Cannes 2011: Woody Allen, Sleeping Beauty

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris

When you take a 5:55pm flight from JFK to the cozy little lot they call an airport in Nice, you arrive at the French Riviera at a local time of 8:40pm. A quick taxi ride to Cannes takes about a half hour, give or take; from there, if you play your cards right, you can waltz down the Croisette by 10am, which will get you into an 11am press screening of the opening-night selection—titled, with perfect temporal irony, Midnight in Paris.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Cannes Film Festival

Like a lot of the press corps who'd made the annual pilgrimage to this 12-day spectacle of cinematic gorging, my body was reeling from jet lag and my mind was spinning triple-time trying to take in the vast amount of history embedded in this winding strip of red carpets and tourist-clogged sidewalks. World-cinema giants and countless stars and starlets have trod up the steps to the Palais Lumiere Theater. Films that have gone on to become classics first unspooled in these auditoriums. People walking around liberally reciting lines from decades' worth of movies. (The best anecdote so far regarding this phenomenon was at the Grand Jury press conference, where a reporter asked jury foreman Robert De Niro, "Are you talkin' to me, and did you fuck my wife?" Cramming two quotes into one inane question is not easy, people.)

So kudos to the opening film for keeping the sense of present-tense dislocation intact, with Woody Allen delivering a comic indictment on living in the past while simultaneously making you miss his earlier years more than ever. Strolling though Paris one night, vacationing novelist Gil Bender (Owen Wilson) gets into a strange Model T car as the witching-hour bells toll. Suddenly, he finds himself back in the '20s, cavorting with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Picasso, Man Ray, Cole Porter and other Jazz Age giants. The conceit is the sort of high-concept, single-joke premise that he used to crush in his short stories but seems stretched thin as a film, with funny riffs on famous people (Corey Stoll's Hemingway is a brilliant parody of the author's terse, hypermasculine style; Adrien Brody's Dali makes a meal out of the word rhinoceros) leading into a trite treatise on pining for golden ages that are forever gone. It's less a dig on nostalgia or those who crave it (his longtime fans, perhaps?) than a passable lark designed to kill time until the next project.

There's a different type of backward glancing going in Sleeping Beauty, the directorial debut from Aussie novelist Julia Leigh. (This shouldn't be confused with The Sleeping Beauty, the fractured fairy tale from Catherine Breillat that's slated to come out later this summer.) She's clearly boned up on '60s and '70s feel-bad art-house films, exhibiting great taste in the dropped references within this creepy-as-fuck tale of a young woman (Sucker Punch's Emily Browning) working her way into some weird prostitution scenarios: Belle de Jour, The Night Porter, Salo, Jeanne Dielman.

Okay, so maybe a dinner party scene featuring some black-clad extras from old Robert Palmer videos edges toward kink-aesthetic overkill, and the combo of Leigh's stark, subzero formalism and Browning's numbed performance had some critics slinging accusations of academic cinema-by-numbers. Just because the movie equates capitalism with spiritual death and the exploitation of female sexuality doesn't make it a term paper, however; the cri de coeur that ends this drama is as emotionally anguished as you're likely to hear. Day One had already given us an indulgent dose of celebrity; with Beauty, it also gave us a true discovery, ping-ponging between the poles of Cannes in two films.

And there's still eight more days to go...

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