Kristen Stewart's Cannes Film Elevates the Competition

The festival's slate has been mediocre overall—but at least that means more suspense about which work will win the top prize.

Coming after the 2013 edition, it was hard to imagine that Cannes 2014 would measure up.

The one-two punch of Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (the richly deserving Palme d’Or and runner-up Grand Prize, respectively) is a rare event, and this year’s competition failed to produce any comparable masterworks.

The line-up featured few stinkers (Michel Hazanavicius’s turgid Chechnya-set drama The Search came close), but no full-blown knockouts, either. There were also a frustrating number of solid, though unexceptional works from some of the world’s greatest living directors.

Two examples were Mike Leigh’s J.M.W. Turner biopic Mr. Turner and the Dardenne brothers’ social drama Two Days, One Night, both absolutely fine and not even close to the filmmakers’ best.

Ditto for Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 197-minute Chekhovian talkfest Winter Sleep, in which the spell cast by the beauty of the images and the dramatic force of some of the dialogue was too frequently broken by unnecessary repetition and longueurs.

The fact that those three are among several titles mentioned as potential Palme d’Or winners is indicative of a competition that saw no single film rise definitively above the rest, as Kechiche’s opus did last year.

For me, the strongest entries were those that, however imperfect, took risks. In Timbuktu, a loosely structured portrait of a Malian community contaminated by jihadists, Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako cast his wry, compassionate eye on ordinary citizens and Islamic extremists alike. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars didn’t dig up any new dirt on Hollywood, but the high-wire performances and brazen, blurry mix of the satirical and the supernatural gave it a furious momentum. Perhaps the most divisive competition film, Naomi Kawase’s Japanese island-set Still the Water tackled grand themes—life, death, sex, growing up, and the natural world—with a tactile, unabashed lyricism that infuriated as many as it enthralled. And in Mommy, Quebecer prodigy Xavier Dolan continued to push his style, and his actors, to the limit, coming up with a mother-son dramedy so ferocious and full of heart it was easy to forgive its excesses and missteps.

Another of the festival’s best selections—and the last screened for the press—was Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, a playful and captivating hybrid of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, and quintessentially Assayas-esque meta-mischief. Driven by mesmerizing performances from Juliette Binoche as an aging thespian, Kristen Stewart as her personal assistant, and Chloë Grace Moretz as a rising Hollywood star, the film is both dense and nimble, sharp and sensitive in its dissection of the joys and agonies of being an actress. It is also, like most of the director’s work, subtly alive to the social, cultural, and linguistic shifts of a rapidly globalizing world.

Binoche and Stewart, who has never before exuded so much mystery or nuance, share the screen for much of the movie, and they make a fascinating odd couple; with the former’s high-strung intensity and the latter’s cool watchfulness, the two are a study in contrasting performing styles.

After the screening, there were murmurs—and tweetsabout a possible shared acting prize for the pair, though the field for that award is already crowded.

Indeed, though only two female directors were picked for competition, there were several juicy parts for women—and, nearly without exception, the actresses delivered. Aside from the ladies of Clouds of Sils Maria, there was also Julianne Moore’s deliciously unhinged diva on the decline in Maps to the Stars; Hilary Swank in The Homesman, reminding us that no one plays old-fashioned American pluck with greater empathy or emotional shading; Marion Cotillard’s touching turn as a factory worker fighting not just for her job, but for her spirit in Two Days, One Night; and the explosive Anne Dorval and implosive Suzanne Clement in Mommy.

There’s a bit less to choose from among the men. Serious contenders include the three terrific leads from Foxcatcher (particularly a sinister Steve Carell and a quietly seething Channing Tatum), Timothy Spall from Mr. Turner, and Antoine-Olivier Pilon, who, as the frightening, fragile young delinquent in Mommy, emerged as this edition’s breakout star.

The rest of the honors are anyone’s guess. In addition to Leigh, the Dardennes and Ceylan, likely candidates for one of the big awards—the Palme d’Or, the second-place Grand Prize, the third-place Jury Prize, Best Director, and Best Screenplay—are Kawase, Sissako, Dolan and, of course, Jean-Luc Godard (who has, somewhat shockingly, never won anything here).

Disappointments aside, there are advantages to a competition with no clear frontrunner: suspense, and the possibility of a surprise.

A version of this post appeared on France 24, an Atlantic partner site.

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Jon Frosch is a film critic for FRANCE 24 based in Paris. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Village Voice, The Hollywood Reporter, and others.

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