Montreal's Behemoth Film Festival

The French-Canadian city outdoes its rival Toronto in size and scope of offerings

A HINT of rivalry was in the air as the 17th-annual Montreal World Film Festival got under way. For the first time, this high-profile Quebec event opened with a film made in that province: ``Le sexe des etoiles,'' directed by Paule Baillargeon, an award-winning Canadian actress. The festival seemed duly proud of its first-night attraction.

But many in the audience couldn't help wondering why the just-finished movie by Denys Arcand, the most celebrated director ever to emerge from Quebec, was not on display - but will instead be opening the Toronto Festival of Festivals later this month.

Toronto clearly scored a coup by lassoing Mr. Arcand's provocatively titled ``Unidentified Human Remains'' for its lineup. Still, there are plenty of moviegoers who don't think Arcand's previous pictures - ``The Decline and Fall of the American Empire'' and ``Jesus of Montreal'' - are as smart or savvy as some supporters claim and feel no great hurry about seeing his latest work.

Meanwhile, there is much to admire in the film that did kick off the Montreal program. Mr. Baillargeon's drama turns what could have been a sensationalistic subject - one character is a middle-aged man who has become a woman through a sex-change operation - into the sensitive study of a young daughter who learns to grow beyond her parents' confusions and steer toward a healthy life of her own. Respectfully received here, it has good prospects for success on the theatrical circuit.

Beyond opening night, the Montreal filmfest is billed as North America's largest, so there's lots to see. And not only in the official competition, which assembled 19 movies from 17 countries, all vying for favor with a seven-person jury. The festival's massive program book (312 pp.) also lists about three dozen official selections not in competition, plus sidebar series ranging from British and Latin American showcases to surveys of new developments in world film.

My days of sifting through these offerings confirmed a growing conviction that China and Britain are today's most prolific producers of stylish, adventurous cinema. Montreal gave North American audiences their first look at major movies from both countries, including two - Chen Kaige's epic ``Farewell My Concubine'' from China and Mike Leigh's pungent ``Naked'' from England - that won major prizes at the Cannes film festival last spring. Also noteworthy are British filmmaker David Jones's adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel ``The Trial,'' starring Kyle MacLachlan, and Chinese director Xie Fei's exquisite ``The Women From the Lake of Scented Souls,'' which earned top honors at this year's Berlin film festival.

I found movies of unusual inventiveness and spirit from other countries, too - not masterpieces, but showing that cinema remains a vibrant and evolving art despite commercial pressures and growing competition from other media.

No film was more daring than ``Arizona Dream,'' a French production made by Yugoslavian-born director Emir Kusturica with a largely American cast. And what a cast, putting young heartthrob Johnny Depp on the same screen with veteran comedian Jerry Lewis, glamorous star Faye Dunaway, and busy Lili Taylor, who's also due in pictures by Robert Altman and Nancy Savoca. Mixing a love-triangle story with slapstick humor and magic-realist images, Kusturica's comedy doesn't hold together in the long run. But it has hints of the visual splendor that graced his ``Time of the Gypsies'' four years ago and demonstrates his commendable penchant for taking risks.

A very different film with Yugoslavian roots is ``Are They Still Shooting?'' by Tomislav Novakovic, a Croatian-born filmmaker who grew up in New York and shot his movie there. The plot focuses on a Croatian refugee who becomes romantically involved with the girlfriend of his brother, who is still actively fighting in the Bosnian region. The theme crystallizes when the lovers disagree over the means - supporting allies with weapons, or rejecting violence of any kind - that will best serve their suffering homeland. Initiated as a student project at Columbia University, the film moves energetically (if unevenly) among different styles and sensibilities, marking Novakovic as a promising new talent.

I was less taken with a more commercial American venture, ``Kalifornia,'' directed by Dominic Sena, whose prior experience is largely in music videos. It's about a man writing a book on serial killers and a new traveling companion who turns out to be - you guessed it - a serial killer in the midst of his grisly career. Juliette Lewis is goofy but good as the villain's wife, but Brad Pitt overacts and everyone else is pretty dull.

The violence, in the currently fashionable ``Reservoir Dogs'' style, is vivid and voracious. What a pity that so many new filmmakers have decided this is the most virile way to strut their stuff.

Italian pictures at Montreal included ``Diary of Maniac,'' a bland sex comedy by Marco Ferreri, and ``Fiorile,'' a family saga filmed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani with less inspiration than they have shown in their best work of the past. Spain contributed ``The Bilingual Lover,'' a shamelessly male-chauvinist comedy by Vicente Aranda, and France sent ``Mazeppa,'' a pretty but stultifying historical drama by circus director Bartabas in his filmmaking debut.

The most well-received of Montreal's offerings will now work their way into widespread distribution, while others will quickly fade from view. As with all festivals, the roster was far from perfect. But it offered a good overview of international film as moviegoers head into the important fall season.

* The Montreal World Film Festival continues through Sept. 6.

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