Brigitte Bardot in a bikini on a French Riviera beach in the early 1950s. Quick — name a single photograph in existence that reminds you less of "The Tree of Life," last year's top prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival.
The only movie in existence that has less to do with that bikini shot? Well, try "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," from Thailand, the winner (made by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a former School of the Art Institute of Chicago student) of the Palme d'Or award at Cannes the year before.
Whatever their flaws and limitations, I treasure both films. Many do. Others resist or detest them, or would never even try them, just as they would never try green eggs and ham until coerced in rhyme.
But think about this. If the Cannes Film Festival, the 65th edition of which begins Wednesday, is all about cinematic ambition and green eggs and ham, how to explain the popular triumph last year of"The Artist,"a late addition to the main competition slate?
Of the eventual nine best picture Academy Award nominees this year, three premiered last year at Cannes. "The Artist" (which won the Oscar) and "The Tree of Life" played in competition;"Midnight in Paris" opened the festival in an out-of-competition berth.
Some years the festival embraces Hollywood and Americana in its lineups with a passion bordering on obsession. This appears to be one of those years. As critic Robert Koehler has noted (writing for the Film Society of Lincoln Center website), the festival's artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, either "watches a ton of English-language films for his programming or considers them the source of new blood for the competition." This year, he notes, all but one of the directors making their Cannes debuts are American or Australian.
It's easy to see Cannes as a sunnier version of"The Hunger Games,"with its ruthless, autocratic air of exclusivity, its ability to anoint the next big thing. It may in fact be more like a Gallic seaside riff on"The Avengers,"a relentless pileup of superheroic attempts at red-carpet glamour and deal-making over mussels and frites.
In its dazzling blend of high and low culture, its influence over what the rest of the movie world will screen and showcase and debate the rest of the year, or the year afterward, Cannes cannot be overestimated. Onetime Palme d'Or jury President Clint Eastwood had this to say in a Variety publication celebrating the festival's first 50 years: "In Cannes you've got this big dichotomy of the photographers tripping over themselves trying to take your picture and the topless girls on the beach." (Editor's note: The Bardots have become pretty scarce in the 21st century; they're too busy tweeting.) "The climate is so odd — the whorehouse of selling, and the intense cinemania, of searching for the gem, the one that's going to knock everyone off their feet."
Speaking for everyone who's ever been to Cannes, or dreams of its annual crop of cinematic discoveries, Eastwood added: "There's nothing else quite like it."
The 65th Cannes Film Festival opens Wednesday with "Moonrise Kingdom."
For coverage, go to chicagotribune.com/talkingpictures.