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Cannes Film Fest Underway

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The annual Hollywood invasion of the south of France begins Wednesday when the Cannes Film Festival kicks off with the European premiere of "The Great Gatsby," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, then continues for about two weeks with five American movies among the 20 in competition for the Palme d'Or.

It's an unusually large presence for the United States, especially in the highly coveted competition spot. Joel and Ethan Coen will screen their 1960s folk music homage, "Inside Llewyn Davis," starring Justin Timberlake and Mulligan; longtime Cannes favorite James Gray will present "The Immigrant," with Jeremy Renner, Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard; Alexander Payne will debut his road-trip drama "Nebraska," with Will Forte and Bruce Dern; Jim Jarmusch will bring some bite with "Only Lovers Left Alive," a vampire tale starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. And in one of the juiciest premieres, Steven Soderbergh will screen his Liberace tale, "Behind the Candlelabra," starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as the showman and his lover.

The competition always includes a few controversial titles, or at least controversial artists. In what's sure to be a hyper-violent experience, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive") teams up again with Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling in the drug-revenge drama "Only God Forgives." Japan's Takashi Miike will be Refn's top rival in the mastery of violence, with his blood-soaked thriller "Shield of Straw."

And what would Cannes be without a bit of scandal? Roman Polanski, who's still a fugitive from the U.S. after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with an American minor, will screen his latest, "Venus in Fur," about a young actress who's determined to prove to a director that she's perfect for an upcoming movie. Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric star.

Being selected for competition for the Palme d'Or is the most prestigious honor that Cannes bestows when announcing the lineup. And it's difficult to discuss Cannes without providing a few basics about the many levels of status -- something that the French have honed for many decades. In his 1987 memoir "Two Weeks in the Midday Sun," the late critic Roger Ebert described Cannes as being "Dantean" as he explained the "levels of the inferno." That may sound a bit melodramatic, but Ebert had a point.

In addition to the 20 films in competition, the festival selects other high-profile movies for special screenings. That's where "The Great Gatsby" falls, as does J.C. Chandor's "All Is Lost," a tale of one man's fight to survive a disaster at sea. (The man, in this case, is played by Robert Redford.) James Toback's documentary "Seduced and Abandoned" also gets one of these screenings, and it's a good example of the French fondness for looking at itself in the mirror. It follows Alec Baldwin and Toback as they try to raise money for a film while at Cannes. One of France's favorite Americans, Jerry Lewis, also will get a tribute screening that features his new movie, "Max Rose," directed by Daniel Noah.

"Zulu" -- a police thriller shot in South Africa with Forest Whitaker and Orlando Bloom -- will close the festival but is not competing for the Palme d'Or.

Beyond the competition and special screenings, there's yet another part of the official Cannes selection. It's called Un Certain Regard, and it typically features up-and-coming directors and well-regarded movies that have screened at various festivals but haven't been released theatrically.

Three American directors join the 14-movie lineup for Un Certain Regard. Sofia Coppola opens the festivities with the premiere of "The Bling Ring," which focuses on Los Angeles teens who stalk celebrities and rob their homes. Ryan Coogler will screen the Bay Area crime drama "Fruitvale Station," which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. And the peripatetic James Franco tries to bring one of the most difficult William Faulkner novels to the big screen with his adaptation of "As I Lay Dying."

As you might expect, there are many more levels of status in Cannes. First among them is the Directors Fortnight, which was begun in 1969, a year after French directors disrupted the festival in solidarity with striking workers. (The directors also thought the official selections were a bit too stodgy.)

The Fortnight features 21 films this year, beginning with Israeli director Ari Folman's "The Congress." But most of the early attention has been centered on the selection of Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky's "La Danza de la Realidad" -- his first film in more than two decades. Jodorowsky, who's a cult figure best known for "El Topo," also will be honored with a screening of "Jodorowsky's Dune," which deals with his failed attempt to film the Frank Herbert novel. Frank Pavich directs the documentary.

Two other Chileans will join Jodorowsky in the Fortnight. Sebastian Silva will screen his Sundance crowd-pleaser "Magic Magic," with Michael Cera, and Marcela Said will present "The Summer of the Flying Fish."

The U.S. will be represented in the Fortnight by director Jim Mickle, whose "We Are What We Are" is a remake of the Mexican cannibal thriller, and by Jeremy Saulnier, whose "Blue Ruin" follows a "beach bum whose quiet life is upended by dreadful news."

And then there's Critics Week, yet another rival selection to the official competition. This year it features the Sundance hit "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," directed by Dallas' David Lowery, a former Austinite. It stars Casey Affleck as an outlaw who escapes prison and sets out across Texas to reunite with his wife (Rooney Mara) and a daughter he has never met. Lowery is following a path similar to that taken by Austin director Jeff Nichols, when he won Critics Week in 2011 with "Take Shelter." Nichols' follow-up film, "Mud," went on to play in last year's main competition for the Palme d'Or.

All of these titles, however, make up a mere fraction of the movies playing in Cannes. By far the biggest part of the festival involves the Cannes Market -- a movie-style convention with hundreds of vendor booths where films are hawked. These films screen for prospective buyers in various theaters in what's known as the Bunker, which is behind the grand Palais, far removed from where the official selections are screened. Many, but not all, of these films are of questionable taste. Posters throughout the Bunker give you a hint of the quality: scantily clad women fleeing from chomping gators; scantily clad women wielding machine guns; barrel-chested men attacking aliens.

The events surrounding the Cannes Market are primarily responsible for the festival's well-deserved reputation for dipping into vulgarity.

And that's not all. About a thousand aspiring filmmakers typically congregate in the basement of the Palais to show their short features in what's known as the Short Film Corner. Just about anyone who has enough money to attend the festival can show their short there, in hopes of finding an investor for a feature film. Those shorts screen in tiny booths, with no hoopla, and there are usually a few Texans who make the pilgrimage with their offerings.

Because so many movies screen at the festival each year, the phrase "my movie played in Cannes" has been rendered virtually meaningless. The relevance of that statement depends entirely upon where the movie was screened.

Still, the allure of Cannes remains timeless, especially for those films selected for the main competition. As Ebert wrote, "there is possibly no better audience for (a movie) than at Cannes. There aren't any civilians out there in the dark: Everyone at this festival makes a living in one way or another from the movies, and so presumably loves them."

This can, of course, be a bad thing, especially in a town that's well-known for its booing and hissing. But there's always hope that you'll be among the first in the world to see something like Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." And that's what brings the excitement to Cannes, where the best of the world's arthouse fare finally gets its day in the sun.

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(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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