Canada's year in Cannes

With an unprecedented three features in competition, this is Canada's Olympic moment in Cannes

cannes shopwindow

A shop window in Cannes (Photo by Brian D. Johnson)

Bonjour from Cannes! It wasn’t easy getting here. On the trans-Atlantic flight, I was seated next to an inquisitive young mother who had a 16-month-old, feverish baby  cradled in her arms, and a freshly purchased $5,000 shih tzu dog in a bag at her feet. (You’d think there’d be a rule: only one carry-on creature per passenger.) Now that I’ve scrubbed the baby’s vomit off my jacket, the night just sits in memory like some tortured little movie that went on too long. And I’m ready for whatever Cannes has to offer. The sun is shining on the Côte d’Azur, the shop windows along Rue D’Antibes are tricked out with the most sensational clothes no one will ever wear, and auteur cinema’s most opulent showcase will unveil its new spring line at the 67th edition of the Festival de Cannes, which opens Wednesday.

Although Cannes has been eclipsed by TIFF as Hollywood’s industrial launch pad for Oscar contenders, it still retains its mythic status as the mother of all festivals. Nowhere else in the world can a filmmaker’s dreams be fulfilled or dashed in such spectacular fashion as in this fairy-tale setting, as the concentrated gaze of 4,500 media pilgrims is focused on a competition crucible of just 18 features amid red-carpet pomp that makes the Academy Awards look cheap. It’s Hollywood meets The Hunger Games.

And for Canadian culture, Cannes is offering an Olympic moment. Setting a historic precedent, three of the 18 features in the main competition here are Canadian: David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, Atom Egoyan’s The Captive and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. Add to that a pair of films selected for the Directors’ Fortnight program: Stéphane Lafleur’s feature comedy Tu dors Nicole and Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre’s animated short Jutra, about the late Quebec director Claude Jutra. Then there’s Canuck Ryan Gosling, who makes his feature directing debut in the Un Certain Regard sidebar with Lost River. For old time’s sake, Cannes is also showing a digitally restored print of Léolo, the 1992 tour de force by the late Quebec auteur Jean-Claude Lauzon. For those who are really keeping track, there are a couple of Quebec shorts in official selection.

The Palais du Festival, the day before the red carpet is unfurled / photo by BDJ

The Palais du Festival, the day before the red carpet is unfurled. (Photo by Brian D. Johnson)

We come to Cannes for the films, and the stars, but also for the story. There’s something about this place that invites scandal. So we wait for the moment that we don’t see coming, like the time when Lars von Trier got himself ejected from the festival by musing at a press conference that he might be a Nazi. I learned that day never to leave a Von Trier press conference early. After von Trier had told actress Charlotte Gainsbourg that he wanted to cast her in a hard-core porn movie (a promise he kept with Nymphomania), I figured I had enough, and ducked out to catch Alain Renais’s Wild Grass, missing his bout of logorrhea on Jews and Nazis. Then there was the time director Vincent Gallo lashed out at the late critic Roger Ebert, calling him “a fat pig” with “the physique of a slave trader,” after Ebert hailed The Brown Bunny as the worst movie every premiered in Cannes. Ebert had the last word: “It is true that I am fat, but one day I will be thin, and he will still be the director of The Brown Bunny.”

The knives are already out for Wednesday’s opening night gala, Grace of Monaco, starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly. A public feud erupted between the film’s French director, Oliver Dahan, and its American distributor, Hollywood “Scissorhands” Weinstein, who threatened to pull the film. Meanwhile the poobahs at the royal palace in Monaco, just up the coast, dismissed it as a pack of lies. But who cares? The movie is playing out of competition, typical of Cannes openers, which tend to be just big-screen bling, so much window dressing to go with the gowns.

The real attention here is on the 18 features vying for the Palme D’Or. Here are those  I’m most looking forward to, with some idle speculation on their chances of winning:

Mia Wasikowska (left) and Julianne Moore in David Cronenberg's 'Map to the Stars'

Mia Wasikowska (left) and Julianne Moore in David Cronenberg’s ‘Map to the Stars’

Maps to the Stars

Even though I was underwhelmed by Cronenberg’s previous Cannes entry, Cosmopolis, and even though its star, Robert Pattinson, is back in a limo in Maps to the Stars (as the chauffeur, not the passenger, this time), Canada’s most esteemed auteur can always be counted on to do something interesting, if not outrageous. I’ve never seen livelier debates in Cannes than those that erupted after the premiere of Cronenberg’s Crash, (not to be confused with Paul Haggis’s vastly inferior Crash, which stole his title and the Oscar). Cronenberg’s 19th feature is a Hollywood satire about celebrity psychosis. It revolves around an imploding family whose ranks include a child star fresh out of rehab (Evan Bird), his controlling mother (Olivia Williams), and his celebrity psychologist dad (John Cusack). That’s not all. The child star’s pyromaniac daughter (Mia Wasikowska), fresh out of an asylum, becomes the assistant to a famous actress (Julianne Moore) living in the shadow of her dead mother, a screen legend played as a ghost by Sarah Gadon. This film, which sounds as complicated as something by Atom Egoyan, is the first that Cronenberg has shot in the U.S. But we won’t hold that against him, considering the centrality of the Hollywood setting. Cronenberg is a director with a body of work deserving of a Palme D’Or, so with any luck, if the movie is good, it could be his year.

Sils Maria

The latest from French director Olivier Assayas sounds like it belongs to the same zeitgeist as the Cronenberg movie. It, too, is a tale of fractured celebrity, about an actress who is cast in a remount of the play that made her famous 20 years earlier, but as an older woman driven to suicide by the character she once portrayed. As a Hollywood starlet with a penchant for scandal takes on her former role, Sils Maria looks like a classic mirror-image psychodrama. Of all the films in competition, it boasts the most stellar collection of female stars—Juliette Binoche, Chloe Grace Moretz and Kristen Stewart—so it’s bound to at least turn some heads.

The Captive  

Atom Egoyan mines some familiar turf, i.e. Exotica and Felicia’s Journey, with this story of an abducted schoolgirl. Based on an original script the director wrote with his oldest friend, former University of Toronto classmate David Fraser, it’s a drama that hinges on the parked-car kidnapping of a nine-year-old girl, who resurfaces nine years later under mysterious circumstances. Licking his wounds from the disastrous Green Lantern, native son Ryan Reynolds stars as the father of the kidnapped girl, with Scott Speedman and Rosario Dawson cast as a pair of detectives. After his last string of flops, Egoyan is badly in need of a hit, and some accolades from Cannes, the place that launched his career, would help the cause.

Winter Sleep

If any one auteur in competition knows how to lay down the gauntlet for challenging art-house fare, it would be Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The Turkish director, whose visual aesthetic is rooted in his first vocation as a photographer, makes movies that unfold as still-life dramas, with long, mesmerizing takes in which action proceeds at a glacial pace. Winter Sleep is the story of a former actor, his young wife and his sister, who are holed up in a hotel in Anatolia as it begins to snow. With a marathon running time of three and a quarter hours, this opus is not for the faint heart. (Note to self: try to get a good night’s sleep before seeing Winter Sleep this Friday.) As a visual artist, Ceylan has few peers, and he has been steadily awarded for his work in Cannes. Given the heft of his latest entry, if it succeeds in casting a spell, he is definitely a contender.

Goodbye to Language (Adieu au langage)

Jean-Luc Godard is back in the race. The legendary French auteur has competed for the Palme d’Or on six previous occasions, but never won. Talk about a body of work: giving him this honour at the age of 83 has no end of sentimental value, and I’d be happy to see him win simply to hear his acceptance speech, if he deigns to give one. I won’t even try to make sense of the synopsis of Goodbye to Language offered in the Cannes program book, except to say that it involves a single man, a married woman, a dog, the demise of mathematics and the death of a robin.


Conversely, the Cannes jury could create a sensation by awarding the Palme to a man less than a third the age of Godard—Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who breaks into the main competition with his fourth feature at the age of 25, a year younger than Steven Soderbergh was when he won the prize for his first feature, Sex, Lies and Videotape, in 1989. With Mommy, the story of a widowed single mother trying to corral an explosive 15-year-old ADHD son, Dolan returns to the themes of his breakout feature debut, I Killed My Mother. He is a child of Cannes, and after deserting the festival for Venice to launch his previous feature, Tom at the Farm, he’s back in the fold. I expect him to be rewarded with some prize or another.

Still is the Water

Set on a subtropical island, this intrigue begins with the discovery of a body floating in the sea after a full-moon night of traditional dancing. Its Japanese director, Naomi Kawase (The Mourning Forest), makes films of haunting lyrical beauty. The director of this year’s Cannes jury, Jane Campion, is the only woman ever to have won the Palme D’Or. Heading a jury that has more women then men, she’s in position to redress the balance of a festival that has woefully neglected the female gaze over the years—although she would be the first to say she would never honour a movie because a woman directed it.

Two Days, One Night

Next to the Coen brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne are one of the world’s most consistent sibling acts behind the camera. They have won the Palme D’Or twice, and though their gritty working-class realism doesn’t exactly reinvent the fourth art, it always feels compelling a unique way. This is the story of a woman who has one weekend to convince her colleagues to sacrifice her bonuses so she can keep her job.


One of just two American movies in the main competition (the other is The Homesman, a western by Tommy Lee Jones), Foxcatcher is another drama based on a true story from director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball). Based on the autobiography of Olympic gold medal wrestler Mark Schultz, it stars Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carrell. Bennett’s filmmaking is likely too conventional to merit the Palme D’Or, which tends to go to filmmakers bent on reshaping the face of cinema, but this is one movie we can probably expect to stick around for the Oscars.

Mr. Turner

British director Mike Leigh, who won the Palme in 1993 for Secrets and Lies, is back with a biopic of the eccentric English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner. This is not Leigh’s usual line of work. The last time he executed a period piece about real-life subjects was in 1999 with Topsy-Turvy, his engaging romp with Gilbert and Sullivan. Timothy Spall, a frequent collaborator with Leigh, stars as Turner, and the combination of Spall forging a deep-focus character with the visual potential of Turner’s artistry sounds promising. Leigh is one of two Brits competing in Cannes—the other being fellow realist Ken Loach, who is here with his own period fare, Jimmy’s Hall, about a man who builds a dancehall in an Irish village.

The Search 

After the triumph of The Artist—a black-and-white silent novelty act that won the Palme then went on to win the Oscar—French director Michel Hazanavicius casts that film’s star (and the director’s wife) Bérénice Bejo with Annette Bening in a drama set during the Second Chechen War in 1999. It seems unlikely that Hazanavicius will match his former triumph with more conventional fare, but I’m curious to see what a director who made his name with a dialogue-free flight of showbiz whimsy will do with a drama about refugees of modern warfare.