Restive occasion: A muted mood prevails at the 63rd Festival de Cannes

Click through coverage of all the red carpet events and cinema buzz at this year's Cannes Film Festival.
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 14, 2010

CANNES, FRANCE -- The skies are partly cloudy, the breeze is chilly and the iffy weather is matched by the prevailing muted mood at the 63rd edition of Festival de Cannes, which opened Wednesday. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that "Robin Hood," which stars Russell Crowe as the 12th-century legend and kicked off the festival, received a respectful but less-than-rousing welcome from the press here.

The handsome, somber-minded spectacle of adventure, romance and historical sweep brings new vibrancy to one of the movies' most long-lived franchises. Crowe offers a muscular, if deeply furrowed, addition to a long roster of actors who have played the renegade, including Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Kevin Costner and Cary Elwes. For her part, Cate Blanchett brings a brittle sense of self-reliance to Robin's love interest, Marion Loxley.

But the latest "Robin Hood" received mixed reviews from critics here, ranging from admiration of its pristine production values to boredom with its talkier sequences and two-hour-plus running time.

Blame it on the freak 30-foot wave that drenched this harbor city just last week. Blame the volcano in Iceland, which delayed the flights of several festival-goers, resulting in a more jet-lagged and grouchy audience than usual. Or just blame it on the economic jitters that have swept the European Union. Perhaps all those current events account for the relatively subdued tone of the festival, which used to be known for buxom starlets and outrageous publicity antics.

So far there has been precious little beachside ballyhoo (last year, in honor of "Up," Disney tried to launch a miniature house with multicolored balloons, to no avail). The Croisette, while busy, is devoid of splashy billboards hyping upcoming projects. Lavish, over-the-top bashes have been nixed.

The only American film in competition is "Fair Game," Doug Liman's adaptation of former CIA operative Valerie Plame's book of the same name. (Plame and her husband, Joe Wilson, are expected to be here in support of the film when it premieres May 20.) Two other American titles, Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" and Woody Allen's "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," are being screened outside competition.

For the most part, Cannes belongs to the world this year, with such highly anticipated foreign titles as "Biutiful," by Alejandro González Iñárritu, starring Javier Bardem; "Outrage," by Takeshi Kitano; "Tamara Drewe," by Stephen Frears; and "Aurora" by Cristi Puiu.

The festival also marks the return of some cherished veterans, including Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, Bertrand Tavernier, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Manoel de Oliveira -- who at age 101 is nearly as old as the medium itself.

USA Today reporter Anthony Breznican said he sensed "mild disappointment" on the part of festival-goers at the absence of mainstream American titles this year. (Several fans were hoping that Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" and Christopher Nolan's "Inception" would be here.) "But in their absence, there's now an eagerness and a sense of potential surprise for movies that probably would have been overshadowed totally by higher-profile behemoth Hollywood movies."

The governing ethic of austerity seems to have seeped into the movies themselves. Among a program featuring films about a disaffected father (Wang Xiaoshuai's "Chongquin Blues"), a young photographer's obsession with a dead girl (de Oliveira's "The Strange Case of Angelica") and divorce (Radu Muntean's "Tuesday, After Christmas"), only "Tournée" ("On Tour"), directed by the actor Mathieu Amalric, has dared to show a little skin, figurative and literal. The quirkily transgressive backstage comedy-drama features a dazzling cast of American New Burlesque performers strutting their spangled, suggestive stuff as dancers touring France under the tutelage of an anxious impresario, played by Amalric. "Tournée" offered a brief, unruly burst of joie de vivre in an otherwise tasteful but tediously safe opening slate.

And the film's irrepressible stars -- who go by such stage names as Dirty Martini, Kitten on the Keys and Mimi Le Meaux -- made what surely qualifies as the most spectacular red-carpet entrance yet at Cannes, vamping and va-va-vooming in retro-glam and naughtily sheer gowns as brassy striptease music played. Just minutes before, de Oliveira made his own triumphant and impossibly spry trip up the capacious stairs of the Grand Theatre Lumiere, in a similarly inspiring feat of grace, showmanship and verve.

So far, the "Tournée" girls are the strongest female presence at Cannes. "Absolutely we're feminists," the platinum bouffanted Martini said at a news conference earlier in the day. "We're using burlesque as a forum to educate women in the need for their own sexual expression."

While last year featured a number of well-received films by women, including Jane Campion, Isabel Coixet and Andrea Arnold, this year features no female filmmakers in competition (the festival has added female filmmakers in recent weeks, in sidebars). And as with Steven Soderbergh's 4 1/2 -hour "Che" double feature two years ago, this year will feature a marathon sit in the form of Olivier Assayas' 5 1/2 -hour "Carlos," about 1970s terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal.

In Soderbergh's case, Cannes didn't result in his film being picked up for distribution; instead, its lukewarm reception here consigned it to limbo until it was acquired by IFC. (Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" and "The Da Vinci Code" premiered here to similarly negative response; the notices didn't hurt the latter at the box office.)

But a warm Cannes reception can send a movie into its theatrical life with an important wind of approval at its back. Certainly Allen, whose 2008 film, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," was a Cannes hit that year, hopes the same luck will strike with his newest work, which stars Scarlett Johansson and which the program describes as possessing "a little romance, some sex, some treachery and . . . a few laughs."

Brian Grazer, a producer of "Robin Hood" who has brought several films to Cannes over the years, called the festival "very important" to a film intended to be a major cinematic event in succeeding months. "It's an opportunity to capture the whole world's attention in a single moment," he said at a news conference Wednesday.

The festival continues through May 23.

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