Pete Hammond

The first purely American entry in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival competition (opening nighter The Great Gatsby was Out of Competition), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen‘s terrific Inside Llewyn Davis had its first press screening Saturday night to strong response and big buzz on the very rainy Croisette. This tale of a talented folk singer unable to balance art and commerce, and who never quite hits the big time in the late ’50s/early ’60s emerging folk scene, is pure Coen Brothers with a winning mixture of brilliantly observed comedy and darker moments that give it an edge most reminiscent of Coen movies like Barton Fink, which won the Palme d’Or on their first try at Cannes in 1991. Joel Coen also took the Director award that year and again for The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) among the seven previous times they have been in the Cannes competition. 1994′s The Hudsucker Proxy, 1996′s Fargo, 2000′s O Brother Where Art Thou, 2004′s The Ladykillers and 2007′s No Country For Old Men represent their other numerous chances to reap a second Palme d’Or since Barton Fink but none of them did the trick.

Judging from initial reaction, at least among the press, Inside Llewyn Davis probably makes them an early front-runner for that second Palme. We say early since the film doesn’t have its official black tie premiere at the Palais until Sunday night, only the fourth day of the competition. But with its superb acting including leading man Oscar Isaac as the morose but oddly engaging Llewyn and a great supporting cast including Carey Mulligan, John Goodman (just great), Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands and a scene-stealing cat (or cats? – you’ll see) among others, plus the Coens’ knack for catching this era in all its glory, I suspect this will remain a contender for the entire week of debuts to come. The musical score supervised by T.Bone Burnett is also truly exceptional, perfectly capturing the period just as O Brother also did. One quibble is the full-screen appearance of a movie poster for Disney’s 1963 The Incredible Journey near the end of the film. That would be fine but purists may quibble since Llewyn Davis is supposed to be set in 1961. That error aside, the Coens have clearly hit it out the park again and Cannes, which keeps bringing them back for more, has to be happy they are regular visitors to the South Of France whenever the timing works.

In terms of other early contenders, only Oscar winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi seems to have comparable buzz for his The Past which screened Friday night to strong response. It’s his follow-up film to his 2011 Academy Award winning Best Foreign Film, A Separation.  Reaction and reviews have been very strong for this ambitious drama which runs the gamut of human emotions and involves an ever twisting plot of secrets, lies, deceit, divorce, affairs, comas, pregnancy and many other traumatic situations usually found in daytime soaps. It verges on the edge of melodrama at times but Farhadi knows how to reign it in and bring it home in style. It’s no small achievement because the varying connecting plotlines might have done in a lesser director. Interestingly it was shot in Paris and is in French , freeing him of censorship problems in Iran. But since Iran got political in the Oscar qualifying process last year and chose to forbid any entry in 2012, it will be one to watch this year. Even though it is largely in French , rules are the country of birth for the director is the one which must submit to have a shot at Best Foreign Language Film. Depending on the momentum it picks up here out of Cannes, The Past could qualify in several categories including Original Screenplay, Director and Best Actress for star Berenice Bejo, who is excellent and very different than in her Oscar nominated Supporting role in The Artist.

Bejo could be a contender for the Actress prize in Cannes too, but faces early stiff competition already, particularly from newcomer and model turned actress, Marine Vacht in Francois Ozon’s absorbing french drama about a teen prostitute, Jeune & Jolie. She not only reminds you of a young Julia Roberts but the camera loves her and she carries the film easily. The less said the better about some of the other early competition films including Mexico’s grossly violent Heli, which even treats us to the sight of a young man’s genitals being lit on fire (from which the camera doesn’t shy away for what seems like an eternity) and Saturday night’s main premiere, Jimmy P. The Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian which is about as compelling as that title might indicate, this despite the presence of Benecio Del Toro in the starring role. It’s an uninvolving story from  veteran French director Arnaud Desplechin and co-stars French actor Mathieu Almaric. Despite that French connection it was shot in English. No matter what the nationality, reaction was generally downbeat, as it was generally for China’s first entry in several years, Jia Zhangke’s Tian Zhu Ding (A Touch Of Sin), a segmented picture with four distinct stories set in different regions of the country but also (surprisingly for an officially sanctioned Chinese film) quite ultra-violent in parts.

Hopefully now with the one-two punch of Inside Llewyn Davis, which CBS Films will release domestically in the heart of awards season for Oscar magnets Joel and Ethan on December 6th, and The Past this competition, which was slow to start, is just finding its groove. Stay tuned.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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