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La Dolce Vita Holds Cannes in Thrall

From 'Gatsby' to 'Bling Ring,' the Croisette sparkled, but Coens and Gray scored with films of struggle

At the Cannes Film Festival, money is never far from the picture, from the buyers and sellers trading films on the market floor to the decadent yachts jockeying for position in the old port and the “Gatsby”-esque revels (a few thinly disguised as charity balls) raging until dawn. But this year, even the movies themselves afforded little respite from the mercenary capitalism, whether the setting was New York in the 1920s, modern Asia five minutes ago, or — in the case of James Toback and Alec Baldwin’s “Seduced & Abandoned” — Cannes itself.

From its earliest days (rung in by Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby”) to its final hours, Cannes 2013 was awash in visions of la dolce vita — those living it and those seeking a shortcut to it — from Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” to Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” and Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s extravagant Fellini gloss “The Great Beauty.”

Striking a more cautionary note, China’s immensely talented Jia Zhangke weighed in with “A Touch of Sin,” a violent and darkly satirical quartet of stories about traditional values caving under the weight of a free market run amok, while Japan’s Takashi Miike offered an even bleaker portrait of a nation driven mad by greed in “Shield of Straw.”

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An ultra-slick action movie that struck some as an odd fit for a Cannes competition slot, Miike’s film is the kind of smart, socially relevant thriller Hollywood used to make in the B-movie glory days, telling the tale of a rogue Japanese billionaire who offers a 1 billion yen reward for the head of the child killer who murdered his granddaughter. The resulting free-for-all, which pits a handful of Japan’s last remaining honest cops against seemingly everyone else in the country, suggested what might happen on the streets of Cannes if a sadistic festival official were to offer a coveted white press badge to one lucky blue card holder.

Elsewhere, Franco-Italian heiress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (sister of Carla Bruni) reminded us that rich people have their problems too in her unapologetically bourgeois “A Castle in Italy,” which made for interesting counterprogramming to Dutch director Alex Van Warmerdam’s “Borgman,” a beautifully crafted but facile farce designed to make people like Ms. Bruni Tedeschi double-bolt their doors.

Alongside all of this, there were a few glimpses of genuine hand-to-mouth struggle: one courtesy of the Coen Brothers, whose universally loved “Inside Llewyn Davis” focused on a cash-strapped folksinger on the cusp of the 1960s folk revival; another from James Gray, whose visually and emotionally spellbinding “The Immigrant” featured Marion Cotillard in a career-best performance as a Polish Ellis Island emigre navigating the mean streets of the Lower East Side.

It was, by any measure, a banner year for American cinema on the Croisette, even if both the Coens’ and Gray’s films were primarily financed by French companies (Studiocanal and Wild Bunch, respectively). Whereas 2012’s Hollywood contingent in Cannes consisted of a slew of emerging directors (Lee Daniels, Andrew Dominik, John Hillcoat, Jeff Nichols) new to the competition, 2013 was a year for gray (no pun intended) eminences, also including Alexander Payne, whose lovely, lyrical “Nebraska” was, among other things a lament for the end of a certain kind of midbudget American art film of which he, Gray, the Coens and the departing Soderbergh are among the last extant practitioners.

The game changer of the festival’s second half, however, came from France in the form of director Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” an acutely perceptive and moving story of first love built around electrifying performances by Lea Seydoux and relative newcomer Adele Exarchopoulos, which took home the Palme d’Or.

“Blue” made headlines, unsurprisingly, for its long, unabashed lesbian sex scenes, but one of the many beauties of Kechiche’s fi lm is that the characters intimacies are just one facet of their richly sensual lives, which include pleasure taken from meals, art, books and intellectual debate. The sex, when it comes, is neither artfully prettied-up nor luridly exploitative. Like so much in this remarkable film, it simply exists, like the air its unforgettable characters passionately breathe.

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