No sooner had “The Great Gatsby” – Baz Luhrmann’s lurid 3-D adaptation of the classic tale of invidiousness and aspiration – kicked off the festival on May 15 than Sofia Coppola’s“The Bling Ring” – a lurid modern-day tale of invidiousness and aspiration, with a dash of celebrity klepto-stalking – kicked off the festival’s esteemed Un Certain Regard section. As director Coppola and her star, Emma Watson, climbed Cannes’ famous red staircase in designer dresses and borrowed bijoux, a thief or thieves were stealing a reported $1 million worth of Chopard jewelry from a hotel room – where assorted bling and sundry rings had been awaiting their own red-carpet moment.
And so it went at Cannes this year: The films being projected on screen uncannily reflected the projected anxieties and desires of the people watching, as the real world kept spinning just outside (there would be two more robberies, assorted muggings and even random shots from a starter gun as the week wore on). Not surprisingly, plenty of films addressed the tough global economy, increasing disparities in wealth and concomitant strains on families and individuals, among them “Heli,” about a Mexican family destroyed by the drug war; “A Touch of Sin,” by Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke; and Rebecca Zlotowski’s“Grand Central,” about a group of nuclear energy plant workers who are little more than irradiated cannon fodder for their corporate bosses. Alexander Payne’s black-and-white drama “Nebraska,” starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte as a father and son, is set in a graying, underpopulated Midwest of bleak prospects both visual and financial.
“Nebraska,” an understated counterpoint to Payne’s “The Descendants,” also has to do with the passage of time, joining several Cannes films about the end of eras, whether domestic (Asghar Farhadi’s effective if overworked “Le Passe”), cultural (Paolo Sorrentino’s ravishing, Fellini-esque “La Grande Bellezza,” James Gray’s absorbing, sepia-toned 1921 Ellis Island drama “The Immigrant”), meta-level (Steven Soderbergh’s touching and well-acted “Behind the Candelabra,” which will play on HBO in the United States and marks Soderbergh’s reported retirement from filmmaking), or literal (Roman Polanski’s 1971 Jackie Stewart documentary “Weekend of a Champion,” now emended by filmmaker Frank Simon with a poignant postscript featuring Polanski and Stewart reminiscing).
“Weekend of a Champion” offered a welcome jolt of straightforward verite as Cannes reached its midpoint on Wednesday, by which time the program was taking on a distressingly monotonous tone. Too many films were hewing, not just to a limited range of ideas but of cinematic vernacular: Graphic violence — such as that found in Nicolas Winding Refn’s all-style-no-substance “Only God Forgives” – and sexuality (“Stranger by the Lake,” “Blue is the Warmest Color”) are apparently still considered taboo enough to be arty at Cannes, but just as often they indicated a filmmaker trying too hard to shock. Even as beloved a figure as Claire Denis seemed to find it necessary to inject a potentially provocative meditation on class and morality with grisly, gratuitously perverse sexuality in “Bastards.”