Arts Express: The Cannes Film Festival Reports: Accent On Women

In our continuing series of on location reports, Annette Insdorf is the correspondent for the Arts Express at this year’s Cannes Film Festival 2011. We are honored to feature her coverage, which will also include breaking news announcing the winners at the end of the Festival.

Annette Insdorf is Director Of Film Studies at Columbia University, and the author of Indelible Shadows: Film And The Holocaust, and other books on cinema. Professor Insdorf is an internationally renowned educator, and her works are hailed as the definitive texts on their subjects. She has also been a jury member of numerous international film festivals.

Professor Insdorf has reported from Cannes for over a quarter century, previously co-anchoring with Roger Ebert for Bravo and The Independent Film Channel. Her knowledge and insight about cinema, past and present, is a veritable treasure trove of film history and culture. And we’re extremely proud to have her on Arts Express, as our correspondent reporting from Cannes this year.

The Cannes Film Festival Reports

By Annette Insdorf

The Cannes Film Festival has gotten off to a terrific start, blending homages to towering figures in cinema history with new films that inspired passionate (and often divisive) response. Within the first three days, the spotlight was firmly on female directors in competition, given the back-to-back programming of three titles.

“Poliss,” directed by French actress and filmmaker Maiwenn, is a powerful contemporary ensemble piece about the Child Protection Unit of the French police. Based on real events, the zippy portrait of men and women who are obsessed with helping kids reveals their personal side as well: they are personally fallible, in the throes of domestic and romantic dramas. The photographer character played by Maiwenn seems like the least active of the group-shy, gangly, and nonverbal-but Maiwenn directs the film with energy and conviction. French rapper Joeystarr is striking-and received strong reviews-as an ethnically mixed cop with a short fuse.

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” is Lynne Ramsay’s riveting, unsentimentally bleak drama about a woman in the wake of her son’s killing rampage in a high school. Visually haunting, it is anchored by Tilda Swinton’s searing performance (an early front-runner for the Best Actress Prize).

“Sleeping Beauty” was the most polarizing of the films in competition thus far. While viewers were expecting the “erotic fairytale” that the advance poster of actress Emily Browning implied, what we saw was an austere portrait of de-eroticized female flesh and discomfitting voyeurism. This Australian first feature by Julia Leigh is clearly from a woman’s point of view: despite the title, there is no Prince Charming.

Equally important in Cannes is reverence for the great films and artists of the past. On Opening Night, the standing ovation that greeted Jury President Robert De Niro (after clips of his performances) was matched only by the ovation for Bernardo Bertolucci, recipient of the Festival’s Honorary Palme d’or this year. His masterpiece “The Conformist” kicked off the “Cannes Classics” sidebar (which also included a screening of “Puzzle of a Downfall Child,” Jerry Schatzberg’s 1970 drama starring Faye Dunaway-a collaboration imprinted on this year’s Cannes Fest poster).

At his press conference, Bertolucci excited critics with talk of his next film. Seated in the wheelchair necessitated by back problems, he confessed that he thought he would not make more movies, “but a year ago I realized that even in a wheelchair I could imagine a film, especially dolly shots! My next project is in 3D: it takes place in a basement, between a 14-year-old boy and his 25-year-old half-sister. I loved ‘Avatar,’ and thought, why should 3D be considered good only for horror or sci-fi?”

On Saturday night, Festival President Gilles Jacob held a dinner in honor of Robert De Niro and the Tribeca Film Festival. He spoke before an international group that included actors Bradley Cooper and Rob Lowe, directors Costa Gavras and Euzhan Palcy: “What can cinema do after 9/11 but rekindle hope?,” he asked. “All the fundamentalists in the world can do nothing against artistic protest. Thank you, Jury President De Niro, for leading by example. New York already had its film festival; from now on, it has two. Welcome, Tribeca, to the planisphere of international cinema.”

French Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterand added his own praise of De Niro’s work as actor, director, and festival creator, telling him, “here you are at home, ever since ‘Taxi Driver’ won the Palme d’or in 1976 … even if there might be something troubling in entrusting the presidency of the jury to someone who incarnated Travis Bickle.” The generally laconic New Yorker seemed profoundly moved in replying, “My father loved France-French paintings, literature-and I inherited that. They say that one’s work is sometimes more appreciated in other countries. France has always accepted the work of others. Thank Gd for the French!”

Another moving Cannes Festival tribute took place on May 14 as part of the “Cannes Classics” program. Frederic Mitterand honored Euzhan Palcy before a screening of her award-winning film of 1983, “Sugar Cane Alley.” The Martinique-born director presented the world premiere of “Moly,” a short by Moly Kane of Senegal, which she produced. The one-legged Kane, who also stars in the film, is a vivid exemplar of overcoming disability.

Palcy will be in New York later this month, as the Museum of Modern Art is mounting a retrospective of her work from May 18 – 30. And in July, she begins production on “Mahalia,” a feature film on the life of gospel legend (and “voice” of the civil rights struggle) Mahalia Jackson. Her presence informs the focus on female filmmakers at the 64th Cannes Fest: in 1989, she became the first black woman director to have her movie produced by a major Hollywood studio. “A Dry White Season” starred Marlon Brandon, and explored racial as well as political issues from a fresh and female point of view. Palcy said in Cannes that she wanted very much for four individuals to be part of the MoMA retrospective, and looked forward to their participation: Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Geoffrey Holder and Cicely Tyson.

In the next few days, we are eagerly anticipating Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.”

– Annette Insdorf

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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.