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Hungary back at Cannes with ‘London’

Country's hasn't had film in competition since 1988

After a gap of almost 20 years, Hungarian filmmakers are back in competition in Cannes.

Bela Tarr’s “The Man From London” is the first Hungarian pic to be selected for the competition since Istvan Szabo’s “Hanussen” in 1988.

Though Hungarian pics have always had a strong presence at the fest — Magyar filmmakers have nabbed 40 gongs including five Palmes d’Or and two Cameras d’Or throughout the fest’s 60-year history — it still seems like a cinematic miracle that “The Man From London” actually made it to Cannes.

It was only a year ago that Tarr gave a press conference in Cannes announcing that he intended to put the derailed production of “The Man From London” back on track. “Man” had been halted on location in Corsica in March 2005 after the suicide of pic’s French producer Humbert Balsan, nine days into the shoot and with €1.3 million ($1.75 million) down the drain.

Based on a Georges Simenon novel and starring Miroslav Krobot (“Wrong Side Up”) and Tilda Swinton, the pic seemed to be destined to follow the path of many Euro co-productions that just crumble absent a driving force.

But in spring 2005, Tarr announced that “life and this movie aren’t over yet” and he was determined to have the film screened in Cannes.

Although Tarr didn’t manage to stick to his original plan of having the pic ready for Cannes 2006, he did manage to find a new French producer in Paul Sadoun, who pulled the production back together.

“We finished the film on Friday, May 18 — just in time!” Sadoun said laughing in relief. Sadoun had spent about eight months sorting out the legal problems that had been caused by Balsan’s death. Instead of having a four-way co-production among France, Hungary and the U.K., he restructured the pic as a three-way co-production without a U.K. partner and additional coin from Arte, Canal Plus and the CNC as well as the Hungarian Motion Picture Fund.

Overall the pic’s budget is now $6.7 million, including the $1.75 million that had been spent before Balsan’s death.

While Tarr shot 10 days of interiors in Budapest, Sadoun met with the mayor of the Corsican harbor town of Bastia, where Tarr wanted to shoot. One of the production’s greatest challenges had been the fact that Tarr had wanted the harbor of Bastia to be cleared of boats.

Yet the mayor agreed and together with Corsican partners, the production built an elaborate set including a lighting system that took a month to set up.

“We started shooting on Feb. 12 and wrapped on March 18. All in all the harbor was closed for four weeks,” said Sadoun. “Bela was very well prepared so thanks to him we managed to finish everything in time.”

Meanwhile, Cannes veteran Szabo, who’d also participated in the competition with “Mephisto” in 1981, is preparing his next pic, “Journey by Moonlight,” an English-language adaptation of a Hungarian bestseller about a young couple honeymooning in 1930s Italy where their uneasy harmony is threatened by the country’s dark and magical beauty.

Szabo’s producer Aaron Shipos is in Cannes closing deals with co-production partners from the U.K., Germany and Italy. A cast announcement is imminent and principal photography is to kick off in October. And if Tarr is anything to go by, this might still be in time for Cannes 2008.