Cannes: Ears to the Ground

By Robert Koehler

It’s both a strange year and a good year to be away from the Cannes film festival. To not participate in the annual May ritual of descending on the Cote d’Azur (always via TGV off the plane at Paris De Gaulle) and subject yourself to ten days of virtually nonstop viewing from 8:30 a.m. until past midnight–minus times away at the laptop to shoot out hopefully crafted critical responses, composed recklessly when the films are still warm, an athletic process that turns movie watching into an exercise in extreme physical focus toward the screen and away from the fatigue screaming from your body–well….it turns this particular May into an uncommonly peaceful occasion. I’m rather enjoying it, in fact, and based on the responses heard so far as we have our ears to the ground, not missing much of what is sizing up to be a most mediocre Cannes.

Not surprising, given the unexciting lineup announced last month. Kim Ki-Duk anyone? Eric Khoo anyone? Maiwenn? Almodovar, again? Miike, for the umpteenth time? The two overrated Triers (Lars Von T. and Joachim)? Bertrand Bonello AND Naomi Kawase, for God’s sake? Nanni Moretti in the sunset of his career? Even with the awareness that one wasn’t going to be amongst the first in the world to see what Thierry Fremaux et Cie had decided to anoint as “essential” (in both the official selection and the usually superior sidebar, Un Certain Regard) it was hard to justify a trip just to see filmmakers of worth, such as Gerardo Naranjo (Miss Bala), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Gus Van Sant (Restless), Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life), Aki Kaurismaki (Le Havre), Alain Cavalier (Pater) and Hong Sangsoo (The Day He Arrives). Especially when some or most of these would be seen pretty soon anyway. (Extremely soon, as it so happens: Malick’s insanely anticipated lifetime-in-the-making opus I saw this afternoon. And Woody Allen’s opening night bon bon is screening in Los Angeles this week.)

So maybe it’s a good year to stay away, even if that Icelandic volcano isn’t blowing up anymore, and the Mediterranean coast isn’t being pounded by waves (as was the case in that memorable edition of 2009). From the start, the sense of yawns from the press (there are more press in Cannes than critics) was detectable with Allen’s latest European postcard, this one starring Owen Wilson as a struggling writer suddenly sent back in time from Paris today to Paris in the 1920s. Van Sant’s Restless was judged by most as slight, with his signature filmmaking being applied to a highly tenderized teen tale.

Ramsay’s film–which I picked in a bout of pre-festival hubris as the likely Palme d’Or winner, based on advance word–proved extremely divisive, with some deeply impressed with her ambitiously fractured film grammar applied to a story of a mom (Tilda Swinton, post her the best actress award now, according to all reports) dealing with her seemingly psychopathic boy, and others finding it an unholy mess. The best that many could say about first-time writer-director (and novelist) Julia Leigh’s Jane Campion-endorsed drama, Sleeping Beauty, is that it was precise, or that it recalled Eyes Wide Shut (high praise, as seen from this corner), but a large majority wouldn’t go there and deemed it simply ludicrous.

And that was just the first day. Five full days are done, and upcoming posts will try to synthesize the general critical response, as well as a few individual reviews of films across the sections from the competition, Un Certain Regard, the Quinzaine and Semaine de la Critique. Next is a review of The Tree of Life.

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