Cannes 2014: the serious, the silly and the scandalous

The main programme this year is dominated by serious, off-centre film-makers including Loach, Leigh and the Dardennes, while a welcome sprinkling of controversy accompanies a film about the late Princess Grace

New Zealand director Jane Campion has presented her jury who will decide which film will win the coveted Palme d'Or, and responds to criticism that the Cannes Film Festival in years past has not presented enough female-helmed films. Video: Reuters


There is, we are led to believe, usually some sort of conference on at Cannes. If it’s not the Boat and Yacht Show, it’s the Retail Real Estate Market or the International Robotics Congress.

For the world’s film community, however, the Mediterranean resort exists only in its current state: heaving with big-time producers, small-time hustlers, sweaty movie hacks and PR wonks clutching clipboards. The lampposts are always decorated with images of the relevant year’s chosen icon. Last year it was Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; this year it is Marcello Mastroianni in 8½. By the time the posters come down, Cannes, like Narnia to the homebound Pevensie family, will, for us, have ceased to exist.

The year’s chosen image rarely says anything about the content of the relevant festival. There will, tomorrow night, be a screening of 8½ on the beach, but the organisers were not indicating any widespread shift to the Felliniesque.

That said, the official competition for 2014 is less at home to US mainstream entertainment than has sometimes been the case. Keep in mind that, in previous years, the official competition has screened such apparently unlikely entrants as Shrek, Sin City and Death Proof.

The competition for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize, will still bring stars to the red carpet. Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are in town for Jones’s deliciously intriguing western The Homesman. Steve Carell and Channing Tatum appear in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, the true story of a notorious murder involving an Olympic wrestling champ. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, a Hollywood satire, features a wealth of familiar talent: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack and Robert Pattinson.

The return of Godard
For all that, the programme is dominated by the sort of serious, off-centre film-makers against whom Fellini would have brushed in his high times.

Indeed, this year, the magnificent, infuriating Jean-Luc Godard, who first emerged during the Italian director’s pomp, returns to the competition with an experimental piece titled Goodbye to Language. The great man has had a complicated relationship with Cannes. No Godard film made it into the festival until 1980 when Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie) failed to win over jury president Kirk Douglas. Until that point, his most significant engagement had been encouraging the cancellation of the 1968 festival during the student disturbances of that year.

As ever, virtually every film has remained virtually unseen to virtually every attendee to this point. But that has not stopped amateur bookmakers from drawing up odds. Most of those have Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep down as the ante-post favourite. The Turkish film-maker, now 55, has an impressive record at Cannes, having twice won the Grand Jury prize and once secured the best director award. The film, which clocks in at three and a quarter hours, promises much.

Elsewhere, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, two veterans of British cinema, will be squaring up on La Croisette for the first time since 2010. Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, co-produced by the Irish Film Board, adapts Donal O’Kelly’s play concerning disputes between the establishment and a charismatic socialist in Leitrim during the 1930s. Leigh’s Mr Turner stars Timothy Spall as visionary painter JMW Turner.

Also highly tipped are Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, the follow-up to the Russian director’s stunning Elena; and, from Mauritania, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu. Should the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night triumph, then the Belgian neo-realists will jointly become the first directors to win the Palme d’Or on three occasions. Brave punters may also fancy a flutter on Xavier Dolan’s Mummy. Still just 25, the French-Canadian director, most of whose work deals with gay themes, has been picking up critical steam with stunning pictures such as Laurence Anyways and Tom at the Farm.

Although the main competition remains the hub of the festival, those 18 films form only a tiny portion of the material screening over the 10 days. Tonight’s opening film, Grace of Monaco, for example, is part of the “official selection”, but it is not competing for any prizes. It’s a canny choice. Set just down the road in Monaco, Olivier Duhan’s picture stars Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace in a drama concerning a dispute between the Monégasque royal family and General De Gaulle in 1962. Some helpful controversy has already kicked up. The princess’s surviving family have refused to attend, and Harvey Weinstein, who has secured the film for US distribution, has become embroiled in a fight with Duhan over final cut.

“I get why the children are upset. I can’t say much other than that I have great respect and regard for their mother,” Kidman has said. The star’s presence, combined with hints of scandal, will stir no end of publicity.

The lack of female directors
The Cannes authorities will be less happy about continuing arguments over the dearth of female directors in the main competition. Reports that there are “15 women directors” at Cannes are misleading. Only two, the admired Naomi Kawase and the rising Alice Rohrwacher, make it into the main competition. Another handful appear in the Un Certain Regard strand. To make up that 15, you must plough through a selection of out-of-competition films, including one portmanteau picture, Bridges of Sarajevo, that features four female film-makers.

Jane Campion, president of this year’s jury and still the only woman to win the Palme d’Or, must have troubled feelings about the continuing imbalance.

The outer boroughs of the event feature many potential delights. Actor Ryan Gosling makes his debut as feature director with Lost River, “a fantasy neo-noir” starring Saoirse Ronan and Christina Hendricks, in Un Certain Regard. Over in the Directors’ Fortnight – the semi-official strand established following those disputes in 1968 – John Boorman returns to the fray with Queen and Country, a follow-up to his 1987 film Hope and Glory.

Large numbers of those attending the event will see not a single one of the films mentioned above. While film-makers battle over the top prizes, in the bowels of the Palais des Festivals hundreds of strange, ambitious, demented, talented movie professionals will be attempting to flog Hungarian martial arts films, South Korean rip-offs of Shark Tale, Scottish variations on Dracula and the occasional masterpiece. La Croisette is already emblazoned with vast billboards advertising two years’ worth of mainstream blockbusters. Be wary of any sketchy news reports on seemingly unlikely films that are “at the Cannes film festival”. Not everybody who’s been to Wembley has played in the FA Cup final.

Mind you, one could argue that the film market and the surrounding commercial hoopla gives the attending mob a taste of how Cannes feels during other months. In March they’re flogging telephones. In May they’re flogging movies.

The Irish Times will be keeping its nose in the air and its eyes on the films that matter. Take a deep breath, we’re going in.

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