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Cannes 60th lineup echoes past

Critic's take: Fremaux goes for safe p'gramming

A hearty mix of old and new names, with a robust presence of U.S. and French-funded fare, dominates the Official Selection menu of this year’s 60th Cannes Film Festival.

After a heavily scrutinized six years as artistic director, Thierry Fremaux appears to have gone for a safe program designed to show the grande dame fest’s superior pulling power and position as an annual litmus test of world cinema.

Fremaux himself describes it as a “rich” year. Fest prexy Gilles Jacob, who spent more than 20 years programming the Croisette bash, carefully covers all bases by noting that “we chose to mix heritage with modernity, well-known names and new blood.”

At a relatively trim 52 features, it’s certainly a much tighter Official Selection than last year’s giant 60 titles. Notably, Fremaux has radically cut back Un Certain Regard — which has faced growing criticism for producing diminishing returns — from 24 entries in 2006 to 19 this year. Almost half of them are first-time features.

Aside from the opener, Taiwan vet Hou Hsiao-hsien’s French-funded “Flight of the Red Balloon” (a surprise omission from the Competition), Un Certain Regard has only a handful of known quantities (Barbet Schroeder, Daniele Luchetti, Roy Andersson, Harmony Korine and, arguably, China’s Li Yang). This makes the sidebar — on paper, at least — closer to Fremaux’s stated objective of being a section of discovery rather than Competition also-rans.

But it’s the Competition itself — any fest’s main shop window — where Fremaux & Co. seem to have concentrated their minds on anniversary fine-tuning. Though overall it’s a very Euro/U.S.-skewed selection, there’s a much larger clutch of high-carat names and an apparent desire to play safe after some of Fremaux’s high-wire attempts in the past to tinker with the Croisette formula.

In fact, this year’s Competition could almost have been programmed by Jacob himself.

All fest programmers are hostage to what is available, though Cannes has more clout than others to artificially skew its annual snapshot of world cinema by “reserving” — or having filmmakers themselves hold back — upcoming movies. But a look back at Jacob’s own program for Cannes’ last big anni, the 50th in 1997, is instructive.

That year, Jacob opened the fest with France’s most expensive showpiece to date (Luc Besson’s “The Fifth Element”) and seeded a strong lineup of Cannes vets and faves (Marco Bellocchio, Abbas Kiarostami, Wim Wenders, Atom Egoyan, Shohei Imamura) with a handful of newbies (Gary Oldman, Samantha Lang, Johnny Depp, Nick Cassavetes) and other directors starting to carve reps (Michael Haneke, Michael Winterbottom, Ang Lee).

Jacob’s trim Out of Competition section showcased only nine features, mixing crowdpleasers with high art (Clint Eastwood’s “Absolute Power,” Manoel de Oliveira’s “Journey to the Beginning of the World”). An amazing 14 of the 29 features in and out of Competition were English language, with Latin America, Scandinavia and Central Europe totally absent. Asia, too, was almost invisible, with just one Chinese movie, Wong Kar Wai’s Argentina-set road movie “Happy Together,” invited to compete (a first for Wong).

Ten years later, the total number of English-language movies is, at 13, almost unchanged and Wong now opens the fest with his first Anglophone, U.S.-set road movie “My Blueberry Nights.”

This year’s masters include Emir Kusturica, Alexander Sokurov, Bela Tarr and the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant and Quentin Tarantino in Competition, with Denys Arcand, Abel Ferrara, Winterbottom and Steven Soderbergh in the Out of Competition section. Apart from Tarr, all — as well as other names elsewhere like James Gray, Andersson and Olivier Assayas — were launched in Official Selection during the Jacob years.

Fremaux’s main contribution since taking over in 2001 has been to broaden the selection palette to include, on a regular basis, documentaries and animation, as well as a smattering of genuinely edgier directors (such as this year’s Ulrich Seidl) and the occasional genre outing that Jacob would previously have slotted Out of Competition (Tarantino’s “Death Proof”).

The 60th lineup adheres to that game plan, with French-U.S. toon “Persepolis” filling the DreamWorks animation slot and Michael Moore’s latest docu “Sicko” noncompeting this year, joined by five other docus from the U.S., China and France.

Has world cinema, as viewed through Cannes’ prism, really moved on? Certainly, as Fremaux says, it’s “a new world,” citing “Blueberry Nights” as an example (Chinese director, Euro money, Yank setting and actors), though this is hardly a recent trend. And his defense of the heavy U.S. presence — “American cinema is full of energy and is regenerating itself” — seems more pertinent to Cannes’ selection than the bland, increasingly conservative U.S. cinema landscape in general.

However the selection plays out by curtain-down on May 27, this year’s lineup can’t be faulted for covering its bases in an age when any anniversary on the highly competitive fest scene makes programmers understandably reach for the railings.

(Derek Elley is Variety’s senior film critic, based in London.)

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