The Art of the Trailer: A Cannes Report Card

Over the next fortnight we’ll be inundated with coverage from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but for now, all of the titles screening in and out of competition are basically unknown commodities. What we can watch now are the trailers for some of the most anticipated titles at Cannes, from efforts by art-house titans like Lars Von Trier and the Dardennes to work by rookie auteurs from America to Australia. With these films competing for the Palme d’Or, one of cinema’s most prestigious prizes, you would expect that the artistry implicit in these films comes through in their previews. And that seems to be the case… with some glaring exceptions.

The Sleeping Beauty (dir. Julia Leigh)

We’re not sure if Australian director Julia Leigh’s much-buzzed about debut is explicitly adapted from the novella House of the Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawataba; it seems to have borrowed its basic premise of a brothel where men pay to sleep beside narcotized young women. Based on the trailer, Leigh’s innovation is to shift the point of view from the clients to one of the girls (played by the ever-dazed Emily Browning), in the process turning an allegory about male insecurity and desire into (maybe) a piece of post-feminist provocation. The cold, clinical images look rather assured for a first filmmaker, and a bold-face quote from Jane Campion –“extraordinary, sensuous, unafraid”– further suggests that this will not be a modest, self-effacing debut. Grade : A-

The Boy With the Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

The trailer for the latest by perennial critical faves the Dardenne brothers doesn’t have English subtitles, but a few key points still come across. Yes, there’s a kid with a bike (Thomas Doret), but also roles for Cecile de France and the Dardennes’ regular star Jérémie Renier as adults drawn into his orbit. There’s also evidence of the brothers’ hardscrabble handheld camera work (of course), though the tone seems less severe than usual for everybody’s favorite Belgian social realists. Grade: B

Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Following up on the understated menace he displayed in Winter’s Bone, John Hawkes quietly dominates the trailer for this Sundance-feted debut. Reviews of the film reveal that Hawkes plays a charismatic cult leader whose hold on the eponymous protagonist (Elizabeth Olsen) persists even after she flees his compound and runs off to hide at her sister’s home.The aggressive  scoring and editing of the clip suggest a distributor eager to pitch Martha Marcy May Marlene as a thriller, but there’s something promisingly spacious in the images which suggests a less hard-sell approach. Whatever the case, that closing wide shot of Olsen bobbing in the middle of a lake while Hawkes watches her from the shore is catch-your-breath creepy. Grade: B+

Melancholia (dir. Lars Von Trier)

The teaser for the great Dane’s latest makes it look like a cross between Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (familial tensions spilling over at a lavish nuptial) and Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (shots of star Kirsten Dunst shooting electricity out of her fingertips on a golf course). Reportedly both the most expensive Danish production of all time and the first of Von Trier’s movies to feature a “happy ending,” Melancholia has already been tagged for a possible Palme, though based on this relatively tame trailer, it’ll be hard-pressed to match the hype of Anti-Christ. Grade: B-

The Tree of Life (dir. Terence Malick)

It looks like ol’ Terry is either going to make the most visionary movie of all time or die trying; there isn’t a shot in this teaser that isn’t suitable for framing (and indeed, one of the film’s promotional posters is comprised entirely out of stills, combining them into a pointillist canvas describing a baby’s foot held in what looks like a mother’s hands). In some ways, The Tree of Life trailer seems a self-parody of Malick, from the poetic voice-over (“mother…father… always you wrestle inside of me”) to signature images like swaying trees and a character paused in front of an open door. But the director has never worked on such an obviously cosmic scale before. And we’re dying to know what those scenes of Brad Pitt as a suburban father circa the 1950s have to do with what appear to be images of our planet’s fiery birth. Grade: A

Restlesss (dir. Gus Van Sant)

The shimmery guitar-pop underneath the opening of this trailer might tip you off that the director has backed even further away from his Bela Tarr-biting experimental phase after Milk.The come-on line that this studio-backed romantic drama is “from the director of Good Will Hunting” gives the game away completely. Van Sant’s talent for shooting beautiful young actors (Mia Wiaskowsa and Henry Hopper) would seem to be in full effect, but the set-up is so twee it hurts:  a terminally ill manic-pixie-dream-girl falls in love with a fetching ghost whisperer who is buddies with a dead Japanese pilot from World War II. Whatever you say, Gus. Grade: C-

The Day He Arrives (dir. Hong Sang-soo)

We’re not ranking these trailers, but if we were, this hilarious teaser for the stalwart Korean auteur’s film would probably top the list. In the space of a single two minute shot, the clip introduces a half-dozen characters — all by way of onscreen text — and details their fruitless attempt to hail a cab on a snowy street. But the shot also unfolds entirely in reverse, so that it ends with them lurching drunkenly out of frame (back to whatever bar they’ve emerged from in this backwards diegeis) just as the title “The Day He Arrives” appears on screen — a nifty parting gag in a very promising trailer that doubles as an accomplished short film in its own right. Grade: A

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