Whichever way the mistral wind blows on Sunday when Steven Spielberg’s jury hands out its awards, it’s fair to say that, for critics, the Competition has been divisive. While a number of films received huzzahs in the Palais, several met with mixed reactions. Among the best received were the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Like Father Like Son, and Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color. Among the not so hot were Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and Takashi Miike’s Shield Of Straw, both of which were subject to boos during press screenings. And, yet, each has its supporters.
Only God Forgives had something to live up to. Winding Refn and star Ryan Gosling were the darlings of Cannes two years ago when the former won the directing prize for Drive. But God Forgives‘ violence and extreme exercise in style were a turn-off for many. Still, The Guardian gave it five stars. One veteran critic adds that supporters also “tend to be French and genre specialists.” Libération calls Gosling, “The greatest actor of all time in the galaxy of the world.” Shield Of Straw, from the prolific and iconic Japanese director Miike was booed, “not because it’s totally awful, but because it really didn’t belong in Competition,” I’m told. But The Japan Times says it’s the type of film that’s “beloved by the local industry.” Warner Bros. recently released in Japan for about $12M in the first three weeks.
Other divisive titles include A Castle In Italy, the sole Competition film directed by a woman. Some see the semi-autobiographical story as too bourgeois, but France’s Première finds it transcends helmer Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s previous work. Many agree James Gray’s The Immigrant boasts a strong performance from Marion Cotillard as a Polish immigrant in early 20th century New York. But terms tossed around about the film alternately include “extraordinary,” “unengaging,” “sublime,” “lame,” and “superbly directed.”
Whether a film’s future career depends on its reception here is debatable, some say. Amat Escalante’s Heli scored low on critics’ lists, but still closed deals. Sales agent Fiorella Moretti tells me divided reviews didn’t much change her ability to sell the film. She allows that U.S., UK and Latin American (especially Argentinian) distributors rely on reviews, “but it’s not the last word.” Given the homefield advantage, a film’s French career can be tarnished if the local press doesn’t like it. (A distributor says the same goes for the Venice Film Festival where a bad reaction from the Italian press does no favors to a film’s prospects in Italy.) Still, if a film is not scheduled for release immediately following a festival, the reaction can blow over and the marketing can be tweaked. If a film needs reviews to help push it, then positive critiques “can bring a smaller movie into the limelight,” an offshore sales agent says. If films are mainstream, they can sometimes get past negative critical reaction. Conversely, even good reviews at Cannes can’t guarantee success at the box office. Last year’s Brad Pitt-starrer Killing Them Softly debuted in Competition to largely positive notices but only made about $15M in the U.S. and another $22M foreign.
Speaking of box office, France’s Relax News pulled together some interesting figures on what Palme d’Or winners have done in receipts over the past 25 years. According to the research, Michael Moore’s controversial 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is the top scoring victor with about $220M in receipts, followed by 1995’s Pulp Fiction with $214M. Roman Polanski’s The Pianist rounds out the top three with $120M. His Venus In Fur screens here in Competition today.