It's still the greatest show on earth at Cannes

Saturday, 11 May 2013 - 12:14pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
This year's festival has a fiendishly well curated line-up, beginning with The Great Gatsby, writes Robbie Collin

More than a month ago, the Seven Seas, a 282ft yacht with glistening blond wood decks and a hull of midnight blue, left Fort Lauderdale in Florida to begin its 4,000-mile voyage to the French Riviera. For the next fortnight or so, this enormous vessel will serve as accommodation for its owner, Steven Spielberg, while he performs his duties as jury president at the 66th Cannes Film Festival.

Earlier this week I heard a rumour, entirely unfounded, that the director and his fellow jurors would be watching the 20 films in competition not at the city's bustling Palais des Festivals but from the comfort of the Seven Seas' open-air infinity pool, which boasts its own state-of-the-art 15ft cinema screen.

If the image of Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Ang Lee, Lynne Ramsay, Christoph Waltz and the rest of the panel bobbing around in their trunks and bikinis while the latest arthouse offering from Mexico or Chad unfurls above their heads seems faintly absurd - well, that's Cannes for you: fountainhead of gossip, wellspring of the preposterous and home to the most vibrant and passionate film festival on earth.

This year the wheels of controversy have begun to grind even earlier than usual, with the festival's decision to open with Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby prompting them into motion. By Wednesday evening's gala premiere, Luhrmann's 3D adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald's novel will have been playing for the best part of a week in America, where it has been met with decidedly mixed reviews.

To add insult to injury, last Wednesday a special screening of the film was introduced by Luhrmann at the Gold Coast Film Festival on Long Island, New York: this is not, I suspect, an event with which Thierry Fremaux, Cannes's redoubtable artistic director, is used to jockeying for primacy.

Cannes has a proud tradition of kicking off with a dud: in 2006, the industry's great and good dutifully filed into the Palais for the world's first screening of The Da Vinci Code. But Gatsby's premature bow in the US is more damaging than bad notices, because it leaves you wondering whether the festival still retains its international clout.

Until, that is, you delve into the schedule and start goggling at the riches within. This year's competition line-up is a fiendishly well-curated selection of films, from hotly anticipated potential crowd-pleasers to diligently foraged-for truffles of world cinema.

The muskiest of the lot may prove to be Behind the Candelabra, Steven Soderbegh's biopic of Liberace, which stars Michael Douglas as the gay Las Vegas pianist and Matt Damon as Scott Thorson, his biddable young lover. Soderbergh's film was produced by the US television network HBO, and Cannes is an established and astute supporter of this long-maligned side of the film business.

Also looking promising are Only God Forgives, a seamy Bangkok crime thriller directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling; and The Immigrant, James Gray's lavish 1920s period drama about a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard), who throws down roots in Manhattan's fecund underworld. New York takes another starring role in Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llweyn Davis, a drama set in the city's thriving folk music scene in the 1960s.

The competition films are all in contention for the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest honour, and I suspect Spielberg, who is not a universally admired figure among French filmmakers, may be tempted to choose a slightly leftfield winner to underline his aesthete's credentials.

Accordingly, I've placed a couple of early bets: on The Past, the new film from the Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, and also Like Father, Like Son, by Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda. These are two heart-on-sleeve domestic dramas from well-established auteurs that I suspect may satisfy Spielberg's fondness for honest emotion, thickly spread.

Away from the competition, there are further pleasures to be had in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, which acts as a showcase for films that offer, as the banner suggests, a particular outlook in terms of style and story. The opening film here is The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola's comic drama based on an extraordinary spate of recent Hollywood burglaries, in which Californian teenagers ransacked celebrities' homes for jewellery and haute couture. Emma Watson stars, not as victim but perpetrator.

The strand will also play host to The Bastards, a harrowing-sounding drama from Claire Denis, and As I Lay Dying, an adaptation of the William Faulkner novel written by, directed and starring the perennially busy James Franco.

To find any British films you have to dig a little deeper, although hopefully they will be worth the effort. The Selfish Giant, the second feature by Clio Barnard, is playing in Directors' Fortnight, and transposes the Oscar Wilde fairy tale to the present-day Yorkshire scrap metal business. For Those In Peril, the debut feature of the young Scottish filmmaker Paul Wright, will screen as part of Critics' Week, and tells the story of a misfit in a remote Scottish fishing village coming to terms with his elder brother's death at sea. And Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, an HBO drama by Stephen Frears examining the boxer's status as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, will screen out of competition.

Meanwhile, in the Cannes Classics strand, there is an unlikely 3D conversion of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor and A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by the Irish film critic Mark Cousins. And at the ever-popular Cinema de la Plage, restored prints of favourite films by Hitchcock, Keaton and Tati will be screened on the beach every night.

The water might be warm in the Seven Seas infinity pool, and Spielberg's crew can no doubt mix a mean sundowner, but when Jour de Fete starts to unspool at the Plage Mace and the sun dunks into the Med, even the promise of a dip with Nicole Kidman couldn't shift me from my deckchair.

 


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