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Celebrated auteurs clash at Cannes

Familiar names, untame genre fare spark festival

This year’s especially auteur-heavy Cannes Film Festival may read like a greatest-hits compilation — or, depending on individual taste, a laundry list — of Croisette vets. Either way, fest director Thierry Fremaux isn’t apologizing.

“Great auteurs make great films. So in 2009, it’s normal to find people like Quentin Tarantino, Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodovar, Jane Campion or Marco Bellocchio (in the lineup),” Fremaux says. “Over the past 60 years, Cannes has regularly accommodated Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Kurosawa, etc. The tradition is respected.”

Clearly so. Of the 20 filmmakers in competition, only one, Isabel Coixet (“Map of the Sounds of Tokyo”), has never before appeared in the fest’s elite program. Four of them — Tarantino, von Trier, Campion and Ken Loach — will be angling for a second Palme d’Or. Perpetual Palme bridesmaids Almodovar, Bellocchio and Michael Haneke will be duking it out for a first.

Cannes’ reverence for its auteurs has no better emblem this year than Alain Resnais, whose “Les Herbes folles” marks the French New Wave icon’s return to the competition for the first time since 1980’s “Mon oncle d’Amerique.”

But if this year’s competition seems to fly in the face of Fremaux’s previously stated mission to shake things up and avoid predictable, name-driven choices, there are several titles that hint at a possible replay of some of the most memorably explosive and divisive moments from his past eight years at the helm.

There’s a potential smattering of political controversy from Lou Ye, whose steamy “Summer Palace” ran afoul of Chinese censors when it premiered at Cannes three years ago, and whose current pic, “Spring Fever,” was made in secret. Self-styled bad-boy provocateurs

Gaspar Noe (“Irreversible”) and von Trier (“Dancer in the Dark,” “Dogville”), whose past entries polarized Cannes auds like few others, are back with films — Noe’s nightmarish-looking “Enter the Void” and von Trier’s cabin-fever horror pic “Antichrist” — that threaten to be no less uncompromising.

Park Chan-wook, “the enfant terrible of Korean cinema,” per Fremaux, could deliver the fest’s grisliest blow with vampire thriller “Thirst,” which should remind festgoers of Park’s notorious 2004 Grand Prix winner, “Oldboy.”

All in all, this could qualify as the most viscerally and psychologically brutal Cannes in recent memory: The competition also boasts Haneke’s young-fascists period drama “The White Ribbon,” Johnnie To’s revenge thriller “Vengeance” and Tarantino’s Nazi-scalping actioner “Inglourious Basterds,” while the Midnight section will feature Marina de Van’s psychodrama “Don’t Look Back” and Sam Raimi’s title-says-it-all “Drag Me to Hell.” Quel horreur, indeed.

Raimi, Tarantino and Ang Lee (“Taking Woodstock”) are among the few American filmmakers in the Official Selection. While Fremaux attributes the downturn at least in part to the recent Writers Guild of America strike, he stresses that “relations between Cannes and Hollywood are in good shape,” pointing to the opening-night showcase for Disney/Pixar’s 3-D toon “Up” as well as the presence of Lee Daniels’ Sundance prizewinner “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” in Un Certain Regard.

Whether the fest favors Yanks or Euros, auteurs or newbies, Fremaux says hungry moviegoers will still find a healthy spirit of artistic discovery and renewal in this 62nd edition. For a festival that has remained essential in large part by spotlighting new or relatively unsung talents, such as Matteo Garrone, Ari Folman, Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu and Andrea Arnold (back at Cannes with “Fish Tank,” three years after her jury prizewinning debut, “Red Road”), that’s very good news.

Brit helmer Arnold is one of a handful of filmmakers in competition — including Spain’s Coixet, the Philippines’ Brillante Mendoza, Palestine’s Elia Suleiman, and France’s Jacques Audiard and Xavier Giannoli — whom Fremaux describes as “great emerging talents.”

One could add to that list several helmers from the fest’s Un Certain Regard slate: “Mother” marks South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s first appearance in the Official Selection (after his Directors’ Fortnight hit “The Host”), while Romania’s Cannes presence continues apace with “Police, Adjective,” the latest from Camera d’Or winner Corneliu Porumboiu (“12:08 East of Bucharest”).

Even in this noncompetitive arena, established auteurs figure heavily in the mix, in keeping with Fremaux’s insistence that Un Certain Regard not be disregarded, so to speak, as a competition-rejects pile. Offering a global range, Un Certain Regard juggles established names such as Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, Iran’s Bahman Ghobadi, France’s Alain Cavalier and Russia’s Pavel Loungine with up-and-comers from such far-flung territories as Colombia, Greece, Russia, Israel and Oz.

“Un Certain Regard was created to show a great number of films of quality, and indeed, some will be judged worthy of the competition,” Fremaux says. “Last year, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s ‘Tokyo Sonata’ and Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ (both in Un Certain Regard) could have appeared in competition.

“I believe the role of a programmer is to find the best place for a film. If I offer an out-of-competition slot to a film, that’s not because I consider it unworthy of the competition; it’s because I think it will have a better destiny there.”

Elsewhere, Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tetro” — plucked to open the Directors’ Fortnight after being offered an out-of-competition slot in the Official Selection — will mark thesp-helmer Vincent Gallo’s first return to the Croisette since his “The Brown Bunny” became the scandale of the 2003 competition. He also features in Critics’ Week closer “1989.”

In addition to showcasing Cannes competition vets such as Coppola, South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo and Portugal’s Pedro Costa, Fortnight will compensate to some degree for the relative dearth of American fare in the Official Selection. Three U.S. features that bowed at Sundance — Lynn Shelton’s “Humpday,” Cherien Dabis’ “Amreeka” and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “I Love You Phillip Morris” — promise at least a modicum of Yank levity for hardened festgoers, as does Benny and Josh Safdie’s mumblecore movie “Go Get Some Rosemary.”

“Comedy in America today, even in Hollywood, is very interesting. I think it’s really fresh and really current,” says Fortnight soon-to-exit topper Olivier Pere, who notes at least two French debuts in the sidebar have American-comedy forebears: Axelle Ropert’s “La Famille Wolberg” bears traces of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” while Riad Sattouf’s “Les beaux gosses” is, per Pere, “a French ‘Superbad.’ ”

Films by Latin American helmers, so prominent in last year’s fest (“Lion’s Den,” “The Headless Woman,” “Liverpool”) but poorly represented in 2009, nonetheless continue to have a strong showing in Critics’ Week, which includes Chilean helmer Alejandro Fernandez Almendras’ “Huacho,” Uruguayan director Alvaro Brechner’s “Bad Day to Go Fishing” and Colombian filmmaker Camilo Matiz’s medium-length “1989.”

Nine of the 10 features screening in the sidebar are first films, a point of pride for Critics’ Week a.d. Jean-Christophe Berjon. “More than ever, we’re proving our raison d’etre, which is to introduce debuting filmmakers to Cannes.”

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