The movies that play at the Cannes Film Festival almost always skew pro-art and anti-commercial – by definition, and to their credit, they usually defy easy categorization. But this year is even more of a challenge, with a line-up of emerging or little-known auteurs with niche name recognition outside of the festival circuit, not to mention an alarming dearth of high-wattage stars headlining the line-ups.
Sure, the Opening Night film was Asghar Farhadi’s Spanish-language “Everybody Knows,” starring real-life couple Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz – an international dream team, since all three are Academy Award winners (doubly so, in the case of Farhadi) – and it’s hardly surprising that the film, which came to Cannes without U.S. distribution, was quickly snapped up by Focus Features. (In an intriguing twist, the filmmakers turned down a more lucrative offer from Netflix due to Focus Features’ longtime track record for Oscar-winning campaigns, most recently steering Gary Oldman to the gold statuette this past spring for “Darkest Hour.” Clearly a short-term cash grab can’t get you the kind of long-game marketable prestige that actors and directors still crave.)
“Everybody Knows” is a solid, if fitfully successful, labyrinthine melodrama that may not deliver the kind of satisfying payoff that audiences might expect. But boy, does it give Bardem and Cruz some juicy scenes in which to emote—moreover in their native tongue. And they’re not the only ones exuding that sun-soaked Iberian sensuality. The central story of a kidnapping is a nail-biter, but everyone sure looks handsome as they fret. From a marketing point of view, this pick-up is a no-brainer.
The rest of the competition films so far have exhibited a steep drop-off in marketability. Sergei Losnitza’s “Donbass,” a searing indictment of Putin’s thinly-veiled Russian annexation of Ukraine starting in 2014, has loads of provocative moments and colorful characters, but very little in the way of context for a general international audience. It’s a hard pitch. And while the Russian filmmaker has been on the scene for a few decades, there’s very little value in his name for a large market like the U.S.
His fellow countryman Kirill Serebrennikov, on the other hand, has a real chance at North American distribution with his charming but overlong ’80s-set rock-and-roll biopic “Leto.” Lovingly lensed in black and white, with punches of color and emulsion-style scratched animation, the film delivers jolts of energy as it depicts the Leningard underground rock scene and one of its most famous stars, Viktor Tsoi, a co-founder of the band Kino whose life ended too soon.
How much of that will be familiar to overseas markets? Very little, I’m sure, especially in the U.S. But the pure joy of watching Soviet youth culture, mixed with the very American sense of rock as a venerable source of rebellion, plus a healthy dollop of scenes with obsessed kids devoting themselves to near-exegetical studies of the lyrics of Lou Reed and Marc Bolan, make this a promising sell internationally. Is the movie 30 minutes too long? Yes. Does Serebrennikov allow his hagiography to trump a more compelling assessment of his hero? Absolutely. But, hey, audiences will have bought their tickets by the time they realize it. No backsies!
Another competition crowd favorite, Egyptian director Abu Bakr Shawky’s feel-good heartwarmer “Yomeddine,” plays like the kind of middlebrow pudding that wider arthouse audiences historically embrace. It would normally have a slam-dunk shot at international distribution: a sympathetic garbage-scavenging protagonist journeys down the Nile with a stowaway orphan to find his long-lost relatives. Pretty compelling high-concept pitch, right? Only catch is that the hero is a leper. Actually played by a real-life leper. That’s a tall order from a marketing point of view, but if a clever and industrious distributor can find a way to pitch the movie without revealing too much of its star, Rady Gamal – whose chiseled, granite face, ravaged by disease, still glows with a charismatic integrity – then the film could really deliver some happy endings at the box office.