"Je déclare le Festival des Films du Monde Nineteen-Ninety-Five ouvert!". Years ago, when Steven Spielberg presided the Cérémonie des Césars (the French Oscars), it was impossible to get a word out of him in French. Last night, opening the 19th World Film Festival in Montreal, Brian De Palma bravely tried. Taking a breather from post-production work on his "Mission: Impossible", which stars Tom Cruise's, the filmmaker, a large smile cutting through his nearly white beard, said that he hadn't come to present, represent or sell a movie, just to see as many as he could. Indeed, De Palma is almost a fixture here: year after year, one could spot him rushing from theatre to theatre, from dawn to night. Pure cinemania.
De Palma's "inaugural speech" followed the presentation of the jury for the Official Competition. Leaner than usual -- only six jurors, and no president -- the jury, which includes Korean actress Yun Chung-Hi, German director Hans Geissendorfer and Québécois writer-director Jacques Godbout, counts no less than three critics: "Newsweek" 's Jack Kroll, "Positif" 's Michel Ciment and British film historian-cum-reviewer David Robinson ("Sight and Sound"). The audience was polite, but then Canadians are religiously good-mannered.
De Palma's brush with the language of Molière proved to be the highlight of the evening. Distributed by Disney (Touchstone) and produced by Ismail Merchant under his Merchant-Ivory banner, the Festival opener , British filmmaker Christopher Menaul's "Feast of July" (in competition), was less than impressive. Based on "The Fest of July" by novelist H. E. Bates, the film, as described in production notes, is "an extraordinary story of love and tragedy... Bella Ford (is) a young woman who sets forth in winter on an arduous journey to locate Arch Wilson, the lover who has abandoned her. Suffering a grave personal misfortune along the way" --she delivers a still-born baby which she buries in a field-- Bella finds shelter in the home of the Wainwright family whose three sons eventually battle among each other for the affection of their enchanting and mysterious guest." Not exactly a barrel of laughs. But wait, it's not over yet. When Bella choose the second brother and you think she is "saved, transformed", another tragic event will change the course of her life. "Starts like Thomas Hardy's 'Tess', ends like Giger's 'Species'," quipped a scribe with a low tolerance level. As Bella (a character Liv Ullmann could portray in her sleep), Embeth Davidtz, so good in "Schindler's List", looks, sounds and acts suspiciously like a young Judy Davis. In his introduction to this beautifully shot and designed production, director Christopher Menaul indicated that this was not only his first film but also that of several of his actors. "There's a lot of virginity to be lost here tonight." Well, the audience was kind, but you know how it is, sometimes, with first times.
Over the next twelve days, the Festival will present nearly two hundred and fifty films, including a complete Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective (can you imagine watching "Salo" at 9 a.m.?), a tribute to Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, two of Disney's "Snow White" original animators, another one to French-born but international star Gérard Depardieu, a focus on Latin-American films and a spotlight on Israeli cinema today. As a sidebar, the 26th Canadian Student Film Festival will present 40 films and 24 videos.
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