If you’ve heard that security in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in France (particularly last summer’s horrific massacre in Nice) has been heightened at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, you would not be wrong.
Just trying to get through the gauntlet of guards and security personnel plus metal detectors at the Grand Lumiere Theatre in the Palais was a real challenge at Thursday’s 8:30 AM first press screening, for Amazon’s Wonderstruck. The film started 12 minutes late for the usually right-on-the-button fest, but considering the lines, the meticulous bag checks and extra wanding, it was a miracle they got everyone in their seats by then. Frustrated Cannes Press officials promise to get it running smoother than it did the first day (and I am sure they will), but these new regulations are a nationwide French order, not one confined to just Cannes. Even just lining up outside the Palais to check your fest box or get into the market show takes much longer now than it ever did.
It wasn’t much better for the official Wonderstruck premiere at 4 PM, when the same precautions kept things moving more slowly than usual. Even the actors, whose glamour quotient on the red carpet is a much-needed component that makes this festival what it is, weren’t immune. At the Wonderstruck postparty at Nikki Beach, co-star Michelle Williams told me official festival cars carrying talent to the Palais were stopped, with the trunk searched for anything threatening. I have a suggestion: Since getting into a Todd Haynes movie proved more of a challenge than getting on a plane at JFK or LAX, maybe the Cannes Festival should institute a similar kind of TSA pre-check program. We can all sign up, go through the clearance interviews and get a special card that guarantees we are not a terrorist threat, then we could flash the card in a special fast-track line that can be set up like most airports have now to alleviate this kind of situation.
On top of all this there is a huge police presence here, with cops carrying assault rifles walking up and down the Croisette and elsewhere. Considering the nature of the world these days, that’s probably not a bad thing, but it does have the effect of making the French Riviera look like some sort of armed camp. Of course there are also the usual hassles involving proper attire that is always part of the Cannes experience. Director John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Rabbit Hole), whose new film How to Talk to Girls at Parties premieres here at the Grand Theatre of the Palais this weekend, told me he nearly didn’t get into the Wonderstruck screening as an invited guest today due to his usual colorful outfit. He was wearing very plaid Bermuda-style shorts with matching jacket and stylish red socks, among other touches — a definite no-no for a Cannes Gala that only likes basic black and bow ties for men — when a security guard stopped him from entering the carpet and turned him away. After making his case and telling the guard he was a director whose film would be premiering this very week at said festival, a manager was called and Mitchell eventually was allowed in. That’s fodder for his inevitable sequel, How to Talk Your Way Into a Cannes Screening.
All of this inconvenience, though, proves worth it once the lights come down and the movie starts rolling, especially if that movie is as good as the first three official competition entries that I saw today. It is unusual to see three such strong films this early in the proceedings, but it portends a good year even without help from any major studio this time around. In this United Nations of Cinema that we gather for every May, it was Russia, Hungary and the USA that provided the first three Palme d’Or hopefuls of the milestone 70th Cannes Film Festival — and all of them are highly recommended for film lovers and fans of the three veteran Cannes helmers returning to the fest with their newest works.
Haynes brought the aforementioned Wonderstruck, based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 children’s book. He also wrote the book Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-laden Hugo was based on, so he knows his way around this kind of family film. He supplied the screenplay as well, a first-timer in that regard. Focusing on the journeys of two deaf kids in different eras (1927 and 1977), Haynes — who was last in Cannes two years ago with Carol — has made a heartfelt and sumptuously filmed cinematic experience that is not strictly for kids, even if it is
about them. In fact, I would never call this a kids movie, as I told Haynes at the afterparty. Instead it is one their parents don’t feel they have to be dragged to, much the same way I felt about the incredibly inventive and watchable Hugo. Haynes told me that while he agreed he wouldn’t put a strict kids label on this film (a first for him in this genre), they did frequently test the movie with kids and got what he said were very astute comments and guidance along the way. “I think they knew what would work better than most adults did,” he said.
With a terrific performance by young deaf actress Millicent Simmonds in the black-and-white silent movie-like sections of the film set at the advent of the talking motion pictures in 1927, and a gorgeously nuanced signed portrayal from Julianne Moore as the older version in 1977, Wonderstruck is a wonder indeed. It came into the fest from Amazon with high expectations and was met with a four-minute standing ovation that finally was cut off by Fest Director Thierry Fremaux. One of the film’s producers, John Sloss, told me it was the first time he had been here with a film where the principals actually left the theater while the ovation was continuing.
With the revolving traffic jams around the Grand Lumiere Theatre, I am guessing they had to move them out to move the next group in, since two more galas were taking place in the same house. Cannes is like doing the Oscars two or three times a night. Speaking of those golden statuettes, with a production team that includes multiple Oscar-winning and/or nominated artisans such as costume designer Sandy Powell, production designer Mark Friedberg, composer Carter Burwell, and cinematographer Ed Lachman, Wonderstruck would seem a natural for a big Academy campaign by Amazon and its distributor Roadside Attractions after it opens October 20. You can expect to see this on the fall festival circuit, especially at the New York Film Festival, based on the way it makes that city look 50 years apart. Lachman shot much of it on film (viva le film) and it is exquisite to see, fine grain and all, on the big screen where Amazon promises it will play (no Netflix controversy here).
The other big premiere Thursday night was Loveless from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. He won a prize last time he was here in 2014 with the highly acclaimed Leviathan, a brilliant drama that went on to an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Like that movie, Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing this painfully real and intense film about a couple in the midst of a bitter divorce when their only son suddenly disappears. It is darkly grim to watch at times, but is so accomplished that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zvyagintsev back in the Oscar race if Russia — which doesn’t come off so great in the film — allows it to be entered into that contest.
Similarly I loved yet another competition entry, Hungary’s Jupiter’s Moon, which represents the elevation of director Kornel Mundruczo. He last was here winning Un Certain Regard in 2014 with his riveting White Dog, which I still can’t get out of my head. This man is the real deal, and just on the basis of that film and this timely new one about a Syrian refugee with startling angelic powers of levitation, I would advise any major studio out there to grab him. His movie-making skills are evident, and Jupiter’s Moon confirms his place in the pantheon of top international talents behind the camera. This film has its official gala Friday night, but makes it 3-for-3 so far for Fremaux’s 2017 competition lineup, despite the fact that some loud French-sounding boos were heard at the end of Thursday night’s press screening. Ignore them. Jupiter’s Moon deserves its place in Cannes, and actor Merab Ninidze — who plays a doctor who befriends and exploits the young immigrant — should be in the conversation for an acting prize when the festival ends on May 28.