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Critical Consensus: What Worked and Didn't at the Cannes Film Festival This Year?

By Peter Howell, Eric Kohn and Jay Stone | Indiewire May 30, 2013 at 9:00AM

"Every year at one festival or another there's something to shake up the troops. But this year at Cannes, the shocks did indeed seem greater."
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"Nebraska."
"Nebraska."

JS: Peter, didn't you think there was also an interesting contrast between the haves and the have-nots? Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," which opened the Un Certain Regard program, and "Behind the Candelabra," the Liberace movie, were both decorated with furs, crystals, fancy shoes, overwhelming design: the trappings of success meeting bad taste. Then, later in the festival, we saw Alexander Payne's "Nebraska," about an old guy who thinks he's won a million dollars — you can almost hear Dr. Evil chuckling — in a direct-mail scam, and wants to go on a road trip to claim it. The America that he goes through is a blue-collar landscape of hopelessness, and the movie looks especially grim because it's in black and white. I think we both agreed at the time that it was minor Payne, but now that I'm back and I'm putting it into the context of Cannes — not just the movies, but the real-life jewel robberies — it seems more like a bracing gust of reality.

PH: Yes, great points, especially about "Nebraska." That film spoke more poignantly to your haves vs. have-nots observation because it showed how people in a country as great as America can be reduced to chasing an illusion of wealth, rather than simply acquiring the visible signs of it. I thought the best line of the entire festival was at the end of "Nebraska" when Will Forte's David is asked whether Bruce Dern's Woody has Alzheimer's, and David replies, "No, he just believes what people tell him." It made me think of all those Frank Capra movies where the protagonist is fighting for a vision of America he believes in.  In "Nebraska," the believer is the chump, because cynicism has invaded society's soul.

In "Nebraska," the believer is the chump, because cynicism has invaded society's soul.

At Cannes, the media tends to rush to judgement, sometimes to the detriment of films worthy of finer scrutiny. The environment is harsh on difficult movies or those, like "Nebraska," that seem altogether less involving than some of the more audacious films on display. Aside from that one, were there other films that you felt were unfairly maligned at the festival? And can you single out any titles that you're looking forward to revisiting in the coming months?

PH: "Inside Llewyn Davis" was my favorite film of the fest. I went back to see it again on repeat Sunday because I didn't want to have to wait until the fall festival season to see it again. I saw it as a knife's-edge balance between sincerity and satire by the Coens. Here you had a lead character, played by Oscar Isaac, who is aching to be taken seriously as a musician yet who is false to the core. He arrogantly uses people for sex, beds, food, smokes and cash. His interest in genuine American folk music seems born of opportunity, of surfing a cultural wave, rather than from any deeply held conviction. And to stretch that surfing analogy further, he's so preoccupied with maintaining balance on his own tiny board and wave, he can't see the approaching tsunami: Bob Dylan.

And let me just mention Alex van Warmerdam's "Borgman," which I liked more than many critics. While it gets away from itself in the final third, the story of an insidious presence taking root in an affluent Dutch family created a palpable feeling of dread because we weren't made privy to the intent of the invasion.  We never know exactly what Jan Bijvoet's title character is up to. He's sincere about being secretive and it's highly unsettling.

Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis."
Oscar Isaac in "Inside Llewyn Davis."

JS: I agree: I loved "Llewyn Davis" at the festival, and I suspect I'm going to love it even more on a second go-round. A lot of festival movies don't get a fair shake because they come in the middle of a busy week, or you have to see them at an 8:30 a.m. screening after a late night. At the final press conference, jury member Nicole Kidman said she went to some 8:30 a.m. screenings — she'd never seen a movie at that time of day — and it struck her how different an experience it was from seeing a movie at, say, the 10 p.m. screening.

That said, there wasn't much I have second thoughts about. I want to see Paolo Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty" again: I loved it in Cannes, but to tell you the truth, I might have nodded off for a minute or two somewhere in the middle there. I think it's a movie that will reward a second viewing, mostly because it's so rich visually and it's about such interesting things, at least to those of us who — like the film's hero — are on the far side of 60 and are looking back more than we're looking ahead.

I also want to see the Jim Jarmusch vampire movie, "Only Lovers Left Alive," again. It's just filled with clues about a hipster/bohemian/undead lifestyle, combined with a cultural critique that's wonderfully, well, Jarmuschian. I think I'll like it even more the second time.

I can't agree with you on "Borgman," Peter. I thought it was too much of a surreal thing. It hasn't really stayed with me, but I admit that it was one of those wonderfully offbeat works that only seem to surface at Cannes. It will probably irritate as many people as it delights,
but like we said at the beginning, being irritated, or at least provoked, is part of the experience. Too bad Ryan Gosling didn't show up, because he missed a great time. Too bad his movie did.

PH: I was a little underwhelmed by "Nebraska" overall, thinking the lottery angle was overworked, but I liked parts of it enough that I'm eager to see it again with fresh eyes. I'm also looking forward to revisiting Sorrentino's "The Great Beauty," because his attempt to out-Fellini Fellini was like trying to eat an entire birthday cake at one setting. Fabulous imagery in a hard-to-follow story. The film that I think got the least respect at Cannes, and deserves further consideration, was Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's "Grisgris," about wannabe dancer with a paralyzed leg whose good intentions go dangerously awry. Souleymane Démé's title character is like Bruce Dern's in "Nebraska," as they're both naively convinced that they live in the world of their dreams, rather than the world that exists. I would have given Démé the Best Actor prize over Dern, although I did like Dern's take on stubborn delusion.

Next: Was Michael Douglas robbed of a trophy? Plus: Why go to Cannes when you can watch movies at home?

This article is related to: Reviews, Cannes Film Festival, Critical Consensus, Blue is the Warmest Color, Grigris, Behind the Candelabra, Heli, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Thierry Fremaux