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Multiple Cannes press badge holder and acclaimed film journalist Nick Roddick (who once edited Australia’s Cinema Papers among many credits) opens the window to this year’s Festival de Cannes, which – as he puts it – takes place under the benign gaze of Marilyn Monroe. 

It’s not a horse race, but you can bet on the outcome (I once won £100 on a horse – sorry, film – called Pelle the Conqueror). It’s not a battle between nations, but journalists everywhere trumpet the presence (or bemoan the absence) of films from their own country. It’s an annual event deeply embedded in the cultural calendar of France but it often plays out like a circus. And this year, as ever, it ranges from the cinematically sublime (the latest austere masterpieces from Austrian director Michael Haneke or Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami) to the culturally ridiculous (the world premiere of Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted). It is, in a word (or four words) the Cannes Film Festival.

"a ridiculously expensive stretch of real estate called the Côte d’Azur by the French and the Riviera by almost everyone else"

Taking place under the benign gaze of Marilyn Monroe – whose image, blowing out a single candle on a birthday cake in the back of a limo, adorns its poster – it runs from May 16-27 in a medium-sized beach resort nestling at the heart of a ridiculously expensive stretch of real estate called the Côte d’Azur by the French and the Riviera by almost everyone else.

As a festival, Cannes is an arcane combination of sections which can totally confuse a newcomer. First there is the ‘Official Selection’, which includes the Competition: 22 films, one of which will win the Palme d’Or on May 27, with some of the others picking up an array of consolation prizes. Then there are various films which have also been ‘officially’ selected but are not eligible for a gong (there are four of those this year); followed by some ‘midnight screenings’ (another four films), a 65th anniversary film by Cannes boss Gilles Jacob; and nine ‘special presentations’. Think of it as a main menu with a number of amuse-bouches and a couple of vegetarian alternatives.

But that’s not all: there is a whole separate – and equally ‘official’ - section called ‘Un Certain Regard’ which, since 2005, has had its own prize. But, however hard the selectors insist that UCR has an identity of its own (the title translates roughly as ‘a certain way of looking at things’), tends to be seen as films which didn’t quite make the cut. Or were Highly Commended, as they used to say at school sports days. Any filmmaker picked for Un Certain Regard is not supposed to complain. But this year, director Xavier Dolan (J’ai tué ma mère, Les amours imaginaires) broke the rules by complaining to the Canadian press that his new film, Laurence Always, was in Un Certain Regard, not Competition. Time will tell whether this was justified outrage or whingeing.

"a circus"

Anyway, also-rans or not, there are 20 films in Un Certain Regard. Then there is a section called Cannes Classics, whose content should be obvious (clue: the films aren’t new), plus two independent sidebars: The Director’s Fortnight (already discussed here) and the Critics Week (see below). Not to mention the Cinéfondation. And the Cinema sur la Plage (open-air screening in the balmy spring air). And the Market, where 600-800 titles ranging from super to schlocky are on sale… That’s a lot of films – between 850 and 1,000, all unspooling (or decoding) in a 10-day period. I said it was a circus. 

The place where those in the know are most likely to head, meanwhile, is a few hundred metres east of the Competition’s red carpet in the Espace Miramar, which feels like a high school auditorium and is where the Critics Week unspools – eight films from the US, the UK, France, Belgium, India, Argentina, Mexico and Bulgaria. Having seen the selection committee at work, viewing (literally) thousands of submissions in a cramped Parisian basement, I know the process to be extremely rigorous. And, in the past, if my taste and theirs has not always coincided, it is in the Espace Miramar that the most exciting discoveries are often made (that was where I first saw the wonderful Amores perros in 2000).

Still, there’s no denying that the real stars of the event are the films in Competition, which kicks off with Wes Anderson’s modern fairy-tale Moonrise Kingdom and, this year, seems to be divided up between Old Masters, Young (or Youngish) Turks… and Aussies.

Whatever way you slice it, 2012 is a memorable Cannes year for Australian filmmakers. Queenslander John Hillcoat (who made The Proposition and The Road and now divides his time between the UK and Los Angeles) is in competition with a Prohibition saga called Lawless, co-written by another Aussie (Nick Cave) and starring (among others) Guy Pearce. Then there is Andrew Dominik, born across the Tasman but who made his mark with echt-Aussie flick Chopper in 2000 and then went on to win critical acclaim (if not box-office success) with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2007. Dominik will be in Cannes with a New Orleans-set crime thriller with a cast to die for - Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Sam Shepard, Ray Liotta – in a film that used to be called Cogan’s Trade, referring to the profession of Pitt’s character (something to do with guns), but is now entitled Killing Them Softly. 

Finally, a week after the official announcement the organisers made an addition to the Midnight line-up: Wayne Blair’s debut film, The Sapphires, about a 1960s all-girl, all-Aboriginal group who entertain the troops in Vietnam. Blair, who hails from Taree, is an actor with extensive directing experience on TV series such as Double Trouble, Dead Gorgeous and Lockie Leonard, and The Sapphires follows in a strong tradition of Aboriginal-themed films which have attracted global attention at Cannes, including Samson and Delilah and Ten Canoes. (See Andrew L. Urban’s complete dossier on the Australian presence URL)

"the line-up of Old Masters at Cannes this year merits proper attention"

But enough flag-waving: the line-up of Old Masters at Cannes this year merits proper attention. Indeed, it could constitute an entire volume in the history of world cinema all on its own. French master Alain Resnais is there with Vous n’avez encore rien vu, which will almost certainly be his last film. Ken Loach is back in Cannes for the 11th time with The Angel’s Share, his latest collaboration with regular writer Paul Laverty, who has written every feature but one since 1996. Loach won the Palme d’or in 2006 with The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and is joined in Competition by two other Old Masters who have previously won the main prize: Abbas Kiarostami with Like Someone in Love, about the relationship between a young student and a respected elderly professor; and Michael Haneke with the similarly titled Amour, about a relationship at the other end of the life cycle starring veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant (82) and Emmanuelle Riva (85).

Cannes regular David Cronenberg will also be there with Cosmopolis, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel about a banker’s spectacularly bad day in Manhattan starring Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson, while son Brandon Cronenberg makes his Cannes bow with Un Certain Regard entry Anti-Viral, which sounds like he is following in his father’s early footsteps. Veteran horrormeister Dario Argento is in the Midnight section with his version of the Dracula legend. And the festival will close with Thérèse Desqueroux, the last film by Claude Miller, one of French cinema’s most underrated masters, which has Audrey Tautou in the title role.

Among the younger generation, there are another two previous Palme d’or winners: Romanian director Christian Mungiu and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In Competition, Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is his first since taking the Palme in 2007 with 4 Month, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, although he directed part of (and produced all of) the five-part Tales From the Golden Age, which was in Un Certain Regard in 2009. Apichatpong, who took the laurels two years ago with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, is in Un Certain Regard this year with Mekong Hotel, which he describes as “a film about water” and which should add a little peace and beauty to the mix.

"sexual provocation"

Shocks, meanwhile, can be expected from Carlos Reygadas, the young Mexican director who can’t seem to keep moments of sexual provocation out of his films. His 2012 entry is called Post Tenebras Lux and is, he says, “a film where reason will intervene as little as possible”, which bodes badly (or well, depending on your taste). And Ulrich Seidl, the Austrian director whose focus is never far away from the dark side of sexuality, is finally unveiling Paradies: Liebe, his first feature since the grimly rigorous Import/Export in 2007 and the first part of a trilogy about the women of a single family which will encompass sex tourism, extreme weight-loss and Catholicism.

As for American directors, the initial expectation that Cannes 2012 would be the year of the American indies has not quite been fulfilled, although there are a couple of very promising entries. The first is Mud, the new film from Jeff Nichols, the Arkansas-born director who made a festival splash with Shotgun Stories in 2007 and intrigued mainstream audiences last year with the apocalyptic Take Shelter. The second is The Paperboy, the latest from African-American indie Lee Daniels, a prolific producer (Monster’s Ball, Shadowboxer, The Woodsman) whose last directorial outing was Precious, for which Mo’Nique won an Oscar in 2010.

The Competition also features a couple of returns from the wilderness by directors who were once cherished by Cannes but have since disappeared or disappointed – disappeared in the case of Leos Carax, whose Les amants du Pont-Neuf was an arthouse smash in 1991 but who hasn’t completed a feature since Pola X in 1999; and disappointed in the case of Thomas Vinterberg, whose Festen rode the early Dogma wave and shared the Jury Prize in 1999, but who has struggled to find form since (with the possible exception of Submarino, which competed in Berlin in 2010). Carax competes with Holy Motors, a time-travel tale starring Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue, while Vinterberg’s bid for a Palme is Jagten (The Hunt) starring Mads Mikkelsen as a man struggling to assert his identity in a small Danish town.

A lot of critical attention, meanwhile, is likely to be focused on In the Mist, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s follow up to My Joy, the brilliant but bleak portrait of a truck driver’s nightmare detour which competed on the Croisette in 2010. Probably the most hotly anticipated title in the Festival this year, however, is likely to be the long-awaited movie version of Jack Kerouac’s beat classic, On the Road, which has had a number of directors attached to it over the years – Francis Ford Coppola being the most prominent – but which finally reaches the screen thanks to Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (who tackled another icon eight years ago with The Motorcycle Diaries). Sam Riley plays Kerouac alter ego Sal Paradise, with Garrett Hedlund as his fellow traveller, Dean Moriarty.

"a Big Dumb Movie"

Cannes, finally, has often included a Big Dumb Movie in its selection – The Da Vinci Code, X-Men: The Last Stand and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull have all had their world premiere in the Grand Théâtre Lumière over the years. Animation has been particularly popular: Shrek and Up! were notable Cannes firsts: the first animated film in competition in the case of Shrek, the first 3D movie to screen in Cannes in the case of Up! So maybe Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted is not all that surprising an invasion of the Cathedral of Cinematic Culture, especially since the online trailer shows Alex the lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo emerging from the Mediterranean just down the coast in Monte Carlo. Still if, as Melman says, the pals’ aim is to “pass through Europe without attracting attention” on their way home to New York, Cannes is not the obvious place to start. 

Published May 17, 2012

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Nick Roddick

50 years after her death Marilyn Monroe remains a cinematic and cultural icon; in the wake of the success of Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn, the 65th Festival de Cannes is paying tribute, using her image for its official poster. 

By Andrew L. Urban


Dates: May 16 – 27, 2012
Festival General Delegate: Thierry Fremaux
Competition Jury President: Nanni Moretti (Italian actor/director)
Un Certain Regard Jury President: Tim Roth (UK actor/director)
The Cinéfondation and Short Films Jury, President: Jean-Pierre Dardenne (Belgian filmmaker)
Host of Opening & Closing Ceremonies: Berenice Bejo (actress, The Artist)

Lawrence Always

Killing Them Softly

The Sapphires

Angel's Share

Like Someone In Love




On the Road

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