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Ballad of Narayama

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Welcome to Cannes 2015

Ah, Cannes…the pitches for yacht rentals (I wish!) and assorted oddities are once again pouring into my inbox as the 68th International Festival du Cannes, May 13–24, approaches. Check out the missive entitled “Pope Francis Arrives at Cannes.” Nope, it’s only the teaser for a film being hawked in the market. 

Each festival promises its own delights and harbors its own dark corners as the film world takes the international stage for two weeks against the larger world of real-life diversity and conflict. The festival will once again strut as France’s very own model for eternal youth, glamour and non-stop entertainment. Yet it’s sobering to remember that this is also the France of the not-so-distant "Charlie Hebdo" tragedy, a happening which will likely cast a long shadow in terms of heightened security measures in the streets and the Festival Palais.

The announcement of the opening night film, “Standing Tall” by actress-turned director Emmanuelle Bercot, has already inspired considerable comment. A drama about a juvenile delinquent with stars Catherine Deneuve and Benoit Magimel in supporting roles, this would seem to be a Cannes gesture toward social relevance and an antidote to last year’s frivolous opener, the Nicole Kidman vehicle “Grace of Monaco,” which floated like suds then sank like a stone. 

Nineteen films will vie for the coveted Palme d’Or, and at least on paper, the selection promises a healthy competition among a group of directors that includes past Palme winners, Oscar nominees/winners, old masters, and hot young contenders. Unlike many past years, there are only two American standard bearers in competition, both relatively avant-garde directors. Todd Haynes premieres “Carol,” based on Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian-themed novel “The Price of Salt,” his long-awaited first feature following the 2007 Oscar-nominated “I’m Not There.” Gus Van Sant, who won the Palme d’Or and Best Director in 2003 for “Elephant,” premieres “The Sea of Trees,” starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts

Having a special interest in Asian cinema, I’m especially excited by the triple-threat representation of Hou Hsiao-hsien of Taiwan, Jia Zhang-ke of China, and Hirokazu Kore-eda of Japan in competition. Following an eight-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, Hou debuts “The Assassin,” a martial arts film starring Shu Qi, his “Millennium Mambo" star. To say the least, it sounds like a complete thematic and stylistic change of pace for the innovative Taiwanese master.

Like Hou, Jia Zhang-ke has been a regular at Cannes over the course of his career. He took home Best Screenplay for “A Touch of Sin” in 2013, and served on the competition jury just last year. His new film “Mountains May Depart” is a family relationship story centered on immigration. Japan’s Kore-eda has made six trips to Cannes, and been in competition for the Palme five times. His new “Our Little Sister,” a story featuring three sisters, one of them fourteen years old, may likely tap his talent for eliciting sensitive performances from children.

Italy looks to be a powerhouse in the competition with three heavy-hitters: Matteo Garrone, Paolo Sorrentino and Nanni Moretti. Garrone scored a worldwide hit with his Mafia drama “Gomorrah” in 2008, following his winning of the Grand Prix. He again won the Grand Prix in 2012 for “Reality.” His new competition entry “Tale of Tales” is also his first film in English, starring Vincent Cassel and Salma Hayak, and based on the masterwork of 17th-century Italian poet Giambattista Basile.

Garrone’s countryman Paolo Sorrentino previously directed “The Great Beauty,” my favorite film of the 2013 Cannes festival, which went on to win both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. His “Il Divo” won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008, as well as an Oscar nomination. “Youth,” his film in competition, is in English, and boasts an intriguing-sounding cast headlining Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Michael Caine, Jane Fonda and Harvey Keitel

Nanni Moretti counts as the closest thing to Cannes royalty. He won the Grand Prix for “Dear Diary” in 1994, and was awarded the Palme d’Or for “The Son’s Room” in 2004. He also served as jury president in 2013, although judging by the strained look on his face throughout the festival, he did not appear to relish the experience. A frequent actor in his own films, he’s listed in the cast of the new contender “Mia Madre,” about a woman dealing with grief over the death of her mother. 

The French also have four films in competition, most notably “Dheepan” by Jacques Audiard, about a Sri Lankan Tamil warrior in France. His 2010 film “A Prophet” put him on the world map in a major way, garnering the Grand Prix at Cannes, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar nomination. His 2012 “Rust and Bone” with Marion Cotillard brought increased visibility. He could be a frontrunner this year.

I’m also looking forward to competition entries by some younger maverick directors. I can only imagine what Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, renowned for his deliciously twisted view on the world in films including “Dogtooth,” will do with the story of a futuristic dating game in “The Lobster.” Norwegian Joachim Trier, distantly related to Danish bad boy Lars von Trier, earned much critical respect for his edgy “Oslo, August 31,” which screened in Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section in 2011. He’s in competition for the first time with “Louder Than Bombs,” in English, starring Isabelle Huppert as a war photographer with a secret in her past.

Cannes is a place for discoveries and new arrivals. Sadly, there are also untimely departures. This year, many in the press corps will note the absence of Time critic Richard Corliss, who died on April 23rd. Richard and his wife Mary, the former film stills and poster curator at MoMA, had been in-the-know cinema-citizens of Cannes for more than forty years. Their boundless appreciation for the Cannes experience in all its dimensions was infectious.  Richard’s humor and kindness were only two of his distinguishing characteristics. He loved Asian cinema; he loved cinema, period. He wore the depth of his knowledge lightly, and will be greatly missed as the lights go down and the festival’s first images light up the screen.

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