The Canadian presence at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival, which opens next Wednesday, is a little softer this year than last year, when a historic three directors – Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and Xavier Dolan – made it into the competition for the Palme d'Or.
This year, there's just 47-year-old Quebec director Denis Villeneuve with Sicario (Spanish for "hit man"), a Mexican-border crime drama, starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent who teams with mercenaries to take down the head of a drug cartel.
Villeneuve, who says he was "traumatized" by the script, written by actor-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy), shot Sicario last summer around Albuquerque, N.M., in brutally hot days and cool evenings – "where the cloud formations become almost another character in the film."
While the combination of Albuquerque, drugs and cartels suggests the hit television series Breaking Bad, Villeneuve dismisses the comparison, saying that Sicario "makes Breaking Bad look like a documentary."
The Oscar-nominated director (Incendies) who moved effortlessly into English-language filmmaking with two features in 2013 (Enemy and Prisoners) has some advantages. He's already had films in every major Cannes sidebar, visiting the Directors' Fortnight in 1996 with the anthology film Cosmos and again with Polytechnique (2009), in Un Certain Regard with August 32nd on Earth (1998) and in Critics Week with his short film Next Floor.
As well, Joel and Ethan Coen are the co-presidents of the Cannes jury this year and Villeneuve is working with two Coen brothers alumni, actor Josh Brolin and cinematographer Roger Deakins.
What's more, fellow Quebecker Xavier Dolan, who won a jury prize last year for Mommy, is on the nine-person jury.
But Villeneuve only has one Cannes prediction: "We are going to have a lot of fun," he promises.
There are two other Canadian films at Cannes. In the Directors' Fortnight, Bleu tonnerre (Blue Thunder), from Jean-Marc E. Roy and Philippe David Gagné, is about an unemployed saw-mill worker looking to rekindle an old romance. The other is Sleeping Giant, the first feature from Toronto's Andrew Cividino, a dark coming-of-age drama about teen boys during a summer vacation near Thunder Bay, Ont.
The latter is one of seven features selected from 1,100 submissions from around the world and the first English-language Canadian pick in almost 20 years. It's an auspicious place to be: Filmmakers who got their start at Critics' Week include Bernardo Bertolucci, Wong Kar-wai and François Ozon.
Cividino, who graduated from Ryerson's School of Image Arts in 2006, entered the film world at a time of "upheaval with no one knowing what the future would hold."
Both Cividino's parents are doctors, and when he first fell in love with film in late high school, they ageed he could apply – but only if he first took the requisite courses to quality for every premed and health sciences program available to him.
Cividino did so, then pursued his cinema muse. A year after graduating from Ryerson, he set up a company, Film Forge Productions, for commercial work, following the model of the late Tony Scott's RSA Productions, using commercial work to finance creative ventures, including three short films. (Full disclosure: a few years ago, my wife's organization hired him to create a series of legal education videos.)
The commercial work allowed Cividino to learn his craft, and he says, "to pay the people I love to work with."
While shooting Sleeping Giant last summer, Cividino worked with young, inexperienced actors and improvisation was often more practical than sticking to the script. That meant the shooting and editing was time-consuming, but Cividino's experience with the workflow of low-cost digital shooting and storage saved money.
"The contemporary technical possibilities directly influence the esthetic," says Cividino. "This is a film that just couldn't have been made 30 or 40 years ago."