Several films in the Cannes Competition feel like they were booked for their red carpet star value, and are lesser efforts than films that Cannes did not see fit to place in competition. Why not place Chilean director Pablo Larrain's "NO" in the Competition? It's his fourth film, and his third, the well-received "Tony Manero," was also in Director's Fortnight. And Gael Garcia Bernal is an international star. I suspect that the Festival worried that the film's low-quality video presentation–a daring aesthetic choice for Larrain–would not work in a glamorous gala Palais setting.
And why did Thierry Fremaux not recognize the value of Lee Daniels' "Precious" when he had the chance, and book it in the main competition instead of Un Certain Regard? This year he compensates with Daniels' follow-up, "Paperboy," a meandering southern gothic mess based on Pete Dexter's mystery novel that is redeemed by outstanding performances by Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConnaughey and John Cusack, who described shooting the film in Florida as "going through some strange fever dream." (Stretching themselves dramatically, Zac Efron and Macy Gray are less effective. "I've been waiting for a director to take a chance on me," said Efron.)
Daniels is able to pull great stuff out of his actors. "He has an emotional fearlessness," said Cusack. "He inspires you to go as deep as you can…to these deep primal feelings." And they are the reason that the Festival invited the film into the competition: with Daniels validated by Oscar-winning "Precious," it was safe to present Daniel's next, more minor film, in the Competition, and gain major stars for the magic red carpet walk and world media. "Precious" did not have stars for the red carpet.
The notorious "Southland Tales" landed in Competition in 2006 after Richard Kelly's "Donnie Darko" made him a rising director. But "Southland Tales" was an unfinished, pretentious disaster–in the Main Competition. Quel horreur.
Philip Kaufman also wanted to show "Hemingway & Gelhorn" at Cannes–it was his idea, not HBO's, although they went along for the ride, as Kidman could promote both films. But in this case it was placed out of Competition, which is always an option. Many Cannes watchers are asking why Matteo Garrone's "Reality" and Ken Loach's "The Angel's Share" needed to be in the Competition. The answer: perhaps they fulfilled the need for an Italian and a British entry, respectively. There are many delicate politics involved in these considerations. Do you tell a director who has come to expect membership in the Cannes Auteur Club that his latest effort doesn't meet the grade one year over another? How would you get Nanni Moretti to serve as your jury president if you reject his "Habemus Papam," which yielded bad reviews? Thus it was in the Competition.
Why couldn't Cannes put Jeff Nichols' widely lauded "Take Shelter" in the Competition in the first place? Because it had already played at Sundance. Now they have booked "Mud." Same with rookie Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," which is in Un Certain Regard. Many regard that Sundance grand jury prize winner, which features a cast of unknowns, as the best film of this festival so far. On the other hand, Fox Searchlight was happy not putting a target on the film in the main competition, where expectations are so high. It is rare for Cannes to put a Sundance film from a first timer in competition–a rare exception was Steven Soderbergh's "sex lies and videotape," which won the Palme d'Or. The festival put Quentin Tarantino's Palme d'Or winner "Pulp Fiction" in the main competition after "Reservoir Dogs" played out of competition. Why not anoint him from the start?
And Down Under director Andrew Dominik's second film, Brad Pitt western "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" –long as it was–was a far better movie than violent talk-fest "Killing Them Softly." The Venice Fest debuted "Jesse James," not Cannes. Pitt is terrific as a ruthless hit man who tries to minimize psychological damage for his victims, but the film's political metaphor–gangsters as microcosm for corporations run amuck in Recession America–is heavy-handed.
While discussing this subject before the "Paperboy" press screening Thursday morning (which elicited both applause and boos), Time's Richard Corliss pointed out that many of the best films are early efforts by young filmmakers, not their later entries.
The Competition's English-language international productions –"Moonrise Kingdom," "Killing Them Softly," "On the Road," "Paperboy" and "Lawless"– are commendable films that break out of the constricted boundaries imposed by the studios these days. Actors, to their credit, are recognizing how crucial it is to grow and challenge themselves beyond the green screen; indie-financed films are the way to accomplish that. "I was looking for something raw and dangerous," said Kidman, who was the last actor last to join the cast. "In terms of the independent films being made it's hard to find financing. That's where the interesting roles are. It requires a lot of hard work on the part of the filmmaker. It's an uphill battle all the way."
The down side of this sort of production is that without a strong producer or distributor who can help to shape the film–in a good way–they can wind up as indulgent exercises. "Moonrise" had Scott Rudin, "Lawless" had Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick, and "On the Road" had Rebecca Yeldham, who worked tirelessly on their films for years to get them made. It shows. "Killing Them Softly" and "Paperboy" lack that rigor.