CANNES, France — Here’s why the world’s greatest film festival, the one on the Cote d’Azur, means something, and to some filmmakers means everything — even if a lot of the surrounding movies are lame.
The other evening at the Festival du Cannes, where “The Third Man” and “Marty” and “L’Avventura” and "MASH" and"Inglourious Basterds"and “The Tree of Life” confronted, exasperated, and delighted movie lovers for the first time, I came out of the third or fourth screening of the day at the Palais, the main building along the seaside boulevard known as the Croisette. The usual hordes. Milling. Arguing. Hungry for food and for argument-worthy cinema.
Then: Ping! On maybe a hundred or two out of tens of thousands of portable electronic devices currently in Cannes, word began pinging that a well-regarded new film from Chile, not part of the main competition slate — a selection, rather, of the sidebar known as Directors’ Fortnight — was re-screening, on short notice, at the Olympic, one of several multiplexes in Cannes, a 15-minute sprint away. Tricky, because the movie starts in 10. Run! But you can’t tell anyone else about it, or else the badge-access screening fills up with people who had a few minutes’ head start and you mess it up for yourself.
There is no honor in navigating this festival.
The film, “No,” which was picked up earlier this week in Cannes for North American distribution by Sony Pictures Classics, turns out to be a strong and gratifying yes — worthy of a main competition slot, especially given some of the mild or dispiriting pictures that did get in, as part of the 22 titles vying this year for the Palme d’Or, to be awarded Sunday. (At press time Thursday evening several competition titles had yet to make their bows, including David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” and Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” follow-up, “Mud.")
“No” is a terrific film about advertising, politics and the human desire to be coerced, gently or forcefully, around election time. In Pablo Larrain’s fleet-footed docudrama, Gael Garcia Bernal plays a real-life Chilean ad executive, negotiating parenthood and an evolving relationship with his activist ex-wife. The Bernal’s character is recruited by the anti-Pinochet forces to mount a campaign designed to topple the brutal dictatorship by any audio-visual means necessary.
It’s not a large-scale or radically inventive picture; it is, however, extremely sharp and sharp-witted in showing how a new chapter in the book of negative campaigning, however righteous, was born, and how Pinochet came tumbling down. Larrain shot “No” to resemble a video shot on 1988-era video equipment, partly to match existing archival footage interpolated into the narrative. It’s a simple, effective strategy. Perpetually on the run with its protagonist, “No” neither deifies nor derides the ad man’s scruples or his malleable ideology.
The movie’s success came out of nowhere, or appeared to, which is a wonderful thing. After its first Cannes screening in the Fortnight, word was out and, for once, word was accurate. Now “No” has a chance to be heard and seen all over the place. And perhaps there’s a foreign-language Oscar nomination in its future.
In the main competition slate, Cannes 2012 was a strange year, marked by several notable achievements from major international talents represented in recent years by more vivid and fully realized work. One wonders if festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux admitted to himself and his team, either aloud or silently: I admire this director’s previous work. I believe in this director. If this latest project falls short, so be it.
Eight of the 22 competition titles were primarily or wholly in English, most of them American in terms of dominant casting or setting. I admired much of writer-director Andrew Dominik’s brazen little hit-man lark, “Killing Them Softly,” in which Brad Pitt plays a cleanup assassin dealing with character actors of a very high order (Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, for starters). Dominik’s flunkies trade comically eloquent observations about the mortgage crisis (the film’s set in 2008) and recessionary jitters.
Pitt told me in an interview that Dominik wrote “Killing Them Softly” out of frustration, having gone ice-cold in Hollywood after the excellent but unprofitable “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” came and went like a tumbleweed. (Awfully good film, though.) The development executives plaguing his existence were transformed, in effect, into the bean-counters of “Killing Them Softly.”
The film’s is ham-fisted in the way it sets many of its thuggish conversations against televised speeches resounding with hope and change delivered by then-candidate Barack Obama. But it’s worth talking about, which is more than can be said for John Hillcoat’s drab ’30s bootlegging drama “Lawless” or the flailing camp of Lee Daniels’ “The Paperboy,” starring Nicole Kidman, Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey and, keeping his head down and delivering an interesting, low-keyed interpretation of a sociopathic swamp rat, John Cusack.
Yet there are riches aplenty. Here are five global exports coming out of Cannes worth your time and attention. None of them are is likely to become this year’s ... you name it: this year’s equivalent to “The Artist,” or “Midnight in Paris,” or “The Tree of Life,” all three of which premiered last year at Cannes and went on to considerable financial and/or critical acclaim here in the U.S. in America.
But there’s always next year. And lest we forget, movies come in more than one language.Copyright © 2015, RedEye