Over the past few years, the Cannes Film Festival, which gets underway Wednesday in the French Riviera resort town, has opened with a big, splashy — and notably commercial — bang. Last year’s opening-night film was Baz Luhrmann’s 3-D extravaganza “The Great Gatsby,” which arrived on the heels of such high-profile productions as “Up,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Moonrise Kingdom” — each of which opened in American theaters soon after their Cannes debut and proceeded to make oodles of cash.
The feeling this year is more muted, to put it mildly. The opening film is “Grace of Monaco,” a drama starring Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly, which should have opened in American theaters months ago but has been continually pushed back by the Weinstein Co., which now may not release the film in the United States at all. (The film’s distributor, Harvey Weinstein, has been engaged in a very public feud with director Olivier Dahan over the film’s tone and focus.) Prince Albert and his sisters — who are virtually next-door neighbors of Cannes — are boycotting the festival this year in protest of the film, which they say distorts the facts of their mother’s life.
Still, with Kidman on hand to provide the requisite stardust to the red carpet, and with “Grace of Monaco” scheduled to open in European theaters over the next few weeks, the film in many ways fits the mold for a festival whose gaze may have increasingly wandered toward Hollywood in recent years, but has always been firmly fixed across the pond. American journalists covering Cannes know that their counterparts from France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom have priority when it comes to interviews. What’s more, at a time when more than 70 percent of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s” half-billion-dollar gross has been earned overseas, and “Million Dollar Arm” is being positioned as the rare American film able to penetrate the notoriously self-sustaining film market in India, a film’s success or failure in America — or even whether it opens in the United States at all — looks like an increasingly niggling detail.
Compared with years past in which stateside auteurs such as the Coen brothers, Wes Anderson and Terrence Malick made high-profile debuts here, the lineup of this year’s 67th edition is notably light on North American brand names: Tommy Lee Jones will present his sophomore directorial effort, “The Homesman,” in competition, along with Bennett Miller’s highly anticipated “Foxcatcher,” starring Steve Carell and Channing Tatum. For sheer starpower, Carell and Tatum will be equaled if not surpassed by Ryan Gosling, whose directorial debut, “Lost River,” will make its world premiere in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. (Ryan Reynolds, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson and Jessica Chastain are also expected to be on hand for their various red-carpet moments.)
This isn’t to suggest that Cannes will be completely devoid of the kind of hoopla and hucksterism that make it such a curious blend of old-school glamour and tacky stunt marketing. This year’s most muscular Exhibit A: Preview footage of “The Expendables 3,” the action-comedy featuring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Jason Statham and more macho beefcake than can be listed here, will be shown to news media and industry types Sunday morning, followed by a parade of the stars riding tanks to the Croisette’s swanky Carlton Hotel. (DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg is also bringing “How to Train Your Dragon 2” to town for a special sneak peek.)
Whether such ballyhoo will greatly affect the fortunes of “The Expendables 3” when it opens this summer is debatable. But a Cannes debut even without armored military vehicles can make a huge difference to a small film just making its way into a crowded, increasingly unpredictable marketplace. Last year, Alexander Payne’s black-and-white serio-comedy “Nebraska” made its world premiere here even before it was completely finished; the film’s warm reception and a best actor win for lead player Bruce Dern launched “Nebraska” on an awards circuit that lasted all the way through the Oscar nominations.
The 2010 opening-night film, “Robin Hood,” starring Russell Crowe, didn’t fare nearly as well: Indeed, it landed with a conspicuous thud, earning tepid reviews and lackluster proceeds at the box office. Another version of the same story can be found in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which received rave reviews and a jury prize at Cannes last year but couldn’t sustain that elevation through the long awards season that followed.
Those cautionary tales may explain why some U.S. studios choose to bypass Cannes, even if they’re invited. (Among the missing this year, either because they weren’t ready, weren’t willing, or for other reasons: Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” David Fincher’s “Gone Girl,” Tim Burton’s “Big Eyes” and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.”)
Faced with the expense of flying a cast in on private jets, putting them up at the Hotel du Cap and throwing a huge party on a yacht — only to have their film stumble either from poor reviews or peaking too early — studios may decide to sit out the Cote d’Azur.
“I don’t think the big studios get out of Cannes what they used to,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which has five films at the festival this year and will be aggressively in the hunt for a few more. “Studios don’t want to expose their movie to any negative criticism — they don’t have to. Cannes used to be a place where you could make a lot of noise at a time when you really couldn’t have the kind of awareness that you can have now with the Internet. It was the only time your movie could be heard.” Now, he says, it’s possible to “create the same kind of noise in Kansas City, if you created the right type of event.”
The good news, at least for the critics and film fans who elbow their way through pugilistic crowds to get into the imposing Palais des Festivals or its satellite screening rooms, is that the absence of Hollywood makes more space for the classic European auteurist fare for which Cannes has long been cherished. Among that group of cine-worshipers, it’s such directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and David Cronenberg who are huge stars, as are Olivier Assayas, the Dardenne brothers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Atom Egoyan. All of those filmmakers have movies in competition this year.
Other directors joining them — Alice Rohrwacher, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Xavier Dolan, Michel Hazanavicius — may not have the ring of a Schwarzenneger or a Kidman. But chances are that one of them could leave with the Palme d’Or — or at least a surprise hit, like Hazanavicius did with “The Artist” three years ago. In other words, as the program gets underway in earnest over the next day or two, Cannes will have returned to the rightful role played by any great film festival: as a place of genuine excitement and discovery.
The Cannes Film Festival begins Wednesday and runs through May 25.