The art-film industry’s rite of spring is upon us. The 64th Cannes Film Festival begins tomorrow with the promise of new work representing the finest international directors and stars. After a drab Cannes 2010, the Côte d’Azur convention is ready to shine again. Last May, the Festival’s programming chief Thierry Frémaux told U.S. critic Todd McCarthy “that this is a ‘difficult’ year, even as he simultaneously predicted that 2011 will be a brilliant year based on the directors he knows are already preparing pictures that will be ready 12 months from now.” Now comes the big hope — world premieres of films by Pedro Almodóvar, Lars Von Trier, Gus Van Sant, Woody Allen and two-time Palme d’Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne — and with it high expectations that may founder on the rocks of reality.
PHOTOS: Vintage Cannes Film Festival
Mary Corliss and I are old hands at the Cannes game; this is our 38th May on the Riviera, including 30 years for TIME and 11 for TIME.com. We know that the quality of the films is just one factor in a successful Festival. The food and wine, the friendships and rivalries with other critics, the usually pristine weather this time of year in the South of France — all contribute to the Cannes Zeitgeist. We will be blogging our reviews, insights and prejudices each day through Sunday, May 22, when the Jury headed by Robert De Niro will announce the first-prize Palme d’Or and other awards.
That seems far away just now, for the dawn of a new Cannes is like spring training in baseball: everyone has a shot at the World Series. Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, based on the Thierry Jonquet novel known in English as Tarantula, promises sex, violence and revenge, with Antonio Banderas (in his first Almodóvar film since the 1990 Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) as a plastic surgeon who keeps a beautiful woman (Sex and Lucia‘s Elena Anaya) as his love slave and plots to even the score with a man more evil than he. In Van Sant’s Restless, spooky-cool Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre) plays a girl with a fatal illness who finds love with a death-obsessed boy (Henry Hopper). Takashi Miike, the supremely gifted, insanely prolific Japanese director who used to make six or seven movies a year, is overdue for Cannes recognition and gets it with Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. We don’t yet know if any of these three films is a masterpiece; but they’re the kinds of projects any adventurous moviegoer would want to see.
Cannes also tries to be at the intersection of art and life — and death. News wires are buzzing with reports that the festival will show Keith Allen’s Unlawful Killing, a documentary that is said to allege a royal conspiracy to cover up the facts of Princess Diana’s 1997 fatal car crash, and may feature a grim photo of Diana in her death car. As of Tuesday night, the film had not been announced as part of any of the Festival’s official programs. But any producer can rent a screening room and show movies in the Cannes marketplace; that’s how pornographic movies “played Cannes” in the 1970s. Whether it lives up to its lurid promotion, or even is shown here, Unlawful Killing has garnered more publicity than any film that really is in the Festival.
On a higher level of exposé, the Festival will present This Is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi, the Iranian director sentenced to six years in jail for supporting the 2009 “green revolution”; Panahi is still in prison but his latest film will be at Cannes. The Festival will also celebrate Egypt’s peaceful revolution with a special tribute. Other homages are planned for Jean-Paul Belmondo, who strutted to stardom a half-century ago in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and for India’s teeming commercial cinema, with the documentary Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told.
PHOTOS: TIME’s Hollywood Covers
One thing for sure: this year’s Cannes is clogged with familiar, honored names — some in big-budget action movies getting early showcases before opening across the globe, others lending their celebrity to intimate indie dramas. As a harbinger of Cannes blogs to come, here are 10 films that deserve attention either because they will soon be on offer in North American theaters or because they are examples of demanding films that have garnished their résumés with actors well known to U.S. audiences.
COMING SOON TO A THEATER NEAR YOU
Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen, France’s favorite comedy auteur since Jerry Lewis, cements his Gallic éclat by casting First Lady Carla Bruni in a small role in his latest film, which opens the Festival Wednesday. Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen and Thor’s Tom Hiddleston play Americans abroad; Léa Seydoux and Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard provide the charming French accents. Showing here Wed. 5/11; opens in North America 5/20.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The French title translates as The Fountain of Youth, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer is hoping that director Gore Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy, which earned nearly $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office, will find renewed vigor under the baton of Rob Marshall, who apparently has been forgiven for Nine. Brigand-in-chief Johnny Depp and new distressing damsel Penélope Cruz are expected to bring their luster to the festival’s red carpet. Sat. 5/14; opens in North America Fri. 5/20.
Kung Fu Panda 2. The sequel to one of DreamWorks’ most appealing animated features reunites the pudgy, high-kicking bear (voiced by Jack Black) and his all-animal team of martial artists (including Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh and Dustin Hoffman as the Sifu). Presiding over the pixels is Jennifer Yuh — one of the few women to get a solo gig directing a big-budget cartoon. Screening here for the U.S. press Thu. 5/12; opens in North America Wed. 5/26.
The Tree of Life. Only the fifth feature Terrence Malick has made in nearly 40 years (after Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World), this domestic drama with cosmic overtones is the most eagerly and anxiously awaited film at Cannes. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain star as the parents of three pre-teen boys in ’50s suburbia; one of the boys grows up to be Sean Penn. We’re told to expect cameo appearances by dinosaurs. Mon. 5/16; opens in North America Fri. 5/27.
The Beaver. Mel Gibson’s turn as a clinically depressed executive, who can speak only through a rodent hand puppet, has already opened in the States to tepid audience response. But Jodie Foster’s directorial effort (she also costars) will have news value in Cannes — if not for the film, then for the press conference that will give Gibson a chance to exorcise his demons, or perhaps to give them further exercise. Tue. 5/17; opens wider in North America Fri. 5/20.
EUROPEAN AUTEURS WITH AMERICAN STARS
We Need to Talk About Kevin. Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish director whose miserabilist Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar earned praise here in 1999 and 2002, sets her new drama in New York City. Judd Apatow stalwart John C. Reilly pairs with the incomparable Scots goddess Tilda Swinton as the estranged parents of a teenage boy who goes on a murder spree at his high school. Thu. 5/12.
The Artist. Having directed two spy-parody French hits (OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio), Michel Hazanavicius finally accumulated the screen cred to realize his longtime dream of making a silent movie in black-and-white. Americans John Goodman, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell join OSS veterans Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in this wordless comedy about a silent-film star and a rising ingénue in Hollywood just as the movies were learning to talk. Sun. 5/15.
Melancholia. Perennial Danish bad boy Lars Von Trier (Zentropa, Dogville, Antichrist) enlists Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg as sisters trying to find common ground before a runaway planet collides with the Earth. 24’s Kiefer Sutherland is there for the big bang. Wed. 5/18.
Drive. Another melancholy Dane, Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising) casts the indie glamour-glowerer Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt man caught in a criminal crossfire. Lending intriguing support: Albert Brooks, Brit weepie princess Carey Mulligan and a flotilla of vaunted U.S. TV stars, including Breaking Bad’s Brian Cranston, Mad Men‘s Christina Hendricks and Beauty and the Beast‘s Ron Perlman. Fri. 5/20.
This Must Be the Place. Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino grabbed Cannes’ attention with two sublimely quirky comedies (The Consequences of Love, A Friend of the Family), then had an international hit of sorts with the scathing political bio-pic Il Divo. Now he’s landed two Oscar-winning Americans, Sean Penn and Frances McDormand, in the story of an aging rock star who gets entangled with even more geriatric Nazis. Fri. 5/20.
Here’s hoping, folks — for good films and for the pleasure of your (virtual) company in the South of France.
By Richard and Mary Corliss