Actor Sacha Baron Cohen

‘Dictator’ reigns over the Riviera

The sunbaked Cannes Film Festival got under way with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, whose carefully composed whimsy stood in stark contrast to the zoo-like atmosphere at the annual French Riviera extravaganza. Anderson’s film, which was shown to the press before its official premiere Wednesday evening, opened the 65th edition of Cannes. While that anniversary — marked by festival posters of Marilyn Monroe — suggests maturity, Moonrise Kingdom began things on a childlike note.

CANNES, France — The sunbaked Cannes Film Festival got under way with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, whose carefully composed whimsy stood in stark contrast to the zoo-like atmosphere at the annual French Riviera extravaganza.

Anderson’s film, which was shown to the press before its official premiere Wednesday evening, opened the 65th edition of Cannes. While that anniversary — marked by festival posters of Marilyn Monroe — suggests maturity, Moonrise Kingdom began things on a childlike note.

The film is about two preteens (newcomers Jared Gilman and Kaya Heyward) in love and running away together on a remote New England island in a 1965, Norman Rockwell-esque America. Stamped with Anderson’s trademark visual style to almost the degree of his animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox, the movie is seen mostly from the point of view of the kids.

The adults in the film — a combination of Anderson regulars like Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman with newcomers like Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Tilda Swinton — are more cynical and react in different ways to the purity of the children’s gambit.

“These are what you call art films,” Murray deadpanned at the film’s press conference. “All we get is a trip to Cannes.”

The cast and filmmakers assembled at Cannes for one of the more glamorous premieres in cinema. Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson’s first film at Cannes, was received well and found largely positive reviews, starting the festival off with a congenial vibe.

Murray was happy to tweak the entry of the action star Willis to Anderson’s familial troupe of players.

“We could have gotten the Muscles from Brussels, but it wouldn’t have been the same,” said Murray, alluding to Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Earlier in the day, further down the Croisette, the city’s famous promenade, the zoo of Cannes took on a literal sense.

Sacha Baron Cohen, in character as Admiral General Aladeen, brought in a camel in his latest stunt to promote his upcoming comedy, The Dictator. The comedian held a news conference outside his hotel, then mounted the animal with some trouble and rode down the row of boutique stores to apparently take in some shopping.

As he slowly made his way down the street, Baron Cohen was mobbed by dozens of photographers, bringing traffic to a halt and drawing the curiosity of police. After a short stroll, Baron Cohen turned around and returned to the hotel — possibly to strike again later.

Such a stunt, while certainly unique, isn’t uncommon at Cannes, where movies often go to extremes to catch the world media’s attention. Billboards of films due out this year are plastered around town and many others are being screened out of competition.

DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures have consistently used the festival to hype projects in the works, and did so again Wednesday with a presentation of The Rise of the Guardians, an animated family film for this year’s holiday movie season. It gathers slightly different versions of mythic childhood characters — including Santa Claus (Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fischer) — in an Avengers-like league of world protection.

Baldwin, never one to bite his tongue, showed no interest in sugarcoating the truth for younger audiences: “Fairy Tooth is a club in lower Manhattan,” he declared.

Over the next 11 days, the Cannes Film Festival will run through 21 more films in competition, including eagerly anticipated ones from Walter Salles (On the Road), David Cronenberg (Cosmpolis) and Michael Haneke (Amour).

A jury of nine will sift through the entries to decide the festival’s top award, the prestigious Palme d’Or. This year’s jury is presided over by Nanni Moretti, who won the festival’s top prize in 2006 for The Son’s Room, and includes actors Ewan McGregor and Diane Kruger, directors Alexander Payne and Raoul Peck, and fashion designer Jean-Paul Gauthier.

At Cannes, the psychology of the jurors is analyzed like tea leaves for hints of what kind of material they might respond best to. Moretti lamented the feverish scrutiny of the jury, saying he preferred when jury meetings were as secret as the thoughts of the concave of cardinals who choose Roman Catholic popes — the subject of Moretti’s most recent film, Habemus Papam.

“There were two remaining taboos in the world — the silence after the awards and the conclave,” Moretti said as the festival opened Wednesday. “Now it’s just the conclave.”

Any puffs of white smoke at Cannes, though, are more likely to be the result of mischief from Baron Cohen, than peaceful deliberation.

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