Why The Cannes Film Festival Needs U.S. Star Power

Some of the biggest names in world cinema are convening for the 64th Annual Cannes Film Festival in France. The highly anticipated event often paves the way for major Hollywood breakthroughs. Host Michel Martin speaks with Toronto Sun film critic Bruce Kirkland about some of the most anticipated films, a controversial documentary about Princess Diana's death, and how countries are represented at the festival.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Switching gears, now, to something a lot of us wouldn't mind spending hard-earned money on - the Cannes Film Festival. It's one of the oldest and most prestigious film festivals in the world. A movie marathon combined with much glitz and glamour. Winning the Golden Palm, the festival's highest honor, can turn a small budget movie into the next box office hit and push an unknown filmmaker to the top of Hollywood's A-list.

This year's festival kicked off on Wednesday. So we wanted to hear about the most buzz-worthy movies of the event. And hear about, you know, the hits, the misses, the surprises. We're joined today, by film critic veteran Bruce Kirkland of the Toronto Sun and Sun Media Canada. He's covered the festival for the past 30 years. And he's with us, on the phone now, from Cannes. Thanks so much for joining us. I'm trying to contain my rage and envy that you were there and I am here. I will try.

BRUCE KIRKLAND: If I told you it was hard work, would you believe me?

MARTIN: No. Now, you're probably bilingual, as most Canadians are, so you've got to help me out. Is it Cannes or Cannes?

KIRKLAND: Cannes.

MARTIN: Cannes. And is that how it's pronounced in French?

KIRKLAND: I believe so.

MARTIN: So it's Cannes.

KIRKLAND: My bilingualism is rustic, to say the least.

MARTIN: OK. Well, thanks for clearing that up.

So, before we get into the different films, can you tell us why winning the Golden Palm is so important? Why is this such a prestigious event?

KIRKLAND: Excellent question, because the importance of film festivals is a matter of attitude in some cases. Just, you know, switching gears for a sec, Toronto's film festival has become the preeminent festival in all of North America. And Americans are jealous. But, frankly, Toronto doesn't know how that happened, but it has happened.

So in the case of Cannes, it has superseded every festival in the world, Venice, Berlin, all of the other traditional European festivals have tried to usurp the power of Cannes and they just can't do it. There's a combination of old school Hollywood glamour, glitz, a kind of circus atmosphere to it. It's on the French Riviera so there's a sense of the exotic. And at the same time, they have a remarkable track record in programming their festival with risks, as well as, you know, traditional kinds of world cinema.

MARTIN: In one of your recent pieces you wrote that Europe is dominant, Asia is reasonably represented, the Middle East is being singled out, Africa and South Africa are mostly absent, Canada is nothing but a flickering shadow and the United States is once again an uneasy bridesmaid at the world's most prestigious and powerful film fest. Now, is this unusual or is it usually like this?

KIRKLAND: Well, actually, it changes every single year, and this is really important to remember because people do get upset. I mean, we Canadians feel like we don't exist this year. And then other years we might have two films in competition. The United States has had always this kind of strange relationship that - with France in general and with the Cannes Film Festival specifically. Without American star power, Cannes is diminished. So when Angelina Jolie shows up today to promote "Kung Fu Panda 2" and Brad Pitt's coming for an official competition film, the Terrence Malick film, "The Tree of Life," this is really important for Cannes. They need that American star power.

MARTIN: Hmm. OK.

KIRKLAND: I was going to say - sorry to interrupt - at the same time there's a limited number of major American films in this particular festival.

MARTIN: Well, I just want to talk about a couple of the films in the time that we have left. Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" opened the festival yesterday. I'll just play a short clip.

(Soundbite of film, "Midnight in Paris")

(Soundbite of music)

MIMI KENNEDY: (as Wendy) Where'd Gil run off to?

RACHEL MCADAMS: (as Inez) He's been walking around Paris.

KURT FULLER: (as John) Where do you think Gil goes every night?

KENNEDY: (as Wendy) He walks and gets ideas.

MCADAMS: (as Inez) Why are you so dressed up?

OWEN WILSON: (As Gil) I was just doing a little writing.

MCADAMS: You dress up and put and put on cologne to write?

WILSON: You know how I think better in the shower and I get the positive ions going in there.

MARTIN: Obviously that's a trailer. Now, the movie is not in competition, but it's still being shown there. Can you help us understand that? Like, there are some films in competition, some films are not. How does that work?

KIRKLAND: It is complicated. Traditionally the opening night gala is not in competition. And Woody Allen loves to be at Cannes, but not be a competitive piece of art because he believes that art and entertainment shouldn't be up for prizes. Hence why he's only shown up at the Oscars once and that was for political reasons and not to collect any Oscars. So he just doesn't like the whole prize thing.

So opening the film festival with such a delightful kind of giddy romantic comedy, traditional kind of Woody Allen fare, out of competition, perfect for Woody.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Bruce Kirkland. He's a film critic for the Toronto Sun and Sun Media Canada. We're talking about the Cannes Film Festival, which opened on Wednesday. Let's talk about this documentary that's created a lot of controversy. It's officially not apparently a part of the film festival. It's called "Unlawful Killing" and it's about the death of Princess Diana. And I'll just play a short clip.

(Soundbite of film, "Unlawful Killing")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The British establishment thinks that they have got away with murder, but then what's new? They've been getting away with murder for centuries.

DIANA FRANCES: I don't think many people would want me to be queen, actually. When I say many peoples, I mean the establishment that I married into.

MARTIN: Why is this causing such a stir?

KIRKLAND: Well, none of us has seen it, but excerpts from the film have been put online and also there's been a lot of talk about it starting earlier this week in Britain. And let me explain why it's not a part of the official festival. No program invited it. But Cannes has a huge marketplace, the Marche du Film. And they sell films from all over the world. You can actually rent a theater and sell anything, as long as it's not hardcore porn.

So these people from Britain - Keith Allen is the actor who directed this piece of work. He became obsessed with Princess Diana. He attended the inquest and he became convinced that she was murdered and he presented, you know, he created this film.

MARTIN: OK. Unfortunately we don't have time to talk about it anymore. And unfortunately we also don't have time to talk about the other film that's raising some eyebrows. That's Jodie Foster's film, "The Beaver," starring Mel Gibson, who's had all kinds of drama in his personal life. So you'll have to come back and tell us about that.

Bruce Kirkland is a film critic for the Toronto Sun and Sun Media Canada. And he was with us on the phone from Cannes Film Festival, where he assures us he's working very hard. Bruce, thank you.

KIRKLAND: My pleasure.

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