Empire Pictures, the NewYork-based art-house distributor that released Patrice Chereau'sBerlinale Golden Bear-winner Intimacy unrated in the US last year, has acquired American rights to anotherBerlin Film Festival award-winning French title, Bertrand Tavernier's Laissez-Passer.

The deal was confirmedlast week by Empire Pictures president Edmondo Schwartz and John Kochman,director of international sales at StudioCanal, which is handling sales onTavernier's latest, a period drama set amidst the French film industryunder the World War II German occupation.

This agreement follows onthe heels of two other recent Studio Canal and Empire acquisition agreements:Diane Kurys' period romantic drama Les Enfants Du Siecle starring Juliette Binoche and Benoit Magimel; andPascale Bailly's romantic comedy Dieu Est Grand, Je Suis Toute Petite starring Audrey Tatou.

Laissez-Passer, whose English-language title has been called both SafePassage and Safe Conduct, focuses on two movie professionals - an assistantdirector with a family to support, and a philandering screenwriter - and theirvarying strategies of resistance and accommodation to their Nazi occupierswhile working at the Continental, a German studio set up in Paris to produceFrench movies under the Occupation.

The film is based on theactual wartime experiences of assistant director/resistance fighter Jean Devaivre(played by Jacques Gamblin, who was named best actor in Berlin for this role)and screenwriter Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydes), who went on collaborate with Tavernier in the 1970s on TheClockmaker Of Saint Paul and The JudgeAnd The Assassin.

These two central charactersare among the 115 speaking roles in this vast fresco of a film that wasproduced by Les Films Alain Sarde and had its USpremiere kicking off the sixth annual City Of Lights, City Of Angels FilmFestival in Los Angeles on April 8.

As SheilaJohnstone's review for Screen International points out (see ScreenDaily archives) Tavernier's contention in this"ambitious, enormously detailed portrait" of a complex and littleknown footnote of WW2 is that much of the work that came out of the Continentalwas far from bland pro-Nazi propaganda or frothy escapism and that the Frenchartists there were driven by a range of motives. Sometimesthese were craven, complicit or self-serving. In other cases they wereirreproachably honourable.

"With humour and subtlety, the film creates a vision of anera when there were few clear-cut heroes and villains: even Doctor Greven(Christian Berkel), the enigmatic, Francophile Nazi in charge of the operationwho sacrilegiously uses the bust of Hitler in his office as a coat rack,"wrote Johnstone. "The film's commercial downsides are an exceptionalrunning time, its lack of star box-office names, a superabundance of charactersand a likely lack of familiarity outside France."

In France, where the film took $1.6m from 187 screens after three weeks atthe start of this year, Laissez-Passer'srelease was overshadowed by a robust and very public dispute between Tavernierand Devaivre, now 89, who accused the director of misrepresenting his characterand exploiting his experiences (the film states that it is "freelyinspired" by his and Aurenche's memories).

Tavernier is best knownin the US for Coup De Torchon (cowritten by Aurenche), 'Round Midnight and Sunday In The Country.

Other films to have beenpicked up by Empire for US distribution include Sara Sugarman's VeryAnnie Mary, starring RachelGriffiths and Jonathan Pryce.