Just when it looked like the Cannes Film Festival would be fatally awash in rain and unexceptional films, the weekend produced bright spots both meteorological and cinematic.
The fact that they weren’t always aligned didn’t matter: It might have been pouring rain when the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” made their Cannes debuts on Saturday night. But by the next morning the sun was shining, as if the sky itself was acknowledging the sheer brio and exuberance of filmmaking both movies exemplified.
Roughly based on the career of folk musician Dave Van Ronk, “Inside Llewyn Davis” features a breakout performance from Oscar Isaac as the title character, who in the winter of 1961 is suffering a week of career and personal setbacks in New York’s Greenwich Village. Gorgeously filmed in a palette of browns, beiges and olive greens, “Inside Llewyn Davis” features an equally evocative soundtrack of folk classics that Isaac performs with soulful virtuosity. At one antic point, he’s helped along by Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver as their characters record a novelty side for Columbia called “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” about the space race.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” features its share of Coen-esque dark humor and outright silliness but it’s a wistful, deeply felt film devoid of the glib irony that sometimes befalls their work. A similar moral seriousness can be found in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” an outlaw-romance set in Texas that could easily have slid into cliché southern-noir territory were it not for Lowery’s lyrical, un-mannered writing and sensitive direction.
The film stars Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, who joined Lowery on Sunday for a brief chat about the movie. Both were sent Lowery’s short film “Pioneer” – in which musician Will Oldham plays a man telling a bedtime story to his son with riveting, hypnotic intensity – when they received the “Saints” script and were immediately convinced. “The opening scene just spoke to me right away and the whole script is so poetic,” Mara said. “It was very apparent to me when I read it that I knew I wanted to do it.”
“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” opens with Ruth and Bob (Mara and Affleck) arguing against the backdrop of the Texas Hill Country; as the story develops they separate, with Bob obsessively trying to find his way back to her. Their passion recalls great love stories of yore – from Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde” to Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen in “Badlands” – but, noting that they only had a few days together on set, Affleck gave Lowery the credit for the sparks they generate in the film.
“I love Rooney, however if there’s any chemistry, [it’s] about the context. Rooney and I could have a terrible relationship and no affection, and if David had done his job it would have come off.”
Lowery is now at work writing the re-make of “Pete’s Dragon,” as well as another crime drama called “The Old Man and the Gun,” with Robert Redford attached. If “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is any indication, Lowery will make otherwise ho-hum genre exercises into works of his own singular, thoughtful imagination – one as influenced by literature and music as movies.
“I think all my films wind up being about people who don’t want to grow up,” said Lowery, who does not intend to move to Hollywood, preferring to stay in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and daughter. “I’m very aware of the wheelhouse I’m operating in and the things I need to entertain as far as making sure the audience enjoys the film, but also pushing it in another direction, and shake things up a little bit.”
Meanwhile, Motion Picture Association of America CEO and former U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd is making his usual rounds at Cannes, focusing as always on perennial issues like piracy and developing foreign markets for American movies. This year he has another issue on his mind: upcoming trade talks between the European Union and the U.S., which have already sparked an outcry from Europe-based filmmakers who are demanding that films and other audiovisual cultural products be exempted. More than 5,000 filmmakers throughout Europe have signed a petition calling for film subsidies, quotas and tariffs to be kept in place.
Dodd will address the issue Monday, at a panel organized by the French Ministry for Culture and Communication. True to his political roots, he’s taking a diplomatic, see-both-sides approach to the issue – unlike his predecessor Jack Valenti, who took a notorious hard line against the “cultural exception” in Doha 20 years ago.
“That resulted in some very bad feelings for a long time, and I don’t see any value in that,” Dodd said over a glass of wine at the bustling Majestic hotel on Sunday. But a recent draft document taking films out of free trade discussions is not the answer, either, he said. “We don’t believe in beginning a negotiation by taking things off the table.” Noting that the cultural exception opened a Pandora’s box of similar caveats for other industries and agreements, Dodd also acknowledged that in France – which has the most stringent protectionist policies favoring domestic films – Hollywood movies generally do well, accounting for between 15 and 20 percent of the market.
Whatever the outcome of the trade talks, Dodd said, “We’ll accept what was negotiated, we won’t appeal it. We’ll respect the outcome and we won’t challenge it. My view is, let this be negotiated.”
So far, Dodd had only seen one film: “Le Passe” (“The Past”), by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who received a $25,000 prize from one of the MPAA’s Asia-Pacific Film Awards programs several years ago, allowing him to make his Oscar-winning drama “A Separation.” (Sony Pictures Classics acquired “Le Passe” over the weekend, clearly seeing Oscar potential in the taut family psycho-drama.)
Similarly, Chinese director Xiao Lu Xue, whose romantic comedy “Finding Mr. Right” has been a runaway hit in that country, participated in an MPA workshop that resulted in her visiting Hollywood. Dodd expressed hopes for similar programs in such emerging markets as Russia, India and Latin America, even if their indigenous film industries don’t directly help the Hollywood studios he represents.
“I think it’s very much in our interest to build an audience and build a domestic market for our product,” Dodd said, adding that filmmakers like Ang Lee exemplify how artists can eventually grow into global powerhouses. “We want to identify great talent that knows how to make films and tell great stories,” he said, “because great stories travel.”