By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 15, 2014 at 5:55AM
It can sometimes take months or years for a movie to gain traction with audiences and consensus to build. But at the Cannes Film Festival, everything can change in a day.
That was certainly the case at the opening night event for the 67th edition of the festival Wednesday night. The black-tie event adjacent to the Palais des Festivals, the hulking epicenter of Cannes' main competition screenings as well as its hectic marketplace, found the festival showrunners hobnobbing with members of the jury, press and various filmmakers at a celebration technically intended to celebrate the opening night selection, "Grace of Monaco."
By then, however, the Nicole Kidman-starring portrait of Grace Kelly's struggles with regal duties had already been excoriated by critics, with the rest of the world sapping up every detail. Even festival staffers shrugged it off and changed the subject. The "Grace" team was in the room, but there was much more to discuss. Cannes, after all, presents a vivid portrait of cinema's international dimensions on both creative and industrial scales. There was no time to dwell on one subpar movie.
Instead, conversations turned to "Timbuktu," the first movie to screen from the festival's competition, which found a much warmer reception. An extraordinarily powerful look at the impact of jihadist enforcers in Mali, the latest feature from "Bamako" director Abderrahmane Sissako is both vividly engaging and fraught with activist fury. While "Bamako" explored the reverberations of colonialism through a tense series of courtroom discussions, "Timbuktu" unwinds on a broader landscape, turning its titular setting into a ghost town filled with solitary beauty and riddled with unrest. It's here that extremists barrel down on frustrated locals whenever they show any lack of religious piety—a woman removing her gloves while selling fish, families arrested for playing music, soccer is rendered illegal—and while many flee, those that remain inhabit a village riddled with desperation.
Even so, Sissako's striking golden landscape is a haven for rich characterizations and even allows its melancholic characters some modicum of humor. From a jihadi leader busted for sneaking cigarettes to the awkward coaching session shared by a veteran and a young would-be killer taping a threatening message ("No 'yo, man,' we're into religion"), "Timbuktu" avoids villainizing its persecutors even as it renders their oppression in frightening terms. But the horrors have a sustained beauty. There may be no stronger image of humanity amid persecution than the shot of a young woman busted for playing music receiving 80 lashes while bursting into song.
The competition, then, was off to a rich start: A quietly stirring achievement, "Timbuktu" didn't generate intense reactions across the board, but it did showcase an original voice with serious, worldly concerns and artistry to match.
Of course, there's much more to come -- and plenty to anticipate.
At one table, an insider who got an early look at some competition entries vouched for Tommy Lee Jones' western "The Homesman" as well as David Cronenberg's satire "Maps to the Stars," calling it "a lot of fun." Another festival veteran spoke highly of the Australian drama "Charlie's Country," about the plight of an aboriginal man, while one buyer showed signs of reservations following a market screening for midnight entry "The Target," a Korean remake of the French thriller "Point Blank."
Above all, one title seemed to benefit the most from the ever-turning gears of hype: a number of whispers suggested that the Argentinean ensemble drama "Wild Tales"—from director Damian Szifron, whose other features have rarely screened outside of South America—would blow people away with its premiere this weekend, making it an early contender for the Palme D'Or.
But jury president Jane Campion wasn't in work mode. Instead, she circled the room to shake the hands of friends and colleagues — not that she or her colleagues had the freedom to offer up much anyway. "We got the full, strict explanation earlier today," said fellow juror Gael Garcia Bernal. "I can't say anything about anything."
But even as Bernal expressed excitement "to see things from the other side," he also had a promotional duty at hand—the Argentinean kidnapping drama "The Ardor," which co-stars Alice Braga and screens at the festival this weekend. "I love the movie," Bernal said, "but it's weird. I don't want to say anything until you see it."
That's a common refrain at Cannes, where word of mouth can determine the life of a movie before the credits stop rolling. It's the ultimate showcasing of the film industry's fragile nature -- and the constant threat of distractions.
To wit: Moments after reflecting on his new project, Bernal was swept up with the crowd heading toward the exit, the afterparty, and the end of the night. More days and more movies awaited. Anything could happen next.