(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at next month’s Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 15. Taking on a different selection every day, we’ll be examining what they’re about, who’s involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Steven Spielberg’s jury. We’re going through the list by director and in alphabetical order — next up, Arnaud Desplechin with “Jimmy P.”)
The director: Arnaud Desplechin (French, 52 years old). After studying film at the Sorbonne, Desplechin began his career as a cinematographer, before transitioning swiftly to charmed auteur status: in 1991, his lengthy debut short, “La vie des morts,” premiered at Cannes and won the prestigious national Jean Vigo Award. The very next year, his debut feature, “La sentinelle,” played in Competition at the festival; since then, Desplechin has cultivated a reputation as one of France’s most literate writer-directors, with his films usually distinguished by knotty, novelistic storytelling, generous running times and a number of loyally recurring actors — Mathieu Amalric chief among them. “Jimmy P.” is the director’s seventh narrative feature — he segued into documentary with 2007’s intimate family portrait “The Beloved” — and his first since 2008’s well-received “A Christmas Tale,” ending the longest gap between films in his career to date.
The talent: The aforementioned Amalric (best known to international audiences for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Quantum of Solace”) makes his fifth appearance in a Desplechin film; it’s a collaboration that has netted him two of his three Cesar wins. The actor’s only recognition at Cannes, however, has been for his work behind the camera: he won Best Director for “On Tour” three years ago. (Side note: he’ll be popping up in two Competition films this year, the second being Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur.”) In the title role, and sharing the lead with Amalric, is Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro — a Best Actor winner at the festival in 2008 for “Che.” Rounding out the cast is an unlikely international assembly of actors, including Gina McKee (who has largely been confined to TV of late), Elya Baskin (Mr Ditkovich from the “Spider-Man” films), Misty Upham (“Frozen River”) and soap opera veteran A Martinez.
Desplechin, as usual, has co-written the screenplay — his collaborators this time include Julie Peyr (who also co-scripted steamy French drama “Four Lovers”) and, in his first non-documentary credit, esteemed New York film critic and archivist Kent Jones. Below-the-line artists include cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (best known for his work with Jacques Audiard, he hasn’t worked with Desplechin since 2003’s “Playing ‘In the Company of Men'”), editor Laurence Briaud (who has cut all Desplechin’s films), production designer Dina Goldman (“A Prairie Home Companion”) and undervalued costume designer David C. Robinson (“Zoolander,” “Shame”), while the biggest name among them is the composer — two-time Oscar winner Howard Shore, who also scored Desplechin’s “Esther Kahn.”.
The pitch: Desplechin’s second English-language film (2000’s Summer Phoenix-starring “Esther Kahn” was the first) has a rather impressive full title: originally billed as “Jimmy Picard,” it now goes by “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.” If that sounds a bit like a case study, that’s exactly what it is: the film is based on a 1951 text by French-Hungarian psychoanalyst and anthropologist George Devereux (played in the film by Amalric), documenting his treatment of Native American WWII veteran Picard (Del Toro). Admitted to a Kansas hospital with severe headaches no doctor could explain, original Blackfoot tribe member was admitted to Devereux’s care, beginning a process of healing and cultural understanding, as well as a lifelong friendship. It could be a rather icky story in Hollywood hands, but Desplechin has dodged obvious sentimentality before: we’re counting on rich emotion and robust performances, while the reported running time of 114 minutes is positively ascetic by the director’s narrative-film standards. No US distributor yet for this American co-production, shot on location in Michigan and Montana.
The pedigree: In terms of the thematic scope and stylistic mannerisms of his work, as well as the regard in which he’s held relative to his peers, some critics have positioned Desplechin as France’s answer to Robert Altman — a comparison assisted by the new film’s dive into Americana. “Jimmy P.” is the director’s fifth feature to play in Competition at Cannes; the previous four, however, all left the festival empty-handed. (He has a similar always-the-bridesmaid track record at the Cesar Awards: eight nominations, no wins.) He did, however, take the country’s single most prestigious film award, the Prix Louis Delluc, in 2004 for “Kings and Queen” — funnily enough, his one film to go to Venice instead of Cannes.
The buzz: Word on the film itself hasn’t escaped, but with only the reputation of those involved to go on and its higher degree of crossover appeal, Desplechin’s film might be the most broadly anticipated of the six French entries in Competition: it’s a passion project that the director has fostered for two decades, and the level of detail and research at script level is said to be impressive. Planting one foot on each side of the Atlantic in the casting of its star leading men, it should find more of an audience than Desplechin’s last English-language effort.
The odds: Critic and Cannes oddsmaker Neil Young currently places the film in the middle of the Palme d’Or pack with odds of 16-1. Sight unseen, I’d be tempted to shorten them a little, and not just because the film’s touching true story sounds like something that might hit home with Steven Spielberg: given that they change every year, Cannes jurors don’t gather guilt in the same way that Academy voters do, but if they’re at all aware of Desplechin’s festival history, there may be a sense that he’s due some kind of reward. One of the film’s bigger obstacles to the Palme, however, may be its lead actors. If Amalric and Del Toro deliver in their apparently meaty roles, the jury may deem a joint Best Actor prize appropriate recognition for the film — which, under current rules, would prevent it from taking the top prize.
The premiere date: Saturday, May 18.
Check back in tomorrow, when we’ll be sizing up one of the Competition’s more under-the-radar entries: Amat Escalante’s “Heli.”
PREVIOUS CANNES CHECKS: