Coming up to the halfway point of the 66th Cannes film festival, the event so far might be characterized as a have/have-not dialogue, focusing on the gap between excess and deprivation. Some of this can be attributed to the choices and ideology of the Cannes programmers; some to the way things are going in the world.
Which brings us to the Wednesday night festival opener, The Great Gatsby, a vintage novel about romance, elaborate jazz-age parties, corruption, murderously gorgeous custom cars and an "infinite capacity for hope." Director Baz Luhrmann said he felt the need to make a movie of the 1925 novel because it was "incredibly relevant to today" and the post-2008 economic climate, created by modern-day incarnations of the slick con man Jay Gatsby and his gangster backer, Meyer Wolfsheim.
On Thursday morning, in the champagne-bubble hangover of Gatsby, the Cannes audience was subjected to Amat Escalante's alarming Mexican film, Heli, set in the Mexican hinterland where industrial-scale operations churn out cars for Americans to drive and cocaine for them to party with. A police cadet rips off a drug stash with plans to run away and marry his 12-year-old girlfriend, but finds himself hanging by his arms in a shack, thumped with a cricket bat by drunken teenaged gangsters, until someone gets the inspired idea of lighting his pubic hair on fire.
The film sets a high bar on degradation, just as Gatsby does for excess. But the moral abyss of materialism can be felt all over this year's festival. In François Ozon's Young & Beautiful, a well-off Parisian teen, for fun, makes assignations with older men for 300 to 500 Euros a session, and hides the cash in her closet under a stack of sweaters.
In Sofia Coppola's reality-based The Bling Ring, California teens leave their suburban McMansions to rob the even vaster homes of celebrities whom they admire. One scene takes place in Paris Hilton's real-life walk-in closet, a collection that dwarves Luhrmann's faithful rendering of Gatsby's riotous shelves, filled with "shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue."
Chinese director Jia Zhangke's new film, A Touch of Sin, takes us inside the Chinese boom, with its corruption, sweatshops and sex trade, which caters to the fantasies of Chinese tycoons and foreign investors alike. In one of these opulent brothels, in the factory and sex centre of Dongguan, hand-picked young provincial beauties act out a scene as wild as anything in Gatsby.
"Where are we going?" a client asks a young prostitute dressed in a robin's egg blue train conductor's outfit.
"Where do you want to go?" asks the girl.
"That's the trouble with you young people nowadays," huffs the middle-aged client. "No sense of direction."
The trouble is, it's hard to know where to go. When one young worker suggests moving abroad, his friend dismisses the idea. The rest of the world, he says, is broke, which is why so many migrant workers are coming to China.
On Friday, minutes before the interviews for Coppola's film at the Carlton Hotel, a few journalists at the festival received smartphone alerts that an actual jewel heist had taken place at one of the festival hotels, with $1-million worth of jewellery taken from a Chopard employee's room.
"A publicity stunt," deadpanned Coppola, who, in her time has modelled for and designed for Marc Jacobs, though she distances herself from the "flashy" side of fashion.
The burglary at Cannes wasn't strictly coincidental to the movie's subject. Where there's bling, there will be burglars. Hitchcock's 1955 film, To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant as a suave cat-burglar was shot in the Carlton Hotel where The Bling Ring interviews took place. Grace Kelly, who starred in the movie, met Prince Rainier of Monaco here, and became a princess. A "sizzle reel" of the new bio-pic about Kelly, starring Nicole Kidman, also showed here on Friday.
Glamour, said the stern British art critic John Berger, is nothing more than the capacity for exciting envy, which is a little like saying wealth can be defined as the capacity to excite people to rob you.
As the 66th Cannes Film Festival rolls into its final week, other themes will undoubtedly come to the fore, though we still have Steven Soderbergh's Behind the Candelabra, a morality tale about a have-nothing foster child who falls under the sway and between the sheets of a rich letch named Liberace. Liberace's mansion, his forever-young plastic surgery, and a gold, jewel-encrusted Rolls Royce, might strike even Jay Gatsby as a little de trop, old sport.
Oh, how we love paying to see movies in which the rich and careless pay for their sins against the many.