American actors and directors projected to shine again at Cannes

Steven Zeitchik
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

CANNES, France — Seventy years ago next month, the Americans made a historic landing in France.

They’re at it again.

At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the prestigious and peculiarly French cinema gathering now underway, many of the hottest titles don’t come from an obscure group of Europeans, as they have so often before.

Instead they arrive from more familiar faces, including one of Hollywood’s biggest heartthrobs (Ryan Gosling) and one of its most grizzled veterans (Tommy Lee Jones) making rare directorial efforts, plus star turns from comedy actors (Steve Carrell), teen pinups (Robert Pattinson) and action stars (Channing Tatum). All of their movies will be — quelle scandal! — in English.

In the last five years or so, you had to look long and hard for more than a few English-language titles among the movies in the coveted annual “Cannes competition,” as financing for high-end English-language dramas dried up.

This year, out of the 18 movies in Cannes’ competition slate, considered by many the most elite group of films in the world, nine are English-language projects — the result of an interesting wave of American directors and financing players, as well as European filmmakers increasingly likely to look across borders for both casting and language choices.

Even one of France’s most-prized native sons, director Olivier Assayas, is catching Yankee Fever. His new movie “Clouds of Sils Maria,” though set in the Swiss Alps, has a uniquely American flavor: It stars some of Hollywood’s most prominent young talent in Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz. It, too, is in English.

Hollywood is in the midst of a major exporting boom, with blockbusters storming through Europe and Asia, often earning the majority of their box office dollars there.

But a funny thing happened when the studios began shipping “Captain America” across the globe: The rest of the world’s films started looking more American too.

It’s a globalization of sorts in the art house: With English-speaking celebrities increasingly important to film financing, and national cinemas more interconnected than ever, American independent movies and sensibilities are front and center on the world stage in ways they haven’t been in years.

“The globalized independent phenomenon is real, and it’s a lot more exciting than Hollywood globalization,” says Assayas, who reports that he found making a film with U.S. stars easier financially and more satisfying creatively. “Blockbuster globalization — which promotes a hegemonic view of cinema — tends to eliminate local cultural differences. The art-house kind embraces them.”

Surely Cannes seems to think so.

This year’s competition films include Jones’ western-flavored “The Homesman,” which sees Hilary Swank in Cannes for the first time, and Bennett Miller’s John du Pont story “Foxcatcher,” starring unlikely Cannes rookies Tatum and Carrell. Canadian auteur David Cronenberg’s first U.S.-made movie is the competition film “Maps to the Stars,” a take on child celebrity starring Pattinson.

All of this comes in addition to an older generation of English-language British filmmakers, including the venerable Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, both with new competition films. First-time North American voices have made the grade too, including Gosling, here with the surrealist “Lost River,” about a mysterious underwater kingdom; Ned Benson, director of the ambitious romantic drama “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”; and Damien Chazelle, who brings the Sundance fest phenomenon “Whiplash” to the Croisette.

Cannes also gave a special-screening slot to “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” continuing a recent tradition of conferring the gala treatment on a big Hollywood movie, and according its Canada-born, Hollywood-based director Dean DeBlois a status among the festival icons.

The trend is a reversal of sorts from the days when English-speaking actors such as Kristin Scott Thomas made movies in French to show their international bona fides. It also flies in the face of a more pessimistic assessment of English-language cinema, which tends to believe that most Americans are too busy crafting superhero product to worry about high-level dramas.

It would be too simple to say that the boom is the result of young Americans concentrating on more challenging films, though that is part of it.

Benson had never made a feature before “Rigby,” which he conceived as two separate films from dueling perspectives before the Weinstein Co. helped blend it into one piece. Chazelle, at 29, had made only a short before “Whiplash.” And Miller is hailed as one of the young American greats, though he has made only two films, “Capote” and “Moneyball.”

It also helps that American filmmakers are broadening their scope, allowing for more acceptance on the global stage.

Jones’ seemingly America-centric take on a 19th century frontier story — it involves a claim jumper and a plot to get three deranged immigrants across the landscape — contains a number of international elements.

“It’s less a Western than a movie about how Europeans came here, which I think is what gives it global appeal,” says Peter Brant, the film’s producer.

The trend is also partly financial. New players such as Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures have emerged to fund the kinds of risky, director-driven films that tend to find their way into Cannes. “Foxcatcher,” for instance, was entirely bankrolled by Annapurna.

Meanwhile, even foreign directors know casting a U.S. star is more important than ever to land financing, says Hollywood agent Rena Ronson, who has helped package movies for foreign directors and says she’s watched their eyes light up when a single actor’s name can provide another $5 million for their budget.

It’s a symbiotic relationship. The stars look to Cannes for a seal of approval and even a fresh start. Pattinson and Stewart are eager to redefine themselves after the “Twilight” franchise. Ryan Reynolds makes his Cannes debut after retreating from the high-profile Hollywood work that has preoccupied him in recent years — and, to some critics, not capitalized on his talents — to work with Cannes fixture Atom Egoyan in his native Canada.

Not that the French have always taken kindly to the Anglo shift. As many here are fond of reminding, cinema was partly born in France with greats like the Lumiere Bros. And French cinema has a long and at times insular tradition.

At a news conference announcing the Cannes slate, festival director Thierry Fremaux made a point of noting that “young French filmmakers are very abundant this year, full of verve and vitality.” But Fremaux was actually referring to a number of films in lower-profile sections. The competition this year includes just a modest three films from French filmmakers. And only one, from the octogenarian legend Jean-Luc Godard, is actually in French.

(In addition to Assayas, the Chechnya-set movie “The Search” has twice as much English as French or Chechen, and comes from Michel Hazanavicius, who was an early example of the globalizing trend with his 2011 U.S.-set, transnational movie “The Artist.”)

Some in France would be right to point out, as they do quietly, that this globalization trend rarely goes the other way; for every European actress such as Marion Cotillard who establishes a foothold in Hollywood, there are five more who don’t.

And globalization isn’t always simple. Cannes’ opening night film, “Grace of Monaco,” boasts a glorious international mosaic. Told mostly in English, it sports a French director, an Indian financier, an Iranian-born but British-raised writer who lives in Los Angeles and a star in Nicole Kidman, who was born in Hawaii, raised in Australia, lives in Nashville and makes most of her movies in Hollywood.

But any dreams of a transnational harmony quickly turned discordant when U.S. impresario Harvey Weinstein rejected Olivier Dahan’s film as too French and cut his own version, prompting both a war of words and many negative reviews for the French version after it opened the festival. Dahan, having publicly criticized a major U.S. distributor, is likely to return to making movies in French.

Still, European filmmakers practicing globalization say their peers would be wise to abandon nationalist notions.

“When you make an English-language movie in France, that’s when the trouble starts. Say goodbye to the support — the financing, the TV deals,” Assayas said. “But it’s a mistake. You want to communicate to a broader audience. It’s nice to make French films, but it’s even nicer to be recognized in more than 10 blocks in the center of Paris.”

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