Cannes Day 1: Woody and De Niro Hobnob on the Riviera

midnight in paris1 Cannes Day 1: Woody and De Niro Hobnob on the RivieraWant to know how the 64th Cannes Film Festival gets gritty to honor Robert De Niro? Imagine gnomish Brit crooner Jamie Cullum delivering a painfully jazzy version of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” on his grand piano while New York’s native son squirms helplessly onstage at the cavernous, VIP-filled Grand Théâtre de Lumière. Nothing like watching 2,000 black-tie film fanatics shake their Chopard jewelry to bastardized hip-hop.

The actor, president of this year’s awards-doling jury, was being fêted at the opening night ceremony that kicked off the Rivera’s most glamorous cinematic bacchanal, an annual orgy of aesthetes, artistes, glamourpusses and beach bums colliding on the sun-kissed coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

And right before the world premiere of Woody Allen’s immensely charming and remarkably hollow confection Midnight in Paris, the festival inaugurated its new tradition: bestowing an honorary version of their top prize, the Palme d’Or, to a heavyweight filmmaker who has never quite had that rare mix of otherworldly talent, keen timing and dumb luck to win it.

The recipient for 2011 was Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy’s arthouse lion who famously called L.A. “the Big Nipple” (and who talked De Niro into lying naked for an on-camera hand job in 1976′s Novecento). The grand sensualist was now confined to a wheelchair, crippled by back problems that have plagued him for a decade. Earlier in the day, at a press conference for a restored version of his 1970 masterpiece The Conformist, he joked, “Perhaps they should have restored me instead of one of my films.” The
70-year-old isn’t resting, though: he’s prepping a new film called Io e te, a two-hander which he plans to shoot in 3-D–a format he refuses to dismiss as a Hollywood gimmick. “Ingmar Bergman’s Persona would have been stunning in 3D!”

Less stunning was Allen’s latest, a slight, whimsical fantasy that has nostalgia-ridden screenwriter Owen Wilson fleeing his fiancée for
nocturnal assignations to rub elbows with Paris’ Lost Generation. “The characters of Picasso, Hemingway and Dali were easy to portray,” said Allen when asked about the film. “I didn’t try to make them meaningful and deep, just amusing.” Mission accomplished.

All eyes turn to the main competition for serious art, though, and the first out of the gate did not disappoint. Australian entry Sleeping Beauty delivered an eerie peek into the life of a disaffected tart (played by pint-size pixie Emily Browning) who finds herself drawn further into a mysterious high-end brothel that drugs its girls so that clients can molest their unconscious bodies. First-time director Julia Leigh delivers an audacious, mannered and downright haunting fable that mixes exotic kink with shattering pathos. Not a bad way to describe Cannes, come to think of it.