Troublemakers in Paradise

The global economic recession could turn 2009's fest into Crunch Cannes

Like a bank fearing toxic assets, the Festival de Cannes' programmers this year have opted for auteurs with the cinematic equivalent of a triple-A credit rating.

Programmer Thierry Fremaux is understandably risk-averse. The global economic recession could turn 2009's fest into Crunch Cannes -- already the talk is of canceled fetes, hotel vacancies and a steep drop in attendee numbers.

So going with the safe bets looks like a clever move. This year's all-star lineup will ensure the press coverage and market buzz that is Cannes' lifeblood: Pedro Almodovar, Jane Campion, Quentin Tarantino, Ang Lee, Lars von Trier, Ken Loach and Michael Haneke -- not a subprime director on the list.

But while grim financial realities might be on everyone's mind this year, don't expect films that deal directly with the global crisis.

Cannes appears to be passing on the agitprop approach of the Berlin International Film Festival, which stocked its slate with politically-themed features including Tom Tykwer's evil bank consortium thriller "The International," the globalization drama "Mammoth" from Lukas Moodysson and Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross' anti-corporation docu "The Shock Doctrine."

The world's No. 1 film fest prefers the more personal approach.

So Penelope Cruz plays a woman struggling to escape a stifling marriage in Almodovar's "Broken Embraces"; alternative stand-up star Demetri Martin is the son of a Catskills motel owner who kick-starts the legendary 1960s music festival in Lee's "Taking Woodstock"; and the focus in Loach's latest kitchen-sink effort, "Looking for Eric," is on soccer -- specifically a postman's obsession with French soccer star Eric Cantona.

Cannes in 2009 will, however, be a time to assess the value of some of the world's best-known art house brands. But the stock of some of the biggest names on this year's slate is trading near-record lows and audiences worldwide are waiting for the signal to pump or dump.

Take Tarantino. "Death Proof," which screened at Cannes two years ago, was for true believers only.

"Inglourious Basterds," the director's World War II men-on-a-mission drama, comes equipped with enough hype (Nazis! Scalping! Brad Pitt!), but it remains to be seen whether Tarantino has regained the magic balance between trash and art that made him the Weinsteins' cash cow.

Campion is also, despite her marquee name, a bit of an unknown quantity at this point, not having delivered a feature since 2003's "In the Cut."

A Palme d'Or winner for 1993's "The Piano" -- she's still the only woman to earn that title -- Campion returns to the Croisette with "Bright Star," a romantic period piece based on the life of poet John Keats starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish.

Austrian auteur Haneke never aspired to the crossover success of  a Campion or Tarantino, but he  too has spent much of the critical  credit earned with 2005's Cannes  best director winner "Cache" on his  lambasted English-language remake  of "Funny Games."

"The White Ribbon" is a departure on many levels for the filmmaker.

His first period film, it was shot in black and white and is Haneke's first German-language film since the original "Funny Games" back in 1997. Given the movie's subject matter -- the rise of militarism in pre-World War I Germany -- "White Ribbon" is already getting good odds for the Palme d'Or.

But with Haneke's well-earned reputation as an agent provocateur, the film could also be this year's storm-out-of-the-Palais shocker.

That is, unless that title goes to Gaspar Noe's "Enter the Void," the first feature from the enfant terrible who shocked Cannes in 2002 with the graphic rape scene in "Irreversible."

Cannes' favorite bad boy, von Trier, returns also with "Antichrist."

The film, which stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as a couple who move to a remote forest cabin after the death of their son only to be haunted by evil spirits, is alternatively being labeled a return to form for the Danish director -- after the misses "Manderlay" and "The Boss of It All" -- or a run-of-the-mill horror film.

The 2009 Cannes slate is actually heavy with genre movies.

The evil in "Antichrist" and the Nazis of "Inglourious Basterds" take their place alongside the ghosts of "Enter the Void" and the vampire in Park Chan-wook's "Thirst."

Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To is back in Cannes with "Vengeance," which reanimates French rock icon Johnny Hallyday as a hitman-turned-chef out for the sweet taste of revenge following his daughter's murder.

Isabel Coixet picks up the food/murder theme in her entry "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo," with a fishmonger who doubles as a contract killer.

Out of Competition we have Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," better known as the really last film with Heath Ledger, in which Ledger's character -- also played following his death by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell -- makes  a deal with the devil in exchange for immortality.

Finally, for pure horror fans there is the Midnight Madness screening of Sam Raimi's rabidly anticipated "Drag Me to Hell," about a loan officer slapped with a satanic curse after denying a mortgage extension to an elderly homeowner. Truly a tale for our times.

The trend toward genre films has been bubbling below the surface for some time now in the art house world as producers and distributors look to genre hooks to attract audiences and reassure buyers.

Nothing says international sales success like vampires, ghosts and Nazis.

If this continues, Cannes' gala schedule may soon be indistinguishable from the AFM screening guide. Snarking aside, Fremaux has put together an impressive slate.

While purists might gripe about the lack of newcomers on this list, the industry is gleeful at the prospect of a lineup packed with films that have a real chance of finding an audience. Given the precarious state of international art house cinema, this may be just the boost the business needs.