Well, that went pretty much as expected.
Such are the sentiments that greeted “Grace of Monaco,” the troubled portrait of the late Grace Kelly, which opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. In the midst of controversy — Monaco’s Prince Albert boycotted the gala premiere, and U.S. distributor Harvey Weinstein was pointedly not in attendance to escort star Nicole Kidman down the red carpet — the film itself seemed particularly trivial, a tonal mish-mash of gothic melodrama and labored political allegory that finally added up to very little. “‘Monaco’ Craps Out as Cannes Opener,” Variety gleefully shouted the next morning.
Few expected much more of “Grace of Monaco,” which Weinstein reportedly still plans to release in the United States (the film opened here this week). The question on most filmgoers’ minds was what such a lame choice for opening night augured for the rest of a program that includes plenty of proven directors but few sure things.
As of Friday, there was only one clear disaster — Atom Egoyan’s woefully and wildly misconceived kidnap thriller “Captives,” starring Ryan Reynolds — and one or two early favorites. Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” starring Timothy Spall as British painter JMW Turner, is a lavish, spectacularly staged period piece. Longtime Leigh collaborator, cinematographer Dick Pope, delivers the finest work of his career in bringing Turner’s own watery, diffuse palette to the screen. (Timothy Spall does an equally masterful job of grunting, growling and groaning his way through his portrayal of Turner, a notorious introvert.)
As pleasurable as “Mr. Turner” was to behold, the standout so far has been Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu,” a superbly crafted story of the jihadist invasion of Mali that manages to be both urgently of its era and timeless. Featuring a cast of Mali musicians, the film revolves around a nomadic family that has largely steered clear of the cruel and arbitrary rule of the Arabic-speaking invaders who have laid claim to the city. After an accidental death, however, they come to witness first-hand the perversion of Islam that has taken hold in a country once known for its gorgeous music and flowering culture.
Both the music and culture of Mali are in abundant supply in Sissako’s lush production, although they are violently quashed by gruesome punishments that at one point involves burying a couple up to their necks, then stoning them to death. As an unvarnished portrait of impunity, “Timbuktu” joins Israeli director Keren Yedaya’s “That Lovely Girl,” about a woman trying to break free from her abusive father, and “Silvered Water,” a heartbreaking documentary essay about the war in Syria and specifically the occupation of Homs.
A collaboration between Syrian director Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedrixan, “Silvered Water” is composed of scraps of first-person films posted to YouTube and searing images taken by Bendrixan on the ground in Syria, then sent to Mohammed in Paris, where he compiled them into an essay reminiscent of the late Chris Marker — impressionistic, but also sharply literal portrait of a conflict that can seem far away and even abstract in fact-driven news reports.
With its images of dispossessed and orphaned children, dying animals and tortured dissidents, “Silvered Water” presents something of a first-hand verite rebuke to the kind of triumphalist mannerism practiced by, say, JMW Turner and his Royal Academy fellows. There’s no triumph to speak of in the demolished streets and alleyways of Homs, as “Silvered Water” so eloquently reminds us, and war is never pretty.
The Cannes Film Festival continues through May 25.