CANNES, France -- Paradox! This is how it goes here: Just as the weather deigns to become a thing of sun-splashed French Riviera wonder, the 66th Cannes Film Festival responds with an 8:30 a.m. world premiere of "Nebraska," director Alexander Payne's first film since "The Descendants." It's a tight-lipped, melancholic black-and-white road movie starring Bruce Dern as an alcoholic Billings, Mont., man convinced he's won a million dollars in a mail-order sweepstakes giveaway.
In a studious change of pace, "Saturday Night Live" veteran Will Forte portrays his timid electronics-salesman son, who reluctantly agrees to act as chauffeur and companion as father and son make their way to Lincoln, Neb., with a stopover in the shriveling small town where Dern's Woody grew up. The sojourn dredges up ancient memories within the addled brain and guarded personality of this Korean War veteran, married to a sharp-tongued, sharp-witted, long-suffering wife, played by Jane Squibb.
At Cannes, the auteur-driven festival nonetheless best known for beautiful people in beautiful clothes on red carpet, it's practically sacrilege to talk about a screenwriter. "Nebraska," which Payne originally had scheduled to shoot following his excellent "Sideways," comes from a relatively new talent, Bob Nelson, who has given Payne a neat, clear outline of character relationships to amplify. Dern is very good, and there's one wonderful comic set piece, in which Forte and Bob Odenkirk as Woody's sons steal a compressor out of the barn belonging (they think) to Woody's old business partner (Stacy Keach).
A first look at "Nebraska" reveals a lot of Payne's strengths as a filmmaker, among them an honest yet amused eye for Midwestern landscapes and inhabitants. I don't know if there's much in Nelson's script, really. The movie is accomplished but a tick below my favorite Paynes to date. Still, after the stunningly empty likes of "Only God Forgives," Nicolas Winding Refn's adolescent daydream of a revenge picture set in Bangkok and starring a near-mute Ryan Gosling and a valiant Kristin Scott Thomas, "Nebraska" looks like Oz.
Wednesday night brought a strong, heart-rending and sexually explicit competition title from the Tunisian-born co-writer and director Abdellatif Kechiche, the three-hour "Blue Is the Warmest Color." With several more competition titles yet to premiere here, among them James Gray's "The Immigrant" starring Joaquin Phoenix, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Renner, "Blue" nonetheless has the buzz and the aura of an award-winner come Sunday. That's when the festival concludes, with the awards ceremony announcing jury president Steven Spielberg's picks.
Many are predicting a dual best actress win for Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux as "Blue's" passionate lovers. Based loosely on a graphic novel, "Blue" features Exarchopoulos as a third-year high school student who, shortly after losing her virginity to a male classmate in a dispiriting encounter, finds her first true love in the arms of an older woman, played by Seydoux.
Unlike the first competition title I saw during the festival, Francois Ozon's slick, proficient, shallow coming-of-age drama "Young and Beautiful," "Blue" revels in the unformed emotional state and beguiling complexity of its central character. The two major sex scenes are epics of their kind, several minutes in length (for screen sex, that's considerable). But that's how everything works in Kechiche's storytelling rhythm. The first big argument between Adele and Emma takes place in something like real time; so do the bookended meet-the-parents scenes. The film has the rhythm of life, and even better, the rhythm of a specific life, lived on screen.
Even with "Blue," however, the single most beautiful element I've experienced in any Cannes title so far? It's a piece of music: composer Lele Marchitelli's theme (heard in full over the end credits) for "The Great Beauty," director Paolo Sorrentino's Felliniesque state-of-the-city mosaic in which a jaded magazine writer, played by the marvelous chameleon Toni Servillo, takes stock of his high life in Rome. The signature theme is worthy of Fellini's great collaborator Nino Rota. And that's molto worthy.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun