Why Cannes is a world away from Hollywood

Spielberg may be heading the festival’s jury, but the A-list stars, and the action, are very far from L.A.

So long, Hollywood

Photo by Venturelli/WireImage

A vicious storm was blowing in from the Mediterranean. Bulldozers were at work to save the beach from being washed away. And France had just officially slipped back into recession. But under a vast seaside tent battered by torrential rain, the royal court of Cannes was in session, and blissfully immune. Nicole Kidman and Carey Mulligan, ethereal in sculpted hair and ivory gowns, glided through a sea of stolen glances. A goateed Leonardo DiCaprio—star of what the French call Gatsby le magnifique—wore the air of a heartthrob who has graduated to patriarch. Women swirled around French shoe designer Christian Louboutin, whose footwear makes flashy cameos in Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, about the gang of teenage burglars who made a habit of looting Paris Hilton’s closet. (He wore black loafers with pearl-strung tassels and his signature red soles.) Nearby, as if probing an alien life form, Steven Spielberg poked a spoon into an isle of white-onion mousse on a caviar crust circled by a moat of chilled petit poissoup.

At the opening-night dinner of the 66th annual Cannes International Film Festival, the king was clearly Spielberg, president of the powerhouse jury that will rule on the latest fashions in film on May 26 when it awards the Palme d’Or to one of 20 movies in competition. Its nine members, who include Kidman, actor Christoph Waltz and director Ang Lee, own a collective haul of eight Oscars. For Hollywood’s most successful filmmaker—who launched his career in Cannes with The Sugarland Express in 1974, and blew the roof off the Palais in 1982 with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial—it was a triumphant return; his $200-million mega-yacht, Seven Seas, was moored offshore.

Since Spielberg premiered his first movie in Cannes at 28, the place has changed. And so has its relationship to America. Hollywood and Cannes have been engaged in a long and rocky affair, a romance that came into full bloom with a string of landmark American movies that won the Palme d’Or—Taxi Driver (1976), Apocalypse Now (1979), Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Barton Fink(1991) and Pulp Fiction (1994). An American film, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, won in 2011, but it was an independently financed art-house epic. Hollywood studios chickened out of competition long ago, and now treat Cannes as little more than a glitzy international showcase. That was the case with last week’s opening gala, The Great Gatsby, already a box-office hit in North America—and the first film in living memory to open Cannes that wasn’t a world premiere. Clearly, the festival was desperate to have the picture, and its stars, but lacked the clout to force Warner Bros. to postpone the release.

Gatsby can at least boast some local provenance—F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the novel just up the coast, while his wife, Zelda, had an affair on the beach where the Palais now stands. In any case, what matters at Cannes is the competition, which remains the Olympics of world cinema. Hollywood may still be the ultimate movie capital, but lately, the Dream Factory has been so consumed with making robo-blockbusters that the romance of film has emigrated. Oscar-pedigreed actors and directors, refugees from Hollywood’s monoculture, are finding a haven in TV and foreign productions. And at this year’s Cannes, U.S. movies made the biggest splash in years, but no thanks to Hollywood.

The best-actor competition offered a showdown between two Americans enjoying success at opposite ends of their careers, both cast as musicians in showbiz sagas. In the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the relatively unknown Oscar Isaac plays a failing folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village, with the kind of astonishing breakout performance that Cannes exists to discover. And as piano divo Liberace in Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, Michael Douglas rebounds from stage-four throat cancer to stage a miraculous late-career comeback. Soderbergh—whose own career was ignited in Cannes with Sex, Lies, and Videotape—made the movie for HBO after every Hollywood studio balked at the notion of a gay love story with Douglas and Matt Damon. And the Coens’ film, a purebred American fable, was financed by French TV.

There are exceptions, such as Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, backed by Paramount. But as a black-and-white film starring a septuagenarian Bruce Dern, it’s a long way from the Hollywood mainstream. What’s striking about this festival is the wild gumbo of global forces behind the movies. In Only God Forgives, a France-Denmark co-production shot in Bangkok, Canada’s Ryan Gosling rejoins Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) to play the manager of a Muay Thai boxing club. In Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, France’s Arnaud Desplechin directs Benicio Del Toro as a Blackfoot veteran of the Second World War being treated in Kansas by an eccentric Hungarian shrink (Mathieu Amalric). And with Blood Ties, Clive Owen, Marion Cotillard and Mila Kunis team up with French director Guillaume Canet to remake a French crime movie in New York.

International producers, along with broadcasters, are filling the creative vacuum left by Hollywood. A clutch of worthy Palme d’Or contenders emerged in the first half of the festival. Without sacrificing rigour, they ventilate the art house with crowd-pleasing touches. With the unplugged perfection of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens go beyond their usual cynicism to show strains of affection, compassion and whimsy. There’s even a runaway cat in a prominent role—a literal running gag. And the best foreign titles are less austere than usual. Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, a kind of Chinese Pulp Fiction, presents sensational vigilante gun violence against lyrical vistas—a trenchant critique of the country’s reckless commercial growth. The Past, shot in Paris by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, is a tale of a divorcing couple that unfolds as an onion-skin riddle of secrets and lies. It’s torqued with enough revelations, it would be melodrama if it weren’t so exquisitely rendered. Word quickly spread through the festival that Kidman was moved to tears.

Unlike Farhadi’s Oscar-winning A Separation (2011), The Past has no political overtones, and as a French production, it escaped the scrutiny of Iran’s censors. But both Jia and Farhadi have honed their art under strict state controls—and found more leverage for human expression than most directors in the grip of American studios. Farhadi, in fact, said in Cannes he has “assimilated” state restrictions, which he has tried to turn into “an asset, a tool for creativity.”

Film’s marketplace can be as ruthless as any censor. In Seduced and Abandoned, a satirical documentary shot at last year’s festival, director James Toback and Alec Baldwin try to raise money for Last Tango in Tikrit, a movie inspired by Last Tango in Paris, to be shot in Iraq with Baldwin and Neve Campbell. The doc, which premiered in Cannes last week, casts a nostalgic eye at the festival’s glory days, while looking under the rock of film financing to find a world indifferent to art and driven by fast money from Russia and China.

Yet on the French Riviera, which Somerset Maugham called “a sunny place for shady people,” Cannes still serves as cinema’s high altar, a place where filmmakers are born—such as Quebec’s 25-year-old Chloé Robichaud, who was competing for best-feature debut with Sarah préfère la course(Sarah Would Rather Run), a tale of a young track star.

While Hollywood may still be the world’s movie capital, Cannes remains the magic kingdom on the Côte d’Azur. To watch the stars ascend the red-carpet staircase of the Palais flanked by choir-like rows of tuxedoed photographers is to see the antithesis of tabloid America’s paparazzi hell—a place where the stars can believe briefly in their own divinity. It may be a grand Euro-trash illusion, but the meta-narrative has enduring power.

Of course, everyone tries to second-guess the jury. Will it grace Soderbergh with the symmetry of a second Palme d’Or? Can the Coen brothers win another one? Will Spielberg give it to an American? “The great thing is, no one’s on trial for their life here,” Spielberg told me with a grin at the Gatsbydinner. He seemed happy just to be on the other side of the glass, as judge rather than defendant. Happy not to be grinding through a three-month Oscar campaign for Lincoln only to lose best director to Ang Lee. Sometimes even the king of Hollywood has to find his fantasy elsewhere.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.