The first few days of the Cannes Film Festival have been marked by surprises -- whether in the shifting national identity of movies, or peace-making efforts between towering directors -- and parties that defy the rain.
The savvy cinephiles who create this annual cinematic extravaganza like to shake things up. For example, at a black-tie dinner hosted by Festival President Gilles Jacob, I witnessed a scene worthy of filming. The guest of honor, Steven Spielberg -- President of the Jury -- was seated across from Monsieur Jacob, flanked by his wife Kate Capshaw and Aurelie Filippetti, the French Minister of Culture and Communication. Enter Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, the nine-hour documentary of 1985 that is widely considered the Holocaust film by which others are measured. (His new documentary, The Last of the Unjust, is part of the Official Selection.)
As he approached the central table of honor, I couldn't help remembering Lanzmann's attack on Spielberg's Schindler's List, not to mention most of the Holocaust-related films released after Shoah. But there he was, taking a seat diagonally across from the director he had publicly derided for facile filmmaking. Lanzmann stood up and reached across the table to shake Spielberg's hand. To my surprise, the American filmmaker responded in kind, and their handshake lasted a few beats. The Grand Salon of the Carlton Hotel exudes elegance, which both directors enacted.
Their detente was followed by the public presentation to Spielberg of a gift from France's INA, the national archive of audiovisual material. Minister Filippetti held in her hand an I-Pad, which turned out to contain all of his recorded appearances in France since 1971. "It's not 'Big Brother,' she explained, "but a tool of memory, especially for students, historians and creators."
Spielberg was thrilled with this chronicle of over 40 years. "I was probably wiser in 1971 than today, and this will prove it," he joked. "I do have a long history in France. I don't want this experience to end... but it must, next Sunday," he added, referring to the last day of the 2013 Festival.
By that point, he and the Jury will have seen many films that no longer belong to one nation (or even two). It's not simply that foreign directors are shooting in English -- a commercial exigency already prevalent in the twentieth century. Rather, when it comes to film-making, borders have never seemed so fluid. A case in point is The Past, whose Iranian director Asghar Farhardi won the Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar for A Separation (2011).
But The Past is in French, starring Bérénice Bejo displaying dramatic acting chops far beyond the comic character she played in The Artist. A tense tale of intimacy, separation, miscommunication and ambiguity, The Past raises a universal question: can one build happiness on someone else's misery? There are no easy answers in Farhadi's work. Rather, one is tempted to quote Jean Renoir's line in The Rules of the Game: "There's only one terrible thing in this world, that everyone has his reasons."
At least four films of the Official Selection demonstrate fertile creativity beyond borders. Jimmy P. is a fact-based English-language drama directed by Arnaud Deplechin, whose French movies have always been selected for Cannes. It stars Benicio del Toro (who won the Best Actor Prize in 2008 for Che) as a Native American who is treated for post-World War II combat trauma by an idiosyncratic anthropologist: Georges Devereux is played with relish by Mathieu Amalric, best known for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. (Will Spielberg give him special attention considering Amalric's memorable work in his own Munich?)
Many of us are looking forward to Nicolas Winding Refn's latest Cannes entry: much like Drive in 2011, Only God Forgives stars Ryan Gosling, in English. And the Closing-Night selection will be Zulu, directed by Frenchman Jerome Salle, featuring English-speaking Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker.
Blood Ties, which premiered yesterday, takes place in 1974 Brooklyn and boasts an international cast that sounds credibly local in English: directed by Frenchman Guillaume Canet, the violent tale of crime and family tension features Clive Owen (British), Marion Cotillard (French), Matthias Schoenaerts (Belgian) and Olek Krupa (Polish), alongside Americans Billy Crudup, James Caan, Zoe Saldana and Mila Kunis. (The script was co-written by James Gray, an indie US director more revered in France than at home. In fact, his own latest film, The Immigrant, premieres in competition Friday, also starring Cotillard, with Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix).
When Clive Owen popped into a party thrown by The Weinstein Company on Baoili Beach, I compared his barely-contained violence in Blood Ties to the rumpled vulnerability he displays in his latest release, the superb Shadow Dancer. He appreciated the juxtaposition, and added the joy he felt playing Ernest Hemingway in last year's Cannes selection, Philip Kaufman's Hemingway & Gellhorn.
A few beaches away, at the party after the world premiere of the Coen Brothers' well-received Inside Llewyn Davis, co-star Justin Timberlake was enjoying the revelry. When I praised his non-singing dramatic work -- including The Social Network and Andrew Niccol's In Time (2011) -- he marveled at his luck: "I'm a child of the 1980's: you start out as a fan -- whether of David Fincher or the Coen Brothers -- and then get to work with them."
The same night, another musician whose passions extend into multiple areas was being celebrated by The Creative Coalition, namely Julian Lennon's photography and philanthropy. Borders of any kind mean little at the all-inclusive Cannes Film Festival.
Annette Insdorf, Director of Undergraduate Film Studies at Columbia University, is the author of PHILIP KAUFMAN.