no matter how manic or arcane the film. One might read something like, “The repeated gang rapes and acts of bestiality do not detract from the superb composition and the director’s aesthetic grasp…”

The boos and hisses that occasionally erupted at earlier Cannes Festivals (and still occur at Venice) are seldom if ever heard.

The unspoken reality is that most of the films and filmmakers that are applauded at Cannes will never again find audiences so exuberant, even at another festival. A few, to be sure, deserve a better fate.