Cannes 2012: Auteurs take a shine to Americana

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CANNES, France — Increasingly reliant on global audiences for box office success, many Hollywood studios are muting elements that might be considered too American. But prestige filmmakers working outside the studio system — including several from other countries — are doubling down on the red, white and blue. They are churning out movies that are not only set in America but that also traffic distinctly in Americana.

At the Cannes Film Festival, which serves as perhaps the most important window on the state of prestige film, Americana-themed pictures abound. The movies include “Mud,” a modern take on “Huckleberry Finn”; “Lawless,” a story of gangsters and bootleggers during Prohibition; “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” a folkloric tale set amid the Louisiana bayous; “Moonrise Kingdom,” a look at life in a New England summer camp; and “On the Road,” based on the generation-defining Beat novel by Jack Kerouac. All but “Mud” are set to come out in the U.S. before the end of the year.


“I think there’s a notion among independent filmmakers now that myth has run aground in our country’s mainstream film culture — we have sequel disease, Sherlock Holmes is getting bastardized, Snow White is being turned into the ‘Twilight’ girl,” said Benh Zeitlin, director of “Beasts.” “Some of us outside Hollywood feel like our response should be to raise and reclaim our basic myths.”

To do so, these filmmakers are taking recognizable Americana elements and adding new — but, they hope, respectful — twists. “Beasts,” which tells of a 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who is fighting for survival after a devastating storm, mixes in giant, imaginary creatures with its more traditional Southern-fried tale. “Mud” has two modern-day boys a la Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn taking to the Mississippi River and coming across an interesting stranger — only instead of an escaped slave it’s an enigmatic slacker played by Matthew McConaughey.

And in “Lawless,” filmmakers tackle an Al Capone-type story — only this time the crime-running family is in rural Virginia, not big-city Chicago.

What’s especially surprising is that many of these directors don’t come from the U.S. “On the Road” is directed by Walter Salles, a Brazilian-born director who lives in Paris; while “Lawless” director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave hail from Australia.

“I think if Nick and I had been American we would have done a lesser version of this movie, or we wouldn’t have done it at all,” Hillcoat said in an interview at the festival. “It sometimes takes someone far away from a place to have the freshest take on it.”

Until relatively recently, many independent filmmakers tended to look beyond U.S. borders for their subjects, hoping to offer an alternative to the American stories told by the studios, particularly to art-house filmgoers. But for the last five years or so, independent film’s America-centrism has increased, as indie filmmakers now seek the reverse: to present their view on the Stars and Stripes to a polyglot audience.


At the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, the Coen brothers premiered “No Country for Old Men,” the murderous Texas drama adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, while Venice that year brought the western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” starring Brad Pitt and directed by the Australian Andrew Dominik. (Pitt and Dominik come to Cannes this year with the U.S.-set heist movie “Killing Them Softly.”)

Last year at Cannes, Terrence Malick unveiled his midcentury Texas coming-of-age tale “The Tree of Life,” which is one of three American movies to win the festival’s Palme d’Or prize in the last nine years. Meanwhile, French director Michel Hazanavicius premiered “The Artist,” an ode to a Golden Age of Hollywood cinema that was set and shot in Los Angeles.

Later this year, film fans will see more of these types of films, this time from outsiders who are working, somewhat tenuously, inside the studio system: Australian Baz Luhrmann is tackling the iconic American novel “The Great Gatsby” while the Kazakhstan-born genre director Timur Bekmambetov is pairing vampires with one of America’s greatest leaders in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

These filmmakers say that no matter how much they hark back to classic stories, they still aim for 21st century relevance.

“The gangster is an iconic part of American history,” said Cave of his Prohibition-set film. “But we wouldn’t have done this movie if it didn’t resonate today, with the folly of the war on drugs and all the violence that goes with it.”

Whether these movies will resonate with the Gallic audiences at Cannes remains to be seen. Some of the Americana films — notably “Beasts” (which took home the grand jury prize at Sundance this year) and “Lawless” — have already screened at the festival to respectable receptions.


But this country does have a complicated relationship with American culture, with Cannes taking particular pride in French creators and points of view.

Jeff Nichols, who directed “Mud” and came to Cannes last year with his anxiety thriller “Take Shelter,” said he wasn’t counting on a French embrace of Americana.

“I do think French audiences who see these films will be excited to travel to parts of the U.S. that aren’t always in the culture we export,” Nichols said. “But French interpret films differently than other places I’ve been, politically and otherwise.” He added, “I hope they’ll want to take a journey. But do I see these movies as the beginning of a French love affair with American culture?” He paused, then laughed. “Not really.”

Still, there are signs that the French position on Americana is changing, starting with the fact that festival organizers chose these films for the coveted slots in the first place. And some French festivalgoers seem eager to embrace American culture, at least cinematically.

“Me and all my friends from Paris want to see all of the American films at Cannes,” said Luska Khalapyan, an Armenia-born twentysomething who grew up and lives in Paris, at a Cannes screening. “It’s a way to prioritize what are going to be the interesting films. They’re usually stories we haven’t seen before.”

And, of course, just because a movie is rooted in Americana doesn’t mean it necessarily waves the flag for Uncle Sam. With its emphasis on hedonistic indulgences and existential dilemmas, “On the Road” may be very French after all.


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— Steven Zeitchik