Last year, it was high heels that hijacked the Cannes Film Festival, as stories about whether or not women were being prohibited from screenings for not wearing the accessories overshadowed most discussions about the actual films. This time, a bad throwaway line about Woody Allen and rape at the opening ceremony quickly became the talking point of the festival’s first day. The awkward bit added insult to injury for Allen and those working on his new film “Cafe Society,” which opened the festival, arriving just a few hours after the filmmaker’s son published a critical piece about his father in the Hollywood Reporter. If you only followed the headlines, that was all the first day of Cannes had to offer.
On the ground, however, Cannes began with a mishmash of famous faces from around the world and much more to anticipate in the days to come. “I can’t wait to see my friends’ movies,” said Kristen Stewart at a lavish dinner following the premiere of “Cafe Society,” where she casually strode through the room in checkered sneakers devoid of heels. Her friends were the people involved in “The Neon Demon,” Nicolas Winding Refn’s new fashion world thriller starring Elle Fanning, and Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” a road trip drama featuring Shia Labeouf.
Those are good places to start, but still days away. By the time the Cannes party was underway, the festival had already revealed one of its competition titles at an evening press screening, and it existed a world away from the blithe comedy of Woody’s latest. “Sieranevada,” the first effort from Romanian director Cristi Puiu, offered a striking contrast: The film, which centers on a dysfunctional group of siblings gathering under one roof on the anniversary of their father’s death, digs into the minutiae of contemporary Romania over the course of three hours and unearths a darkly funny look at troubled times.
With conversations surrounding 9/11 conspiracies and the attacks on Charlie Hedoo featured prominently in a variety of long-winded disputes, “Sieranevada” spends much of its slow-burn plot simply listening in on working class citizens trapped by their narrow views of the larger world. (At Cannes, where much has been made about increased security in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, their chattering had an added resonance.) Puiu, who first came to international acclaim with his medical drama “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” excels at this kind of immersive look at life beyond the headlines. With its pensive style, Puiu never hesitates to linger on aimless monologues, to the point where even his lively cast can’t always keep the energy up.
But that also lets the filmmaker build to dry punchlines that seem as though they materialize out of thin air: One great moment finds an elderly priest visiting the house to drone on and on about the Second Coming. When he finally leaves, the family is appropriately baffled by his rambling speech. It’s a savvy bit of humor about the disconnect between a traditionalist mindset and secularism at the root of this fractured society.
Such nuanced humor, a world away from the cheeky one-liners that define Allen’s work, speaks to the study in contrasts that define the Cannes experience. At the dinner, the festival jury was bracing itself for 10 days of intense viewing experiences — two movies per day, and only each other with whom to discuss them. Laszlo Nemes, the Hungarian director fresh from his Oscar win for “Son of Saul,” noted that he was eager to debate the lineup with his diverse peers — who ranged from Kirsten Dunst to Mads Mikkelsen, Iranian producer Katayoon Shahabi and president George Miller — because they all so clearly had different perspectives to share.
Miller, meanwhile, shared some thoughts on Donald Trump. “All dictators use fear,” he said, pointing that his “Mad Max” movies have allowed him to explore that tendency through an allegorical lens. “Who knows what might happen?”
But for the time being, he had a reason to ignore the outside world — the single greatest luxury Cannes has to offer. “The scandals are part of the history of Cannes,” festival director Thierry Fremaux told me earlier in the week, “but when we do the selection, we just want to offer the best films.” Woody Allen may have had a rough first day, but the film festival is just getting started, and the movies have a lot more to offer than a few bad jokes.