Cannes: Looking Past the Hype and Hate (Analysis)

Usual suspects, few surprises, unforgivable omissions — got it. Now, can we watch the movies?

67th cannes film festival poster

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.” Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes.” Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “The Assassin.” Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys.” Woody Allen’s “Magic in the Moonlight.” Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow.” Stephen Frear’s untitled Lance Armstrong biopic. Thomas Vinterberg’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Birdman.”

The list of films and filmmakers once rumored to be hot prospects for the Cannes Film Festival, only to be go unmentioned during this morning’s official selection announcement, is, as usual, a long and tantalizing one  so tantalizing, in fact, that some festgoers may find themselves surveying the actual lineup today with a mild sense of deflation, even disappointment. I’ll be the first to admit that those of us fortunate enough to attend the world’s greatest film festivals on a regular basis can too often lapse into a posture of whiny, disgruntled self-entitlement when our anticipated favorites don’t materialize when and where we want them to  an attitude that can be dispelled only by the vague promise that they will, in all likelihood (well, maybe not the Malick), surface at the next such event four or five months from now.

SEE ALSO: Cannes Film Festival Unveils 2014 Official Selection Lineup

The flipside to that sort of wistful thinking can be, if anything, even more toxic: Annoyed by what we’re not getting, we sure as hell aren’t going to be excited about what we are getting. One of the more general complaints you’re likely to hear over the next few weeks and months about Thierry Fremaux’s latest lineup is that it’s overly safe and short on surprises: What, Mike Leigh again? Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg again? Naomi Kawase again? (OK, you may have a point there.) This sort of free-floating pessimism can manifest itself, too, in an overly fussy and righteous concern with a program’s demographics and identity politics. Make no mistake, over the past few years, I’ve done my fair share of flogging Cannes for its often pathetic underrepresentation of female directors in competition a principled stance that should always be tempered by the sad possibility that the festival, through little fault of its own, is merely reflecting back at us the pathetic underrepresentation of female directors in the industry at large.

SEE ALSO: Q&A With Cannes Film Festival Director Thierry Fremaux

That isn’t always the case, of course  personally, I’d bet that Claire Denis’ “Bastards” and Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” two designated “minor works” that screened in Un Certain Regard last year, would have made far more satisfying competition entries than Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s widely reviled “A Castle in Italy.” And it may well turn out to be the case that this year’s distaff Palme contenders, Kawase and Alice Rohrwacher (whose excellent 2011 drama “Corpo celeste” has me stoked for her follow-up, “Le Meraviglie”), should have been joined in competition by some of the estimable female talents relegated to Un Certain Regard  particularly Austria’s Jessica Hausner, following up her great, underseen “Lourdes” with “Amour fou,” and France’s Pascale Ferran (“Lady Chatterley”), whose “Bird People” has one of the more intriguing loglines of any film in the festival and has been tipped for the competition for weeks. Or perhaps Mia Hansen-Love, whose keenly anticipated “Eden” was one of the final films to screen for Fremaux’s committee, but was nowhere to be found in this morning’s selection.

It’s naive, of course, to assume that these representational issues haven’t already occurred to Fremaux and his hard-working selection committee amid all the planning, lobbying, arguing and politicking that go into the shaping of an artistically balanced, formally innovative, commercially viable program. On a more basic rational/empirical/human level, it strikes me as maybe just a wee bit premature, with still a month to go before the festival begins, to be criticizing programming decisions and dismissing films sight unseen  not that it’s stopped some from piling on the criticism, declaring this year’s lineup “pathetic” or “lame and limp-wristed,” to name some of the choice adjectives that have been thrown around this morning on Twitter.

No one inclined to issue such ill-considered judgments strikes me as a particularly ideal candidate for the sort of rich aesthetic and intellectual pleasures that Cannes at its best can provide. Personally, I can think of no more thrilling antidote to the tyranny of the 140-character hate-bomb than the 195 minutes of grim, glacially paced Turkish austerity I expect Nuri Bilge Ceylan to serve up in “Winter Sleep.” (Ceylan’s is the longest of a few longish films in competition this year, with Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” and Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Search” all clocking in at well north of two hours. Bring ’em on, I say.)

There are, to be sure, a fair number of usual suspects in competition. Ken Loach, Leigh and the Dardenne brothers are all Palme laureates; Ceylan, Hazanavicius, Olivier Assayas, Bertrand Bonello and others have all been here before. Yet there isn’t one of them whose latest work I’m less than eager to see, starting with Zvyagintsev, the prodigiously talented Russian director whose “Leviathan” sounds, from its evasive plot description, like his most Tarkovskyan oddity yet, and continuing on to Tommy Lee Jones, whose first Western, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” augurs very well indeed for his new one, “The Homesman.”

Starring Jones and Hilary Swank as a pair of 1850s frontier types embarking on a dangerous Midwestern journey, “The Homesman” will help fill the Croisette’s annual star quota. So, too, will “Foxcatcher,” the much-discussed new drama from the well-regarded Bennett Miller (no usual suspect, he); Egoyan’s “The Captive,” a kidnapping thriller with Ryan Reynolds; Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” an English-language international co-production starring Juliette Binoche, Chloe Grace Moretz and Kristen Stewart; Ryan Gosling’s Un Certain Regard entry “Lost River,” starring Christina Hendricks, Saoirse Ronan and Eva Mendes; and also Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” and David Michod’s midnight movie “The Rover,” both of which star Robert Pattinson. One of the more exasperating/amusing trends of this year’s pre-festival buzz has been the sheer amount of excitement among Stewart’s and Pattinson’s overlapping rabid fanbases, collectively tickled at the prospect of both “Twilight” stars aligning at the same festival. (It wouldn’t be the first time: Cannes premiered Stewart’s “On the Road” and Pattinson’s “Cosmopolis” two years ago, and it’s a minor miracle the Palais des Festivals is still standing.)

Maximizing star wattage is one way to meet the definition of a successful event; making risky, discerning choices and bringing underexposed talent into the spotlight offers the far truer, more valuable measure of a festival’s worth. It remains to be seen what excellence lurks in the Cannes official selection lineup (and where), but the surprises that did emerge  and there were a healthy few  have certainly piqued my interest, not least because they seem to have been made with blind indifference to populist expectations or tastes. Few prognosticators, myself included, were predicting the recondite Mauritanian-born director Abderrahmane Sissako (whose “Bamako” was one of the most acclaimed films to emerge from Cannes 2006) to pop up in competition with “Timbuktu,” which is exactly why his inclusion should be applauded. So, too, should the festival’s awareness of its value as a platform for urgent topical filmmaking, as evidenced by the documentaries on Syria (“Silvered Water”) and the Ukraine (“Maidan”) programmed in Special Screenings.

Like some, I was a bit befuddled to see that, of the two Argentinean filmmakers in the official selection, the high-art favorite Lisandro Alonso (“Jauja”) was programmed in Un Certain Regard while the more commercially oriented Damian Szifron (“Wild Tales”) cracked the competition. On still another note, I’m tickled by the fact that Fremaux found room in the competition for both its youngest filmmaker, the 25-year-old Xavier Dolan, and its oldest, the 83-year-old Jean-Luc Godard — two perpetual enfants terribles whom I’d love to see exchange a few harsh words, and maybe even a few physical blows (assuming there’s a room in the Palais large enough to accommodate both their egos).

As it happens, Godard has two films in the official selection this year, not only his 3D competition entry “Goodbye to Language,” but also his contribution to “Bridges of Sarajevo,” an omnibus film commemorating the 100th anniversary of WWI. It remains to be seen what pleasures and frustrations these and other films hold, but I’m willing to wager that any festival that continues to reassert and champion Godard’s relevance  four years after he pronounced what sounded like his last words on Cannes and, perhaps, cinema itself (“No comment”)  is doing something right.