The Festival de Cannes, a wise man once said, is not just impossible to describe to someone who hasn't been there, it's nearly impossible to describe to someone who has. And that's especially the case this year.
Opening Wednesday night with the already much talked about "Grace of Monaco," Cannes contains elements that in a sane world wouldn't be found anywhere near each other. But no one ever called this place sane, and attracting opposites turns out to be business as usual for this festival.
So Cannes 2014 is offering Jean-Luc Godard's sure to be obscure "Goodbye to Language" as well as the massively commercial "How to Train Your Dragon 2," both in 3-D. It's reviving Walter Hill's dynamic "The Warriors" for a nighttime open-air screening on the beach and taking Kon Ichikawa's ethereal 1964 "Tokyo Olympiad" inside for a Cannes Classics event. It's got a master class taught by Sophia Loren and a short film from Egypt called "The Aftermath of the Inauguration of the Public Toilet at Kilometer 375."
And that doesn't even mention the 40th anniversary tribute to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," which is in the Directors' Fortnight part of Cannes, along with "National Gallery," documentary legend Frederick Wiseman's examination of the high tone British art museum. You get the idea.
More than most festivals, Cannes also has a robust commercial side. To that end, Thailand's Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi will be here to promote her country's films, and pop star Kylie Minogue will help Magnum ice cream, a stalwart of the concession stand, celebrate its 25th birthday.
The festival's Marche attracts thousands of film buyers and sellers from a virtual U.N. of countries, and the city's streets overflow with ads for films coming out soon (this month's "Maleficent") and those aways away ("The Little Prince," not due until Christmas 2015).
For the second year running, the biggest display has been mounted by a "Hunger Games" film, in this case "Mockingjay — Part 1," which has taken over the entire driveway of the Hotel Majestic with signs for its "Fire Burns Brighter in the Darkness" tagline in a boggling variety of tongues, including Russian, Hebrew, Italian and a language that resisted ready identification. (The movie doesn't open until November).
All this commercialism means that Cannes is a big money place — the Hollywood Reporter recently estimated that the city economy takes in $22.4 million a day for each of the festival's 12 days for a grand total of $269.24 million. Numbers like that attract thieves, and the Reporter obligingly published a compendium of sketchy locations titled "5 Places Not to Go in Cannes."
For ardent cinephiles, however, the attraction is none of the above but the rarefied atmosphere of the festival's competition, which this year has 18 films, including Godard's, competing for the Palme d'Or.
Two American pictures are in the hunt: "The Homesman," a western about women and madness co-starring Hillary Swank and director Tommy Lee Jones, and "Foxcatcher," the new film from Bennett Miller.
Like Miller's previous work, "Capote" and "Moneyball," "Foxcatcher" is based on a true story, that of the disturbing dynamic that grew up between millionaire amateur sports patron John du Pont and the Olympic wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo star.
A pair of Britain's longtime top directors, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, both have films in the competition this year. Loach's "Jimmy's Hall," a period piece set in the Ireland of 1932, is the director's 13th film in competition, while Leigh's "Mr. Turner" takes on a subject that the director has long had on his mind, celebrated English painter J.M.W. Turner, the great master of light on canvas. He's played over the last 25 years of his life by Leigh veteran Timothy Spall.
Not to be outdone by either country, Canada has three films in competition, including 25-year-old Xavier Dolan's "Mommy" and new work by canny veterans David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan. (And that doesn't include Canadian Ryan Gosling's directing debut, "Lost River," in the Un Certain Regard section.)
Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars" looks to be a satire on Hollywood and the culture of celebrity featuring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska and John Cusack. Egoyan's "Captives" stars Ryan Reynolds in a the story of the aftermath of a girl's disappearance.
Other films that are both of interest and in the competition include:
Olivier Assayas' movie-themed "Clouds of Sils Maria," starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart.
The Dardenne brothers' "Two Days, One Night," with Marion Cotillard as a woman who has only a weekend to save her job.
Michel Hazanavicius' "The Search," inspired by the 1948 Fred Zinneman film and very different from the director's previous Oscar-winning "The Artist."
Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Leviathan," the much anticipated film by the director who won Venice's Golden Lion for his debut feature, "The Return."
Also highly anticipated, though unaccountably in the noncompetitive Midnight Section, is "The Rover," the new Australian film by "Animal Kingdom's" David Michôd. It's a tale set in a bleak future and stars Guy Pearce as a man who gets his car stolen and is beyond determined to get it back. Please don't stand in his way.