In Cannes

Jonathan Romney

Pious as it’s tempting to be about Cannes, the European shrine of world cinema, you just have to look around to be reminded that this is a town for sale. The front of the Hotel Carlton is decked with lavish advertising for forthcoming Hollywood product such as Cars 2, Cowboys and Aliens and the next Transformers sequel. The lawn of another hotel, the Grand – formerly the town’s one oasis of green open space – is covered with gleaming white pavilions emblazoned with the logos of Grey Goose and Audi. Yet cinephiles continue to persuade themselves that we come to Cannes to prostrate ourselves at the altar of le septième art at its most rarefied. Moviegoing here is attended by something close to religious belief. French critics will talk of waiting for ‘des révélations’; we’re all after cinematic miracles, hoping for a film that will either shine from the screen or, at least, change some of the rules and sweep away some of our preconceptions.

It seemed appropriate that this morning we were all gathered to see a film set largely in the Vatican; the Palais du Festival, too, is a self-enclosed domain where we all wander around muttering over the breviaries that are our screening schedules. Habemus Papam, a comedy by Nanni Moretti, is about a newly elected pope (played by the French veteran Michel Piccoli, exuding his usual vulnerable magnificence) who has an anxiety attack as soon as the conclave smoke comes pouring from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Moretti plays a psychoanalyst summoned to help, but the analysis gags barely get off the ground. Instead the frazzled pontiff goes AWOL in Rome, while Moretti organises a volleyball tournament for the assembled cardinals and a papal PR takes care of damage limitation. It’s a one-joke film, gentler and more benign than you’d expect from a left-wing non-believer like Moretti – but then his anti-Berlusconi satire The Caiman was a little lukewarm too. I wonder what the tag-line will be for the English-language posters. ‘He’s the pope, but he can’t cope,’ perhaps, or: ‘No one’s infallible.’

New names in competition are always approached with a mixture of distrust and excitement, as if a tyro pushed among grandees must be either an impostor or the second coming. The Australian novelist Julia Leigh is neither, and her first film as a director, Sleeping Beauty, was neither a bombshell nor the tabloid-baiting scandal promised by the trailer. It’s a glacial, formally rigorous reworking of familiar erotica tropes, from Belle de Jour to Eyes Wide Shut, via L’Histoire d’O, Catherine Breillat and David Lynch. Emily Browning plays Lucy, a young student who signs up for ‘high-class’ prostitution, initially as a silver service waitress at dinners attended by elderly roués, where the other staff dress like dominatrixes in a Matthew Barney performance piece. Leigh’s elliptical narrative plays a teasing game: just when you think the sleeping Lucy is about to be debauched, one of the roués turns to camera and spends five minutes recounting what turns out to be a short story by Ingeborg Bachmann. I doubt we’ll see a more abrupt and wilfully frustrating ending all festival. Sleeping Beauty was greeted at its press show with unimpressed silence, followed by a desultory smattering of whistles. The film may not have conquered Cannes, but I suspect it will be a slow-burner that many people will want to reassess on a second viewing. Browning, whose china-doll blankness is unnerving throughout, gives the definition of what’s usually called a ‘brave’ performance.

One of the festival’s most eagerly awaited films was We Need to Talk about Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay, who’s been off the scene since adapting Alan Warner’s Morvern Callar in 2002. Her new film is an adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel about a woman (Tilda Swinton) living with the consequences of her son perpetrating a Columbine-style school massacre. The film is bracingly different from the sometimes laborious book. Shriver’s first-person narrative voice and coolly discursive irony are replaced by a furious, often free-associative torrent of images. Ramsay never shows us the saga’s culminating horror, instead foreshadowing the bloodshed through a flamboyantly elaborated leitmotif of red, starting with an orgiastic Spanish tomato festival. This is not a literary adaptation as mainstream cinema would recognise it – more like a free-jazz cover version inspired by the book. With it Ramsay reclaims her place as the most idiosyncratically freewheeling director in Britain.