It's usually a fruitless task to draw out major themes connecting all the prominent movies at a single film festival, especially a varied, international selection like the the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. However, as this year's edition reaches its halfway point, at least two shared themes are visible among several of this year's strongest entries: the darker side of wealth and the systematic persecution by a privileged few.
While the assumption that the festival's programmers had such a focus in mind may give them too much credit, it's less outrageous to consider the possibility of some unifying sentiment in the air among today's filmmakers: Frustration with a global culture defined by its wealthiest inhabitants has never been more widespread. While the highlights of last year's festival dealt with intimate personal struggles—the young couple of "Blue is the Warmest Color," the downbeat musician of "Inside Llewyn Davis," the onset of senility in "Nebraska," the child-swapping parents in "Like Father, Like Son"—the latest crop have a far more immediate topicality.
Which is not to say that they all take similar forms. Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's compelling epic "Winter Sleep," in which bored landowner Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) lazily persecutes the inhabitants of his town and oppresses his despondent wife, uses its prolonged three-hour-plus running time to portray the alienating effects of privilege. Its self-involved lead, who inherited his affluence from his late father, spends more time wondering how to live up to his old man's legacy than forging any path for himself. An identical conundrum faces Steve Carell's mentally unstable character in "Foxcatcher," Bennett Miller's engrossing look at the experience of Olympic medal winner Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) during his period employed by the reclusive millionaire John du Pont (Carell).
Both tackle their situations through the uneasy physical presence of their anti-heroes: Aydin is a cranky, self-involved figure whose thick beard seemingly buries his crafty intentions concerning everyone around him; du Pont, brilliantly realized by Carell in a stunning change of pace for the actor, wears a dazed look as he struggles to find words of consequence to prove he's worthy of the riches he did nothing to receive.
The opposite conundrum faces the painter JMW Turner masterfully played by Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner," a wonderful update to the biopic formula that moves through fragments of the troubled, solitary artist's life rather than forcing it into a clean narrative structure. Despite his professional standing, "Mr. Turner" shows just how much the man was alienated by his success, incapable of reconciling his abstract tendencies with the buttoned-up nature of the industry surrounding him.
Collectively, these movies paint a fascinating picture of the psychological problems caused by a life defined by too much luxury at odds with the need for creativity and moderation. They're enough alone to make up for the handful of less satisfying entries so far, such as Atom Egoyan's hackneyed kidnapping drama "The Captive" and Tommy Lee Jones' tonally uneven western "The Homesman." But there's plenty more to consider.
The dangers of privilege take on an absurdist quality in David Cronenberg's zany satire "Maps to the Stars," a Bruce Wagner-scripted look at superficial Hollywood characters slowly drowning in the puddles of their self-obsessiveness. Cronenberg rarely goes easy on his characters, a skill that works wonders in the context of this ensemble piece involving deranged figures seemingly emanating from id of commercialism.
But Hollywood isn't the only target skewered in Cannes competition. Argentine director Damian Szifron's "Wild Tales" takes brilliant swipes at everything from the excesses of bureaucratic routines to gender bias in Latin American society through six expertly stylized chapters. In "Wild Tales," the antagonist isn't a single person, but rather the machine of corporate routines and old world values barreling down on virtually every facet of its beleaguered characters' lives.
But nothing made that point with quite the same emotional clarity of the first movie to screen in this year's competition when the festival kicked off last week—which, by now, feels like ages ago for anyone currently running wild on the Croisette. Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" presents a stunning overview of life under jihadist control in a desolate region of Mali, contrasting the sweeping, natural beauty of the area with the lack of safety plaguing its residents at every moment of their fragile lives. While not a documentary in any traditional sense, the movie carries an activist agenda. It's not the most cohesive filmmaking in competition so far, but certainly stands out as one of more important ones.
Of course, Cannes' brand lends itself to declarative statements ranging from premature announcements of new masterpieces to unfair dismissals of mediocre efforts. Not every edition of Cannes is as strong an example of first-rate cinema as its reputation suggests, but this particular year stands out for a high volume of analytical works that cast typical problems about the modern world in fresh contexts. That's what good movies should do, and that means this year's Cannes hasn't let us down so far — but we'll have a lot more to consider when the rest of the competition finishes up on Friday.