Cannes Film Festival 2014: star power vs quality movies

The Cannes Film Festival is incontestably the most important film event in the world, offering glamorous red carpet events and stars by the boatload but also offering “serious” -- for lack of a better word -- cinema a place in the spotlight, with entirely star-free competition titles including important new work from major arthouse names such as Mauritanian veteran director Abderrahmane Sissako, who presented his Mali-set, jihad-themed drama Timbuktu; Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, who explores the Russian soul and a dark backwater in his Leviathan and the winner of the top prize, Winter Sleep, from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which looks at a small cast of characters talking for over three hours in a hotel in rural Anatolia and manages to illuminate such subjects as the rich/poor divide in Turkey.

All major festivals need some star power as well as good movies and this year’s edition of Cannes again suggested that, unfortunately, sometimes, these two can be mutually exclusive, as the widely panned opening film, Grace of Monaco, a tone-deaf biopic which starred Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly, demonstrated.

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But every national newspaper around the world featured a photo of Kidman on the red carpet at the opening of the festival on the front page the next day. The choice of the film was thus justified and, perhaps unwittingly, also suggests that though some of the year’s highest-quality films premiere at the festival, what is just as important as art in Cannes is commerce, as movie-making is a business as well as an art. Indeed, the status of Cannes as the most important film-related event on the calendar derives at least as much from the films presented there as from the people that come down to see them, as parallel to the film the biggest film market event of the year unspools in the bowels of the Palais, the festival’s main hub.

The inclusion of some films in competition, notable The Homesman from actor-turned-director Tommy Lee Jones, who also co-stars alongside Hilary Swank, Miranda Otto and Meryl Streep, and The Captive from Atom Egoyan with Ryan Reynolds and Rosario Dawson, felt like concessions to red-carpet needs as much as anything else.

But for each film that felt like it didn’t belong to the best of the 2014 vintage of cinema, there was one that was, including the above-mentioned three films as well as such boundary-pushing films as Xavier Dolan’s Mommy and Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, which jointly won the Jury Prize and both of which are playful and experimental without eschewing drama or foregoing depth.

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As usual, the wealth was spread widely and across all sections, with a wide variety of good to great films available because a total of three different programming teams decide on what will be shown in the theatres along the main drag that hugs the bay, the Croisette, with the separate Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sections programmed independently and thus able to offer things that might not be to the Official Selection’s committee’s taste but deserves a spot at Cannes nonetheless.

Of the parallel sections, the standouts for this critic was the Directors’ Fortnight title Li’l Quinquin, which is actually a four-episode TV series, directed by French auteur Bruno Dumont and shown as one long, 197-minute film. It is set in a tiny village in Dumont’s native northern France, where dead people turn up inside equally dead cows and the bumbling local police inspector is followed around by a group of rowdy kids. Though the project is Dumont’s first foray into something more comic, the minimalist and miserabilist tone of his earlier features (Flanders, Humanité) surfaces more than once to finally turn Li’l Quinquin (he’s the child protagonist) into a tragicomic farce about how a loss of innocence invariably leads to corrupted values and lives.

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