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Montreal fest battles for top titles

Scrappy event up against Toronto, Venice

The worst appears to be over for Montreal’s World Film Festival, but scrappy fest president Serge Losique knows all too well that he is still going to have to battle to carve out a place for his event in the ever-more-competitive global film fest scene.

The Canuck event had been mired in a bitter battle with the Canadian film-financing agencies Telefilm Canada and Quebec’s Sodec — they had been unhappy with what they saw as Losique’s cavalier management style — but both agencies declared a truce last year and began once again financing the Montreal film showcase, although their levels of funding are down.

The dilemma for the Montreal fest is the same one it’s faced for years: how to snare A-list titles for an event that runs during the days leading up to Labor Day, one of the busiest festival periods of the year. Venice takes place during the second half of Montreal, and the powerful Toronto Intl. Film Festival revs up its Hollywood-friendly engine on the weekend following Labor Day. Montreal runs Aug. 21 to Sept. 1 this year, with 234 features and 221 shorts screening.

Given the proximity of Venice and Toronto, Montreal has a tough time snaring high-profile pics for its official competition, though Losique insists his fest compares favorably to any other festival around the world.

“If we receive some 2,000 films to select from each year, that means we have a lot of choice,” Losique says. “Look at the quality of our competition — you can compare it to Cannes or Venice.”

Losique did pull off at least one major coup by securing the world preem of French filmmaker Christophe Barratier’s much-anticipated “Faubourg 36,” which will open the festival and compete with 20 other features for the Grand Prix des Ameriques. Pic stars Gerard Jugnot and Clovis Cornillac in a story of unemployed workers in 1936 Paris who take over a music hall to mount their own show.

The competition is usually light on U.S. fare, and that is the case again this year, with only one American pic, director Matthew Wilder’s “Your Name Here,” which stars Bill Pullman in a drama loosely based on the life of sci-fi scribe Philip K. Dick.

The competition also includes the German pic “The Invention of Curried Sausage,” a World War II drama directed by Ulla Wagner and toplining Barbara Sukowa; Belgrade helmer Goran Markovic’s “The Tour,” about a troupe of actors touring Yugoslavia just as the country is descending into civil war; and helmer Manuel Gutierrez Aragon’s Spanish pic “Who’s Next,” about a young Basque terrorist who has just barely recovered from his wounds when he’s called upon for a dangerous new mission.

It is often suggested that the Montreal fest comes up short in terms of generating business, and there is no question that the U.S. dealmakers prefer to do their buying and selling a week later in Toronto. But what Montreal often doesn’t get credit for is its knack for giving a major boost at the Quebec box office for homegrown pics that unspool at the event, which is why there are always a number of important local pics preeming at the festival.

This year, there are two high-profile Quebecois films in competition: veteran docu helmer Benoit Pilon’s “The Necessities of Life,” with a screenplay by Pilon; and “The Novena” from helmer Bernard Emond, a dark drama about an Inuit man suffering from tuberculosis in the 1950s and starring Natar Ungalaaq from “Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner.” The other Quebec film competing is first-time feature director Stephane Gehami’s “En plein coeur,” about two car thieves.

Set to screen in a noncompetition berth is the third major Quebec film set for Montreal, director Sebastien Rose’s “Le Banquet,” a drama set during a crisis at a Quebec university.

In recent years, the Montreal fest has put the emphasis on the work of emerging filmmakers, and that continues with the First Films World Competition, which will screen 17 pics, including debut pics from Australia, Germany, Bolivia, Iran, Hungary, Russia, Turkey and Canada.

Hollywood will be repped with tributes to Tony Curtis and Alan Ladd Jr.; helmer Mark Rydell will be president of the official competition jury; and director Brian De Palma — who has often come to the festival simply to catch up on films from around the world — will give a master class at the Imperial Cinema.

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