Cannes '12, Day One: Wes Anderson kicks off the festival in enchanting form

Cannes '12, Day One: Wes Anderson kicks off the festival in enchanting form

About halfway through Moonrise Kingdom, the delightful new Wes Anderson film that opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, 12-year-old Suzy tells her boyfriend, Sam, with whom she’s run away from home, that she envies him for being an orphan. After all, the protagonists of her favorite novels—several of which she’s lugged along on this adventure, still in the crinkly protective sleeves that immediately identify them as library books—usually have no proper mother or father. Self-sufficiency seems terribly romantic to Suzy. Sam’s magnificent reply, kicking off with three words she’s hearing from him for the very first time: “I love you, but you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

That’s pretty much how I feel about Cannes itself. Ten years after my first visit, it remains the maddening highlight of my movie year, serving up 20 or so of the year’s most hotly anticipated world-cinema events in its Competition section alone. (There are multiple sidebar sections, plus not one but two technically-separate-but-conveniently-concurrent fests:  Directors’ Fortnight and International Critics’ Week.) Every day brings at least one potential masterpiece. But since actual masterpieces tend to be thin on the ground, there’s a sense in which attending Cannes can feel like having Lucy pull the football away just as you attempt the kick, over and over again. Very #firstworldproblems, to be sure, but I don’t fully trust any critic who claims their relationship with the festival isn’t slightly dysfunctional.

Right now, of course, I’m still very much in the drooling stage. This year’s lineup looks sensational on paper, with something for everyone: hardcore art films from international auteurs like Carlos Reygadas (whose Silent Light was my favorite film here five years ago) and Léos Carax (bringing his first feature since 2000’s POLA X); star-studded American genre fare like Killing Them Softly (with Brad Pitt) and The Paperboy (featuring Matthew McConaughey and Nicole Kidman); fascinating change-of-pace efforts by old favorites (Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love has a Japanese cast, while In Another Country, the latest from South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, stars Isabelle Huppert); and much more. David Cronenberg is here with his adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, but I’m arguably even more curious about Antiviral, a film in the Un Certain Regard section written and directed by his son Brandon. Room 237, the conspiracy-theory doc about Kubrick’s The Shining that I missed at Sundance, plays in the Fortnight. (I won’t miss it again.) There are just so many opportunities to be disappointed!

That the festival has kicked off with a winner only prolongs the agony. Moonrise Kingdomopens in the U.S. next week, so I don’t want to steal too much thunder from the A.V. Club’s forthcoming official review, but it’s hard to imagine any consistent fan of Anderson’s work not surrendering to its trademark amalgam of precision and melancholy. Like Rushmore, it earns its pathos by juxtaposing youthful idealism with adult resignation, albeit this time in entirely separate narrative strands: while runaways Sam and Suzy (whose names I dearly hope were inspired by the schmaltz-classic “Muskrat Love”) bond in the great outdoors over their shared sense of alienation, the grown-ups trying to find them—including Suzy’s unhappy parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray), a lonely sheriff (Bruce Willis), and a scout master experiencing an existential identity crisis (Edward Norton)—serve as vivid counterpoint reminders of why the first pangs of love stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Thing is, though, that description, while accurate, ignores how deadpan-hilarious Moonrise Kingdom often is, especially during its dizzyingly inventive first half. Anderson packs every frame with sight gags, many of which you can barely glimpse as his camera elegantly glides to its next designated position; actors toss off razor-sharp dialogue as if blithely unaware that they’re saying something funny, which is exactly how one-liners should be delivered but so seldom are. A flashback to Sam and Suzy’s epistolary courtship, featuring snippets of each hand-printed letter (almost invariably cut off mid-sentence), establishes their ardor with giddy economy, freeing the two young actors playing them to inhabit that weirdly amorphous zone between friendship and desire in which pre-adolescent romance inevitably gets stuck. I especially loved Kara Hayward as Suzy, not so much for her performance (though she’s totally solid) as for her wonderfully severe look, so at odds with the wholesomeness projected by most teen actresses (Ellen Page, Chloë Grace Moretz, the Fannings) even when they play against it. If you hate Wes Anderson, this movie won’t change your mind, but believers should be enchanted. Grade: B+

Alas, that blissful high was short-lived. I poked my head into Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, then fled the theater when it became clear that it’s just a feature-length DVD supplement in which Polanski fields softball questions from one of his closest friends (while still under house arrest in Switzerland). And the other Competition title screened for the press, After the Battle, immediately became the odds-on favorite to win absolutely nothing… though you never know with juries here. (This year’s is headed by Nanni Moretti and includes Ewan McGregor, Emmanuelle Devos, Alexander Payne and—for some reason—Jean-Paul Gaultier.) Directed by Egypt’s Yousry Nasrallah, it’s admirably up-to-the-minute, tackling the fallout of the Arab Spring by dramatizing events as recent as last October’s “Black Sunday” demonstration; it’s also politically astute, noting the way in which confused young men who were manipulated by Mubarak into attacking protestors wound up becoming convenient scapegoats. But Nasrallah’s hackneyed sense of dramaturgy and non-existent camera sense haven’t changed since I endured his El Medina (The City) over a decade ago. Despite its topical urgency, After the Battle plays like a daytime soap, with characters taking turns shouting on-the-nose dialogue at each other; for the handful of you who saw Margaret (coming to DVD and Blu-ray in July!), it’s as if the classroom debates were expanded into a two-hour movie. Even the wordless final shot is risible, using one of the pyramids as a blunt visual metaphor for how much further Egypt still has to go. Cannes, I love you, but if you think this is one of the year’s most important films, you have no idea what you’re talking about. Grade: C

Tomorrow: Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard plays a double amputee in Jacques Audiard’s already misunderstood Rust and Bone (saw it this morning—you can follow me on Twitter for immediate reactions and my rating on the needlessly precise 100-point scale), plus the latest from Michel Gondry and Austrian doomsayer Ulrich Seidl (Import Export).