NEW YORK – The first time Jodie Foster came to the Cannes Film Festival, she did so as a co-star in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and as a wide-eyed 13-year-old, soaking in the spectacle. “Taxi Driver” would go on to win the festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or.
“It was kind of like Mr. Toad’s wild ride. It was very surreal,” says Foster, who returns this year with her hostage thriller “Money Monster.” “I remember the red-carpeted steps. I remember all the naked ladies on the beach with their breasts out. I remember an amazing dinner up in the mountains there with (Bernardo) Bertolucci and Gerard Depardieu. It’s a great place for this very exotic, spontaneous slumber party.”
The Cote d’Azur extravaganza of cinema and celebrity, which kicks off Wednesday, can be an eye-opening “slumber party” for newcomers and veterans alike. As the world’s pre-eminent film festival, it’s a seaside treasure trove of cinematic splendor – a chic French Riviera oasis that for a week and a half gathers a significant portion of the movies’ most revered filmmakers, biggest stars and striving dealmakers.
But for all its elevated regard, Cannes – first begun as a kind of United Nations for film in the wake of World War II – is also tethered to world events. This year’s festival, the 69th edition, comes six months after the November terror attacks in central Paris that killed 130. France remains in a state of emergency.
Last month, police staged a security exercise in which gunmen stormed the festival’s Palais, the hallowed heart of Cannes. The images from the drill sent shivers through cinephiles accustomed to seeing stars regally ascend the palace steps, not masked men. Festival president Pierre Lescure has said that this year “the maximum” has been done to balance security and ensure “that the festival remains a place of freedom.”
Though this year’s program is, as always, full of socially minded films, it opens on a light note with Woody Allen’s latest, “Cafe Society,” a comedy about 1930s Hollywood. Also providing welcome escapism will be the upcoming Ryan Gosling-Russell Crowe comedy “The Nice Guys” and Steven Spielberg’s Roald Dahl adaptation “The BFG,” starring Mark Rylance as the tale’s friendly giant.
The famed, 56-year-old stage actor will make his first trip to Cannes at a much different station in life than Foster did.
“I’ve always noted it on some of my favorite films, like ‘Rashomon,’ on the little DVD box,” says Rylance, referring to the festival’s golden palm logo. “The things that interest me out of the festival are not so much these big films that go there now. But they’ve often been the first sighting of someone like a Kurosawa or many, many others who have emerged from the obscurity into the light, so to speak.”
This year, new voices will have to be loud enough to rise above a battery of international heavyweights. Cannes’ main slate of “in competition” films vying for the Palme includes Asghar Farhadi (“The Salesman”), Ken Loach (“I, Daniel Blake”), Olivier Assayas (“Personal Shopper”), Pedro Almodovar (“Julieta”), Park Chan-Wook (“The Handmaiden”) and Jim Jarmusch (“Patterson”), who’ll also debut his documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, “Gimme Danger.”
George Miller, whose “Mad Max: Fury Road” played at the festival last year, will lead the jury that chooses the Palme winner.
But there’s younger blood, too, including Quebec filmmaker Xavier Dolan and Jeff Nichols, both of whom have had films in competition before. Possible Oscar contenders often announce themselves at Cannes, where films from “Pulp Fiction” to “The Artist” have debuted. This year, Nichols’ “Loving,” slated for release in November, may be the most likely future awards season contender.
Nichols, the 37-year-old Arkansas native whose films include “Mud” and “Midnight Special,” says his film is his most mature yet. It’s about Mildred and Richard Loving, who were sentenced to prison for their interracial marriage in 1950s Virginia.
“It’s an important film and I don’t say that lightly. I don’t think movies are very important a lot of the time,” says Nichols. “I felt in control of the process so much. We just had this control. It feels like the steadiest hand of a movie.”
Just how much Cannes, rigid in its formal traditions and red-carpet protocol, will bend to the times is one of this year’s biggest questions. It has drawn annual criticism for failing to celebrate female filmmakers more fully. This year, the 21 films in competition include three directed by women. That’s a very slight increase from two last year. (The festival overall has a better percentage of female filmmakers, including “Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras. She will premiere “Risk,” her Julian Assange documentary.)
Change is elsewhere, too. Amazon Studios, in just its second year of original movie releases, has five films at the festival, including those by Allen, Jarmusch and Nicholas Winding Refn. Refn returns to Cannes with “Neon Demon,” starring Elle Fanning as an aspiring Los Angeles model, three years after his “Only God Forgives” was met harshly with boos.
He, like many others, will be seeking rebirth at this year’s Cannes.