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Things I Learned at Cannes Part One, from Campion’s Feminism to Leigh’s Stunning ‘Mr. Turner’

Things I Learned at Cannes Part One, from Campion's Feminism to Leigh's Stunning 'Mr. Turner'

As an Angeleno, one of my tricks for surviving Cannes is stopping over somewhere to break that hideous LA to Nice air trek that is tough to recover from. Far better to get one night’s sleep in New York, London or Paris before arriving jet-lagged on the Riviera. And I like Delta’s non-stop overnight flight from JFK to Nice–even if they don’t have wifi. That way I am forced to get some shuteye. On this year’s flight were Cinetic Media’s John Sloss, Kino’s Richard Lorber, sales reps Josh and Dan Braun, Film Movement’s Adley Gartenstein, Rose Kuo, Criterion’s Peter Becker, film scribe Harlan Jacobson and Magnolia’s Eamonn Bowles. After grabbing the press shuttle to the Old Port at Cannes, I schlepped my bags to the Indiewire apartment, a third-floor walk-up on Rue Commandant de St. Andre, pres de la seaside Boulevard la Croisette. 

I lined up for my pink press badge and Cannes bag, checked out the Cannes jury conference led by Jane Campion, the only woman to ever be awarded the Palme d’Or (for “The Piano”), and thus the only woman to be included in the “Chacun Son Cinema” Cannes omnibus short and the attending festival photo call. She revealed that 7% of the 1800 films submitted to Cannes were by women, so Cannes’ Thierry Fremaux had some right to be proud of the Official Selection’s ratio of 20%. Yes, “there is some inherent sexism in the film industry,” she reiterated. “Women do notice that time and time again they do not get their fair share of representation.” She deflected the suggestion that her jury might feel obliged to remedy the situation with its vote. Two films directed by women are in the competition. “It’s not the EU,” said Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (“Drive”). “It’s not the Eurovision, thank god.”

This year’s jury, from actors Willem Dafoe and Gael Garcia Bernal to actresses Leila Hatami, Jeon Do-yeon, and Carole Bouquet and directors Nicolas Winding Refn, Jia Zhangke (“A Touch of Sin”) and Sofia Coppola, seems high-brow and likely to lean toward artier fare, I told an interviewer from Al Jazeera UK on the Majestic Barriere, as a sublime Turner sunset yielded to a brief rain shower. 

So far Cannes is playing true to form: the opening night film “Grace of Monaco” was a disappointment (our coverage here) that will not be in year-end awards contention and could use all the editing help that Harvey Weinstein has to offer to make it work with stateside audiences. After tussling over the director’s cut that played at Cannes, filmmaker Olivier Dahan (“La Vie en Rose”) will cooperate with Weinstein, he says. 

And “Mr. Turner,” the first screening of the Cannes competition and Mike Leigh’s fourth Palme d’Or contender, is a $15-million digital masterpiece that should merit serious Oscar consideration. 

After years of exhaustive preparation and financed by multiple partners in the U.S., UK, France and Germany, Leigh’s second period biopic comes 15 years after “Topsy Turvy” and marks the culmination of Leigh’s laborious and unique filmmaking process. It was worth the wait. It’s Leigh’s stunning masterwork, anchored by Timothy Spall’s towering physical performance as the renowned and self-taught revolutionary British landscape painter, who immerses himself in sketching and observing the glories of nature and then returns to his sunlit studio. He’s supported by his aging father, who shows his art to patrons, mixes his paints and stretches his canvases, and two women, a loyally loving housemaid (Dorothy Atkinson) who is his sexual companion– until he takes up with a maternal Margate widow (Marion Bailey). He’s estranged from his angry ex-wife and two daughters. 

Meticulously covering the last 25 years of Turner’s life, Leigh’s 149-minute movie covers issues that will resonate in Hollywood: art vs. commerce, spirituality, expression and passion in art, pandering to wealthy patrons, the art establishment, peers and critics, and confronting the decline of old age. While the literary language of the film is rich, its visuals, created by great Leigh collaborator and cinematographer Dick Pope and inspired by the palette of Turner’s paintings, are sumptuous. “When you really research something and investigate it in depth, it gets into your bloodstream and psyche,” said Leigh at the press conference. “By the time we make the film we have been prepared, we weren’t conscious–‘this is that painting’– it was there in our bloodstream. The job is to embrace it and absorb it and allow our creative subconscious to inform the decisions we made.”

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