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Countdown to Cannes: The Most Important Movies at Cannes Have the Least Commercial Potential

Countdown to Cannes: The Most Important Movies at Cannes Have the Least Commercial Potential

Our Countdown to Cannes column takes a look at movies and filmmakers at the upcoming festival worthy of anticipation.

The Cannes Film Festival earned its “Hollywood on the Riviera” reputation long ago, but its impact on the film industry is harder to define. While Cannes draws distributors from around the world, films with evident commercial promise have largely been sold long ago. But that’s only one piece of a much larger equation. Every year, somebody complains about a weak lineup — but the allegation vary depending on which aspect of the festival is being scrutinized. 

On the one hand, Cannes offers a venue for big names and industry heavyweights to buy product. Yet at the same time, it’s a festival engineered to celebrate movies as an art form, full stop. In the upcoming edition, many of the stronger offerings with commercial prospects have already found distribution, which will make it harder for buyers to use the environment to their advantage. 

Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Marie,” which stars Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz, will almost certainly satisfy anyone previously enamored of the French director’s low-key, textured dramas; one can similarly expect Belgian sibling filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne to generate the usual praise for their quietly moving, naturalistic approach with yet another melancholic tale of working-class struggles with “Two Days, One Night.” However, both movies are already set for distribution through IFC Films. 

Ryan Gosling’s bizarre-looking directorial debut “Lost River” will be released by Warner Bros., while David Cronenberg’s satire “Maps to the Stars” starring Robert Pattinson belongs to eOne. “The Search,” a remake of the 1948 Fred Zinnemann film about a child Holocaust survivor separated from his mother (from “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius), has been expected to sell to The Weinstein Company, given its history with the filmmaker. “Foxcatcher,” the curious saga of a millionaire and an Olympic wrestler starring Channing Tatum and Steve Carrell and directed by Bennett Miller, has been part of Sony Pictures Classics’ fall awards season hopefuls since last year. 

In fact, the only prominent American effort expected to sell big after its Cannes premiere is an unconventional western directed by 67-year-old Tommy Lee Jones, returning to the genre in his first behind-the-camera effort since “The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada” nearly a decade ago. The movie, which co-stars Jones and Hilary Swank, includes Meryl Streep in a supporting role, and revolves around transporting three insane women across state lines. It’s already screened for some American distributors, who suggest that it carries a very high price tag — indicating expectations that the movie carries some Oscar season potential. Even without a distributor, the awards campaign for “The Homesman” has started.

Still, the potential for Cannes to showcase great cinema for other reasons remains in play more than ever. The real value of the festival lies with movies that don’t simply use Cannes as part of a launch strategy. It’s always the more unconventional titles that matter most in judging the quality of the festival outside of its industry components. 

Who can forget the year that Gaspar Noé’s “Enter the Void” landed at Cannes as a rough cut still wet from the lab, alternately baffling, inspiring and infuriating hundreds of viewers with a three-hour, visceral assault that would never make its way into theatrical release? Or when Jean-Luc Godard’s “Film Socialism” screened with “American Navajo” subtitles seemingly designed to confound all audiences not lucky enough to speak French? And only at Cannes could Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai director known for his poetic, labyrinthine meditations on mythology and memory, premiered the marvelously strange and blatantly noncommercial “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in competition and won over jury president Tim Burton, who awarded it the Palme d’Or. 

These are the true Cannes gems: works of art that stand out not in spite of their unorthodox, boundary-pushing elements, but because of them.

In the main competition, many cinephiles are excited about “Leviathan” — not the experimental fishing drama released last year, but the saga of a man facing down governmental corruption directed by Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintstev. A decade ago, Zvyagintstev won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his acclaimed debut “The Return,” the tense drama of two boys coping with their father’s sudden reappearance after an extended absence. With his followups “Banishment” and “Elena” — both of which premiered at Cannes — Zvyagintstev deepened his penchant for bleak, patiently developed stories about the outliers of contemporary Russian society, melding a cerebral approach with nerve-wracking genre ingredients. 

Zvyagintstev’s latest feature is supposedly inspired by the Book of Job, which means more downbeat occurrences with profound undertones, and its large ensemble cast suggest it contains the greatest scope of his filmography to date. Anyone intrigued by sophisticated narrative filmmaking should anticipate this one, even if its premise, tone, and language promise the opposite of box office potential. 

The same goes for Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to the Language.” One of the most important filmmakers of all time, Godard’s work is never readymade for commercial expectations, even as he began his career by riffing on Hollywood. But that’s exactly what makes each new Godard movie such a fascinating challenge: Growing ever more experimental in the later stages of his career, his recent movies — perhaps most notably with 2010’s “Film Socialism” — are consumed by a commitment to confounding expectations and pushing the boundaries of the medium’s communicative possibilities. Nearly 55 years after “Breathless,” we’re finally getting a 3-D Godard feature, a freewheeling portrait of marital infidelity that continually transforms into something else (but no matter how strange its narrative, at 70 minutes, it’s one of the shortest entries in competition). “Goodbye to the Language” will be weird (word on the street is that it includes a talking dog), possibly impenetrable and guaranteed to be divisive — which is exactly what makes a great movie for Cannes. 

Similar expectations are in place for Argentinean director Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja,” which stars Viggo Mortensen and focuses on a father-daughter pair who move to a desolate area. Alonso’s slow-burn work typically borders on the avant garde as it explores alienation through a steady accumulation of images and poetic encounters, but the bigger production may help more audiences notice his alluring approach — even if it doesn’t whip buyers into a frenzy. 

Maybe that’s a good thing: They have enough to worry about already. When Cannes gets started, the movies that can truly benefit from festival exposure will speak on their own terms. 

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