Festival of sirens

Judging from this year’s Cannes screenings, cinema is obsessed with seductive angels of mercy
Festival of sirens
Photograph by George Pimentel/FilmMagic; Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

In Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which kicked off Cannes, Owen Wilson stars as a Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in France with his fiancée, a shrewish Malibu princess played by Rachel McAdams. He’s a frustrated novelist who dreams of being a writer in the café society of the 1920s. This being a Woody Allen movie, magical thinking produces magic, and our artiste manqué time-travels to the salons of the Golden Age, mixing with the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Picasso—and falls in love with an artist’s muse portrayed by Marion Cotillard. She, in turn, considers her own era a bore, and longs to be transported back to the belle époque of the 1890s. The absinthe is always greener on the other side.

Living elsewhere, of course, is why we go to movies. And the unabashed nostalgia of Midnight in Paris served as a fitting amuse-bouche for the 64th annual Cannes International Film festival, an event where the past could not have been more present. Cannes is the shrine of auteur cinema, “the pinnacle,” as Johnny Depp acknowledged when he dropped anchor to promote Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides—part of the Hollywood sideshow that keeps the media flocking to Cannes. But as blockbuster culture erodes the fragile ecology of the art film, the art-house fortress of Cannes has never seemed more intent on honouring the past. This week it staged a tribute to Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose role in Breathless in 1960 helped launch the French New Wave. And among the 20 features in competition, one film after another conjured nostalgic visions of paradise lost, from a miraculously good black and white silent movie called The Artist, to Terrence Malick’s eye-popping vision of a ’50s childhood (and all of Creation) in The Tree of Life.

That smoky siren played by Cotillard in Midnight in Paris could be a poster girl for this festival—if the official poster was not already adorned by the ghostly image of another icon, a young Faye Dunaway with mascara eyes wide shut and endless legs folded in supplication. This edition of the festival feted a pantheon of mostly male directors—including Lars von Trier, Pedro Almodóvar and the Dardenne brothers—but Cannes has always held a special place in its heart for the Siren. No, not the one on the Starbucks logo, but the sort of screen goddess who embodies the mystique of cinema. Sophia Loren. Ingrid Bergman. Monica Vitti. Marilyn Monroe. We’re still looking for the latest incarnation, in the fiery brilliance of Penélope Cruz or the erotic majesty of Angelina Jolie, but it’s like hunting for a new Dalai Lama.

Each year fresh sirens are washed ashore. Decades ago, a circus-like atmosphere prevailed as starlets stripped on the beach for the cameras. But today you won’t see any bare breasts from the Croisette’s promenade. The Siren has been empowered, behind and in front of the camera. And judging from many of the films at the festival, she has been drafted as cinema’s designated saviour—the seductive keeper of the flame, and the last best hope for its future.

This year’s festival has been remarkable for a string of provocative movies directed by women (notably Sleeping Beauty and We Need to Talk About Kevin), but also a wealth of female performances that reanimate classic stereotypes with a spirit of self-possession. They range from the saintly mother played by Jessica Chastain opposite Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life to the opiated whores in the belle époque brothel of L’Apollonide: The House of Tolerance. The latter film, which plays like a live-action version of a French impressionist painting, has a scene of the prostitutes lounging on divans, rubbing their fingers around the rims of their champagne glasses to make them hum—“the sound of sirens,” a client observes.

In Cannes, there was no escaping them. Even the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel has a school of vampire mermaids that drag sailors to their death, churning the sea like sharks in a feeding frenzy. But an angel of mercy rises from their ranks, a French beauty aptly named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who falls for a Christian missionary with the mug of a male model. Plus ça change . . .

For a contemporary twist on a retro icon, Australia’s Julia Leigh unveiled Sleeping Beauty, a shocking debut feature that puts a feminist spin on the male gaze. It’s about a university student (Emily Browning) who joins a pricey escort service that requires her to be drugged unconscious while filthy-rich, dirty old men have their way with her. Browning, who delivers much of her performance naked, is 22 but looks about 15, which results in a creepy fusion, turning the film into a necro/pedophilia fable. That its heroine “owns” her exploitation with a blithe punk insolence makes it no less disturbing.

So it was an immense relief to step into the featherweight time capsule of The Artist. The notion of making a silent, black and white film in 2011 sounds too precious for words. But The Artist is no art film. You don’t need a cinephile pedigree to enjoy it. And though it’s a French production with French actors, because it’s silent you’d never guess. Set in late 1920s Hollywood, this romantic comedy is a tale of star-crossed lovers: a Valentino-like matinee idol of the silent era (Jean Dujardin), whose career takes a fatal dive with the transition to talkies, and an extra (Bérénice Béo), who rises to stardom after he discovers her. She’s a flapper with a heart of gold, another siren who comes to the rescue of a drowning man. What’s amazing is how much emotion can be generated without dialogue, and how fresh the whole thing feels. The Artist is the kind of zippy, elegant confection you can imagine Woody Allen wishing he’d made. It received the warmest ovation of any picture in the first few days of Cannes.

But no film was more keenly anticipated than The Tree of Life. Its director, Terrence Malick, is one of the last epic visionaries of ’70s American cinema. Ensconced in his own belle époque, he has remained strangely immune to contemporary fashion and the pressures of celebrity, so reclusive he didn’t show his face in Cannes for his premiere, leaving the heavy lifting to his star, Brad Pitt. Malick’s romance with the past is primordial, a search for divinity in the ancient rhythms of weather and landscape. After making just four movies since 1973—Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World—in the The Tree of Life, he evokes the lost paradise of a ’50s America.

It’s a story of three sons growing up in the ’50s in a suburb of Waco, Texas, with a strict father (Pitt), but the heart and soul of the film is an infinitely loving mother (Jessica Chastain). The movie unfolds as a rhapsody of nostalgia—for a boyhood of sprinklers and sparklers and smashing windows and strapping frogs to firecrackers. But that’s just half of it. Malick’s nostalgia extends all the way back to the Big Bang. Vast stretches of the movie are given over to a macro-narrative of evolution. We see galaxies forming, volcanoes erupting, oceans churning, cells dividing. And yes, there are dinosaurs.

Although Malick surrenders to special effects for the first time, he taps the past to do it, teaming up with Douglas Trumbull, the visual wizard behind 2001: A Space Odyssey. And computer graphics are mixed with old-school alchemy, simulating cosmic events with swirls of dye, smoke and milk. At the heart of this symphonic rapture is the beatific mother played by Chastain, a siren of the celestial kind. To find her character, she says she studied paintings of the Madonna and watched Lauren Bacall movies. As the narrator, she’s also the voice that holds the movie together, cradling it like a child with prayers of love and nature.

With its galactic ambition, The Tree of Life may well be the Avatar of art films. But as an experiential trip, it feels more like 2011: A Space Odyssey. A virtual cathedral of a movie, it looks for divinity in dust motes, and in feminine grace. In casting Pitt as a cruel patriarch, Malick enlisted one of the biggest stars on the planet, but gave God the flashier role, and as the luminous housewife, it’s Chastain’s job to channel it. Malick’s ecclesiastical agenda drew inevitably mixed reactions from critics in Cannes, who tend to thrive on cynicism. But to see this kind of movie presented on the high altar of film—one that seems to reveal the past and future of cinema all at once—we’re reminded why the siren call of Cannes keeps luring us back.

For Brian D. Johnson’s full Cannes coverage, visit