Who turned the thermostat down?
Thursday got off to another chilly start in Cannes, with compulsive over-packers (who, me?) wondering why they didn’t bring more sweaters. Although the weather warmed up by mid-day, the unseasonably cool temperatures are appropriate to a program that, as of this writing at least, has yet to generate much heat.
Although Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” couldn’t have kicked things off with more charm, its slightly autumnal mood turned out to set the tone: No film has yet set the festival on fire, although there’s been at least one stand-out, and much to value in others.
One of the most hotly anticipated titles this year was “Rust & Bone,” Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to his shattering, note-perfect prison thriller “A Prophet.” Once the audience got used to the fact that this movie wasn’t going to be “A Prophet 2,” we were taken on a journey that proved, once again, what an assured, superbly controlled director Audiard is. Mattias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard star in an unconventional love story about a single dad and mixed-martial-arts fighter who befriends a woman who trains killer whales at a marine park.
If that premise sounds impossibly forced, in Audiard’s hands it becomes an organic, spontaneous and surprisingly affecting study in physical extremes and emotional growth. The film, based on a short story by Craig Davidson, marks the breakout of the Belgian actor Schoenaerts (last seen in “Bullhead”) and a stunning, physically courageous turn from Cotillard, who is virtually unrecognizable stripped of make-up and any other accoutrements accentuating her extraordinary natural beauty. (Look for “Rust & Bone” later this fall courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.)
It’s only Thursday, but “Rust & Bone” is probably the strongest competition title so far (don’t hold me to that when you see what’s coming tomorrow). “After the Battle,” a semi-neo-realist drama set in post-Tahrir Cairo by Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah, never quite decided if it wanted to be “Medium Cool” or a hysterically pitched domestic melodrama. What made the film worth it was an electrifying performance by Nahed El Sebai as a Muslim wife and mother whose outward traditionalism masks a fiery spirit and nervy sense of independence.
“After the Battle” could be rightly described as a well-intentioned misfire; but it’s difficult to feel that charitable toward “Paradise: Love,” another film in competition here from the Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. An alternately unsettling and unsavory story of an Austrian woman who visits Kenya in order to procure sexual favors from the local young men, “Paradise: Love” features more fearless physical performances from lead actress Margarete Tiesel and the actors who play her, er, dates. But this curious study in sexual desperation that turns into downright depravity comes uncomfortably close to committing the kind of racist objectification it presumably critiques. A downer on which to end a day of comme ci, comme ca screenings.
The high points of Cannes are always the felicitous run-ins festival-goers have with each other just outside the Grand Palais or on one of Cannes’s winding side streets. Today, the happy surprise was bumping into AFI Silver programmer Todd Hitchcock on the crowded rue d’Antibes. He’d just come from a market screening of the LCD Soundsystem documentary “Shut Up and Play the Hits” (he indicated that Washington audiences will be able to see it “very soon,” hint, hint), after re-shuffling his schedule earlier in the day. He’d intended to see Michel Gondry’s “The We and the I,” playing in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar.
“I got shut out of it this morning,” Hitchcock said of the Gondry screening, “but welcome to Cannes. You find the next screening, you shuffle your schedule around and you figure out how to make it work. You can’t get too upset. You’re never going to run out of choices.”
Hitchcock added that for him Cannes is a “shopping trip,” during which he scouts the films Washington audiences will see down the road at the AFI Silver. “I’m looking at films that could work for the fall festivals, the E.U. Showcase in November and the Latin American Film Festival in September and October. So a lot of films from those countries are on my list to see, and of course some first-run possibilities, too.” Hitchcock’s highest want-to-see? “Cosmopolis,” from Canadian director David Cronenberg. “And his son has a film here as well, how about that?” Hitchcock said before heading to the market to schmooze with distributors. “That’s got to be some kind of crazy indicator.”
Yes, it’s an indicator that we’re getting very, very old. Time to get some rest to prepare for tomorrow’s marathon. First up at 8:30 a.m.: “Reality,” from Matteo Garrone, best known for his breathtaking 2008 mafia drama “Gomorrah.” Then the Sundance hit “Beasts of the Southern Wild” at 11. But even that much scheduling may be too organized: Everyone knows that the best way to make the Cannes movie-gods laugh is to make a plan.