CANNES, France — Every film festival presents the temptation to find an overarching theme, even if a filmgoer has to stand on her tippy-toes to find it.
But even to the most jaded, this year’s Cannes Film Festival presented undeniable links, not just between the films being shown in and out of competition, but between what was happening on and off screen.
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.”
Similarly, otherwise rich and politically charged stories were often couched in regrettably obvious, simplistic stories, from Hany Abu-Assad’s“Omar,” a Romeo-and-Juliet story set on Israel’s West Bank, to “Grisgris,” Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s earnest drama about a Chadian dancer that, like “Omar,” ends on a blunt, dispiriting note of vengeful violence.
To Haroun’s credit, “Grisgris” represented a gratifying — if literally heavy-handed — attempt at feminism with a festival that more than ever evinced an overpoweringly male sensibility. (Only one female filmmaker was represented in the main competition.) It was rare to behold a movie in which a woman wasn’t depicted as a prostitute (“Jeune et Jolie,” “Bastards,” “Blood Ties,” “The Immigrant” and, yes, “Grisgris”), a stripper (“La Grande Bellezza”), a monstrous mother (“Only God Forgives”) or simply an obscured object of desire (“Gatsby,” “Omar,” Critics Week award winner “Salvo”). Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” represented something of a half-full glass within a program dominated by the male gaze: The film presents a raw, honest portrayal of a young woman’s sexual awakening and her first love affair, but it’s also fair to wonder whether a female director would have lingered quite so lubriciously on the film’s protracted lesbian sex scenes.
Those frank sequences notwithstanding, the net effect at Cannes has been one of filmmakers playing it safe and reverting to tired, troublesome form rather than taking genuinely risky and thoughtful leaps into the future. (In shorthand referencing last year’s similarly dull outing, this edition had yet on Friday to yield its “Holy Motors” moment.)
In this context, some films stood out, if not for their formal daring, then for their lyricism, compassion and technical ambition. Two of the best films of the festival actually premiered at Sundance earlier this year: the urban drama “Fruitvale Station” and the Texas noir “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” both in competition in Un Certain Regard, took their respective genres into humanistic, heartfelt territory. Of the films in main competition, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” featuring a breakout turn from Oscar Isaac as a luckless folk singer in 1961 New York, found the filmmakers at the top of their game, blessedly free of the glib humor and caustic irony that have a habit of leaving viewers feeling as alienated as entertained.
Like so many films at Cannes this year, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is about transition – in this case the point at which American folk music went from being a hermetic subculture to a commodity. Another of the festival’s strongest offerings — J.C. Chandor’s astonishing “All Is Lost” — addresses time’s passing more obliquely, with 76-year-old Robert Redford delivering a bravura performance as a man alone at sea on a sinking sailboat. A magnificent if harrowing example of cinema at its purest, “All Is Lost” contains almost no dialogue; instead, Redford communicates his character through action as he methodically battles the elements.
The movie might be about one man against a world he can’t control but, as Chandor noted at a press conference, it’s also about a cinematic icon embodying his own generation’s turbulent passage into a treacherous next phase. “All Is Lost” is an exceptional achievement in every emotional, artistic and technical sense, and it represents a career-redefining moment for Redford. For some reason, it was passed over for competition in favor of far less impressive fare. Real-life Cannes robberies aside, that’s a crime in its own right.
The Cannes Film Festival concludes on Sunday, May 26.