The brutal and the beautiful at Cannes

Wed, May 16, 2012, 01:00

A FEW YEARS ago, I encountered the British film producer Stephen Woolley. We had both just returned from certain festivities in the south of France. Neil Jordan’s right-hand man was still bubbling. “If you don’t love Cannes then you don’t love cinema,” he told me.

With respect to the great man, this is surely nonsense. It’s perfectly possible to adore the medium and remain somewhat wary of the hype, bureaucracy and sheer brutality – “Out of my way, I have a posh pass!” – that surround the Cannes film festival. Nobody would doubt Mark Kermode’s credentials as a cinephile, but, given the slightest opportunity, that well-coiffed critic will hold forth on his aversion to the big bunfight. Last year, he stayed at home.

Still, this jamboree remains the most powerful beast in the festival calendar. It acts as a kind of prenatal scan on the state of cinema. Most films here won’t open to the public for aeons. Last year we got to see The Artist a full nine months before it won its Oscar. Other critical hits such as We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Tree of Life and Midnight in Paris also take their first bows on La Croisette.

Look about Cannes this year and you will see an American face smiling at you from every corner. It’s Marilyn Monroe. The late actor (who never attended the event) has found herself on the poster for the 65th festival. It’s like arriving in an alternative Pyongyang in which that durable star has somehow been elevated to Supreme Leader.

It makes sense that a Yank is the poster girl. The word in the queues is that American cinema is making a comeback. At the time of writing, none of us had seen any films yet. But the world’s most important cinematic nation has an unusually high number of films in competition. Okay, two of them are directed by Australians and another by a Brazilian. Yes, they might all turn out to be awful. But there are fewer subtitles at this year’s Cannes (in English, anyway) than there have been for quite a few years.

Events kick off tonight with a screening of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. The eccentric director has been on erratic form of late.

Neither The Darjeeling Limited nor The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou went down brilliantly. The Fantastic Mr Fox was popular, but, as an animated picture, it sits somewhat outside the official canon. Moonrise Kingdom features Bruce Willis, Ed Norton and Anderson regular Bill Murray in a tale of fleeing young lovers. It can’t fail to divert. Can it?

Fans of Andrew Dominik’s grossly undervalued The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will be eagerly anticipating the Australian’s Killing Them Softly. The film, based on a George V Higgins book, stars Brad Pitt as a hitman’s sidekick who gets swept up in a heist on the mob. Mr Pitt will add glamour to the red carpet.

A few years back, working from a script by Nick Cave, John Hillcoat delivered a classic modern western with The Proposition. The erstwhile singer has now penned a Prohibition-era drama for the director titled Lawless. Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman sound rough enough for just such a challenge.

After a long gestation, Walter Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, finally delivers his take on Jack Kerouac’s strangely celebrated quasi-novel On the Road. Kristen Stewart and Sam Riley are among those recreating the beat author’s verbose ramblings across the US.

Stewart will be joined at the event by her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson. The wiry actor appears in David Cronenberg’s take on Don DeLillo’s economic post-9/11 odyssey Cosmopolis. Rarely will those two nocturnal beings have been exposed to quite so much sunlight.

So, Cannes has lain down to North America? Not a bit of it. This year the festival welcomes back a host of directors who have won the Palme d’Or, the event’s top prize. Iranian Abbas Kiarostami journeys to Japan for Like Someone in Love. Ken Loach is back with a light comedy entitled The Angels’ Share. The untouchable Michael Haneke – perhaps the era’s most celebrated film-maker – directs Isabelle Huppert in a typically forbidding film entitled simply Love.

This writer is, however, most looking forward to the new film from rising tyro Jeff Nichols. The director of last year’s sublime Take Shelter enlivens the final day – in recent years, something of a dumping ground – with an intriguing film called Mud. Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey take the lead roles in the tale of a desperate fugitive.

Yet, as ever, most of the attendees will see only a fraction of these films. The vast film market beneath the Palais des Festivals is opening its doors to enthusiastic producers hawking Peruvian vampire films, Dutch animations and Korean westerns. It could be argued that this is the best place to test the cinematic temperature.

The main competitions have rarely kicked up any serious money spinners. The Artist did eventually claw its way to takings of $131 million. Keep in mind, however, that Marvel Avengers Assemble managed more than one and a half times that amount in its opening weekend alone.

Cannes has always tipped its hat to the vulgar money-makers. On Friday, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted will receive a gala screening.

But the main competitions, for all this year’s US presence, have managed to remain impressively high-minded.

This is a good thing. Few events in the arts calendar bring such attention to difficult and challenging material.

Maybe Woolley was right after all.