x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The first week of Cannes Film Festival delivers star power

While the screenings haven't proved spectacular yet, the appearances on the red carpet have been.

Angelina Jolie joins Brad Pitt on the red carpet at the 64th Cannes Film Festival before the screening of The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.
Angelina Jolie joins Brad Pitt on the red carpet at the 64th Cannes Film Festival before the screening of The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.

It was the moment that the Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Frémaux must have been dreaming of. LA-based production/financing/sales company Red Granite launched at Cannes with a party that saw Kanye West take to the stage. During the rapper’s 90-minute set the singer had the crowd, which included Leonardo DiCaprio, Adrien Brody and Bradley Cooper, going wild. But the pièce de résistance occurred when Jamie Foxx joined the singer on stage and joined him for a rendition of Golddigger.

It was important for two reasons. It saw the launch of a new sales company at the festival. More recently, the tales in the trades have been about the economic recession and now we have a new player making a big splash.

Secondly, for a number of years now, many in the media have complained that the star quota at Cannes was lacking. There could be no such complaints this year, from the opening night film, Midnight in Paris, which saw Owen Wilson and Rachel Adams join director Woody Allen on stage to the screenings of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean adventure starring Johnny Depp and Penélope Cruz, and Kung Fu Panda 2, which afforded Angelina Jolie a chance to grace the red carpet. Brad Pitt was also meeting and greeting before a screening of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

It’s a shame that during the first week the films have for the most part not been nearly as riveting as the star-gazing has been.

The opening film Midnight in Paris was further proof that Allen is in as much of a rut in Europe as he was in New York. Allen has had a formula in his recent movies set in Europe, which involves looking at the clichés of a country and exploiting them for laughs, while the principal tale is a love story.

The sinking feeling was felt even more this year as Allen had a brilliant idea at the heart of his story. What happens if writers could go back in time and get inspiration from the great artists in history, such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Salvador Dalí. It really is a one-trick pony and whenever our protagonist Gil (Owen Wilson) is not meeting up with his heroes of yesteryear, the dialogue and pacing are terrible. However, such is the goodwill shown to Allen that the film, despite all its faults, was widely praised. It’s frothy and fun, but absolutely forgettable.

The Tree of Life was also one to split audiences. Like Allen, Malick is a director whose best days were in the 1970s. As the press screening ended there were some boos from the large contingent who were left bamboozled by the non-linear storytelling and visual imagery that included dinosaurs and exploding stars. Starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the action muses over the meaning of life.

In total contrast, another director who is an acquired taste, Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki, received a rapturous response for Le Havre. It tells the story of a shoe shiner who tries to save an immigrant child in the French port city of Le Havre. Told in the director’s usual quirky manner, the deadpan comedy has a lyrical quality that questions the tactics used by nations to keep out immigrants.

This was being touted as the year of the female director before the festival, and so it proved. It was Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin that created the first big debate. The controversial story is about a mother coping with the aftermath of a heinous crime committed by her son Kevin and wondering if she is somehow to blame for his actions.

The novel recounts the story through a series of letters written by Eva to her husband, but Ramsay eschews this literary format to tell the tale in a heavily visual style reminiscent of her debut film Ratcatcher. The drama opens with a superb scene that has Eva, a travel writer, at the Tomatina Festival in Spain. The action criss-crosses back and forth through time without revealing why there is a crowd of people looking aghast as a horrific event unfolds.

The vagueness of these sequences is reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece Don’t Look Now. However, when the action settles down to detail the sour relationship between mother and son it begins to sag and becomes repetitive. As such, it’s a qualified success, but a brilliant attempt at adapting a difficult book, and Tilda Swinton will surely be in with a shout for the best actress prize.

Strong female characters also feature in Nadine Labaki’s second film Where Do We Go Now? It is set in an unnamed village in Lebanon where Christians and Muslims have been happily living together as neighbours. When news stories reach the village of fighting between Christians and Muslims in other cities, it stokes tensions between the villagers, and it’s left to the women to keep order. The film has a surprisingly light touch, especially given the serious central premise and the female ensemble, which includes director Labaki in a starring role, is enthralling.

The storytelling and directing are a major leap forward for the Caramel director who also effortlessly mixes in song and dance to the film. It has a feel-good sensibility that is like The Band’s Visit, and the director confirms her status as one of the most talented filmmakers from the Middle East.

The buzz title of the festival so far has been The Artist, by Michel Hazanavicius. A last-minute entry into the official competition, it’s easy to see why the organisers made space for the wordless film at the last minute. It is both a crowd-pleaser and a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, it tells the story of an actor who has fallen on hard times with the arrival of the talkies. The plot is not original, as anyone who has seen Sunset Boulevard or Singing in the Rain will attest, but what are magnificent are the tour-de-force filmmaking, hilarious scenes and its sheer brio. Were this to take the Palme d’Or it would be the most crowd-pleasing film to win since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction wowed the croisette.

The Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, are going for a third win at Cannes with The Kid with a Bike, which is their best film since Rosetta. Also of note: Poliss by Maïwenn Le Besco, which examines the work of the child-protection unit in France.

The major disappointment of the completion is that both the films from first-time filmmakers – Australian director Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty and Austrian director Markus Schleinzer’s Michael – were lacklustre, formulaic essays on transgression.

Nonetheless, it’s been quite a first week at Cannes and at the time of writing, several of the most eagerly awaited films have yet to play. Still waiting to unspool are works from Lars von Trier, Nicolas Winding Refn, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Pedro Almodóvar, Paolo Sorrentino, Radu Mihaileanu and Takashi Miike. Stay tuned.

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