Cannes Check 2014: Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, perhaps the most unexpected selection of the lot: Damián Szifrón's “Wild Tales.”

The director: Damián Szifrón (Argentinian, 38 years old). Arguably the least familiar name in the Competition to most Cannes-goers, Szifrón is the only South American representative in a lineup that isn't as geographically diverse as it could be. (Asia, in particular, seems to have been sold short, but that's another discussion.) Perhaps there was an element of cultural balancing to his inclusion, perhaps not; either way, he's not a filmmaker who has previously been on the major festival radar, having largely been limited to the Spanish and Latin-American circuit until now. In his home country, the Buenos Aires-born genre craftsman is still best known for his 2002-3 television series “The Pretenders,” which has been remade in several non-English-speaking regions. His debut feature, 2003's “Bottom of the Sea” was a mainstream hybrid thriller that won a handful of smaller festival awards; his 2005 follow-up, the buddy-cop comedy “On Probation,” was less well received, but performed well domestically. Since then, he has been working extensively in TV; “Wild Tales” is his third feature.

The talent: Ricardo Darin is more or less the current face of Argentine cinema, having starred in such key films as “Nine Queens” and “The Secret in Their Eyes”; no surprise, then, to see him headlining this one. Leonardo Sbaraglia broke through in 2001 with “Intacto” and recently made his English-language debut in “Red Lights”; Dario Grandinetti is best known for his leading role in Pedro Almodovar's “Talk to Her.”

The Almodovar connection isn't coincidental, given that the Spanish Oscar-winner and his brother Agustin act as producers here. (That presumably aided the film's selection too.) Szifrón wrote the screenplay, and edited the film with Pablo Barbieri Carrera. Two-time Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla (“Babel,” “Brokeback Mountain”) returns to his home ground to compose the score.

The pitch: In a Competition lineup that is, as ever, short on laughs, “Wild Tales” is apparently bringing the comedy — and in quite a dark, unconventional fashion. When announcing the film at the press conference, festival director Thierry Fremaux said the film had been chosen to “wake up” festival-goers and provoke strong reactions, which could mean any number of things. This much we know: it's a compilation of six independent stories apparently hinging on the quest for success in the modern world and the heated emotions it inspires. “Many people get stressed out or depressed,” reads the synopsis. “Some burst. This is a film about them.” That's all we've got folks. 

The prestige: To most viewers, Szifrón is a pretty unknown quantity: with only two previous features to his name, neither of them given wide international exposure, he can't claim much prestige, but he has no reservations to overcome either. The surprise factor, and the fact that the film is sure to resemble nothing else in the Competition, both work in its favor. Fremaux seems genuinely jazzed about the selection, though he's thrown us some strange lemons in the past.

The buzz: We barely know what the film is at this point, much less what it's like — there are whispers that Almodovar's involvement might have rubbed off stylistically, but perhaps not. Curiosity isn't quite the same as buzz, but it has our attention. Strange that it hasn't been programmed later in this festival, when sketch-based comedy might come as a welcome relief from gruelling auteur fare.

The odds: An eccentric compilation comedy from a Cannes newbie doesn't exactly scream “Palme d'Or,” so the odds are duly long: Jigsaw Lounge and Paddy Power both have it at or near the back of the pack, with odds of 33-1. Still, a bit of novelty never hurts with a jury — if the film really is a standout (in any sense of the word) or a provocation, it might find enough champions to get it, say, the Jury Prize.

The date: “Wild Tales” premieres on Saturday, May 17.

Next in Cannes Check, we'll close out the Competition with the film that is, well, closing out the Competition: Andrei Zvyagintsev's “Leviathan.”