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Cannes Diary, Days 1 and 2: Starsploitation and Real Masterpiece Theater

The festival’s 67th incarnation was declared open Wednesday night. Jane Fonda shone, Nicole Kidman was embarrassed, and Mike Leigh unveiled a beautiful two-and-a-half-hour-long painting.

The red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival is almost as popular in its downtime as when it’s clogged with people. It’s the only red carpet I can think of that’s just left out for almost two weeks, like a welcome mat. Last year, rain fell for a lot of the first week, but the carpet stayed put and remained soggy. The dampness did terrible things to shoes and gowns and attitudes. This year, on the other hand, the sky almost matches the sea, and the carpet glows like stamped embers. The festival’s 67th incarnation was declared open Wednesday night at the end of a ceremony that began, as these things do, with hundreds of people headed from one end of the carpet to the other.

The act of arriving for a red-carpet event never changes: sedan pulls up, passenger exits, everybody screams. But the art of arriving is something else altogether. To see people piled along the Boulevard de la Croisette — draped over balconies above couture clothiers, perched on ladders, and crushed against barriers — just to see, say, Zoe Saldana, is to wonder whether it’s worth it. The opening ceremonies air live on French television. If you were out for a stroll and found yourself unable to make it to your destination because of the crowds, you might want to know why. But then something impressive happens, and the chaos makes sense.

This year, “impressive” was Jane Fonda. She was simply, but absolutely, Jane Fonda. France loves her, and she loves — loves — to speak French. So here she was, in a burgundy, body-hugging Elie Saab gown with firework beading. Fonda is still built for pinup poses. She put one hand on her hip and kept the other at her side and turned to the camera flashes. When some stars do this, it’s like watching meat on a spit or a porcelain figure in a music box. When Fonda does it, it’s a form of tanning.

At one point, she shared the carpet with three other women — Saldana, Blake Lively, and Laetitia Casta — all in great dresses. But Fonda was the one you noticed. Because her dress glittered, yes, and because there’s a shape to her body, but also because she’s spent a lot of her 76 years with a hand on her hip, and whatever it is a cameraman needs from a star, Fonda was supplying it. (And whatever it is a star needs from a cameraman, Fonda was receiving it.) Saldana’s and Lively’s lack of ebullience on Wednesday could be a matter of personality. It could be what happens to an actor who becomes famous in a time in which we’re all paparazzi. Still, Fonda’s sense of the political makes her one of the four or five most important women in the history of Hollywood. I wish the Blake Livelys and Zoe Saldanas luck catching up with that.

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The other occasion for Wednesday’s pomp was the premiere of Grace of Monaco, in which Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly during the years after she left the movies to raise a royal family. As Audrey Tautou was begged not to stop posing for photographers, Kidman could be seen racing along the Croisette signing whatever people handed her. She wore a blue, ornately mosaicked, elaborately embroidered Armani gown that appeared to be 30 percent peacock, 30 percent lizard, 40 percent Kidman’s salesmanship. Her hair was swept over her left shoulder and made to look a like a giant orange feather.

The ceremony was hosted by the French actor Lambert Wilson, the first man I’d seen in the job I can remember (Tautou emceed last year, Bérénice Bejo the year before, and Mélanie Laurent the year before that). I might not have noticed the change in gender were it not for the festival’s push to refigure how it treats women with regard to men. (The festival’s jocular artistic director, Thierry Frémaux, is quoted in this story on the Atlantic’s site as making the preemptive switch in order to please “the feminists.”) Perhaps there had been some carping about the festival’s objectifying women in its posters — previous “objects” have included Juliette Binoche, Faye Dunaway, and Marilyn Monroe — so this year the dominant image is of Marcello Mastroianni peering coolly out from over a pair of sunglasses, during the era. The image is in restaurants, hotels, and official festival venues. It’s a poster that leaves you nothing to say but “Hot damn.”

The festival has also installed Jane Campion as president of a jury that includes Sofia Coppola, the French actress Carole Bouquet, the Iranian actress Leila Hatami, and the Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon, who won a prize here in 2007 for the great Secret Sunshine. The highlight of every opening ceremony is the introduction of the jury and a clip package of the president’s work. Those montages are always moving. They get to the heart of what’s essential and unique about an artist. The one for Campion got better as it went, and it reminded me how much her feminism has come to mean to a lot of us. It was great to see Kidman looking 16 years old with her curls center-parted in The Portrait of a Lady.

Before the montage began, the jury was brought out member by member — Willem Dafoe and Gael García Bernal and the directors Nicolas Winding Refn and Jia Zhangke complete the lineup. It’s always an amusing bit of theater to see nine very different artists take a seat in the white chairs arranged on a raised platform. It makes them all look like judges on a science-fiction dating show. In any case, the tribute ended, Campion stood at the lectern, thanked the festival for the honor (she also won the Palme d’Or in 1993 for The Piano), but characteristically refused to feign ignorance of sexual politics.

Cannes “celebrates authorship,” Campion said, in a well-cut neon-blue pantsuit and chunky, silver open-toe shoes, “and sometimes even women filmmakers.” She spoke the truth, and the truth stung. Of the 18 films up for the Palme d’Or, only two are directed by women. And it’s true that a significant number of these movies star women (Marion Cotillard, Hilary Swank, Binoche), but we’re talking about the celebration of authorship and the ways in which, after 67 years, that celebration continues to feel exclusionary.

It’s not as if the festival has limited the selection pool to rural Alaska. Frémaux and his staff have an entire planet from which to choose films. A year later, the decision of last year’s Steven Spielberg–led jury to award the Palme d’Or not just to the male director of Blue Is the Warmest Color but also to the two actresses who performed in it is still moving. There were four women on that jury — Kidman, the Indian star Vidya Balan, and the directors Lynne Ramsay and Naomi Kawase — and, while we’ll never know, it remains hard not to imagine their having had something to say about authorship, propriety, and representation.

To put it briefly: Who cares about the posters?

Also: Lambert Wilson is no Mélanie Laurent. His cloying earnestness (“You are my cinema,” he told us early on) gave way to shameless sycophancy. He switched from French to perfect English and offered a memory of a dance he shared with Kidman one evening in Paris. Was it real? Was it a dream? He couldn’t remember. He also couldn’t keep this to himself. Here he was, a couple dozen feet away from his possibly fictitious dance partner. How could he not jog into the audience and ask Kidman to corroborate? The nausea I felt in the moment came, in part, from the soft, pleading manner with which Wilson announced his dream. It was like watching an old bag lady bum a cigarette using passive-aggressive guilt. I’m right here. How can you refuse? I’m poor. And old. And homeless. And so he made his way to Kidman, and she acquiesced. From where I stood, it was hard to see her face during the entire diet salsa she did with him (she’s a professional who’s worked with Lars von Trier and Adam Sandler; she can take a little humiliation), but her body certainly looked stiff. A gander at photos of her once Wilson returned her to her seat and went back to the stage reveal a woman mildly embarrassed, which is fair. It was embarrassing. But only vaguely more so than the film that followed.

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Opening Film - Cannes Film Festival 2014

Grace of Monaco is monarchy kitsch. You couldn’t help but think, “All that fanfare for this?” It’s almost customary for the opening-night film to speak only to the festival’s need for a splash — and almost nothing else showing this week seems like what you’d call “splashy.” Plus, a movie about a Riviera principality and its fight to get France off of its throat, made by a Frenchman, is practically farm-to-table. Nonetheless, it’s lousy. The story gives us Kelly freshly moved from Hollywood to Europe: Does she give up her career for the prince and people of Monaco? Will she be made into an acceptable Monégasque? Can Charles de Gaulle be counted on to take a look at a remade Kelly and melt? Yes. Only with My Fair Lady–level training, of course.

The director Olivier Dahan and the screenwriter Arash Amel take Kelly on a journey from snowflake to ice queen in 103 minutes. All the intrigue feels like all the intrigue in all those Elizabeth movies, The King’s Speech, and The Iron Lady. Who’s stabbing whom in the back? Why doesn’t the prince respect his princess? When will she assert herself? There are minor parts here for Parker Posey and Frank Langella, and you pray they — and whoever that is playing Alfred Hitchcock as a parade float — help tip this cow into a patch of camp.

Kidman isn’t bad. She’s actually too good. As big a star as Kelly and a much better actress, she overwhelms the part. She never quite gets Kelly’s delicacy. Kelly’s strength appears to be what Kidman admires, so that’s what Kidman is playing — not a starlet in an unhappy marriage. Been there, done that, I suppose. But she’s also already done more convincing Kellys in Cold Mountain, Bewitched, and The Stepford Wives. There’s just no transition for her to make in Grace of Monaco. Kidman’s rendition seems born world-stage ready.

Dahan, who also made La Vie en Rose, has shot the whole movie from a starstruck vantage. Near the beginning, the camera follows Kidman as she makes her way across a studio lot and into a dressing room bloated with flowers. She sits at the vanity, puts her head in her hand, and smiles a dreamy kind of smile. The whole movie is just like that. You can’t get through a scene without being spritzed with Chanel No. 5.

But you understand why this is the movie that opens the festival. The Atlantic quotes Frémaux as saying that “there is no good Cannes Film Festival without Nicole Kidman.” It’s a standing invitation that doesn’t even require her to be in a good movie!

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The competition, meanwhile, is officially under way. I was trapped in Monaco and therefore missed the debut of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu the other night. Obviously, I keep running into people who tell me I have to see it and that it’s his best film. I’m on the case, but this, of course, is the nightmare of festival attendance: not the fear of missing out, but the brutal fact of it. One friend who raved about Timbuktu did so before the start of Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner on Thursday. If the rumors are true about the Sissako, then the competition is off to a good start.

Mr. Turner is about J.M.W. Turner, the great English landscape painter of the 19th century. The film is a biography set in the last quarter or so of his life. It has a beauty unlike any I’ve seen in a film with the astringency of Listerine. Timothy Spall plays Turner as a boar of a man. He is all but barely upright, grunting and barreling and flamboyantly unsentimental. An estranged lover, a widow, brings her (and possibly his) two daughters and newborn grandchild to his home, and it’s as though he never met any of them. When asked he if has children, the answer is no. His father, William Sr. (Paul Jesson), works as his studio assistant, and his long-suffering housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson), receives Turner’s grubby fondling as a sign of compassion.

Leigh’s given the movie a maximal painterliness that a lot of good movies have. The difference is the scale at which he achieves it. The size of the rooms, the staggering use of light, the attention to the richness of the paint on the wall, the sheer number of sketches and framed pictures hung in single rooms all over different mansions: It’s all staggering. Leigh and his regular cinematographer, Dick Pope, and the inspired production designers are up to more than an imitation of painting. It’s not setting a camera down for a long take or re-creating a particular painting. It’s bringing cinema as close to painting as it’s come since the silent era. At some point, two young women bound from a staircase in one shot into an enormous room in the following shot. It’s just Spall at an easel painting a middle-aged woman, but it’s framed so widely and lit in such vivid brightness that I actually blurted out, “Jesus.”

A response like that is partly due to relentless craftsmanship. But when Leigh does a throwback film, he likes to find an equal level of emotionalism to go with the painstaking production design and costume work. Topsy-Turvy, from 1999, was about Gilbert and Sullivan. It came ready with artistic excess. Vera Drake, from 2004, was about an abortionist. The drab decor heightened the tragedy. This film reaches for more. It’s a profile in fragments, and its subject is harsh. Leigh seems to enjoy the domestic, emotional, and psychological messiness of the distant past. He’s like Campion that way. You’re drawn to Spall’s mix of primitivism and sophistication (this is his sixth movie with Leigh). His performance has so many layers that there might be no authentic person there, but each layer accounts for an aching, volatile man.

Mr. Turner runs for almost two and a half hours. That might be too long for this sort of biographical distillation, which features renowned painters fighting over what constitutes good art and entry into the academy.

The production design ceases to dazzle as Turner begins to dim. You’re not sure what Leigh is up to anymore by then. The movie’s made its most resonant points and is still trying to determine where to draw the line. There’s also the possibility that the size of the formal achievement dwarfs the sadness it contains. But that can’t be true, either. A day has passed since I saw the final image of a character doing the equivalent of a mouse sniffing for a nonexistent wedge of cheese. It’s typical Mike Leigh misery, but this time even that belongs on a wall.