Brad Pitt was talking about his role as a conscientious hit man who likes his victims to be as comfortable as possible when he shoots them in the head. But as he held court in Cannes this week, Pitt sounded more like a statesman than hit man, discussing “the toxic divide” of his country’s political landscape and need to protect “the idea of America: innovation, fairness, integrity and justice.”
It was an odd way to promote a profane, viciously dark comedy about low-life gangsters. But Killing Them Softly, which Pitt produced, takes place against the backdrop of the U.S. financial meltdown and the 2008 presidential election. In the opening scene, as the litter blows through an urban wasteland of boarded-up houses, the first voice we hear is Barack Obama rhapsodizing about “the promise that sets this country apart.” Speeches by Obama and George W. Bush play as a soundtrack to the film, which reaches a crescendo when Pitt’s hit man calls Thomas Jefferson a slave-owning wine snob and says, “America’s not a country. It’s a business.”
In a season where American gladiators are saving the world with stunning predictability—in The Avengers, Battleship, The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man—the stars of the Festival de Cannes seem intent on exposing the bankruptcy of the American dream. Seven of the 22 movies in the festival’s main competition hail from North America. They’re all tales of desperation, rebellion and outlaw romance. And they add up to one of the fiercest waves of renegade cinema to wash up on the French Riviera since the 1970s.
Many are stories of vengeance that gut the crime genre and inflate it with a higher purpose. These avengers aren’t superheroes branded by stars cementing a franchise; they’re anti-heroes played by stars keen to scuff up their image for a filmmaker on a mission to provoke. And perhaps none is more infamous than Canada’s David Cronenberg, whose Cosmopolis is a contender for the top prize, the Palme d’Or.
Like Pitt’s film, it splices genre with politics and financial meltdown. Adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, the story tracks a day in the life of a playboy billionaire betting on currency collapse, who perversely sheds his wealth, as if living the American dream in reverse. Played by Twilight’s Robert Pattinson—morphing from vampire heartthrob to capitalist bloodsucker in a New York minute—he cruises Manhattan in a stretch limo, with pit stops for dispassionate sex, as rioting protesters and a visit by the U.S. president paralyze the city.
Cronenberg says adapting DeLillo’s novel came so easily he wrote the script in a week. “It seemed so natural,” he said following a panel discussion with his son Brandon—the first father-son duo in Cannes history to premiere films in tandem. Doubling down on Cronenbergian DNA, Brandon made his feature debut in a sidebar program with Antiviral, a horror satire about a clinic that injects fans with diseases cultured from sick celebrities. (That program also featured Laurence Anyways, the tale of a transexual by 23-year-old Quebec wunderkind Xavier Dolan.) “It took me 20 years to get up the red carpet,” said David, “and here he is with his first film.” Brandon, who calls himself “reclusive,” was stunned by his baptism by fire. “It’s completely insane. The camera flashes are still burned into my retina.”
If film is a business in America, it’s a religion in France. Cannes is a cosmopolis on the Côte d’Azur where Hollywood fantasy is made flesh. It’s here that The Artist premiered, launching a Cinderella story that led to a triumph at the Oscars. But while the Oscars are ultimately just a TV show, Cannes is an epic spectacle in a fairy-tale setting, where the race for the Palme d’Or remains the Olympics of world cinema. Here, art still holds its own against the Hollywood juggernaut, despite the studio sideshows, such as this year’s photo op with The Dictator’s Sacha Baron Cohen. For cinephiles, Cannes is where we hope to see something revolutionary—the next Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now or Pulp Fiction.
As it turns out, there was plenty of pulp fiction in this year’s competition, which was devoted exclusively (and controversially) to male directors. Aside from Killing Them Softly, the field included two deep-fried thrillers based on novels set in the American South. The Paperboy, directed by Lee Daniels (Precious) stars Matthew McConaughey as a journalist who gets involved with a convicted killer (John Cusack) through a death row groupie (Nicole Kidman). And if there was a Palme d’Or for gore, it would go to John Hillcoat’s Lawless, which is set in Depression-era Virginia but channels the ’60s with a style of carnage that recalls both Bonnie and Clyde and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Starring Tom Hardy and Shia LaBeouf, it’s about the real-life Bondurant brothers, Appalachian bootleggers waging a war against corrupt authorities led by a perfumed, psychotic city slicker (Guy Pearce). Hillcoat, who also filmed Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, accepts the notion that period films are as much about the present as the past. “We’re in a time of instability,” he says, “and there are a lot of parallels today with the economic crisis and the war on drugs.”
That instability turns catastrophic in Beasts of the Southern Wild, a Sundance hit shown outside the main competition. In an electrifying indie debut by Benh Zeitlin, an intrepid six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) navigates a literal backwater, a post-Katrina flood land in the Louisiana delta known as the Bathtub. Blending the girl’s mythic fantasies of prehistoric beasts with harrowing portraits of a ravaged populace, this gumbo of childhood vérité and cosmic vision has a poetry reminiscent of last year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Tree of Life. Then there’s Mud, from Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols, which ventures upstream to an Arkansas island in the Mississippi, where two boys help a mysterious fugitive (McConaughey again) flee bounty hunters.
As inheritors and refugees of a sinking America, the younger generation had a commanding presence in Cannes right from the opening night film, Wes Anderson’s quirky, super-stylized Moonrise Kingdom. It’s set on yet another island, a dollhouse hamlet off the New England coast in 1965. Two love-struck 12-year-olds—a nerdy Boy Scout and a precocious sophisticate with too much eyeshadow—elope into the wilderness, pursue puppy love in a pup tent, and judiciously pioneer the art of French kissing as if bent on earning a Boy Scout merit badge. Anderson, known for movies about adults who behave like children (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), reverses the formula with kids who behave like adults, chased by immature grown-ups (Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton).
No island is more emblematic of the American dream than Manhattan, the site of Cosmopolis. But while Pattinson comes of age riding a limo into its heart of darkness, his Twilight soulmate (and real-life lover) Kristen Stewart joined him in Cannes as the star of a very different odyssey—On the Road, based on the Jack Kerouac novel. Kerouac wrote the book in three weeks, but the long road to making a movie out of this bohemian bible goes back to 1970, when Francis Ford Coppola first asked Jean-Luc Godard to give it whirl. Brazil’s Walter Salles, who directed the story of Che Guevera’s epic road trip in The Motorcycle Diaries, has finally pulled it off.
In a competition where two-thirds of the entries were not from North America, some of the strongest contenders were foreign-language films. The biggest crush at any screening was the fight to get into Michael Haneke’s Amour—it was very strange to see people pushing and shoving at 8:30 a.m. to spend two hours watching an old couple end their life after the wife suffers a stroke. And two of the most acclaimed films were European dramas of nightmarish witch hunts. Danish director Thomas Vinterberg (The Celebration) wowed critics with The Hunt, starring Mads Mikkelsen as a divorced father whose life is ruined when he’s falsely accused of sexually abusing a young girl. And Romania’s Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) delivered a harrowing film based on the true story of an exorcism on a young nun.
Italy, meanwhile, offered its own version of the American dream gone bad with Reality, a Fellini-esque fable of a fishmonger who craves stardom and sacrifices everything to win a place on the Italian version of the reality TV show Big Brother. The star of the movie, Aniello Arena, has been compared to Robert De Niro and is a contender for the Cannes best actor prize. He wouldn’t be able to accept it in person anyway, for the former Mafia hitman is serving a life sentence for his role in a triple homicide. And that’s as far from Hollywood fantasy as you can get.