The Cannes Film Festival has a spotty history with its opening-night films, which over the years have often been chosen seemingly for their star power than their cinematic artistry — witness last year’s a “Grace of Monaco,” the Nicole Kidman vehicle that still hasn’t gotten a proper theatrical release in the U.S., despite the Weinstein Company having the rights.
This year’s choice, “Standing Tall” (or “La Tete Haute” in its native French) was supposed to be different. At the press conference announcing the lineup, festival chief Thierry Fremaux suggested that it could have landed a coveted main competition slot, reserved for the worthiest and weightiest, before the fest opted to give it an out-of-competition opening slot instead.
And because it was directed by actress-turned-director Emmanuelle Bercot, “Standing Tall” was of major symbolic importance for a festival often criticized for its dearth of female directors.
Its premiere on Wednesday, which followed the opening ceremony and a few press screenings, drew the likes of Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore and Lupita N’yongo to the red carpet at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, kicking off the 68th edition of the festival with the requisite glamor.
But sad to say, the relentlessly dark “Standing Tall” feels like another opening-night misfire for Cannes. It’s not as silly or as tacky as “Grace of Monaco,” but in many ways it is aggressively unpleasant, a character study of characters we don’t particularly want to study.
Chief among them is Malony, an uncommunicative, belligerent teen with serious mommy issues and a tendency to erupt into violence at any moment. We’ve seen this kind of guy, and the embattled mom who is herself a real piece of work, in a few movies from Xavier Dolan (a member of the Cannes jury this year), but his versions are redeemed by the young Canadian’s joyous filmmaking and crazy, gleefully transgressive streak.
Bercot is more prosaic, and two hours of Maliny’s outbursts are a lot to take — and a lot to swallow when things take a turn toward the end. Still, Bercot is taking a hard look at serious issues, and there’s certainly an admirable toughness to what she’s trying to pull off. Early reviews were mixed, with even the naysayers finding things to appreciate.
Of course, opening night is not usually the time for those famous Cannes boos; it’s a time to celebrate along with Bercot, the first woman to open the fest in 28 years, and her thoroughly committed actors Rod Paradot and Sara Forestier.
And naturally, the Cannes audience loved to see Catherine Deneuve on the red carpet and onscreen in a graceful performance. She may spend 90 percent of her time behind a desk — but hey, she’s Catherine Deneuve, and that makes her royalty in these parts.
On the Croisette, meanwhile, hopes now turn to the two other French actresses-turned-directors whose movies did make it into the main competition: Valerie Donzelli with “Marguerite & Julien” and Maiwenn with “Mon Roi.”
The overture is over, and as usual it was nothing special. Now it’s time for the main event to begin.