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Dennis LimBack to OpinionDennis Lim

The double life of Cannes

CANNES, France — The Cannes Film Festival opened Wednesday night, as it often does, giving the red-carpet treatment to a big-budget, star-driven spectacle on the eve of its international release. Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” a “Braveheart”-like load of medieval hooey with no shortage of flaming arrows and exploding fireballs, didn’t exactly win over critics, but it did get its stars Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett to the Cote d’Azur for photo ops and for a press conference that was more entertaining than the actual movie. For journalists looking for thematic cohesion, this tale of a wealth-redistributing outlaw (or, as some have insisted, proto-teabagger) also ties in neatly with a festival that will see a fair share of movies about greed and economic malfeasance, including Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” and “Inside Job,” an analysis of the 2008 financial crisis by political-scientist-turned-documentarian Charles Ferguson, whose previous film, “No End in Sight,” was a meticulous chronicling of the botched occupation of Iraq.

"Robin Hood"

But the Cannes Film Festival that was inaugurated with a fireworks display at the “Robin Hood” party, that installed camera-friendly actors on the jury to glam up the nightly red-carpet proceedings (this year, Kate Beckinsale), that attracts throngs of glamour-hungry fans who stake out the entrance to the Palais des Festivals and renders the Croisette all but impassable for hours — that is the festival’s enduring popular image, but it’s only part of the story. For many attendees, Cannes is still about the movies, and it remains, as the world’s most prestigious and tradition-minded film festival, a haven for cinephilia. A nexus of competing interests, Cannes necessarily serves multiple functions. The hordes who descend on the south of France every spring include filmmakers, producers, sales agents, distributors, programmers and journalists. Within the enormous press corps, there are entertainment writers angling for access to stars, business reporters trying to make sense of the shifting industry forces, and critics sitting through up to five or six films a day hoping (sometimes against hope) for masterworks and discoveries.

To cater to its myriad attendees, Cannes is something of a “hydra-headed beast,” as the Times’ Manohla Dargis has described it. Besides the official lineup, which includes the 20 or so titles in the competition, there are midnight movies, the Cannes Classics section for restored films, and the Cinema de la Plage section for beachfront screenings; affiliated offshoot festivals like the Directors Fortnight and the Critics Week; and a parallel Marche du Film, the largest film market in the world, where pitches are made and deals are struck.

Some of this edition’s most noteworthy titles are screening in Un Certain Regard, often considered a second-tier section for emerging filmmakers, removed from the glare of the main competition. This year, though, the section is conspicuous for the inclusion of a few big names, including 80-year-old Jean-Luc Godard (who is here with “Film Socialisme”) and Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, a 101-year-old force of nature who has been averaging one movie a year since 1990 (the year he turned 82).

"The Strange Case of Angelica"

Oliveira’s “The Strange Case of Angelica” screened on Thursday as the curtain raiser for Un Certain Regard, and it barely seems to exist in the same universe as the movie that had kicked things off the previous night. While “Robin Hood” is a typically hectic action saga, with hardly a single quiet moment or undigitized image, “Angelica” works its magic more subtly, and its special effects — a dead beauty coming to life before a camera lens, a dream of floating to the heavens — are charmingly homespun. It’s an eccentric ghost story (about a young man haunted by the dead bride he’s been hired to photograph) and, as with many of Oliveira’s late films, a pensive memento mori, ending with a calm acceptance of death and an image of closed doors.

In many ways it is a hushed, serene film, with Chopin-scored moments of rapt contemplation and intense melancholy. But it’s also complex and unpredictably alive, with ruminative detours into subjects like particle physics, manual and mechanized labor, climate change, witchcraft, and the metaphysics of photography. Oliveira himself has complained that too much is made of his longevity, but this centenarian is plainly an artist liberated by age — while his inquiring spirit suggest a man in his intellectual prime, he works with the freedom of a filmmaker almost as old as his medium.

For some, “Angelica” must have seemed like a palate cleanser after the bloat of “Robin Hood.” For others it presumably went unnoticed. It’s only in keeping with its split identity that this festival should offer such a disparate pair of opening films — a reminder that, as this orgy of art and commerce gets under way, there is more than one Cannes to choose from.