Owen Gleiberman
May 13, 2010 AT 06:38 PM EDT

Image Credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Cannes Film Festival has always been a place, or a state of mind, that revels in contradiction. It is, of course, one of the glitziest and most fashionable art spectacles in the world — a mod parade of the sports-car-and-champagne elite, so redolent of old money and upper-crust bourgeois-bohemian Euro-chic class. At the same time, the movies that are celebrated and end up winning prizes here have, as often as not, been resounding critiques of that very culture — dire warnings, in fact, about how the stratifications bred by money tear away at our humanity. To me, the quintessential image of Cannes isn’t Brigitte Bardot surrounded by paparazzi. It’s Jean-Luc Godard, at the height of his ’60s tear-it-all-down irascibility, holding court in a tuxedo. The beauty of Cannes is that it makes those contradictions glamorous and organic (there wouldn’t, of course, be movies, even Godard movies, without big money) rather than obnoxious.

Nowhere is the contradictory nature of Cannes more thrillingly displayed than on the red carpet. Last night, after getting no sleep on a nine-hour-long flight (we had to fly around the volcano ash), I made my way onto the Croisette and found myself gawking, along with everyone else, at the big red-carpet premiere of Robin Hood that opened the festival. Here’s the thing you have to understand: A red-carpet event at Cannes isn’t like a red-carpet event anywhere else. It’s not just a parade of stars and fans and media — it’s a ceremony, as stately and grand as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. The throngs of onlookers are just as celebrity-struck as anyone at a premiere in New York or Los Angeles, but unlike their American counterparts, they’re almost mystically well-behaved — even when Russell Crowe finally showed his cool sunglassed self, there wasn’t shrieking so much as a kind of murmury awe.

Towering above it all, on the pyramid-like facade of the Grand Théâtre Lumiere at the Palais, is a giant sign that lists, in bold blue letters, and in alphabetical order, the names of every director with a film at the festival: Woody Allen. Matthieu Amalric. Gregg Araki. Olivier Assayas. Xavier Beauvois…. It’s a display of utopian high-and-low inclusiveness, a way of saying that every filmmaker here, and every film, is revered, and is equal, in the eyes of the gods of cinema. Robin Hood, meet Mike Leigh’s Another Year, and say hello to the new Abbas Kiarostami film starring Juliette Binoche.

The truth is, however, that almost never before in the 63-year history of Cannes has that celebrity-meets-art continuum felt like more of a conceit. It’s fine to pretend that a picture like Robin Hood is an intrinsic part of this festival. (There was Ridley Scott’s name up in big blue letters.) Yet the movies that represent the ideal of the Cannes Film Festival are now under threat as never before — and not just because of struggling independent-and-foreign distribution companies. They’re under threat from the shifts in global taste that underlie those struggles. This very morning, a front-page story in The International Herald Tribune carried the headline: “European filmmakers lose ground to 3-D.” The first sentence of the story read, “As film critics hunker down in Cannes for the next week and a half to assess the state of cinematic art, millions of people across Europe will buy tickets to Hollywood blockbusters like Iron Man 2 and How to Train Your Dragon.” And to Robin Hood as well. Cannes has always been, and still is, a romantic dream of art. But as you stand near the red carpet, there are moments when that dream can start to look more and more like a mirage.

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The Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi may be one of the most corrupt national leaders on the planet, but if you’re an ambitious nonfiction filmmaker, he’s a (nasty) gift who keeps on giving. Berlusconi probably did his cause no good when he created the festival’s first official “controversy” this year by protesting the inclusion of Draquila — L’Italia che Trema (“Italy Trembles”), an ingenious and important documentary. The movie uses the Berlusconi response to the April 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila (a town of 70,000) to demonstrate, in fascinating and outrageous detail, how the sinister collusion of the Italian government and underworld forces really works. Berlusconi is like a Richard Nixon without the guilty demons — a leader so controlling yet shameless that he’ll exploit his own citizens and make it look like a gift.

The filmmaker and star, Sabina Guzzanti, works in the righteous-reporter mode of Michael Moore, except that she’s beautiful, like Lena Olin with a video recorder, and she never lets her potshots slip over into sarcasm. At first, the Berlusconi government’s response to the earthquake is so active, so unlike the Bush administration’s out-to-lunch apathy over Hurricane Katrina, that it looks almost humane. But as Guzzanti demonstrates, it’s really a scam, an excuse for Berlusconi to award fat contracts to his friends in the construction business. The town residents are housed in hotels and camps that, over time, become glorified cushy prisons (they’re not allowed to leave — or even to hold public meetings), and no repair work is done on the town itself. It’s all about using the earthquake to put up prefab apartment buildings, and using newly crafted statutes to stifle any dissent about it. Since Berlusconi controls the media, too, even the voices on television must echo the tin praise for his cronies-get-rich “policies.” What’s terrifying about L’Italia che Trema is that it captures a democratic nation slipping, slowly but surely, into fascism. That Silvio Berlusconi gave the movie a thumbs down is really the ultimate thumbs up.

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Last year, Agnes Varda, the ageless poet-angel of French cinema, charmed and enchanted audiences with The Beaches of Agnes, her light-fingered autobiographical voyage through a life of love and movies. The picture featured a brief, fascinating clip from what was, in essence, a lost film: Lions Love, a playful experiment of a 1969 feature made by Varda during the time she spent in Hollywood. This year, she showed up at Cannes, in two-toned red-and-gold hair that looked awfully punk on an 81-year-old woman, to show Lions Love in its entirety, and believe me, this was no musty revival. The movie is a real find, a prophetic elegy for the ’60s made well before the ’60s were even over.

Shot in the summer of 1968, the movie stars Viva (of Andy Warhol fame), who’s astonishingly funny and beautiful here — she’s like Greta Garbo playing the young Jackie Kennedy — as well as the two composers of Hair, James Rado and Jerome Ragni (they’re billed as Jim and Jerry). The three embody versions of themselves in a kind of domestic hippie ménage a trois. That’s not enough for Varda, though. Casting the tough-broad independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke as a surrogate for herself, she turns Lions Love into a nimble chain of riffs on Hollywood, television, the death of Robert Kennedy, the studio co-option of independent film (before it had happened!), the closet conventionality of the counterculture, and much else. Lions Love is like a Warhol ramble staged with far greater wit and discipline, and I suspect that it looks more fascinating now than it did when it was made. It’s a shaggy but shrewd time-capsule gem that deserves to be newly released.

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