Cannes embraces Brit outsiders

Smaller films picked to represent U.K.

Francois Truffaut famously dismissed British cinema as an oxymoron. Thierry Fremaux doesn’t exactly share that Gallic disdain for his cousins across la Manche. But his selection for this year’s Cannes displays a perverse, almost mischievous disregard for the mainstream of U.K. filmmaking in favor of renegade auteurs working at its obscurest margins.

Fremaux ignored all the most obvious and hotly tipped contenders (Michael Winterbottom‘s “Genova,” John Maybury‘s “Edge of Love,” etc.) and instead picked two tiny movies that hardly anyone in the U.K. biz had heard of — “Of Time and the City” by veteran auteur Terence Davies, and “Soi Cowboy” by enfant terrible Thomas Clay.

“Of Time and the City,” chosen for a Special Screening, is a microbudget documentary about Liverpool, where Davies was born, funded by Northwest Vision as part of the celebrations for Liverpool’s status as 2008 European Capital of Culture.

It’s his first film since “House of Mirth” in 2000, and a very small one at that. Movies such as “Distant Voices, Still Lives” in 1988 and “The Long Day Closes” in 1992, both of which premiered at Cannes, made Davies one of Brit art cinema’s biggest names — in that distant, half-forgotten era before “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and the Polygramization of the U.K. film industry.

Since then, however, he has struggled to make his voice heard and get his scripts made, occasionally surfacing in the press to rail against the philistines of the U.K. Film Council (which, ironically, co-funded “Of Time and the City”).

He has become a cause celebre for critics such as former Edinburgh fest topper Shane Danielsen, who recently described him as “the greatest living English filmmaker,” and condemned his neglect as “a national disgrace.” Fremaux clearly agrees.

“Soi Cowboy,” the sophomore pic by controversial Brighton-based filmmaker Thomas Clay, will screen in Un Certain Regard. Its selection was greeted around Soho with a collective, “Huh?”

The Cannes announcement was the first anyone seemed to know of the film’s existence. A quick search around the Internet provided no enlightenment. Remarkably, in this age of Google’s omniscience, the film somehow managed to shoot without leaving a trace on the Web.

In fact, the 29-year-old Clay is in Rome completing post-production. He shot “Soi Cowboy” in Thailand last fall. The pic was privately financed — “the quickest, most efficient way to make a film in Thailand,” Clay explains. Sales are being handled by Paris-based Coproduction Office.

The film stars Danish actor Nicolas Bro as a corpulent European living in Bangkok with his pregnant Thai girlfriend, whom he met in the notorious nightclub district Soi Cowboy. She seeks commitment from him to avoid falling back into the red-light life, while a parallel plotline involves her gangster brother, employed to deliver their older brother’s head.

“Although we qualify as British, it is predominantly a Thai film, therefore I suppose it’s inevitable that the U.K. industry has been mostly unaware of the film until now,” Clay says. “I try to take a global outlook in my work and believe that Antonioni set the example for what is possible as both a filmmaker and a world citizen — a great artist and an enduring inspiration.”

Despite its heady brew of sex tourism and mafia bloodshed, the pic isn’t expected to be as shocking as Clay’s debut, “The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael,” with a combination of high art styling and a graphic gang-rape scene that prompted walkouts when it premiered in the Critics Week at Cannes 2005. “It’s not going to get people running out of the cinema,” says a source close to the “Soi Cowboy” production.

The French lavished “Great Ecstasy” with praise — Liberation declared it “a thunderbolt in British cinema.” British critics, however, largely viewed it with disgust.

Plus ca change … When it comes to movies, there’s more that divides the French and the Brits than the English Channel. Davies and Clay are just part of that great tradition of U.K. auteurs better appreciated on the Croisette than in their homeland. On the other hand, mainstream Brit pics have proved in recent years that they don’t need a Cannes launchpad to reach a far greater worldwide audience than the French could ever dream of.

With this year’s official selection, Fremaux has simply provided a refreshing reminder that British cinema has more to offer than just Harry Potter, “The Queen” and Keira Knightley.

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