Cannes Preview: What to Expect When You’re Inspecting…

The 65th Cannes Film Festival may be short on directorial star quality but high on Hollywood glamour

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Valery Hache / AFP / Getty Images

An employee workd to fix a giant official poster of the 65th Cannes' film festival featuring late Marilyn Monroe on May 14, 2012 on the facade of the Festivals' palace in Cannes, France.

Inspecting movies, that is, in the role of a professional film watcher at a major international festival. Several hundred features are on view at the 65th Festival de Cannes — the proprietors of the world’s largest annual convention figure you know it’s a film festival — and the couple thousand critics know they are expected to see four or five movies a day. Plus check out the press conferences, plus go to the parties and schmooze the stars, plus file daily coverage for their print, online or video outlets.

Not that we’re complaining, mind you. This is our 39th Cannes — 31 years reporting for TIME and a dozen for TIME.com — and we haven’t lost the Riviera addiction yet. The Venice Festival may have more charm, and Toronto more clout in the American movie marketplace, but Cannes remains the greatest concentration of film talent, glamour and power this side of George Clooney’s home when he throws an Obama bash.

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Last year, Cannes hosted world premieres of three of the nine films that the Motion Picture academy nominated for Best Picture: Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life and the winner, The Artist. The Festival also presented Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which, though neither great cinema nor a good movie, did peddle enough tickets to become the ninth picture in film history to register $1 billion at the worldwide box office. Another Cannes movie, Kung Fu Panda 2, earned two-thirds of a billion.

Not that Oscar éclat and blockbuster status are priorities for Thierry Frémaux, Cannes’ selector-in-chief. He simply seeks the finest movies, in the fairly narrow, Eurocentric definition of film artistry: assured, demanding, often grim and with a much slower pulse than the standard Hollywood product. But Cannes does love its Hollywood stars. The 2012 Festival’s iconic image, splashed 60 feet wide above the red-carpet entrance to the Grand Palais, shows Marilyn Monroe blowing out a birthday-cake candle. (This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Monroe’s death.)

The name value of the directors is lower than last year — when Woody Allen, Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodóvar and, most notoriously, Lars von Trier were represented — but Cannes’ star wattage is predictably incandescent. Among those with films here: Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis, Shia LaBeouf, Reese Witherspoon, Bill Murray, Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and, in different films, both top stars of The Twilight Saga: Robert Pattinson in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis and Kristen Stewart in Walter Salles’ film of the Jack Kerouac novel On the Road.

Gilles Jacob, the former Festival boss who still hovers paternally over Frémaux’s shoulder, has said admiringly that the American movie royalty really knows how to work the red carpet. And who better than Pitt, the patron star of Cannes? The actor came to the Côte d’Azur with Babel (2006), Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and The Tree of Life (2011) and escorted Angelina Jolie in 2008 when she starred in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling. Pitt will be here again, starring in the crime drama Killing Them Softly.

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There’s no Johnny Depp blockbuster showing out of competition, which is fine: Cannes has plenty of pirates roaming the Croisette trying to sell or buy films, or steal a cell phone. But the official competition, which culminates in the awarding of the Palme d’Or and other big prizes a week from Sunday, contains many works by esteemed directors, from the art-house A and B-plus list, such as Michael Haneke, Ken Loach and Abbas Kiarostami — all previous winners of the Palme d’Or — and the 89-year-old French grandmaster Alain Resnais, whose first Cannes film was Hiroshima, mon amour in 1959.

Here’s a preview of 10 Cannes enticements: six Competition films with brand-name actors, four that have the critics hoping for revelations.

BIG STARS, BIG RISKS

Moonrise Kingdom. When two young lovers flee their 1960s New England town, the boy’s parents (Murray and Frances McDormand) and the local sheriff (Willis) follow the trail. In this change-of-pace period romance for deadpan comedy director Wes Anderson, the cast includes Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton and Harvey Keitel. (Wednesday’s opening night film at Cannes; opens in the U.S. May 25.)

Lawless. LaBoeuf and Tom Hardy are brothers making moonshine in 1930s Virginia. Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska and Guy Pearce costar in this adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s historical novel, The Wettest County in the World. The script is by musician Nick Cave, the direction by the Australian John Hillcoat, who in 2009 adapted Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic family drama The Road. (Plays here here Saturday; opens in the U.S. Aug. 31.)

Killing Them Softly. Pitt reunites with Andrew Dominick, the New Zealand visionary who directed him in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In this filming of George C. Higgins’ novel Cogan’s Trade, Pitt is a mob enforcer is the Boston underworld. His suspects include James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard and Ben Mendelsohn, who was scary-great as the mama’s boy killer in Animal Kingdom. (Plays here next Tuesday; opens in the U.S. Sept. 21.)

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On the Road. Stewart has a nude scene, reportedly (avidly reported), and Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Terrence Howard and Elizabeth Moss are among the Beats and off-beats in this film of Kerouac’s influential, famously unfilmable novel. Garrett Hedlund (Friday Night Lights) gets the role of the saint and hell raiser Dean Moriarty. Eight years ago, the Brazilian director Salles put another young rebel — Che Guevara — on the road in The Motorcycle Diaries. (Plays here Wednesday the 23rd; no U.S. release date set.)

The Paperboy. Another young hunk goes indie. In this adaptation of the Pete Dexter novel, Efron is a reporter investigating a murder case. John Cusack is the man on Death Row; Kidman and McConaughey costar in Lee Daniels’ first feature since Precious, a hit at Cannes three years ago. (Plays here Thursday the 25th; no U.S. release date set.)

Cosmopolis. Pattinson plays a 28-year-old billionaire financial guru tripping across Manhattan in his stretch limo and risks crashing along with the market he so ruthlessly plays. One way or another, everyone’s a vampire. Cronenberg, a veteran connoisseur of creepy, films Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel. (Plays here Friday the 26th; no U.S. release date set.)

CRITICS’ DARLINGS

Beyond the Hills. Cristian Mungiu’s powerful 4 Months, 2 Weeks and 3 Days — also known as “the Romanian abortion movie” — took the Palme d’Or in 2007, beating the Coen brothers’ Oscar winner No Country for Old Men. Mungiu’s first feature since then heads every critic’s must-see list. (Plays Saturday.)

Amour. Haneke, whose 2009 Cannes Palme-winner The White Ribbon you will find on a Very Important TIME list later this week (subtle plug for our forthcoming Millennium Movies package), is back with a story of elderly music teachers and their daughter. Ageless French stars Jean-Louis Trintignant (Brigitte Bardot’s beau in the 1956 And God Created Woman) and Emmanuelle Riva (star of Hiroshima mon amour) join three-time Haneke veteran Isabelle Huppert for an encounter that should be both dark and illuminating. (Plays Sunday.)

Seven Days in Havana. A week in Cuba’s capital: one day for a short story from each of seven directors. Three of the filmmakers are world-class — crazy-great Gaspar Noë (Into the Void), Palestinian satirist Elia Suleiman (The Time That Remains) and 2008 Palme d’Or champ Laurent Cantet (The Class) — and a fourth is the Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio Del Toro, who played Guevara in Steven Soderberg’s Che. We’re hoping for several vignettes of wonder. (Plays Wednesday the 23rd).

Mud. Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon, director and star of last year’s indie pleasure Take Shelter, team again for Nichols’ tale of a fugitive and the teen boys who share his secret. With Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey and Sam Shepard. (Plays Saturday the 26th, the last day of the Competition.)

So many tantalizing journeys beckon over our next 12 days in Cannes. The deepest hope of these two film inspectors is that you will share the trip, virtually, with us.

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