CANNES, France — A comedy black enough to pass for India ink and, unlike so many grotesque comedies of modern manners, a film with just enough moral seriousness to make it stick, director David Cronenberg's “Maps to the Stars” defies such long odds it should be playing roulette in Monte Carlo instead of premiering at the 67th Cannes Film Festival.
The festival, operating on an annual budget that's the equivalent of $27 million, concludes with the awards ceremony Saturday. So far the festival has reminded visitors to this grand, trendsetting international bazaar of cinema that its programmers remain loyal to their established favorites.
Sometimes that loyalty is tested beyond rational limits. One of the main competition titles, writer-director Atom Egoyan's pallid child-abduction thriller “The Captive,” had no business being here, in or out of competition.
Like his fellow Canadian Egoyan, Cronenberg has been a frequent presence over the years at Cannes. Happily — if that's the right word for a poisonous tale dealing in incest, among other themes — the director's latest not only deserved a competition berth, it's one of Cronenberg's most interesting pictures in years.
We're in dangerously familiar territory in terms of subject. A first viewing of “Maps to the Stars” evokes memories, or at least moments, from Robert Altman's “The Player” to David Lynch's “Mulholland Drive,” with a few Bret Easton Ellis binges for good measure. Julianne Moore triumphs as a monstrously egocentric actress dying to play her own dead mother (also an actress) in an upcoming movie. She's plagued by visions of her late mother.
The actress is in the market for a new personal assistant. She's the first person we see in “Maps to the Stars”: A star-struck 18-year-old, played by Mia Wasikowska, arrives in LA all the way from Jupiter (“Florida,” she adds, helpfully). Her motives are many; she has family she's hoping to connect with, and a Twitter friendship with Carrie Fisher (playing herself) that leads her with blithe expediency to work for Moore's character.
Robert Pattinson, who starred in Cronenberg's mostly inert “Cosmopolis,” portrays a limo driver/sometime actor/budding screenwriter who befriends the kid from Jupiter. In shrewdly controlled turns, John Cusack and Olivia Williams fare beautifully as the parents of a 13-year-old star (newcomer Evan Bird) who has already slogged through rehab. How these slitherers interrelate in “Maps to the Stars” isn't without its schematic aspects, but working with a script by Bruce Wagner, Cronenberg achieves a sly mastery of tone.
Also premiering Sunday, Tommy Lee Jones' “The Homesman” proved a worthy if somewhat disappointing return to Cannes for the director and star, whose excellent “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” won two awards here nearly a decade ago. Set in mid-19th century Nebraska territory, the film co-stars Hilary Swank as a valiant, virtuous settler escorting three clinically insane women across the Missouri River to a better life. Jones is her combative comrade and eventual friend on the journey. I wish the women being escorted were dramatized, instead of merely indicated in a few reaction shots, but this is a two-person show, with cameos from a fine variety of supporting players including Meryl Streep, Tim Blake Nelson and, as the most untrustworthy real estate developer in the plains, James Spader.
We all have our favorites so far. “Winter Sleep” is mine. This comes from Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, like Egoyan and Cronenberg a Cannes festival regular.
Ceylan has often been awarded here, most recently in 2011 with the Grand Prix (second prize in Cannes parlance, behind the Palme d'Or) for his intimate widescreen epic “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.” Now, with “Winter Sleep,” he has created what may be the best Chekhov adaptation on film, as well as a truly Palme-worthy work.
Ceylan told me in an interview over the weekend in the Turkish Pavilion (fantastic coffee, by the way) just south of the Palais du Festivals that “Winter Sleep” derives loosely from several Chekhov stories, notably “The Wife” (1888). In Ceylan's script, written with his wife, screenwriter Ebru Ceylan, a well-to-do and conceited retired actor runs a small hotel with his much younger wife in the remote Anatolia region. In summer there are tourists to entertain; “Winter Sleep” captures the uneasy feeling of an off-season establishment brilliantly.
The actor's recently divorced sister lives with the couple, and the actor owns rental property nearby. Tenants far behind on their rent are living on the edge of disaster; a little boy throws a rock at the landlord's car windshield, and this inciting incident taps a series of recriminations into motion.
Motion is relative in “Winter Sleep,” which runs 3 hours, 16 minutes and struck many here at Cannes as both inspired and grueling. I vote “inspired” without the “grueling.” It's a wonder, both for its eye for the Anatolian landscape and the glow of its interior sequences. This is a portrait of a misjudgment of a marriage teetering on the edge of a cliff.
“There's no specific reason there are problems with these two,” Ceylan told me. “It's the same in Chekhov. You don't need one good reason for them to have problems. In Chekhov, the story is about nothing, really, and at first I didn't have the confidence to do it. There's no storyline, just an atmosphere, a general feeling of life.”
More than any film I've seen this year “Winter Sleep” captures the mystery of living, on its own clock, careening from excoriating psychological drama to a comical drunk scene. The key actors are Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sozen and Demet Akbag, and they are marvelous. Ceylan has learned with “Winter Sleep” how to balance, precisely, his formidable photographer's eye with an ear for language, and an ever-more-skillful hand with performers.
Cannes isn't all high-minded artistic ambition. On Sunday Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dolph Ludgren, Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, along with other veteran action heroes well above voting age, rode a tank up the Croisette as part of a promotional stunt for the forthcoming “Expendables 3.” On Saturday night, with two massively profitable “Hunger Games” movies behind it, Lionsgate hosted what appeared to be a mid-six-figure party in a villa about 30 minutes east of Cannes in Cap d'Antibes. The villa was decked out with all sorts of logos and flourishes taken from the upcoming “Mockingjay — Part 1.”
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Moore were there, briefly. The tall, attractive folk bearing trays of champagne were dressed like high-fashion denizens of Panem. One of the several hundred guests in attendance remarked that it looked like “Eyes Wide Shut” was about to break out, which surely would've changed the rating from PG-13 to R.
The purpose of the party? Simply to remind people that the third “Hunger Games” movie will be arriving in a few months. The purpose of the Cannes Film Festival? To set the agenda for the world's specialty, foreign and art-house screens in the coming year. And to remind people there's more to life, and the movies, than a globe-gobbling franchise.