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Austin filmmakers a bigger presence at Cannes Film Festival this year

Charles Ealy
Why a beaver puppet? Director and actress Jodie Foster deferred to Austin screenwriter Kyle Killen on that question in Cannes.

Despite concerns over the future of state-funded incentives for films, Austin-area moviemakers are making their biggest impact ever at the Cannes film festival this year.

The list of Austin talent at the festival is unusual in its breadth. Terrence Malick, the Austin auteur, is competing for the Palme d'Or with his epic "The Tree of Life," which was shot primarily in Smithville. But there are many more Austin-area filmmakers at the fest.

They include Jeff Nichols, the director of "Take Shelter," which on Thursday night won the Grand Prize of the 50th annual Critics' Week, a prestigious Cannes sidebar; director Kyle Henry and producer Jason Wehling, who are screening their short "Fourplay: Tampa" in the Directors Fortnight competition; and screenwriter Kyle Killen, who accompanied director and star Jodie Foster to a screening of "The Beaver" on Tuesday; and many others.

Nichols also won the SACD Screenwriting Award for "Take Shelter," which features actors Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain (who also stars in "The Tree of Life").

Other than Nichols, Malick, director of the highly ambitious "The Tree of Life," stands out as the biggest Austin presence. Though the early screening of his movie drew a mixed response from the tough crowd of critics at Cannes, reviews in U.S. trade publications have been positive. Both Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter gave it favorable reviews. And nearly everyone else has acknowledged its ambitions.

Malick, however, has been conspicuously absent from any media events during the festival, as is his custom. And in a perverse sort of way, his absence has only increased the interest in the director among critics at Cannes.

Various people associated with "The Tree of Life" have said that Malick is in Cannes. But none of them has been willing to say whether Malick will make a public appearance or show up to accept a prize at the close of the festival. Typically, festival organizers inform directors of any prizes that the jury decides to award on closing night.

Nichols has been far more accessible. He has been conducting numerous interviews with representatives of the international press over the past few days. Earlier this week, he and Chastain were the center of attention, attracting dozens of journalists.

Nichols says that he wants "Take Shelter" to be seen as a story about the importance of communication in marriage. But he also says that he wanted to wrap this idea in the thriller genre. Hence, we get a movie about a working-class man, played by Shannon, who has nightmares about an impending natural disaster that threatens his family.

Henry and Wehling, meanwhile, were in Cannes for the first week of the festival but were headed back to the States before their short has its official screening, primarily because of Henry's teaching commitments at Northwestern University in Illinois, where he has recently relocated.

Their short, "Fourplay: Tampa," is part of a feature film about quirky sexual encounters. They have also completed a San Francisco segment and expect to have the other two segments, set in Chicago and Austin, completed by the spring of next year.

Both of them showed up at an early panel at the American Pavilion that featured Alamo Drafthouse CEO Tim League. He and other distributors and Internet experts were discussing the role of technology in the marketing of movies. League has been attending screenings in the Cannes Market on behalf of his theater company.

Killen showed up for a Tuesday news conference as the screenwriter for "The Beaver." Most of the questions were directed to Jodie Foster, but she deflected some of the responses to Killen. Of particular note was one French critic who asked why the movie focuses on a beaver puppet and not some kind of other puppet, like a kangaroo.

Foster, who speaks French fluently, laughed and deferred to Killen, who said that the idea of a beaver puppet just popped in his head.

Meanwhile, Dana Glover and Michelle Carter of Round Rock-based Midian Films were leading a group of people from Connally High School in Pflugerville through the Cannes maze.

Glover and Carter worked with a group of students to produce a short called "Fallen," which is screening at the Short Film Corner, a kind of market area for young filmmakers.

Carter said that the team was staying in Antibes, which is a few miles east of Cannes, and that they were taking the train and bus every day to come to the festival.

But Carter, Glover and the students were beaming earlier this week, saying that the experience had been "overwhelming."

Cannes' von Trier saga

Danish director Lars von Trier, whose "Melancholia" is considered one of the festival's standouts this year, will not be able to come back to the festival to accept any prizes, should he win.

Festival directors said Thursday that von Trier was declared "persona non grata" after he made joking but insensitive comments about sympathizing with Adolf Hitler during a news conference Wednesday. Von Trier issued an apology late Wednesday, but it did not satisfy Cannes.

Here's Thursday's statement from the board: "The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation. The Festival's Board of Directors, which held an extraordinary meeting this Thursday 19 May 2011, profoundly regrets that this forum has been used by Lars von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the Festival.

"The Board of Directors firmly condemns these comments and declares Lars von Trier a persona non grata at the Festival de Cannes, with effect immediately."

Von Trier has been a provocateur for decades. Two years ago, he shocked Cannes audiences with his highly sexual look at a dysfunctional marriage, "Antichrist."

His new movie, "Melancholia," focuses on a planet of the same name that is headed toward a collision with Earth — and the effects of the impending disaster on a highly secluded, multimillionaire household.

cealy@statesman.com