Cannes Check 2013: Arnaud des Pallières’s ‘Michael Kohlhaas’

(Welcome to Cannes Check, your annual guide through the 19 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 des Pallières with “Michael Kohlhaas.”)

The director: Arnaud des Pallières (French, 51 years old). As you’d guess from that age, the Paris-born des Pallières is no newcomer: he made his feature debut with “Drancy Avenir” in 1997, and “Michael Kohlhaas” is the third narrative film he’s directed since then. There has also been a feature length documentary, 2011’s “Poussières d’Amérique,” as well as work in shorts and TV. For all his output, however, don’t blame yourself if you hadn’t heard of him prior to last Thursday: his work hasn’t travelled far beyond his home country, and has never been programmed in a major European festival. His most recent narrative feature — 2008’s “Parc,” an adaptation of John Cheever’s “Bullet Park” starring Jean-Marc Barr and Sergi Lopez — was programmed by Toronto and London, but found distribution only in France and Italy. In a Competition lineup with no actual freshmen, des Pallières is one of its wilder cards.

The talent: While des Pallières may not be that well-known, his film is stacked with familiar names — beginning with Danish star Mads Mikkelsen (last year’s Best Actor winner at the fest for “The Hunt”) in the title role. He’s joined by a respectable pan-European ensemble that mixes old hands with fresh faces: Denis Lavant (another of last year’s Cannes sensations in “Holy Motors”), Bruno Ganz (“Downfall”), David Kross (“The Reader”), Sergi Lopez (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Melusine Mayance (“Sarah’s Key”), Roxane Duran (“The White Ribbon”) and rising French teen star Paul Bartel (not to be confused with the late American actor and filmmaker, obviously).

The screenplay was co-written by des Pallières with first-timer Christelle Berthevas; producer Serge Latou’s most prominent previous credit is “Waltz With Bashir.” Below the line, the most notable name is that of cinematographer Jeanne Lapoirie — a favorite of Francois Ozon, she also shot Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi’s Competition title “A Villa in Italy.” And while des Pallières has previously edited his own work, here he’s enlisted the services of Sandie Bompar, previously as assistant editor to Claire Denis and Bruno Dumont.

The pitch: A French-German co-production, “Michael Kohlhaas” is an adaptation of the 1811 novella of the same title by leading German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The book, itself based on true events from the 16th century, has a substantial literary following: Kafka was a vocal admirer, and E.L. Doctorow labelled his novel “Ragtime” (which, in an Anglicised hat-tip, features a character called Coalhouse) a homage to von Kleist’s story. The story, set in what was then the Holy Roman Empire, follows the title character, a Brandenburg horse dealer incensed when two of his animals are illegally confiscated by a government official, as he mounts an active protest against his country’s corrupt bureaucracy — ultimately resorting to acts of terrorism. des Pallières has stayed true to the story’s historical milieu, though contemporary political resonances in the 125-minute, French-language film are said to be intended. 

The pedigree: As discussed above, des Pallières isn’t a name that carries much clout, even in his home country — he has never competed at a major film festival, and I suspect that most critics at the festival (this one included) will be sampling his work for the first time here. Still, the lofty reputation of the film’s source novel, not to mention the current career status of its leading man, ensures a degree of associative prestige.

The buzz: The film was one of the Competition’s more unexpected inclusions, and while it has at this stage generated little audible buzz per se, it does at least have the benefit of our curiosity. When a comparatively little-known name crashes the Competition’s A-list auteur gathering, it either means that Thierry Fremaux and his fellow selectors believe they have something special on their hands — or that complex programming politics are at play. We’ll see.  

The odds: Until we actually see it, “Michael Kohlhaas” has to be regarded as a long shot for the Palme d’Or — which has in recent years been very much the preserve of star auteurs. Critic and betting expert Neil Young puts the film in the back half of the pack with odds of 22-1, which sounds right for now, though that’s not to say the film couldn’t be a surprise hit. Jury president Steven Spielberg might well be sympathetic to a well-executed historical epic. Meanwhile, with a meaty role to chew on here, Mikkelsen stands a chance at becoming the first actor since Barbara Hershey 25 years ago to win back-to-back awards at the festival.

The premiere date: Friday, May 24.

Check back in tomorrow, when we’ll be sizing up a similarly-named but better-known Arnaud — Desplechin — with “Jimmy P.”