Why Cannes Turned to Big Stars and Edgy Auteurs for 2011 Competition

 Merie Wallace/20th Century Fox Film Corp

Cannes' 2011 slate seems designed to avoid the pitfalls of last year's competition, which failed to produce a single Oscar winner, crossover commercial success or grand cinema scandal --the three boxes any great film festival worthy of the name needs to tick.

For its 64th edition, Cannes appears intent on reasserting its claim to the title of world's best film festival, with an auteur-heavy lineup that includes such art house stalwarts as Pedro Almodovar, Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick. The fest is also putting the focus on youth with a generous sampling of the hottest up-and-comers in global film, from Nicolas Winding Refn, the Danish director of the Ryan Gosling starrer Drive, to Julia Leigh, the Aussie first-timer behind the edgy Sleeping Beauty.

On the star front, Cannes this year is an embarrassment of riches, playing it safe with big names: Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Eva Longoria, Jodie Foster, Antonio Banderas and Owen Wilson are just a handful of the paparazzi targets expected to stroll the Croisette. Not to mention France President Nicolas Sarkozy and first lady Carla Bruni, who will likely hog the opening-night spotlight when they show up for the premiere of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, in which Bruni has a cameo.

But in Cannes, the films are the stars, and it's with this year's competition lineup that the festival really shines.

The hottest ticket is Malick's long-gestating The Tree of Life. The drama, starring Pitt and Penn, was originally set to bow last year in Cannes before perfectionist Malick withdrew it to tinker further. The delay has only heightened the film's enigmatic allure, and expectations are high.

"It was very important for Cannes to have this movie because we have been talking about it for a year now," says Xavier Leherpeur, a film critic for French movie magazine Studio CineLive. "I want it to be great."

Malick has been to Cannes only once before -- in 1979, when he won the director prize for Days of Heaven. But even sight unseen, Tree of Life, which screens May 16, is the odds-on favorite to win the Palme d'Or.

That said, Malick has some stiff competition.

Almodovar -- who, despite three previous attempts, hasn't won Cannes' top prize -- throws his bonete back in the ring with The Skin I Live In. The film is a genre departure for the Spanish master of melodrama. A horror thriller, Skin stars Banderas as a plastic surgeon who hunts down the man who raped his daughter.

Von Trier, who took horror to new heights (and lows) with Antichrist two years ago, returns with his stab at science fiction: Melancholia. Starring Kirsten Dunst, Kiefer Sutherland and Alexander Skarsgard, the film is -- jokingly? -- referred to as a "beautiful movie about the end of the world."

David Gritten, a film critic for London's Telegraph, says Melancholia could be this year's grand scandale. "Von Trier probably took things as far as he could with Antichrist," Gritten says, "but when it comes to scandals at Cannes, you can never rule him out."

If von Trier doesn't deliver in the shock stakes, the baton might pass to Leigh, whose debut, Sleeping Beauty, is an erotic drama about a woman (Emily Browning) who falls into a narcoleptic form of prostitution.

Less scandalous but equally well regarded are Belgian filmmaking duo and two-time Palme d'Or winners the Dardenne brothers, who return to the competition after a three-year absence with their drama The Kid With the Bike. But other Cannes heavyweights making up this year's roster appear willing to push the envelope in unexpected ways, including Romania's Radu Mihaileanu, whose La Source des Femmes tells the story of a group of village women who threaten to go on a sex strike. Then there's the normally sedate Nanni Moretti, whose curiously titled We Have a Pope looks at the relationship between a recently elected pontiff and his therapist.

As for whether this year's lineup will still have any buzz come Oscar time -- never a certainty, especially after last year -- a handful of titles could appeal to Academy voters, including Refn's action thriller Drive, which is bolstered by the presence of Gosling and Carey Mulligan, two of the most lauded young stars onscreen at the moment. Then there's We Need to Talk About Kevin from British helmer Lynne Ramsay, which is getting major buzz for its performances by Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly as the parents of a teenage boy who goes on a shooting spree.

As for dark horses, keep an eye out for This Must Be the Place, an English-language drama from Il Divo director Paolo Sorrentino. If the plot -- gothic rocker-turns-Nazi hunter to avenge his father -- doesn't sound out-there enough to generate interest, then Penn in a jet-black wig and mascara is sure to be one of the more enduring images on the Croisette this year.             

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