(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 20 films in Competition at this 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, Roman Polanski with “Venus in Fur.”)
The director: Roman Polanski (French-Polish, 79 years old). “Chinatown.” “Rosemary’s Baby.” “Repulsion.” “The Pianist.” “Knife in the Water.” “Tess.” Et cetera. The oldest director in Competition, Polanski hardly requires an introduction, whether you associate him first with his crafty, unnerving cinema or his infamous legal troubles. Born in Paris to Polish parents, he moved with family back to Poland shortly before the Second World War, narrowly escaping the Krakow Ghetto after the German occupation — experience he drew upon in his 2002 Palme d’Or winner “The Pianist.” In 1959, he graduated from the National Film School in Lodz, Poland, having already earned considerable attention for his student shorts; in 1962, he struck gold with his debut feature “Knife in the Water,” an international hit that scooped an Oscar nomination. After a brief stint Britain (that produced one of his best films, “Repulsion”), Hollywood came calling in 1968 with “Rosemary’s Baby”; he’d make only one more American studio film whilst dabbling in Europe, before statutory rape charges brought about his permanent exile from the US. Since then, his international career has alternated between very high highs (“Tess,” “The Pianist”) and some dismal lows (the notoriously expensive bomb “Pirates”), but 2010’s “The Ghost Writer,” premiered in the midst of his 2009 house arrest in Switzerland, kept his stock high going into the current (and his eighth) decade. “Venus in Fur” is his 21st feature.
The talent: Polanski has stayed true to the film’s origins as a two-hander: Matthieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner star. Amalric, who also shares the lead in rival Competition film “Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” is one of France’s premier contemporary actors — best known for “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (or, depending on your cinematic inclinations, “Quantum of Solace”) won Best Director at the festival three years ago for his film “On Tour.” Former model Seigner, who has been married to Polanski since 1989, has starred in three of the director’s previous films — as well as “In the House,” “La Vie Rose” and, coincidentally enough, “The Diving Bell and the Butterly.”
The script was written by Polanski with original playwright David Ives. Producer Alain Sarde, whose association with Polanski began with 1976’s “The Tenant,” while the below-the-line team is heavy on Polanski regulars. Cinematographer Pawel Edelman and editor Herve de Luze, both Oscar nominees for “The Pianist,” also both have other films in this year’s Official Selection: Edelman shot Chinese Competition entry “A Touch of Sin,” while de Luze cut Guillaume Canet’s “Blood Ties.” Naturally, this isn’t the only Cannes 2013 credit for ubiquitous composer (and five-time Oscar nominee) Alexandre Desplat: he also scored festival closer “Zulu.”
The pitch: Polanski’s career has an interesting sub-strand of chamber-film adaptations of celebrated, claustrophobic contemporary plays: he tackled Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” in 1994, Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” (filmed simply as “Carnage”) in 2011 and now David Ives’s “Venus in Fur,” which left Broadway less than a year ago. Beginning life as an Off-Broadway production, and eventually winning a Best Actress Tony Award for rising stage star Nina Arianda, the play is a self-reflexive riff on the landmark 1870 erotic novel “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s — the man whose work inspired the term “masochism.” Amalric (replacing initial choice Louis Garrel in a role that has been played on stage by Wes Bentley and Hugh Dancy) plays a director mounting an ambitious stage adaptation of the novel. Unable to cast the lead, he’s at his wits’ end until a new, seemingly inappropriate actress (Seigner) turns up in his office and swiftly turns the tables on him — a power shift that mirrors the one in the novel. As with “Carnage,” the 90-minute film (the shortest in Competition) plays out in real time. Incidentally, it’s his first chiefly French-language film since “The Tenant” 37 years ago.
The pedigree: Polanski’s auteur standing hardly needs to be underlined, but it’s interesting to note that he’s only been in Competition at Cannes twice before. First came “The Tenant” in 1976; 26 years later, of course, came “The Pianist,” which eventually made him one of only three men to win both a Palme d’Or and a Best Director Oscar for the same film. (The other two, incidentally, are Delbert Mann for “Marty” and Billy Wilder for “The Lost Weekend,” one of many films to share the inaugural Palme in 1946.)
The buzz: Perhaps regarded with more curiosity than confidence, depending on how you responded to “Carnage”: some found it flat and trifling, others (particularly within the European critical contingent) thought it rather more substantial. Much depends on how significantly Polanski and Ives have reinterpreted the play for its Transatlantic transfer: as it stands, the casting could be younger, but the play’s playful sexuality could make for a film that hearkens back to Polanski’s more dangerous work.
The odds: One of the longer shots for the Palme on paper: even if it’s a successful adaptation, chances are the jury will find this miniature production a tasty morsel rather than three-course cinema. Jigsaw Lounge duly offers odds of 40-1. Its best shot at an award may be Best Actress for Mrs. Polanski, if she makes the most of an electric lead that many bigger stars would have been itching to play.
The premiere date: Saturday, May 25.
In the next edition of Cannes Check, we’ll be sizing up another former Palme d’Or winner in this year’s Competition lineup: Steven Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candelabra.”
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