Beyond the Multiplex

Moore and Tarantino and Angelina and Brad and Norah Jones flock to the Cannes Film Festival. Here's a look at what's in store.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published May 16, 2007 2:00PM (EDT)

Pollen is falling from the trees in great golden drifts, the weather (forecast to be gloomy) has so far been glorious, and the beautiful people -- some of them pretty darn ugly -- have arrived. In the last 24 hours, this alternately ritzy and seedy seaside town has been transformed by thousands of arrivals -- and on Wednesday night, the 60th Festival de Cannes kicks off what looks like a hot year with one of its most anticipated premieres, Wong Kar Wai's English-language debut "My Blueberry Nights."

On board my connecting flight from Frankfurt to Nice, I was seated near a couple of other festivalgoers, a 30ish saleswoman from Texas and a handsome young filmmaker from Jordan. She was heading to the Riviera with a group of girlfriends, confided the blond Texan to the fashionably dressed Jordanian (having enlisted him to heft her enormous snow-white suitcase), but strictly for the parties. "We don't come to Cans [pronounced just like that] to watch movies," she assured him in tones of scathing irony.

Whether further currents of cross-cultural communication flowed from that liaison I don't know. But that woman's insight has burned itself into my brain. Who among the 30,000 or so professional insiders, know-it-alls and hangers-on who have descended here for two weeks of overcaffeinated, sun-struck stupor really comes to Cans to watch movies? Granted, we'll see quite a few -- there are 22 in competition for the Palme d'Or, each of those a subject of murmur and speculation, 20 others in the Certain Regard sidebar competition, several more screened out of competition and another couple of dozen between the International Critics' Week and Directors' Fortnight festivals. (That's not counting the hundreds more, completed, in-progress or merely contemplated, that are for sale in the Cannes Film Marketplace. People spoke in tones of wonder last year about a Spanish film whose title translates, I believe, as "They Stole Hitler's Dick." This year there's a German student film called "The Golden Nazi Vampire of Absam: Part II." Since I haven't seen Part I, I may skip it.)

It's physically impossible for the most dogged cinephile to see even half of those, and Cannes can sometimes seem like a convention of meteorologists or econometrics experts, using flawed and incomplete information to forecast future developments that are, by their very nature, unpredictable. Films premiere here and create worldwide headlines, but what happens to them later has very little to do with what the Cannes jury or the 3,000 critics assembled think of them. Last year's jury gave the Palme d'Or to Ken Loach's Irish revolutionary drama "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," an attractive, overly didactic period piece that will not be remembered among Loach's best films. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" left here empty-handed -- embraced by a few North American critics and other vulgarians -- and went on to become one of the biggest international art-house hits of recent years.

One thing was absolutely, ironclad for sure about this year's festival: Wong Kar Wai would be back. In 2006, he presided over the jury that showered such mysterious love on Loach's film, and a huge billboard for Wong's in-production "My Blueberry Nights," depicting star Norah Jones in languorous repose, hung from the façade of the Noga Hilton, one of the most prestigious addresses on the beachfront Boulevard de la Croisette. Lo and behold, the Hong Kong art-film god's excursion into open-road Americana, starring the screen-untested Jones alongside Jude Law, opens the festival this year, and, sight unseen, becomes the morning-line favorite for the Palme d'Or. (This year's jury president is Stephen Frears, English director of "The Queen" and many other films. I'll have more on the jury in a future dispatch)

Is this an inside job? Sure it is. But as much as I fear the art-film-does-America thing (as in Emir Kusturica's "Arizona Dream," or Bruno Dumont's "Twentynine Palms," or the entire recent career of Wim Wenders), at least "My Blueberry Nights" is a film people are excited to see. Cannes is a sufficiently cynical environment; we don't need another Hollywood butt-licking extravaganza like last year's premiere of "The Da Vinci Code." Whatever you make of Wong's rapturous, often decadent and sometimes incomprehensible spectacles ("Chungking Express," "In the Mood for Love," "2046"), they simultaneously channel European, Asian and American cinema traditions into an especially Cannes-friendly blend.

I'll have a report on "My Blueberry Nights" shortly. I missed Wednesday morning's first press screening thanks to the day's other major French news event, the inauguration of newly elected right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy, which occasioned a one-day wildcat strike by many railroad workers. Sarkozy has vowed to rebuild the French relationship with the United States, but Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux and his staff are way ahead of him. While not officially an American film, Wong's road romance kicks off a rich and exciting lineup that's the most conspicuously Yank-centric in recent memory.

It isn't the number of American films in this year's selection that's unusual, since Cannes has always sought a wobbly, bipolar balance between Hollywood glamour and arty obscurantism, and often tries to cherry-pick the best American indies. It's the fact that so many are thrillers, with roots in classic Hollywood genre traditions. Possibly the biggest surprise among this year's competition films is "We Own the Night," a saga of cops and Russian mobsters in '80s New York, starring Mark Wahlberg, Joaquin Phoenix and Robert Duvall. While director James Gray's previous film, "The Yards," has a modest cult following, everyone here is curious to see how this one will stand out from the other 248 guy-oriented crime flicks of the last 20 years.

Some people were also startled by the inclusion of David Fincher's grimy '70s serial-killer hunt "Zodiac," a picture that has already opened and pretty much closed in the United States. (It's unusual, but not completely unprecedented, for a film to play at Cannes after its U.S. theatrical debut.) Not me, though. I wouldn't even be shocked if "Zodiac" won something here. It's distinctly Fincher's most mature and accomplished film -- personally, I think it's terrific -- and his reputation in France is enormous, largely on the basis of "Fight Club." This movie presents a classic opportunity for Europeans to tell Americans how little we understand the best things about our own culture. (I could insert a Jerry Lewis joke here, but it's not necessary; the festival is hosting a John Wayne tribute this year.)

Another pre-tournament favorite for the Palme d'Or is Joel and Ethan Coen's "No Country for Old Men," reportedly a dark and deadly serious adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel that stars Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, Woody Harrelson, Javier Bardem and a large supporting cast. This saga of drugs, money and death in the Rio Grande Valley promises to be a major departure for the Coens, who are seen as major film artists in Europe and won the Palme d'Or 16 years ago for "Barton Fink," probably their most ambitious and least accessible film.

When you speak of American filmmakers who are more profusely adored in Europe than at home, one name stands out. (Well, two. Woody Allen isn't here, having declined Cannes' closing-night slot -- viewed as something of a booby prize -- for his new "Cassandra's Dream.") That name would be Tarantino, and it's currently emblazoned, alongside Rose McGowan and Rosario Dawson's scantily clad frames, across the new issue of Premiere's French edition.

In what might be the most curious Cannes inclusion of all, Quentin Tarantino's car-chase extravaganza "Death Proof" has been stripped out of "Grindhouse," his high-concept collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, and will be pumped out to Euro-audiences as a freestanding film under the French title "Boulevard of Death." (To be specific: "Boulevard de la mort -- un film grindhouse.") Everyone involved claims this was planned all along -- there is no tradition of "grindhouse" theaters, or even double features, in Europe -- but my conclusions are twofold. 1) Robert Rodriguez must be pissed as hell. 2) QT better have some awesome shit in that extra footage, because the "Boulevard of Death" cut that screens here next Tuesday is 127 minutes, a full half-hour longer than its "Grindhouse" incarnation.

There are at least some American films here without drive-in genealogies. Michael Moore (last seen in Cannes clutching the 2004 Palme d'Or for "Fahrenheit 9/11") is back with his healthcare exposé "Sicko," which will premiere out of competition over the weekend. It should provide Europeans with further (and, in this case, amply justified) opportunities to marvel at American stupidity. As has been widely reported in recent days, Moore is supposedly under investigation for his latest stunt, flying ground zero workers to Cuba to receive free medical treatment, in violation of U.S. Treasury regulations. Harvey Weinstein has engaged high-powered Washington lawyer David Boies and political strategist Chris Lehane to manage the case; as an unnamed studio executive told the Hollywood Reporter, this whole brouhaha may be nothing more than Weinstein's publicity-seeking "Barnum & Bailey act."

Also premiering out of competition is Steven Soderbergh's latest heist comedy "Ocean's Thirteen," which should deliver all the red-carpet star power Cannes can handle in one package. Al Pacino plays the villain in this installment, with the core cast of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, etc., all returning. (No Julia Roberts this time.) Angelina Jolie will also be on hand for another big non-competing premiere, Michael Winterbottom's "A Mighty Heart," in which she plays Mariane Pearl, widow of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was infamously kidnapped and beheaded in Pakistan.

Another American Palme d'Or alumnus, Gus Van Sant (who won for the all-but-unwatchable "Elephant" in 2003), is back in competition with "Paranoid Park," adapted from Blake Nelson's novel about a teen skateboarder who accidentally kills a security guard. One assumes this is closer to Van Sant's artfully difficult "Last Days" mode than to his crowd-pleasing "Finding Forrester" mode. (Either way, didn't Larry Clark make this movie already?) And one of the most buzzed-over French films at Cannes this year is actually directed by -- wait for it -- an American! Those few who have seen Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," starring Mathieu Amalric as real-life magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was so severely paralyzed he could only move one eye, report that it's remarkable.

Of course most of the films premiering here aren't American at all, and don't attempt to define themselves as "un film grindhouse." I'll break down the Certain Regard sidebar and parallel competitions in a future dispatch, but the Palme d'Or competition includes numerous future art-house delights, and a number of films Americans may never get to see. Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a reportedly grueling abortion drama set in Communist-era Romania, continues that nation's strong cinematic run, but the U.S. market for Eastern European film remains nearly nonexistent. The same problem may afflict highly touted new pictures from two of Russia's finest directors: Alexander Sokurov (of "Russian Ark" fame) returns to Cannes with "Alexandra," and Andrei Zvyagintsev, who made a mysterious and masterful film in 2003 called "The Return," is back with "The Banishment."

Hungary's Béla Tarr (director of "The Werckmeister Harmonies" and "Sátántangó") is viewed by many cinephiles as one of the greatest living directors; perhaps his new "The Man From London," which is partly in English and stars Tilda Swinton, will provide some kind of breakthrough. One of the last old-style visionaries of European cinema, Serbian director Emir Kusturica (a two-time Palme d'Or winner) will debut "Promise Me This," reportedly a rollicking comedy about a rural villager who sends his son into Belgrade to find a bride.

Catherine Breillat, who brought quasi-pornographic live sex into French art cinema with "Romance," will command considerable attention here with her new "Une Vieille Maîtresse," but it appears to be an 18th-century period piece in which clothes, lots and lots of them, largely remain on the bodies. And I have a funny, hunchlike feeling about the animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's best-selling graphic novel "Persepolis" (which she co-wrote and co-directed with French filmmaker Vincent Paronnaud). The subject matter is right, the accessibility is high, the cosmopolitan values are unassailable. The hunch is getting itchier.

Listen, I've got to go. In the middle distance over my left shoulder, Wong Kar Wai, Jude Law and Norah Jones are mugging for photos and taking questions translated from Cantonese to French to English and back again. (Will I, or anyone, have the courage to ask Tarantino, at his press conference, "Quentin! Quentin! Qu'est-ce que c'est un film 'grindhouse'?") I definitely didn't come to Cans to see movies.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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