Stars come out to play

The Karlovy Vary film festival is a relaxed affair, where Hollywood actors drop their guard, says Roger Clarke
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"Ohhh that's so wrong!" Elijah Wood is in a press conference in Karlovy Vary. He's just become a victim of the relaxed ambiance that permeates the Czech Republic film festival, which ended last weekend. Everyone says the same thing about Karlovy Vary: "It's like Cannes used to be." Stars have their guard down. There are no paranoid studio goons, no personal assistants twittering over every question. Normally, if a couple of dizzy fangirls were to come forward with a note during a press conference, you might expect men in FBI sunglasses to leap from the side. Not here.

Elijah makes a goofy expression but clearly he's taken aback. The German girls have given him a card on which they've written "Sit down before you open this". Since he's already sitting and in front of a microphone, he opens the card to find an obscene internet image tucked within. Initially he looks annoyed. Then he recollects he's not in Hollywood - he can relax. "That is hilarious!" he yelps. "I don't know if you guys know about this," he says to the assorted journalists, "but there are these websites out there that have pictures of various actors from the Lord of the Rings in homosexual positions, and that's one of the pictures they just gave me. But the funniest thing about them is that they all look a little too real. So you look at them and think 'I didn't do that - did I?'"

No Elijah, of course you didn't. This is the world of slash fiction, that internet phenomenon of improbable sexual pairings. No hobbit would do such unspeakables with Sam Gamgee.

Joking aside, there's a reason all these celebrities are in town. Karlovy Vary is well served by an increasingly dynamic Czech film-production industry, which is why Elijah Wood, Liev Schreiber, Jacqueline Bisset, John Irvin and Roman Polanski have all dropped by after a one-and-a-half hour drive from Prague through flat landscapes dotted with hop plantations.

Schreiber is directing Wood in a film version of the literary sensation Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Bisset is in town since she's about to start filming a feature with Hamburger Hill director John Irvin called Hidalla. "I play a strict headmistress in a girls' ballet school," she tells me when I meet her at a dinner party. You'd have to go back to the late Alexander Walker's account of Cannes in the Sixties - where he'd bump into Hitchcock on La Croisette and vanish off to lunch with him - to find a comparable informality. Bisset is as beautiful as ever. It doesn't seem so very long ago that she wore that wet T-shirt in The Deep: a pin-up for a generation of hot-blooded men.

"I was quite educated in ballet and maybe music and art," she had mentioned earlier, "when I was cast in The Knack with Charlotte Rampling and Jane Birkin. I wasn't very hip and I was only interested in the free food. But when the film came out it was really interesting. And that was how I started, moving from model to actress."

And how was it she ended up being Angelina Jolie's godmother? "I did a picture with Jon Voight and it was called End of the Game. Maximilian [Schell, the director] was asked to be godfather and I was asked to be the godmother." And how is she? "She's quite a character - an amazing girl, going through many changes."

John Cleese sails into town in mid-holiday from Dresden, where he sampled the famous spas and ended up dining with Roman Polanski (his Oliver Twist is now well under way). The two turned out to be serious fans of each other and have now apparently become firm friends. "I've never been to a film festival before," Cleese confides. "Unless you count Santa Barbara - but that's my home town and only seven minutes from my front door." He confirms that a musical version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will now go forward, provided with new songs by Eric Idle, and with Tim Curry as King Arthur.

But there were weightier matters discussed at Karlovy Vary. After all, there is a serious side to this festival which specialises in premieres of Czech, Russian and German movies. And some visitors remember how the country used to be. Oscar-winning actor Ben Gazzara recalled the last time he was in the former Czechoslovakia was to make The Bridge at Remagen in 1968. "I saw the Russians invading Prague from my hotel window - we had to get out because we were shooting a war movie."

Veteran documentary director Albert Maysles unexpectedly used his public platform to condemn Michael Moore as "dishonest" and "manipulative" (Maysles' Rolling Stones picture Gimme Shelter from 1970 is the stuff of legend).

But on the whole, Karlovy Vary was a lighthearted affair where members of the public could effortlessly mingle with stars in a way unheard of elsewhere. And I'm happy to report that Elijah Wood didn't storm back to Prague in a huff after those naughty girls gave him a naughty picture, but instead stayed late into the night to party at an MTV gig.