NEW YORK: An hour’s drive from Formula One’s annual Monaco Grand Prix, the Cannes film festival is arguably as much an endurance test as the frenzied, high-speed racecourse with a checkered flag at the end.
Cannes’ obstacles are a little different. Beige-suited guards dismiss premiere attendees without appropriate shoes or bow ties. Hordes of stargazers mass outside the seaside luxury hotels. Movie audiences with famously fiery tastes can make or break a film’s debut. Filmmakers will also compete for the festival’s prestigious trophy, the Palme d’Or.
“I used to race cars and motorcycles,” recalls director David Cronenberg. “I’m competitive enough that if you put me on the race track, I’m going to want to win. Sure, I would want to win the Palme d’Or.”
The Canadian auteur behind “The Fly” (1986) and “Eastern Promises” (2007), Cronenberg is one of 18 filmmakers in competition for the prize, which will be selected by a jury headed by director Jane Campion.
The festival is much more than a contest. It’s a Cote d’Azur celebrity-fest; the world’s largest film market; the biggest cinema event in the world, with several parallel festivals; and a promotional platform where producers try to court international distributors.
This year brings a selection light on Hollywood and missing some of the year’s most anticipated releases – like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” due in December.
It’s heavy on world-class auteurs, including Jean-Luc Godard, Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers, Mike Leigh and Michel Hazanavicius, returning to where his “The Artist” became a sensation.
Two films come from the U.S.: Bennett Miller’s Olympic wrestler drama “Foxcatcher,” starring Channing Tatum and Steve Carell, and Tommy Lee Jones’ Western “The Homesman.”
The U.S. presence is edged by three entries from the north: Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars,” Atom Egoyan’s “The Captives” and Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy.”
“For Canadians, we say, ‘Hey, this time it’s 3-2 for Canada over the U.S.,’” says Cronenberg, himself a former jury president.
“Because of course there’s that border friendship-rivalry that we have in all things – not just hockey.”
The films in the competition will bring a bevy of A-list talent.
Ryan Gosling presents his directorial debut, “Lost River.” Robert Pattinson is back (in “Maps to the Stars” and the Aussie outback thriller “The Rover”), as is Kristen Stewart (in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria”).
Assayas says premiering in competition in Cannes is like a dose of “sheer adrenaline.”
“ Cannes for some reason has its own wave,” the French filmmaker opines, adding: “It’s really a matter of chemistry.”
“You can be extremely proud of the film that you’ve made and blah blah blah, but you never know how it will interact with the film festival, with the vibe of the festival.”
Cannes opens Wednesday with the premiere of “Grace of Monaco,” with Nicole Kidman in the title role and a curious backstory.
Director Olivier Dahan has feuded over the final edit with North American distributor Harvey Weinstein. Dahan is scheduled to premiere his cut in Cannes.
Cannes veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks’ CEO, will premiere the animated sequel “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” an event that will also fete the 20th anniversary of DreamWorks.
“It’s just an amazing platform to be able to promote to the worldwide entertainment media whatever you may have to offer,” says Katzenberg.
“We love to do that in the biggest, boldest, showmanship way that we can,” he adds.
Cannes has no shortage of showmanship. The festival will host a lavish party for the latest “Hunger Games” release, “Mockingjay: Part 1,” and a promotional event for Sylvester Stallone’s “The Expendables 3.”
This year’s festival appears to lean more toward art than spectacle, however, which Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Tom Bernard credits to festival director Thierry Fremaux.
Both Bernard and SPC co-founder Michael Barker have been mainstays at Cannes for more than three decades. This year, they bring one of their most robust slates, including “Foxcatcher” and “Mr. Turner.” Like everyone else, they will be on the lookout for a movie-going epiphany.
“What you remember is there are screenings that are such major screenings of major movies in your life,” says Barker.
“I remember when I saw [Kiarostami’s] ‘Taste of Cherry,’ [which] won the Palme d’Or, and was just so blown away, ... or ‘Wings of Desire’ for the very first time.
“That’s what you hope for. You hope for that special screening moment where you just go ‘Wow.’”