The 65th Cannes film festival opens tomorrow. As with any other award ceremony Cannes is a self-serving vehicle that does at least have a patina of excellence bestowed on it by its long-standing social prestige. That’s not to say Cannes is not often ridiculous — it’s hard to take too seriously an event that transforms film critics into braying, jeering mobs or sends eminently austere auteurs such as Michael Haneke or the late Theo Angelopolous into an almighty sulk when they are overlooked for the Palme d’Or. Besides, for all the glitz and the undeniable quality of some of the films (some years at least), Cannes is essentially a trade show, a marketing showcase. Stripped down to its raison d’être, the film festival is scarcely any more elevated than the numerous spin-offs that dominate the Croisette during the season, most notably those representing porn and advertising.
One of the benefits of living in France is the first wave of release dates of films in competition accompanies the opening of the festival here — generally, the more high profile French or American films — meaning you can have the opportunity to see some of them before the festival is over. There are a number of films I have a particular interest in seeing, though not all of them are certain to be among the festival’s best films either.
Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson (USA)
I’m still not sure whether I like or hate Anderson’s stilted deadpan comedies; my opinion can change from week to week, I find. After disliking The Darjeeling Limited intensely and discounting The Fantastic Mister Fox as too much of an interlude, I think Moonrise Kingdom might definitively decide if I am able to stomach his films from now on. It’s possible that my irritation with Anderson might have coincided with the rise of the hipster (he works from much the same ironic palette) but I have to admit too that way back in 2002, I hated The Royal Tenenbaums on first viewing, only to change my mind upon seeing it again two weeks later. Having watched it again since, it still holds up. Rushmore is also a delight, having been made in the days before Anderson’s trademark style had frozen into a coy mannerism. Anderson looks to be making no break with that style, nor his thematic concerns, to judge from the trailer. It may well be that that style is more suited to some films than others. If Moonrise Kingdom is one of his better ones, that will be a small bonus; if it’s not, it will hardly be a big blow either.
Cosmopolis - David Cronenberg (Canada/USA)
After an iffy stretch in the 1990s, Cronenberg has enjoyed a fine run of form in the past decade, with A History of Violence and Eastern Promises among his best films. After the modest Freud/Jung chamber piece A Dangerous Method, he now tackles probably Don de Lillo’s most laughably bad novel. And it might just work. Cosmopolis is a sub-Ballardian trawl through a day in the life of a young billionaire beset by anti-globalisation protests and a mysterious assassination attempt. The novel managed to be at once cold and a hysterical mess (I wonder if this was the book that prompted James Wood to coin the just term ‘hysterical realism’ to describe de Lillo?) Apart from a few bon mots about money and power, the novel was banal and facile but it could serve as the bones for a quintessentially Cronenbergian work. The trailer, admittedly, does look rather like the underwhelming eXistenZ, his 1998 film that was irredeemably sunk by having the charisma voids that are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law at the top of the bill, but never underestimate the great Canadian’s ability to turn a turd into diamonds. He’s done it often enough before. And Robert Pattinson is inspired casting to play Eric Packer. Whether he can act or not is another question. Cronenberg’s son Brandon also has his first film, Antiviral, showing at Cannes, in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.
In the Fog - Sergei Loznitsa (Russia/Germany)
Former documentarist Loznitsa’s first feature My Joy, released two years ago, was a coolly brilliant yet disturbing piece of modern Russian picaresque. His new film, based on a novel by the Belorussian writter Vassily Bykov, takes place in Belarus during the Nazi Occupation. This is a subject that has already richly served for some intense dramas in the past, most notably by Larissa Shepitko (The Ascent - 1977) and her husband Elem Klimov (Come and See - 1985). Loznitsa is by no means an unknown quantity but he could be a surprise prizewinner at the festival’s close.
Beyond the Hills - Cristian Mungiu (Romania/Germany/France)
Other Palme d’Or winners of recent years, such as Haneke, Ken Loach and Abbas Kiarostami are also in competition but it will be interesting to see what Cristian Mungiu offers up following his win five years ago for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Beyond the Hills is based on two non-fiction books by journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran, following two female friends from their time as children in an abusive orphanage through to adulthood when one emigrates to Germany and the other becomes an Orthodox nun. It all sounds like tailor-made arthouse miserabilism, right down to its 155-minute running time. Mungiu’s only work since 4 Months was a pair of portmanteau films, which he produced - Tales from the Golden Age, amusing but lightweight vignettes from the Ceausescu era. He has been rapidly overtaken by his compatriots Cristi Puiu and Corentin Porumbuiu. Beyond the Hills is his opportunity to make amends for that.
In Another Country - Hong Sang-soo (South Korea)
The Korean Hong’s first English-language film stars Isabelle Huppert and will not be anything too surprising for those familiar with his prodigious body of work. Essentially an Asian Eric Rohmer, Hong’s films are simultaneously winsome and depressive, and come thick and fast — his previous film, The Day He Arrives, is confusingly, getting released in France during the festival. The shift in language could prove a bit risky (remember how Wong Kar-Wai’s schtick all of a sudden looked very contrived in My Blueberry Nights?) but Hong’s previous departure from his comfort zone - for the 2008 Paris-set film Night and Day, produced one of his best films to date.
Post Tenebras Lux - Carlos Reygadas (Mexico)
The wilfully abstruse Reygadas surprised everyone four years ago at Cannes with the lyrically reflective Mennonite drama Silent Light. After the sex-and-violence provocations of his first two films, Japón and Battle in the Sky, it was arresting in a strangely gentle way. The Mexican’s latest film, Post Tenebras Lux, with its preposterous Latin title, and semi-autobiographical non-narrative structure is likely to be the one that will divide critics the most. You’d be hard pushed to consider it a front-runner for any prizes (Silent Light won the Jury Prize four years ago) but it is likely to one of this year’s films that will be remembered, if not for all the right reasons.
So who will win? Regardless of what jury members will tell you, the president of the jury nearly always seems to have undue sway on the selection of the Palme d’Or. Sometimes the winner does not seem too obvious a choice, such as when David Lynch presided over a jury that rewarded Polanski’s The Pianist, or when a Wong Kar-Wai-headed jury gave The Wind that Shakes the Barley the top prize. But it often is the case — it was not much of a surprise that Barton Fink won in a year Roman Polanski was jury president, Pulp Fiction when it was Clint Eastwood, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives with Tim Burton, or The Son’s Room when Liv Ullmann was president.
This year the president is the director of that last film, Nanni Moretti. One wonders then if the film will be a winner, which might be good news for Wes Anderson or Hong Sang-soo, a film with a political edge (Loznitsa maybe) or simply a wrenching drama (Haneke’s Amour or Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone). I have a suspicion Moretti will not award a big name or a previous winner (despite his professed love for Abbas Kiarostami’s work) so my money’s on Loznitsa, Hong or Audiard.