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in Filmmaking
on May 14, 2011

For several years whenever I haven’t attended one of the major festivals, I’ve obsessively surfed to all the various film sites several times each day, hoping to soak up enough buzz and read enough reviews to feel connected — to feel like I’m somewhat there.

And, invariably, I’m a little disappointed that there’s not more.

Yes, there are reliable sources to turn to. Jeff Welles is always a fast and flavorful with his postings, mixing his first-person experience with industry news and commentary. Ann Thompson catches the pulse of the business, and Eric Kohn is mind-bogglingly quick with his review output. And there are, of course, the trades, who continue to have the most comprehensive review coverage (even if it’s a little slower and not as exhaustively complete as it was years ago.)

But the ricochet-ing of commentary throughout the blogosphere often slows down, not speeds up, during a major festival — a phenomenon most acutely observed at Cannes. Several factors are to blame. The time zone shift takes a couple of days, and the public wi-fi at the Palais and American Pavilion is spotty. But, at least in my case, more to blame are two other factors: the profusion of non-film events — meetings, panels, and random encounters — and my own preference to let films percolate, at least overnight, before writing about them. For example, I’ve been struggling to organize my thoughts about Lynn Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin — an effort complicated by my love of the source material, Lionel Shriver’s novel. I went into the movie knowing that Ramsay, like any good director, would make the material her own — and that she has done, vividly. (Was it Pinter who rightfully said that to adapt a book is to betray it?) It’s taken a day for the film’s images — not the issues of its adaptation — to cement themselves in my head. Still, after going through these mental gymnastics, I do need to write about the film in relation to the book in order to get at its strengths and weaknesses. Expect my coverage in a few days.

Ramsay’s film is part of a group of movies from women directors here — a fact not even worth mentioning if, last year, the festival hadn’t shut out women entirely from its Competition. This year, as Faye Dunaway’s visage looms over the Palais, the first day of Competition screenings was all women — Ramsay, and Filmmaker 25 New Face Julia Leigh with her Sleeping Beauty. As my own tortured commentary indicates, the former is being hotly debated around here; indeed, it’s dominated every conversation about the movies I’ve had. The latter has had something of a rocky reception, although it has high-profile supporters I trust, like Manohla Dargis. Unspooling today was Police, by another woman, Maiwenn. A trusted colleague who has predicted the Palme d’Or four years straight told me she thinks, at this point in the festival, that this is the film to beat. A procedural set in a police department’s Juvenile Protection Unit, the film recalled for her The Wire, and it got an 18-minute standing ovation at its premiere. (I arrived an hour early for the day-after screening, waited on line for half an hour only to be told that the theater was actually full — another audience having entered even earlier… ah, Cannes!)

Given the female-centric focus of Cannes’ early days, well timed was Thursday’s Times Talk on Women Filmmakers, realized in partnership with the IFP. The panel consisted of director Liza Johnson, here with The Return; her star, Linda Cardelini; Jessica Chastain, co-starring here in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter; and Clemence Poesy, playing Joan of Arc in Jeanne Captive. Moderating was The Times’ Melena Ryzik, who started with general questions about the issue of being a woman filmmaker. Then panelists basically said that it was impossible to comment on this because, after all, none of them have experienced any other state of being, although Johnson added that being a woman filmmaker produced strange comparisons in the financing phase. She said her film was always being compared to films by other women filmmakers, even if the films had nothing in common. (Still, her film’s female viewpoint — that her soldier returning home is a woman whose marriage subsequently becomes threatened — is what sets it apart within its genre.)

The conversation then pivoted into a surprisingly rich talk on the different paths each has traveled. Chastain talked about getting her BFA in Texas and seeing, one day, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. That film, she said, made her realize the possibilities of her craft. Chastain also talked about the protective impulse she feels towards fellow actresses, and said she’s candid about sharing her opinions on directors who are good to work with and, even more urgently, those who are not. Most engagingly, she described herself as a perpetual student and said that on every film, she asks herself, “Who will be my teacher on this project?” She said it’s important for her to feel she can learn something on each film, whether it’s from a director, fellow actor, or someone else. Johnson discussed working within the art world, and commented on how the film production economy is more articulated than the art world’s. Getting someone to help install an installation requires coaxing friends and massaging relationships, she said, while, in film, if you need a gaffer you just hire a gaffer. Johnson also talked about the benefits of low budgets and preached the mantra of making films that cost less than their market value. Still, she bemoaned one byproduct of tiny budgets — that the mid-career professionals working on them aren’t compensated what they deserve to be. Cardelini talked about coming from a background in which the idea of becoming an actress was not a possibility, and how she couldn’t be choosey about her early roles — which included auditioning for Spanish-language McDonald’s commercials. Poesy bluntly decried the direction of the film world today, in which, she said, “you have to work for ten years for free.” Increasingly rich parents are a requirement for people desiring a career as a film artist.

The Times Talk preceded a party (pictured above) hosted by the IFP and Calvin Klein, also celebrating women in film. Honorees were Uma Thurman, Chastain, Emily Browning, Poésy, Jane Campion, Leigh, Jessica Brentnall, and Johnson. At the beach across from the Hotel Martinez, the crowd danced until after midnight. Thurman, Chastain, Johnson and others stayed late, with the photographers following them from the red-carpet outside to the dance floor. I debated — what else? — We Need to Talk about Kevin with the Film Society of Lincold Center’s Eugene Hernandez, chatted with the IFP’s Joana Vicente (pictured with Noah Harlan) and Hilary Vartanian, anticipated the premiere of The Return with producer Harlan, and then sat on the beach with Robin O’Hara and a pair of young filmmakers, Nadia Szold, currently in post on her first feature (which stars Evan Louison, Iva Gocheva and Claudia Cardinale) and Lauren Mekhael. The party went an extra hour before the music was turned off, but as I was leaving, Owen Wilson walked in, so perhaps it continued for a few hours more.

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