The Cannes Competition line-up is traditionally an exclusive gathering of established auteurs or rising young filmmakers who have paid their dues competing in other strands of the fest’s vast official selection. It can therefore take someone like Hong Sang-soo multiple Un Certain Regard selections before he finally gets invited to main competition (as he finally did this year with his very fine In Another Country). Meanwhile, there are directors like Ken Loach, who, once having breached the Competition, get a seemingly free pass to future births, no matter the quality of the submitted work. By these standards, then, one of the more unexpected inclusions in this year’s line-up was Jeff Nichols, a young American director who’s previous CV includes only two films, the under-seen Shotgun Stories and last year’s Critic’s Week winner, Take Shelter. But I certainly don’t begrudge Nichols or his new film, Mud, this opportunity: Based on the excellent Take Shelter alone, a fighting chance at some legitimate Cannes hardware is more than appropriate, even without working his way up the proverbial totem, cutting his teeth multiple times over in less visible line-ups.
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With so many returns to the filmmaking fold after prolonged absences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it became easy to overlook the fact that David Cronenberg, one of the higher profile director’s in this year’s Competition, was in a sense returning as well. Returning, not to directing (his last film came out not even one year ago), but to a style of filmmaking that he had worked toward disguising over the last ten years. Over this period, Cronenberg has mainly taken to visualizing other people’s material, generally imbuing both the author’s original text and the screenwriter’s adaptations (Spider, A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method) with his career-long thematic concerns. So while these pictures, all very good to great, feel very much of a piece with Cronenberg’s catalogue, there was an unhinged, stylistic provocation missing—very much intended, but the distance between, say, Crash and A Dangerous Method, is about as extreme an artistic divide in contemporary cinema.
Part of the fun of a major film festival is discovering hidden gems or correcting personal cinematic blind spots. I experienced a bit of both on the ninth day of the Cannes Film Festival this year, after hearing a couple of glowing endorsements from colleagues for Darezhan Omirbaev’s Crime and Punishment adaptation, Student. Until now, the Kazakhstani Omirbaev had eluded me, his films so lacking in distribution that I’ve heard of virtually none of them, despite being now 20 years into a relatively fruitful career and already having won the top prize in the 1998 Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes for Tueur a gages. He now he’s returned for the third time to compete in Un Certain Regard with Student, a stark, uninflected character study transposing the themes of Dostoyevsky famous novel to modern Kazakhstan. Being unfamiliar with the remainder of his work, I can’t say where this falls in the man’s filmography, but I do know it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in the last few days of the fest—the kind of thing that will probably never be distributed Stateside and thus makes sifting through opinions and taking scheduling risks worthwhile at such a vast festival.
Fair or not, a couple films had targets on their back coming into Cannes this year. Depending on who you ask spoke with, either Walter Salles’ On the Road or Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy were ripe for disaster. Indeed, I was skeptical enough of the latter to skip it entirely (I opted for sleep—a lot of it. Which is why this dispatch arrives a little later than planned). Unlike most, however, I had no expectations whatsoever for On the Road, Jose Rivera’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s cult coming-of-age novel and one of many texts posited as “unfilmmable”. I’m not sure if I’d go that far, since the rough skeleton of a good film is evidenced sporadically in Salles’ version; but he and Rivera would have done well to to fortify the structure of their film, which goes all-in with the episodic nature of the novel. Yet in their resignation to it’s wandering gait, they’ve lapsed on cinematic translation, which may have, amongst other things, condensed the prose into more potent, less repetitive stop-overs.
I’ve noted the relative abundance of American productions in Competition at this year’s Cannes Film festival in a prior dispatch. But if that wasn’t curious enough, the programmers here have made the interesting decision of screening a majority of these during the last half of the festival. In fact, beginning with Wednesday’s premiere of Killing Them Softly, the final five Competition screenings are all products of the States, albeit made in some cases by foreign directors. There’s been disgruntled chatter about why these, for the most part, highly anticipated films have been scheduled in this manner, as many critics leave the fest a number of days prior to the official closing ceremony. Because of this, and considering the gradual increase in quality these last couple days, this seemed to have all the makings of a backloaded festival, whereas most Cannes line-ups reveal the goods straight away. But following the unfortunate concessions of Lawless—and bracing for the impending critical darts aimed squarely at both On the Road and The Paperboy—a lot was riding on Killing Them Softly, Andrew Dominik’s anticipated return to the director’s chair after a five-year pause following 2007’s contemporary classic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.