Cannes Film Festival: Competition Films Upstage

The festival's poorly received opener was immediately upstaged by two superior competition entries, 'Timbuktu' and 'Mr. Turner.'

The 2014 Cannes Film Festival got off to an excellent start on Wednesday evening, as journalists heralded the arrival of an emotionally wrenching, fact-inspired drama set in a formerly French-ruled colony coming under threat of hostile siege. I am referring, of course, to “Timbuktu,” the deeply stirring new film from the Mauritanian-born filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, which had its first screening for journalists around the same time that the program’s official curtain-raiser, “Grace of Monaco,” was making its way up the red-carpeted Palais steps  its first high-profile stop en route to its final destination in cinematic oblivion.

It is, by now, a familiar formula: Kick off the proceedings with a lightweight confection that will supply all the glamour and star wattage a hot-ticket event like Cannes demands, while at the same time shocking the press next door with a hard-hitting piece of social realism. That way you get your empty-headed Hollywood frippery, but you also get your serious-minded Art with a capital “A”  both of which, of course, have a place in the wide-ranging world of international cinema that Cannes is meant to represent.

Seriousness, of course, doesn’t necessarily imply superiority, just as opening night doesn’t always mean empty calories. In 2012 Cannes opened with Wes Anderson’s delectable “Moonrise Kingdom,” which, in a telling sign of respect for the director’s auteur credentials, was also included in competition. (Anderson, it should be noted, is on a roll: His terrific “The Grand Budapest Hotel” kicked off this year’s Berlinale in high style.) And last year, when Cannes unveiled Amat Escalante’s vivid Mexican nightmare “Heli” as brutal counterprogramming to Baz Luhrmann’s stereoscopic kitschfest “The Great Gatsby,” I’m not sure the former was particularly preferable to the latter, Escalante’s eventual directing prize notwithstanding.

This year, it’s no contest. Let’s give “Grace of Monaco” its due: It’s a lousy film, but not necessarily a lousy choice for opening night. There’s no question that the movie’s dazzling visual opulence and French Riviera-adjacent setting fit Cannes like a glove, and for all its thudding literal-mindedness, I’m not convinced that there isn’t a decent biopic to be made about Grace Kelly’s rocky road to royalty. (I am convinced, however, that Olivier Dahan isn’t the one to make it  or, indeed, someone to be trusted anywhere near a movie camera, particularly if it’s equipped with a zoom lens.) The pressures of suddenly inheriting a kingdom, of finding out that your fairy-tale reality is hardly the perfect fantasy you imagined, are hardly matters too trivial for a movie to concern itself with; anyone who thinks they are need look no further than Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” to note one of the many Hollywood classics to which Dahan’s movie pays direct homage.

Even still, Cannes did “Grace” no favors by scheduling it in such close proximity to “Timbuktu,” a picture that actually grapples with the dire consequences of restricting individual freedoms, and grapples with them at such a high level of dramatic purity and artistry. The stark contrast between these two stories goes well beyond the fact that one is a lightweight entertainment and the other a social-issues piece. “Timbuktu” is no miserablist wallow: In its offhand observations of daily life, its beautifully observed scenes of children playing and men and women making music together, Sissako’s film actually offers a fuller, more joyous sense of life’s pleasures and possibilities than all the gussied-up montages and eye-candy production design “Grace of Monaco” can muster.

And if Dahan’s movie offered an almost textbook example of how not to transform an artist’s life into great cinema, then the festival offered a splendid counterexample in this morning’s warmly received competition screening of “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh’s richly textured, vividly inhabited drama about the British artist J.M.W. Turner. Conceived via Leigh’s signature extended-workshop process, this is an intimate work of portraiture that moves intuitively, and not at all obviously, from one scene to the next: You’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you savor every exquisite moment it takes to get there. It is, all in all, an instructive reminder that some movies are made for opening night, and others are built to last.

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