Cannes this film festival be saved?

Oliver Stone, Sean Penn and Godard are all here. But wait -- what happened to all the shameless whoring?

Published May 12, 2010 6:12PM (EDT)

Top left, clockwise: Stills from "Fair Game," "Biutiful," "Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project," "Copie Conforme"
Top left, clockwise: Stills from "Fair Game," "Biutiful," "Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project," "Copie Conforme"

PARIS -- It's already become a cliché to complain that the 63rd edition of the Cannes Film Festival lacks glitz and glamour. Hell, the 80-year-old lady who lives next door to you has probably been complaining about it. (She's younger than at least two of the directors in this festival.) I especially appreciated spending a long layover in Charles de Gaulle Airport reading old pro Joan Dupont's take in the International Herald Tribune. (Presumably it also appeared in the New York Times.) A veteran of many decades at this festival, Dupont basically says the whole thing's been going downhill since at least 1980 -- and that even then, old-timers claimed the fun had all been ruined.

Still, there's something different about this year. When I read the other day that Cannes was adding "Route Irish," the new film from 2006 Palme d'Or winner Ken Loach, as a last-minute competition entry, I was momentarily confused: But they've already got a Ken Loach film.

In fact, no, they didn't. What Cannes programmer Thierry Frémaux already had was a Mike Leigh film, and while they may both be aging, left-wing Brits with social-realist tendencies and monosyllabic names, they are not the same person. (Spare those e-mailin' fingers: Accents aside, their movies aren't all that similar either.)

My confusion, however, does point to a problem with the 2010 Festival de Cannes lineup: A whole lot of Loach and Leigh and other films and filmmakers at about that respectable but unglamorous level. I've spent a lot of time parsing the Cannes roster, and have concluded that, film-buff-wise, it offers the possibility of being absolutely great, in an earnest, artistic, quietly ambitious kind of way. But the Palais des Festivals, that splorgulous concrete '80s monstrosity on the Mediterranean beachfront, was not built on earnest aesthetic ambition.

It was built on the discordant, schizophrenic marriage between art and commerce -- between European pretension and Hollywood shamelessness -- that has made Cannes a headline-grabbing event around the world, for ordinary moviegoers as much as for cinephiles. And this year's edition, arriving precisely as the worst economic crisis in the brief history of the European Union hits bottom, suggests that model is itself in crisis.

I'll be in Cannes Wednesday night for the world premiere of Ridley Scott's splashy, ultraviolent men-without-tights update of "Robin Hood," starring Russell Crowe as the heroic bandit of Sherwood Forest and Cate Blanchett as his Maid Marian. Friday offers the premiere of Oliver Stone's long-awaited "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," with Michael Douglas reprising his generation-defining role as greed guru Gordon Gekko, and supported by Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin and Carey Mulligan.

But after we see those two films -- and maybe Doug Liman's "Fair Game," with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (about which more below) -- many of the paparazzi and gossip columnists will depart the Cote d'Azur for sunnier, or at least more celebrity-kissed, climes. It may be an enriching week after that, and I'm exactly the sort of person who's supposed to welcome that. Mais je dis non! Bring on the salon-bronzed legs, the camera-hogs in form-fitting tuxedos, the supposedly famous Ibiza club DJs. Is it too late for Frémaux to get "Sex and the City 2"?

That was never in serious consideration (sadly) but lots of other movies were. Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," starring Penn and Brad Pitt, isn't finished, and the selectors simply passed on such varied big-name delights as Sylvester Stallone's action-dude roundup "The Expendables" and Julian Schnabel's Middle Eastern-themed "Mirai." That leaves us with an interesting but relatively low-wattage lineup full of world-cinema veterans and relative unknowns, with a special focus on Asia. The age range alone is extraordinary: Canada's Xavier Dolan is barely into his 20s, while Portuguese-French legend Manoel de Oliveira is now 101. Compared to him, 74-year-old Woody Allen and 79-year-old Jean-Luc Godard are in early-mid career. (I don't really talk about Godard's new film below. It's called "Socialism," which is all you need to know to estimate its potential audience. I'll save other commentary for when I've actually seen it.)

Here's my traditional (and largely arbitrary) breakdown of Cannes films, starting with the biggest events and moving toward the obscurities.

The Sound and the Fury

After the red-carpet gala for "Robin Hood," which will proceed with Crowe and Blanchett but without director Ridley Scott (who is laid up at home with an injury), the profound Cannes hunger for paparazzi-worthy glamour spectacles will devolve almost entirely onto "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," without question this festival's biggest event. (As I write this I haven't seen "Robin Hood" yet, but the opening-night film at Cannes is mocked by the cognoscenti no matter what it is.) "Wall Street" won't open Stateside until fall, and possibly isn't in final form, so this should be exciting. 

You can also bet that "Fair Game," Doug Liman's drama about the Bush administration scandal surrounding CIA couple Valerie Plame (played by Naomi Watts) and Joseph Wilson (Sean Penn), will attract considerable attention. Penn may be a bigger star in France than he is at home, but the specifics of the story will be largely inscrutable to Europeans (except for the fact that GWB plays the bad guy). "Fair Game" splits the difference between this starfucking category and the next, more ahh-tistic one, as does Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," another of the Woodman's late-career globetrotting divertissements. Brolin and Watts -- is this their year or what? -- which is a great start. I know nothing else about it, except that Allen would clearly love to replicate the 2008 Cannes success of "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which became a worldwide hit.

The Devil's Candy

I use this term to describe the often unattainable marriage of art and commerce, found in films that win awards, cause critical swooning and, somewhere along the way, attract a paying audience too. These are precisely the movies Cannes was built to enable; think "Inglourious Basterds" and "No Country for Old Men," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" and "Pan's Labyrinth."

Once you get past the above-mentioned Doug Liman and Woody Allen movies, contenders for Satan's sweetmeats are thin on the ground in Cannes this year, which is precisely what makes this festival feel buzz-deficient. Arguably, one of 2010's most anticipated premieres is for a documentary, "Inside Job," in which policy insider turned filmmaker Charles Ferguson tries to attack the global financial crisis with the same muckraking zeal he applied to the Iraq war in his devastating "No End in Sight."

We've already discussed Mike Leigh, who returns to the Croisette with "Another Year," another of his semi-improvised social-realist comedies -- but despite glowing reviews for his last film, "Happy-Go-Lucky," Leigh no longer has a high international profile. You could say the same about French director Bertrand Tavernier, a respected veteran of global cinema going the costume-drama route with "The Princess of Montpensier." (I don't think Tavernier has had a film released in the United States since 1999, and he's best known for "Round Midnight" in 1986.) Three years after "Babel," his overstuffed, star-studded ensemble drama, Mexico's Alejandro González Iñárritu gets back to basics with "Biutiful," a Spanish-language thriller starring Javier Bardem. There's one I'm definitely curious about.

"Diving Bell" star Mathieu Amalric makes his feature directing debut with "On Tour," in which he also stars as a Parisian professional burnout who starts over as an American burlesque entrepreneur. Advance word is strong, and at some point Amalric's got English-language stardom in his future. But is the retro-burlesque craze a big enough trend to support a movie?

In an extremely light year for American films, there's one indie at Cannes with the potential for some degree of breakout success -- but it's a tough sell, at least in theory. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a working-class couple whose marriage hits the rocks in "Blue Valentine," a spectacular narrative-feature debut from director Derek Cianfrance that explores a level of American life hardly ever seen in the movies. Lusciously photographed, with riveting star performances, it's the only dramatic film to premiere at Sundance this year and move on to Cannes. If and when you finally get to see it, you'll understand why.

High Art With Low Expectations

This category captures that large subset of festival films made by directors with impeccable artistic credentials, films that are likely to set a tiny coterie of journalists, bloggers, festival programmers and cinephiles abuzz while receiving virtually no attention from the rest of the world. Should those of us who are excited about seeing the new Pablo Trapero and Hong Sang-soo movies even care about the rest of the world? That's a much bigger question than I can handle in my jetlagged condition. Let's just say it does no good to climb atop a soapbox and preach at people about movies they A) almost certainly can't find, and B) very likely would not enjoy.

Having thus admonished myself, I'll keep the sermon short. Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami is at Cannes with his first "global" film (i.e.., since leaving the land of the mullahs), "Certified Copy," with French superstar Juliette Binoche. Arab-French director Rachid Bouchareb's "Outside the Law," a drama set against the Algerian war for independence, is a very big deal in France. Argentina's Trapero, who's been here before with a wry family comedy ("Rolling Family") and a wrenching prison drama ("Lion's Den"), seems to have become a regular. Beloved French filmmaker Olivier Assayas ("Summer Hours," "Irma Vep") offers an only-in-Cannes experience, perhaps literally: A five-and-a-half-hour film about '70s terrorist Carlos the Jackal. I do want to see it, kind of. (OK, it's actually a TV series crammed into a single afternoon.)

A pair of critic's-darling directors, Romania's Cristi Puiu ("The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") and China's Jia Zhangke ("Still Life," "The World") return with eagerly awaited new dramas. I personally found Quebecois wunderkind Xavier Dolan's "I Killed My Mother" (made when he was not yet 20) insufferable, but his admirers will no doubt queue up enthusiastically for "Heartbeats."

Cannes programmers have been slow to recognize the new wave of art-house cinema from Asia, but this year it sounds as if they've finally listened to the annual chorus of complaints. In fact this is a tremendous year for Asian films on the Croisette, almost certainly the best ever. Along with new work from Jia and aforementioned Korean slacker-cinema titan Hong Sang-soo, there's "Outrage," a violent new yakuza drama from Japanese actor-artist-director and all-around Renaissance man Takeshi Kitano. Korea's Lee Chang-dong, who had a smash here three years ago with the female-centric drama "Secret Sunshine," is back with "Poetry," and I hear strong advance word on a film called "Chongqing Blues," from Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai.

All that is trumped, for devotees of drifty, dreamy Asian weirdness, by the new film from Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul ("Syndromes and a Century"). As if his name weren't enough -- Weerasethakul has occasionally invited Western journalists to address him as "Joe," in recognition of our total tongue-tied defeat -- it's called "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives." I really don't expect anybody to care, but I can't wait.

Into the Unknown

Not obscure enough for you? We're not done! Here's where I embarrass myself by pimping out a few movies based on nothing, or almost nothing: some rumors, a half-translated review, reports from a friend of a friend of a friend. But this is what film festivals are all about, really -- getting a totally unexpected look into a world you know nothing about. Two years ago, I wandered into a screening of the Chilean film "Tony Manero" mostly because Jim Jarmusch was receiving an award before it started. I hadn't heard of the movie or its young director, Pablo Larraín. Yet that utterly demented disco-era serial-killer psychodrama remains one of the most intense moviegoing experiences I've ever had.

There's bound to be something like that lurking amid the catfish at the bottom of this year's Cannes pond as well -- maybe the pseudo-documentary "My Joy" by Russian collage-artist Sergei Loznitsa, or ultra-indie New York filmmaker Lodge Kerrigan's new "Rebecca H. (Return to the Dogs)." Moving in totally different directions, here are two films I've promised myself to see: "Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project," by Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, who people keep telling me is indescribably weird and original, and the latest in a recent wave of German-language neo-noir thrillers, Christoph Hochhäusler's "The City Below." Mind you, if I break that promise to myself, it's not like anybody's really going to notice.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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