PARIS — With seven first films in competition, the Paris Cinema Intl. Film Festival has mounted another experimental, eclectic and multicultural event, proving that you can be highly popular without being populist.

Despite its skimpy e1.5 million ($2.1 million) budget and its purist arthouse aesthetic, the festival has succeeded in expanding its reach beyond niches to a broader audience.

“One of our main goals is to initiate young filmgoers and allow them to discover these small but important films, which they would otherwise probably never see,” explains British thesp Charlotte Rampling, who is chairing the fest for the third consecutive year. “They’re not easy stories, and some are even crude — but what’s interesting is to show how young people from different countries see the world we live in.”

South Korea’s social drama “Breathless,” from Yang Ik-june, is one of the most anticipated films of the international competition. Set in a poor, urban neighborhood, pic follows Kim Sang-hun, a bullish and violent debt collector who’s haunted by the memory of his father murdering his mother and sister.

Another contender for the fest’s Jury Prize, “Helen,” directed by Brits Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, is about a young, troubled actress, Helen, who comes face to face with her loneliness and anguish after being asked by the police to play a missing teen- age girl in a re-enactment.

“This year, we have a lot of films dealing with adolescence in a very mature way,” says fest artistic director, Aude Hesbert. “They’re not teenage films but rather intricate and poetic tales.”

The festival also spotlights a country every year, with Turkey in focus for 2009. Included in the program are a tribute to director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who will be making the trip to Paris.

But Asia will again be well represented, notably with a tribute to helmer Tsai Ming-liang, who will have a short in competition, “Madame Butterfly.”

The fest’s “sneak” premieres, on the other hand, are much more mainstream, with an emphasis on American fare, including Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard, and Cannes’ opening film, Disney-Pixar’s 3-D toon “Up.”

“The first years we were so small, we had to convince distributors to show their films at the festival,” says Hesbert. “But now they know that we’ll give their movies a good run and fill the theaters during a period that’s traditionally slow in terms of admissions.”

On the French front, Emir Kusturica starrer “L’Affaire Farewell,” a spy pic directed by Christian Carion (“Merry Christmas”) and produced by Christopher Rossignon (“Welcome”), is another film that looks to spark ticket sales.

“Showing the film there gives me the opportunity to fill a theater with mostly general audiences and get the first feedback before the release,” Rossignon explains. “That’s very valuable.”

Tip Sheet
What: Paris Cinema Intl. Film Festival
When: July 2-14Where: Paris
Web: pariscinema.org