Silence and scandal in the Cannes bubble

A festival that bridged the gap between art house and audience

Cannes is a bubble, an opulent bubble of glamour and art that, from the inside, feels like the centre of the cultural universe. It lulls the media horde into fabulous delusion. Faithfully dragging ourselves to the Palais each day at 8 a.m. (to get a good seat), we’ve been assembling as a 2000-plus congregation in the Lumiere cinema, listening to soft jazz and reading the trades as we wait for the lights to go down, trying to remain awake as the  the classic Cannes trailer rolls to the fantasia strains of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals—a set of red-carpeted steps that rise from an aqua sea, into a sky that turns indigo then black until we’re officially in heaven.

This is life in the bubble. It’s like undergoing mass hypnosis. And as we follow the 11-day program of the official competition, which has it’s own epic narrative, we blog the over-heated triumphs and scandals as if the world hung in the balance—forgetting  that back home all people care about is Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Still, Cannes is a fascinating bubble, a fairy tale cosmos where the usual rules of commercial gravity don’t apply, where directors are more exalted than stars, and where the films light up the zeitgeist.

Even though, on this Victoria Day weekend, I doubt anyone is paying attention,  I feel some reflection is in order while I’m still in the mood. Before the bubble bursts and the red carpet is ripped up. The awards are announced tonight. Best do it now, before Cannes is reduced to a minor sports result.

Overall it was an unusually rich festival. Those hard-core cinephiles who measure the quality of a film by its level of difficulty (for the audience) may have been disappointed. But what made this Cannes competition exceptional was the number of films that bridged the gap between the art house and the audience. The festival premiered several flat-out crowd pleasers with artistic pedigree—from The Artist, a silent black-and-white romcom, to Drive, a customized piece of pulp fiction driven by a mostly silent performance from Ryan Gosling. Even Sean Penn’s half-silent, sotto voce performance as a faded rock legend in This Must Be the Place played to the crowd with its mime-like minimalism.

Silence was à la mode on and off screen. Terrence Malick did not speak a word to the press for the premiere of The Tree of Life, leaving Brad Pitt to do the heavy lifting. Pitt argued, convincingly, that he didn’t see why the architect of a film was also expected to be its real estate agent, selling and explaining his creation. (It goes without saying that stars must do media.) Not everyone was silent, however. As one industry observer quipped, “This festival was the story of the man who wouldn’t talk [Malick] and the Man Who Said Too Much [Lars Von Tier].”

If ever there were an argument for a director keeping his mouth shut, it was the Von Trier scandal, in which Denmark’s auteur provocateur made a string of ill-advised quips about Nazis, Jews and Hitler at a press conference, trigger a furor that hijacked the festival narrative for days. Pedro Almodóvar’s cosmetic surgery thriller, The Skin I Live In, was completely overshadowed because it premiered just before the festival’s board of directors decided to ban Von Trier from the premises. Holed up outside Cannes for the next few days, Von Trier talked to journalists—not about his movie, Melancholia—but about his banishment.

The scandal hurt his movie,  infuriating its distributors and alienating the stars who were ready to promote it (Kirstin Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg). Which is too bad, because despite flaws, Von Trier’s latest work is a powerful, haunting drama. And its image of a ridiculously lavish wedding in a castle by sea overshadowed by a killer planet called Melancholia could be a metaphor for Cannes itself. Depression was certain on the agenda in the films, affecting everyone from the willfully comatose prostitute in Sleeping Beauty to the damaged rock legend played by Sean Penn in This Must Be The Place.

Another prevailing theme was conflict between fathers and sons, notably in The Tree of Life, The Kid With a Bike and Footnote. But perhaps the most startling trend was the strong presence of women. Aside from the fact that four out 20 competition entries were directed by women (compared to none last year), we saw an unusual number of powerhouse performances by women, not to mention a couple of sisterhood spectacles with ensemble female casts—the whores in House of Tolerance and the Arab villagers on strike against their husbands in La Source des femmes.

Who know how the awards will go tonight. I’d like to see Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki win the Palme d’Or for Le Havre. However, I’d be neither surprised nor disappointed if Malick wins for The Tree of Life (unlikely according to the gossip), or if Nicolas Winding Refn wins for Drive. Certainly Drive, which owes something to Taxi Driver, is the film closest to the sensibility of jury president Robert De Niro. If, on the other hand, the jury wants to pick the biggest crowd pleaser, that would be The Artist, another decision I’d happily support. If I had to put money on the Palme d’Or right now, I’d bet on The Artist. It is, in some ways, the most conventional diversion of all the major contenders—ironic given that it’s black-and-white and silent. Best actor should come down to a contest between Ryan Gosling for Drive and Sean Penn for This Must be the Place. Gosling should win. And Tilda Swinton is the overwhelming favorite to win best actress for her harrowing role in We Need to Talk about Kevin.

By the end of the day, we’ll have the results. Stay tuned.

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