Reflections On Cannes: Annette Insdorf Summing Up The Cannes Film Festival 2013

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In her final Wrap-Up Report for Newsblaze and Arts Express Radio on location at the Cannes Film Festival, Annette Insdorf reflects on this year’s events and trends. Along with impressions and directions within the current film world.

Final Report: Summing up the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

By Annette Insdorf

Listen to The Annette Insdorf Cannes Breaking News Report

James Franco in AS I LAY DYING
James Franco in As I Lay Dying, which he directed

Reflections On Cannes

The 2013 Cannes Film Festival opened with a 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby, while other movies continued to invoke the 1930 novel as well as its 1974 film incarnation. It’s not just that the hipster vampire played by Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive travels under the name of Fitzgerald’s heroine Daisy Buchanan. More significantly, the surprise winner of the Best Actor prize was Bruce Dern, who played Tom Buchanan in the version that starred Robert Redford. And the very Redford who played Gatsby almost 40 years ago now incarnates a far more challenging protagonist.

Cannes selections oscillated between depictions of excess (Behind the Candelabra) and minimalism (Alexander Payne’s Nebraska). In the latter category is All Is Lost, the second feature of writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call). This drama is surprisingly gripping, considering that Redford is the only person onscreen for almost two hours, while the film’s structure is “theme and variations” on devastation and resilience. Amid the opulence of Cannes, it was almost ironic to watch scenes of such deprivation. Whereas parties on boats boasted champagne and deafening music, All Is Lost asks a simple question: what does it take to survive, stranded alone on the sea? It is remarkable that an actor of Redford’s age would take on such a physically arduous experience.

Dern and Redford began their careers at the same time, but through divergent paths. The Illinois-born Dern regaled me with his stories at one of the official Festival dinners in the Carlton Hotel. He recalled the three precise goals he gave himself as a young man: to go to New York, to become a member of the Actors Studio, and to work with Elia Kazan. He fulfilled all three, before hooking up with Indie maverick Roger Corman, doing seven pictures together with buddy Jack Nicholson.

“I’ve made many movies,” said the veteran actor who has worked with Hitchcock, Bob Rafelson, and Hal Ashby (“Coming Home”-for which he received an Oscar nomination-marked the last time Dern came to Cannes), “but Nebraska is my first film.” He kept thanking Payne for giving him the role of Woody, a sullen loser who senses a second chance when he receives a sweepstakes letter. Refusing to believe it’s a scam, he insists on getting to Nebraska to redeem his million dollars. What he wins instead is proof of the devotion of his son David (played with touching understatement by Saturday Night Live regular Will Forte).

Despite the relative absence of female directors in competition, the focus of numerous films was indeed on women. Some heroines were traditional; for example, Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa, a Polish immigrant arriving on 1921 Ellis Island in James Gray’s The Immigrant, where Ewa is both exploited and loved by a benevolent pimp played by Joaquim Phoenix. Other titles were more groundbreaking, notably the Palme d’or winner La Vie d’Adele, Chapitres 1 and 2 (aka Blue is the Warmest Color).

Venus In Fur photo
Venus in Fur

When Jury President Steven Spielberg announced the final award at the Closing Night ceremony Sunday, he said, “Exceptionally, we are singling out three artists” in awarding the top prize. Rather than merely handing the Golden Palm to director Abdellatif Kechiche, he called for the two young actresses, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos.

All three bounded onto the stage of the Grand Palais to a standing ovation. The French director, born in Tunisia, adapted the 3-hour drama from a famous graphic novel by Julie Maroh. This naturalistic coming-of-age tale has a twist: 15-yr-old Adele is ineluctably drawn to the older art student Emma (Seydoux), and their relationship is presented graphically. That they wear no make-up is both literal and symbolic: the film’s faces, images and sounds are unadorned. Partly because there is no music during the erotic scenes – and because it is the culmination of their obvious mutual desire – it is an integral part of the drama.

Other noteworthy films were anchored by the powerful performances of female actors. The award for Best Actress went to Berenice Bejo in The Past, directed by the Iranian filmmaker of A Separation, Asghar Farhadi. Bejo, born in Argentina, is married to Michel Hazanavicius and co-starred in his breakout film, The Artist. Here, she plays a tough French woman, who brings her estranged husband from Iran back to France to sign divorce papers so that she can marry her new lover. By contrast, Tilda Swinton incarnates an oddly sympathetic vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive. Playing “Eve” who-together with her beloved “Adam” (Tom Hiddleston)-is nourished by the blood they purchase from doctors and hospitals, Swinton does a riff on the theme of transformation.

Given how Jarmusch’s protagonists hide from humans as well as the light, actor Orlando Bloom’s quote from Ava Gardner on Sunday night gave pause: before presenting the Best Actress prize to Bejo, he said, “An actress belongs to those who watch her.” Not to herself? And is the actress the same thing as her image? These questions are indeed at the heart of at least two provocative Cannes selections whose heroines are actresses, Venus in Fur and The Congress.

Bruce Dern and Will Forte
Photo of Bruce Dern

and Will Forte from “Nebraska”:

The latter is Ari Folman’s inventive follow-up to “Waltz with Bashir.” Robin Wright plays an actress named Robin Wright, who reluctantly agrees to sell her image to a studio that will “scan” her. In exchange, she cannot act for the next twenty years. The film’s second half is poetic science fiction, set in an animated universe where “Robin” is a star while the “real” actress languishes.

Polanski’s adaption of David Ives’ theater-piece stars his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner. She deftly plays a trashy actress desperately trying to get an audition with writer-director Thomas (Mathieu Amalric). Once she takes the stage, Seigner transforms into the 19th century “Venus” of Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s novel. The layers of role-playing multiply: when Amalric puts a pair of high-heeled leather boots on Seigner’s legs, he is playing the theater director, who is incarnating the character Kushemski, who is pretending to be a slave.

These films embody metamorphosis, crossing boundaries that include the ones between the “real” and the “fabricated.” Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but both Folman and Polanski are the sons of Polish-Jewish Holocaust survivors. (Each of these films is co-produced by Polish Film Institute.) Do they understand the fluidity of identity-and the need for improvisation-more profoundly than other filmmakers? Even if Polanski is adapting a celebrated play while The Congress is loosely based on Stanislas Lem’s science fiction?

In terms of adapting literary masters for the screen, this year’s Cannes Fest offers a far more ambitious effort than translating a hit Broadway play or F. Scott Fitzgerald. William Faulkner is a challenging American novelist to render in cinematic terms, given not only the multiple perspectives but the dark vision of his work. James Franco was not deterred from directing, co-writing and co-starring in As I Lay Dying. It is depressing but ambitious, hard to watch but permeated with an aching sensitivity.

The protean Franco uses split screens, visual rhymes, voice-over narration, direct address to the camera, and haunting images to tell Faulkner’s tale of a family preparing to bury matriarch Addie (Beth Grant). Franco plays Darl, who seems the sanest of the bunch, which is ruled by the scripture-citing Anse (Tim Blake Nelson, in an eerily grotesque performance that includes red gashes where his teeth should be).

At the elegant Mouton Cadet Wine Bar on the roof of the Grand Palais, Franco displayed some of the raffish buoyancy of his character in Oz the Great and Powerful-which seemed worlds apart the despairing vision of As I Lay Dying. “I have a literature background, which gave me great stories and showed me that when I work with a source I love, it makes me work even harder,” he said. “I’ve been acting professionally for 16 years, and I’ve been a movie lover longer than that … and now I understand movies as a director’s medium.”

His sentiment was echoed at the Closing Night ceremony when Forest Whitaker presented the prize for Best Director to Amat Escalante of Mexico for Heli. Quoting Satyajit Ray, he said, “In the end, the director is the only one who knows what the film is actually about.” And if the Oscar for Best Picture is traditionally handed to the producer, Cannes still exemplifies a commitment to the “auteur” theory, and awards the director directly.

Mistress of Ceremonies Audrey Tautou acknowledged not only her regret that the end of the Festival means “no more hugs from Spielberg,” but that “everything goes back to where it was … well, not all the jewels.” She was making comic reference to the two hefty heists that took place during the Festival. While individuals who do not own Chopard diamonds worth millions had little to fear, robbers breaking into a hotel room and ripping the safe from the wall were part of the weekly news. A few days later, a necklace valued at 2.6 million dollars was stolen during a party at an exclusive chateau in Cap d’Antibes, which was attended by celebrities including Sharon Stone.

The other real-life drama involved a man firing a pistol into the air on May 17, leading Jury members Christoph Waltz and Daniel Auteuil to flee an interview with the French TV station Canal+. He apparently aimed his gun at Waltz, who was lucky to discover that it contained only blanks.

Fortunately, all the jewels amassed by Fox in celebration of the screening of Cleopatra were present and accounted for. At a lavish party held on the Bulgari roof of the JW Marriott Hotel, Liz Taylor’s gems were on display, including a stunning creation on the neck of Jessica Chastain, who had introduced the restored epic. As I recalled Baz Luhrmann’s Opening Night extravaganza, I concluded this was the kind of party that Jay Gatsby might have thrown.

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.