"They love me in France," is the familiar claim of the unappreciated Hollywood director, which, in the postwar years, applied to such names as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller, who were acclaimed by the young French film critics who went on to become the filmmakers of the French new wave.
For filmmakers who came of age in the post-Sundance indie movement in the United States, the French may once again be career saviours, as Hollywood becomes an increasingly inhospitable climate for innovation. This year festival-goers will see new works from the Coen brothers, with their sixties folk tale Inside Llewyn Davis; The Descendants director Alexander Payne, with his father-and-son road-trip movie Nebraska; Jim Jarmusch with a vampire story, Only Lovers Left Alive; Steven Soderbergh with his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, and James Gray (Little Odessa) with a period piece, The Immigrant, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard. All five of these films are by directors known for movies that earn awards and positive reviews, but often struggle for financing in the U.S., against an increasingly top-down, franchise-driven industry.
Among other Americans, Woody Allen, whose 2011 Cannes opener, Midnight in Paris, proved to be his most successful film, will return to the Palais with Blue Jasmine. And another comic actor and filmmaker, 87-year-old Jerry Lewis (whose name is a punchline about the eccentricities of French taste), will come for a special homage, in conjunction with his starring role as an elder jazz musician in Daniel Noah's debut film Max Rose.
With Steven Spielberg as jury president, and the festival opening with Baz Luhrmann's glitzy adaptation of The Great Gatsby, this is a distinctly American-flavoured year, with the highest American profile in the competition since 2007.
Tired of fighting a conservative system, one of those American directors, Soderbergh, announced last year that he has stopped making movies. His Cannes entry, Behind the Candelabra, a biographical film about the late pianist and entertainer Liberace, is in fact an HBO television project, a relatively cheap $5-million picture that Soderbergh said every Hollywood studio turned down because it was "too gay." With an endorsement from the world's most prestigious film festival, and a strong chance of at least an acting award for Michael Douglas's performance as Liberace, the film thumbs its nose at Hollywood narrow-mindedness.
Joel and Ethan Coen also opted to sidestep the American studio system. Though nominated for eight Oscars (winning four, including best picture) for No Country for Old Men, they picked Paris-based StudioCanal to finance their latest film, allowing the filmmakers to proceed at their own pace, Joel Coen told The New York Times in March. Only after the film was finished did CBS Films buy the U.S. distribution rights this past February. Similarly, Jarmusch's vampire flick, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston (Loki, from The Avengers), has British and German co-producers.
Alec Baldwin and director James Toback even shot a 10-day documentary here at Cannes, on the struggle of making independent movies, which will premiere out of competition. The title is Seduced and Abandoned, inspired by Baldwin's description of the film industry as "the world's worst girlfriend." All this makes the Cannes boost more important than ever. In a pre-festival interview in Screen International, festival director Thierry Frémaux said: "In the past, when I informed producers that their films had made it into Cannes, they were merely happy. Today, they are relieved for financial reasons. It's like a festival slot is a cornerstone of the film's survival."
After a relatively dry period at Cannes for American films in the mid-to-late nineties, Frémaux was hired with a mandate to form a bridge to the American studios. In his first year, 2001, he selected Luhrmann's previous visit to the Croisette, Moulin Rouge, as the opening film. In retrospect, it's regarded as a turning point in the encouragement of American studio films (though Luhrmann himself is Australian). In the late nineties, there were often doubts about the risks of showing a film at Cannes: Johnny Depp's directorial effort, The Brave (1997), or Michael Cimino's last film, Sunchaser (1996), were badly mauled by the critics, essentially killed before their theatrical releases.
In the past decade, the American presence has meant out-of-competition screenings of incongruous blockbuster movies like Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). These were usually timed to launch the European theatrical run of the films and bring Hollywood stars to the Croisette.
While this year's opener, The Great Gatsby, is a U.S. studio film (Warner Bros.), it has a special connection to the Croisette. Fitzgerald wrote part of the book here in the south of France, and as Frémaux noted in a tweet, Fitzgerald essentially "invented the Côte d'Azur," where he and Zelda Fitzgerald enjoyed such hotels as the Carlton and the Hotel du Cap, still the favourite haunts of the stars. The Great Gatsby also represents one of those rare examples of a film that is art-house-meets-blockbuster, and, after a mixed critical reception for its opening in the United States last week, it's another example of a film that will get a fresh evaluation through French critical eyes.