With Hollywood in thrall to the blockbuster, the French festival is a rallying point for serious cinema.
Poetry in motion: a preview of Cannes 2010
We are - hadn't you noticed? - experiencing a golden age for the cinema. The film industry has witnessed the collapse of the DVD market under the weight of illegal file-sharing. It has gambled on the power of 3D to draw audiences into theatres. And it has been winning: 2009 was its most profitable year ever. Avatar is the highest-grossing film in history. Now the box office is where the action is and for the first time in decades, cinemas count. For a certain kind of film, that is.
It is not the kind of film Cannes is known for. If we allow ourselves a moment's snobbery, we can acknowledge a distinction between movies and cinema. Movies are about immediacy and spectacle (and, increasingly, spectacles). Cinema is about the poetry of images. It is one of the ironies of the film industry that, even as cinemas are providing a haven for the movies, they are closing their doors on cinema. Who can blame them? Cinema, in its hauteur, doesn't do blockbusters. It doesn't do 3D glasses. It does Netflix and the Criterion Collection, and Pirate Bay has all but scuppered those.
That, at any rate, is one moral from the bidding war that lately failed to materialise around MGM, the owner of one of the most remarkable backlists on the planet. If there's no money in classics any more, what chance do cult and art films stand? Too bad. In show business, sentiment belongs in the product, not the policy. Cannes, it goes without saying, is the world capital of cinema. In 2009 it seemed to be riding high. Four of the year's most talked-about (though not, of course, highest-grossing) films had their premieres on the Croissette: Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Jacques Audiard's Un Prophète, Lars von Trier's Antichrist and Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winner, The White Ribbon.
The festival led the charge into the third dimension, too, opening with Pixar's 3D animation Up, a rare marriage of depth of field to depth of feeling. All that was before MGM hit the skids, of course, and the ideal of cinema was seen to part company with the demands of cinemas. What condition is Cannes' empire in this year? Strange to report, its frontiers appear to be pushing outward. Thierry Frémaux, the festival's director, told the world's press last month: "Our selection shows the fact that great filmmaking is alive in every country. It's not just a dialogue between Europe and the United States but a global dialogue."
Indeed, it is a dialogue in which the US is barely present. The single American film in competition for the festival's main prize is Doug Liman's Fair Game, a political thriller about the outed CIA agent Valerie Plame starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. France, too, occupies a diminished role. Only three films on the grid for the Palme d'Or are by French filmmakers. There's Tournée, a film about American burlesque dancers making a tour of French ports, which marks the directorial debut of the actor Mattieu Almaric, best known to anglophone audiences as the villain in Quantum of Solace. There's Des Hommes, des Dieux, Xavier Beauvois's film about the abduction of a group of monks during the Algerian civil war. And there's Bertrand Tavernier's La Princesse de Montpensier, a period drama about royal alliances in 16th-century France.
All three films, to judge by their synopses, pit the French against outside competitors. That seems appropriate in context. Among the 16 films competing for the Palme are entries from Ukraine and Iran, Thailand and Chad. Cannes is expanding its borders. The most distinguished filmmaker on the list is Abbas Kiarostami, who brings Copie Conforme, his first feature made outside Iran. In fact, it promises to be an interesting departure in several respects. The plot concerns a Tuscan love affair between a middle-aged English writer and a Frenchwoman, played by Juliet Binoche. It sounds like the set-up for something straightforwardly fictional, a far cry from Kiarostami's recent formalist and quasi-documentary experiments.
When I spoke to Kiarostami about it last year, he conceded that it was one of his simplest works, though this was at least partly because he was "working with a professional team both in front of and behind the camera". The result, he said, was "a sense of complete freedom to express what I have to say". That should be worth hearing. Other promising items in the running for the Palme include Mike Leigh's Another Year, starring Jim Broadbent and Imelda Staunton. The title doesn't give much away, nor inspire much curiosity for that matter, but Leigh has been on a hot streak since Vera Drake in 2004, so the benefit of the doubt seems warranted.
The same charity, on different grounds, should be extended to Russia's Nikita Mikhalkov, in competition with Burnt by the Sun II. It's a follow-up to the director's film from 1994 about Stalin's purges, widely regarded as the high point of his 40-year career. If his subsequent works have fallen slightly flat, this sequel could well mark a return to form. No such prediction is possible in the case of Kitano Takeshi's Outrage. The Japanese comedian turned poet, painter, actor and filmmaker has made yet another gangster film with himself in the lead role, but since his previous works in the same nominal genre have included Beckett-like absurdist exercises and bittersweet tales of middle-aged romance, that doesn't give us much to go on.
Female filmmakers are notable by their absence on the main competition slate. This fact strikes a gloomy note following Kathryn Bigelow's success at the Oscars this year. Nor are things much better in the Un Certain Regard section: even in this art-house ghetto there's only Hungary's Agnes Kocsis to represent - as film journalists quaintly term it - the distaff side. Her film is Adrienn Pal, in which an obese nurse sets out on a journey to find her childhood friend. A solitary, low-key road movie: one must assume the male competition was unusually strong this year.
In fact, irony aside, there are some extremely impressive names in the line-up. None can top Jean-Luc Godard, one of the tutelary spirits of French cinema, who brings his first fully digital film. Socialisme appears to be a kind of portmanteau affair with different segments shot by different directors, but it is known to involve a Mediterranean cruise, a UN official, a war criminal, and cameos from the rock star Patti Smith and the quasi-Maoist philosopher Alain Badiou. It could hardly sound more intriguing.
There's also the latest from Manoel de Oliveira, who at the age of 101 is the world's oldest working filmmaker. He brings The Strange Case of Angelica, in which a photographer is asked by the owners of a hotel to take pictures of their recently deceased daughter. The theme of unpromising artistic assignments has supplied Oliveira's career with some highlights, not least I'm Going Home, in which Michel Piccoli plays an actor miscast in an adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses. He is not exactly returning to the same well here, but its an intriguing pattern all the same.
Meanwhile, for the first time in seven years an Indian film has made it into the official selection. Vikramaditya Motwane's Udaan tells the story of a boy who returns to his hometown after eight years at boarding school. It's Motwane's debut, and he had been trying to get the thing made since the last time India had a film in Un Certain Regarde back in 2003. Here's hoping it was worth the wait. Un Certain Regarde is also the home of genre fare, and the fan favourite this year is likely to be Hideo Nakata's Chatroom. The Japanese director spearheaded the rise of so-called J-Horror throughout the late 1990s and the early part of the new millennium, creating the Ring series and the indelibly creepy Dark Water.
Rather surprisingly, his new film comes with a British cast and a screenplay by the poetic Irish playwright Enda Walsh, known to moviegoers for his work on Steve McQueen's IRA drama Hunger. This is a strange combination of talents, but some such lateral approach seems in order when entering the hokey realms of the cyber-thriller. Cannes, in its civilised way, finds a way to accommodate even the kind of multiplex barnstormer that is so alien to its own exalted ideals. It shows them out of competition. This year the festival opens with the probable blockbuster Robin Hood, reuniting Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe after the enormous success of Gladiator and the lacklustre performance of most of their subsequent projects.
There is also Oliver Stone's business satire, Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, a timely resurrection of Michael Douglas's saturnine Gordon Gekko character. "Someone reminded me I once said greed is good," he purrs in the trailer. "Now it seems it's legal." Like almost everything Stone puts his name to, it's hard to tell if the movie is the product of cynicism or cracked inspiration, but it should be entertaining.
That's less certain of the now-traditional Woody Allen film in the programme. The director is the rare American to enjoy auteur status in France, but his work has been rather uneven for a couple of decades now. Still, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger at least boasts a striking cast - indeed, a suspiciously A-list one. If a commercially scattershot curmudgeon like Allen can gather the likes of Antonio Banderas, Josh Brolin, Anthony Hopkins, Freida Pinto and Naomi Watts for his latest project, cinema will find a way to survive.