Cannes 2014: alpine peaks and sudden sinkholes

Cannes isn’t just the world’s cinéxtravaganza but a film festival that seems to splay itself out on the beach, naked for all to gawk over, beneath the sparkle of the Mediterranean May sky. So perhaps it’s sun-strokingly easy to forget that it’s not all serene beauty laid out on the screen—this can be a fest like any other, dotted with alpine peaks and sudden sinkholes. Enter fest-opener Grace of Monaco, with Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly, this royal debutante bringing critics to the depths of despair. (“So awe-inspiringly wooden that it is basically a fire-risk,” opined The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw.)

One of the first competition entries, though, Mike Leigh’s neo-Dickensian Mr Turner, about the English painter (played by Timothy Spall), quickly raised the bar for the Palme d’Or. The scribes acclaimed Leigh’s brushstrokes; “painting’s renowned master of light,” noted Variety’s Scott Foundas, “gets a suitably illuminating screen biography … an ecstatically beautiful and exquisitely detailed portrait of the artist as a cantankerous middle-aged man.”

Canadian contenders drew mixed responses. Atom Egoyan got mostly boos for his thriller The Captive, with its twists into the ludicrous and turns into the schlocky. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is, apparently, either a scabrous satire of Hollywood or an emptily, icily cynical take on fame and celebrity; most did seem to agree, at least, that it offered no escapist, tabloid or box-office-appealing look at Tinseltown. 25-year-old Xavier Dolan’s fourth film already, the “explosively emotional” Mommy, shot in an aspect ratio approximating the size of a selfie-portrait, got more good than bad reviews.

(Interlude: Widely praised, over in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar, was Quebec director Stephane Lafleur’s Tu dors Nicole, an offbeat, black-and-white coming-of-age film. And, screening in Un Certain Regard, Antoine Ferran’s two-halved Bird People was called much-needed “ambitious lunacy” by one critic.)

After his look at true crime in Capote and sports in Moneyball, Bennett Miller combines the two, reportedly to outstanding effect, in Foxcatcher, where Steve Carell is a wealthy oddball who’s bloody determined to fund the USA’s 1988 Olympic wrestling squad. But by the red-carpet tournament’s midway point, some critics still had the bettors’ pre-fest frontrunner, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 196-minute mountain tale Winter Sleep, in the lead, while others thought it too artfully dragging.

Then came Two Days, One Night, the latest from perennial fest-faves Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. (The Belgian bros have premiered a film every three years at Cannes since 1999, with every one of those nabbing at least one prize.) The accolades for this tense tale—of one woman (Marion Cotillard) using a weekend to convince a majority of fellow employees to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job—were very nearly unanimous. And screenings on the last day of the competition offered two more contenders. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan proved a magisterial, ambitious look at corrupt modern Russia, shot exquisitely, as usual, by Mikhail Krichman. Plus Olivier Assayas’ meta-artistic Sils Maria, a kind of anti-Map to the Stars, warmly regarding an actress (Juliette Binoche) and her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart), was warmly received.

As Cannes’ star-lights dimmed and its red carpets furled, the winners were announced. Spall snatched Best Actor for his turn as Turner, Julianne Moore wrangled Best Actress for her temper-tantruming Tinseltown starlet in Cronenberg’s film, and Zvyagintsev picked up Best Screenplay for his and Oleg Negin’s script. Dolan shared the Jury Prize for Mommy with Jean-Luc Godard for his 3D film-essay Goodbye to Language and Ceylan climbed to the heights of world cinema at last, taking the Palme d’Or for Winter Sleep. V

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