It's true enough that there's plenty wrong with Gatsby Le Magnifique, as the French are calling the latest from director Baz Luhrmann. But what better film could there have been to open the sensory onslaught that is the Cannes Film Festival than one orchestrated by that patron saint of overstimulation?
It's not just that you might see four films a day at Cannes, from directors as different as plainspoken American satirist Alexander Payne (here with heartland father-son drama Nebraska) and hyperliterate French maximalist Arnaud Desplechin (who has enlisted Benicio Del Toro for the wonderfully titled Jimmy P. — Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian).
It's the chaos outside the theater on the French Riviera, with women on roller skates swooping at you to hawk trade magazines, and red-carpet photo calls set to Daft Punk. Crowds scrambling for a glimpse of stars, even if it's only through the smartphone camera screens held up by everyone up front.
With the right party invitations, Cannes is not unlike Gatsby's unhinged introduction scene for Leo DiCaprio, where the star smiles wide as the Gershwin swells behind booming fireworks: Even if it's all a little tacky, you're still stunned by the ridiculous grandeur and glamour of it all.
Without the right invitations (read: if you're me), on the other hand, the Gatsby resonance comes from the time spent staring at lights on distant piers, scenes of parties much classier than whatever you've hustled your way into — though you'll find enough cheap booze for a bootlegger either way.
The overheated atmosphere has a way of inducing delusions of grandeur in everyone here, including film critics. Indeed, the history of media coverage at Cannes is full of examples of exaggerated, oversimplified pans and ill-considered snap judgments — especially post-Twitter. (My favorite historical example, just to prove that antisocial media were hardly paragons, might be the now-shuttered British Daily Herald, reporting on the prize awarded to Federico Fellini's classic La Dolce Vita: "ORGY FILM WINS TOP AWARD."*)
It's enough to make it clear why Ingmar Bergman, upon learning that The Virgin Spring was playing at Cannes, wrote that he "hate[s] that place of meat market[s] and mental humiliation. At a festival you can really despair of the motion picture as an art." (That he ended up winning a prize that year did not change his view.)
In any case, a good critic does what she can to keep an even keel. But it's hard for a certain kind of film fan to not get giddy when the lineup features new work from the Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Winding Refn (director of Drive) and Asghar Farhadi (director of the phenomenal Oscar-winner A Separation).
Festival head Thierry Fremaux has also taken steps this year to address one common complaint that has dogged the festival — the underrepresentation of female directors, though he's done it in a way that raises issues of its own. There are eight female directors in the official competition categories (compared with three last year), but seven of them, including art-cinema heavyweights like Sofia Coppola and Claire Denis, have been relegated to the secondary Un Certain Regard category.
Fremaux has shrugged off criticism about this strange disparity by saying that Un Certain Regard is just as important as the flagship competition, but few people here really believe that. (Just look at the name! It's like a half-step above the "I Guess It's OK" awards.)
And for anyone who'd suggest that it's a matter of those films being less accomplished, Coppola's The Bling Ring is at least one terrific counterexample, having already outclassed some of the competition films in the first two days here. The film is based on the titular gang of real-life teens who used gossip rags and Twitter feeds to find out when celebrities like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan would be out of town, then ransacked their homes. It helped that those gleaming glass edifices on L.A. mountainsides were usually unlocked — when celebrity culture has made the rest of these lives transparent, is it a big surprise that their homes weren't any different?
Barriers of any kind are a foreign concept for gang ringleaders Nicki, Rebecca, and Marc (Emma Watson, Katie Chang and Israel Broussard), whom Coppola portrays here in an ultra-specific satirical snapshot. Designer brand names and Kanye West lyrics are their native tongue, and "The Secret" — that method of attaining all your desires through the power of positive thinking — is the equivalent of their morning prayers; they prefer entitlement to enlightenment. (Watson in particular has a blast putting on a Valley-girl accent and yammering about "expanding as a spiritual human being," though Coppola has actually toned down the ridiculousness of her real-life inspiration).
Bored with even the excess of nightclub visits and house parties, these kids decide to try on the lifestyles of their heroes as if they were so many Prada heels. At first, it's by taking their things and partying in their homes, but soon they follow the imitation to its logical conclusion — carefully chosen court-date outfits and lawyer-scripted apologies in the manner of their DUI-charged idols.
And why wouldn't they, when the consequences of their actions seem to be nonexistent? Or they are for the kids with the right lawyers, at least. Like the similarly themed Spring Breakers, this is partially a story about class and social-climbing, in which the inevitable hammer comes down hardest on the least fortunate. For the others, life is but a shopping spree.