Monday's Delta flight from New York City to Nice, France, was filled with pilgrims to the 61st Cannes Film Festival. In addition to movie company executives and programmers from Gotham cultural institutions, the plane carried a passel of people whose job it is to evaluate films, and for whom Cannes is both the start of the liturgical year and a two-week binge of international cinema. Among the critics on board were J. Hoberman (The Village Voice), A.O. Scott (New York Times), Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly), Leah Rozen (People), Melissa Anderson (Time Out New York) and your two TIME.com correspondents, heading for our 35th Cannes fortnight. (We were teens when we first came here, practically.)
As if to remind us all of the difference in quality between the extraordinary, demanding films we hoped to see at Cannes and the over-buttered popcorn movies we have to review the rest of the year, Delta screened Mad Money, a drab, witless heist comedy starring Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes. Of the two traveling Corlisses, one hadn't seen the movie before. She watched the thing, sank slowly under its dead weight and then emerged with this cheerful thought: No matter how bad the films are at Cannes, they won't be worse than this one.
With some 40,000 professionals in attendance, Cannes is the world's largest annual convention, and a yearly thermometer for the temperature of the seventh art. Some come for the deals (producers want to sell their movies to every market from Thailand to Tierra del Fuego), some for the glamour (the parade of beautiful people can give even the most jaded visitor a kind of whiplash of the eyes), some for the parties (free food! free wine! possible sightings of Clint and Brangelina!). But the 2,000 critics are here on a monastic mission. Renouncing the beaches and the usually gorgeous weather of this Riviera resort, we sit in large and small screening rooms in Cannes' Grand Palais from eight in the morning to well past midnight, taking pause only to rush to the press room or back to our hotels to file reports on the films we've seen. It's a hectic time but, truth to tell, every bit as exhilarating as it is exhausting.
The other, sadder truth is that the foreign films shown here, and at big festivals like Berlin, Venice, Toronto and New York, have never had less an impact on the average U.S. moviegoer than they do now. Long gone is the time when every American with a pretense to culture felt obliged to know all about ten or twenty top European or Asian directors. (Long gone is the time when Americans felt required to have a pretense to culture, let alone the real thing.) The winners of Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or, used to be guaranteed a healthy run in American art houses. But the franchise auteurs whose films are in this year's main competition Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne from Belgium, Nuri Bilge Ceylan for Turkey, Jia Zhangke from China have made hardly a dent in the States, on either moviegoers or young moviemakers. They are leaders without followers.
In part this is because, over the past couple of decades, Americans have turned inward as film-culture consumers. For fun they watch the big Hollywood movies; for edification they go, in much smaller numbers, to the American indies, which have replaced foreign films as the higher-IQ supplement. Another reason is, frankly, that the foreign stuff isn't as exciting as it once was. The preferred art-film mode is dour minimalism, in which glum folks surrender to cosmic torpor in front of a static camera. Even as the pulse of world entertainment, from pop movies to video games to YouTube clips, is revving up, the pedigreed European film is getting slower and grimmer.
HOLLYWOOD ON THE RIVIERA
Gilles Jacob and Thierry Fremeaux, who choose the Cannes slate, seem to recognize this problem. That's why they pack their program with American items from Oscar-winning directors. This year Clint Eastwood brings Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, and Woody Allen has Vicky Christina Barcelona, with Oscar-winner Javier Bardem, Oscar-nominee Penelope Cruz and Woody's latest muse, Scarlett Johansson. Steven Soderbergh is presenting the 4-1.2-hr. Che, with Benicio del Toro as the sexy South American insurrectionist.
You needn't have won an Academy statuette to have a film at Cannes, so long as you have A-list talent on-screen. Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) will be here with his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, supported by a cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michelle Williams, Catherine Keener, Emily Watson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Brooklyn-based helmer James Gray (We Own the Night) is coming with Two Lovers and his leading players, Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. All these directors and actors will mount the Palais' 24 red-carpeted steps to the evening premiere, as the paparazzi pop and TV crews send the spectacle back to dozens of countries. It's the world's most famous perp walk, and another essential ingredient of the festival.
Next Sunday, the anticipation and star quality will be even higher when Cannes hosts the world premiere of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, produced by George Lucas, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Shia LaBeouf and Cate Blanchett. For once, the interest back home will be rabid, since this is the movie's very first showing to public or reviewers. More than U.S. publications has sent its movie critic here only because Indy 4 will be screened in Cannes a few hours before it can be seen in the States. In the Internet Age, the instant scoop is all. (And yes, you'll get the definitive review tout de suite on TIME.com.)
Beyond the red-carpet celebrimania, Cannes can still offer what it has provided for six decade: a first peek at some of the world's best films. Last year's festival saw the debut of the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, plus such 10-best titles as The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Persepolis the Israeli charmer The Band's Visit and the out-of-nowhere Romanian sensation 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. The Cannes imprimatur helped critics alert moviegoers to these fine films, and a large or little bandwagon got rolling. Mission accomplished.
Then there are those films that promise it all a top director, a tony cast, a distinguished source novel, a provocative theme and instantly pratfall. One of these is the festival's opening night selection, Blindness, from the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener).
Based on a 1995 novel by Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago, the movie imagines that, one by one, nearly all the inhabitants of an unnamed city have been rendered sightless. Things don't go dark for them, they go searingly, opaquely light "I feel like I'm swimming in milk," says the first man to be struck with the disease so it's called "the white blindness." Soon the streets are flooded with people violently, helplessly scrounging for food. The only person who may have escaped the plague is the wife (Julianne Moore) of an ophthalmologist (Mark Ruffalo). When the government, flailing into dictatorship, incarcerates the sufferers in an abandoned hospital, the doctor's wife feigns blindness and goes with him. Though the government has turned fascist, and sets armed guards around the hospital perimeter, it allows only patients inside; there they must create their own, very fallible social system, trying to keep some semblance of order and humanity while facing an overthrow from the blind ruffians in another ward.
Anarchy within a dictatorship: the political structure is similar to that in the Rio favelas that Meirelles investigated in City of God. But that movie churned with life and death, with vivid characters who fought back against the charnel chaos. The people in Blindness are mostly passive, even the sighted wife, who has an advantage she declines to use while her new friends are humiliated and starved. The leader of the bad guys (Gael Garcia Bernal) dominates because he has a gun, which she could take from him at any time.) Yet she allows the women in her ward, and herself, to be sexually abused by the miscreants rather than take control, as any Hollywood heroine would do. She sees her role as a nurturer to the youngest and frailest, and a cleaning lady as the filth threatens to inundate the place.
The story, of course, is a metaphor, and a potent one in times of natural disasters, food riots and the criminal responses of governments like Burma's. But Blindness is rarely plausible, never compelling; its characters are locked in a mindset that accepts the status quo, no matter how awful it gets. They never think of forming a community to rebel against the government guards, and only belatedly find a way to escape. Meirelles' camera style is plenty jazzy, with an agitated rhythm and the desaturated color scheme from Children of God (another dystopian English-language social parable from a Latin American director); but his characters are as flaccid as those in so many Euro-films we've seen at Cannes over the years. Their feet glued to the floor, they stand in place and wait for destiny to do its worst. It's enough to make you wish that some Hollywood high hack like Michael Bay had taken over and told the cast, "Movies are about doing something. Let's go blow up stuff."
Blindness is frustrating because it comes nowhere near its potential, exasperating in Meirelles' waste of the talent at his disposal, not to mention his own. But it's still not as bad as Mad Money.
Tomorrow: Kung Fu Pandas at Cannes!