The Coens were praised, Nicolas Winding Refn was booed, and once again, there's a curious lack of female directors.
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24 May 2013 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 12:58 PM

Incredibly, Cannes attendees this year pulled out the coats and winter woollies as the temperatures on the Côte d'Azur plummeted to a mere 13 degrees over the first weekend. A German colleague noted that it was 25 degrees in Berlin, while a Norwegian mused that it was 27 degrees in Oslo and that he'd packed his bathing suit for nothing.

Having just seen Rebecca Zlotowski's Grand Central, a film set in a French nuclear power plant and its environs, one wonders if there might be a film about global warming hidden in the festival, as there certainly should be. Then again, Gus Van Sant's fracking drama Promised Land was never a strong candidate for Australian cinemas, where smaller films are struggling to find an audience, or to be seen at all. And here's the dilemma in Cannes: Will these art films make it to cinemas back home?

Of course, Promised Land's star Matt Damon was in Cannes with a very different venture, the Liberace–Scott Thorson love story, Behind the Candelabra, which played better than anyone had expected. With his showy performance Michael Douglas announced he was back in movies following his treatments for throat cancer. Certainly, he evokes Liberace in his portrayal, even if he admits his legs are half the size and that he looks nothing like the late performer, who died prematurely from AIDS at the age of 67. Douglas is 68.

Other Cannes standouts have been The Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis (pictured; watch the trailer), a story set in the New York folk music scene of the early '60s, which immediately became the critics and audience favourite. Oscar Isaac, the AFI-award winning actor from Balibo, plays a mighty fine guitar tune and sings in the film. The Guatemala-born New Yorker is now a contender for the best actor prize alongside Douglas and Toni Servillo, who delivers again for his Il Divo director, Paolo Sorrentino, in the Rome-set two-and-a-half hour epic A Grande Bellazza (The Great Beauty).

After The Descendants, Alexander Payne has returned to his home state with the black-and-white entry, Nebraska. A story about trying to find happiness in old age – not unlike Payne's About Schmidt – the film stars Bruce Dern as a curmudgeonly dad who insists on having actually won $1 million (in a bogus offer) and follows the efforts his son to try to make his dream come true. As with Sideways, the talented Payne hits all the right notes in this poignant, funny and heart-warming movie.

Still, where are the strong women's roles in the competition and more significantly, why is there only one female director? While Bérénice Bejo is fine in Asghar Farhadi's heart-wrenching relationship drama, The Past (read our review), and Tilda Swinton is still to come in Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive (though this is apparently lacking in storyline), Valeria Bruni Tedescshi is the sole female director and her frothy comedy drama, A Castle in Italy, wasn't well received at all. Surely there are emerging women directors who could be represented, or even other cutting-edge men (other than Nicolas Winding Refn whose Only God Forgives was widely booed; read our review). Certainly, many are in the belief that the festival is badly in need of an overhaul. A British journalist, who like myself attended Sundance in January, agrees that the strong program of films there this year made the trek into the snow uplifting. Yet none of those more commercial, engaging films made it onto the Cannes Croisette. It was almost as if films had to be arty or French to qualify in Cannes this year. Interestingly, Sundance founder Robert Redford's one man show stranded on a yacht, and then life raft, in J.C. Chandor's All is Lost just might be the exception.

Incredibly, there are no Australian or New Zealand feature films anywhere in the Cannes program. (The Australian short film, Tau Seru, written, directed and produced by Rodd Rathjen, is in less prominent sidebar, Critic's Week.) Yet there are six French films in the competition (four are obligatory) and certainly nobody knew what Arnaud Desplechin's poorly received Jimmy P. was doing there. Except maybe that this virtual two-hander featured Hollywood star Benicio del Toro alongside French star Mathieu Amalric.

Also, Guillaume Canet's English-language directing debut Blood Ties, may have featured a star-studded cast (including Clive Owen, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana and Canet's partner Marion Cotillard) yet he really does not know what to do with them as he struggles here to tell a coherent story as he did with Little White Lies. Surely no women's prizes there; it's ineligible in any case as the film screened out of competition. It will be interesting to see what jury head and Nicole Kidman have to say after giving out the awards on Sunday.

Note: The first of the Cannes prizes, for Critics Week, have just been announced, with The Italian film Salvo, following the doomed romance between a mobster hitman and the sister of one of his victims, taking out the prize for best film. Salvo is dominated by the astounding muscular performance of 35-year-old Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri (The Band's Visit), whose brother Adam, 25, stars in one of the festival's hits, Omar, the first film to be financed in Palestine. Even if the brothers, the sons of famous Palestinian actor Mohammad Bakri, are ineligible for the main acting award, they win my prize for best performances on the Croisette.