The official social media hashtags for this year’s Cannes film festival are #Cannes2017 and #Cannes70. But maybe it should be #Nicolefest and #Nicolepalooza. Because Nicole Kidman is set to dominate, with no fewer than four entries in the official selection. In all her sculpted blond tallness, looming over most of the grinning menfolk on the red carpet, she is going to be a Cannes fixture.
Kidman is in season two of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, which Cannes is showcasing as part of its new policy of admitting top-of-the-range TV series. She plays an Australian mother, Julia, whose story dovetails with that of Detective Robin Griffin, played by Elisabeth Moss. In John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties, adapted from the Neil Gaiman short story, she stars as an extravagant fashion and music entrepreneur who sees Elle Fanning’s mysterious alien character as a possible protegée.
She is in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, the American civil war film based on a Thomas Cullinan novel, previously filmed in 1971 by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. Kidman plays Martha Farnsworth, headmistress of a Virginia girls’ school that takes in a wounded soldier – Colin Farrell – who plays havoc with the pupils’ emotions and sexual feelings. Lastly, and perhaps most intriguingly, she is in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. Kidman stars as the wife of a brilliant surgeon, opposite Farrell again, who forms a catastrophic relationship with a young boy.
There could be a pattern to all these performances. Kidman could be at one remove from the main action in these dramas, revealing her talent for playing the haughty, the statuesque, the exotic thoroughbred, in a supporting role. Maybe. Or maybe she will absolutely steal everything she is in. Because her image has become more refined and more commanding as she has got older. She has to be cast in the right role, though, one that maximises her gift for hauteur and froideur, mingling with vulnerability and coltish elegance: the way Alejandro Amenábar cast her for his Jamesian ghost story The Others, or Jonathan Glazer for his Kubrickian mystery Birth, or indeed Kubrick himself in his last film, Eyes Wide Shut.
Kidman has had a very good relationship with Cannes since 2001, when she appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s surreal sugar-rush of a film, Moulin Rouge! Right now, her stock has spiked since her hugely praised appearance in the TV show Big Little Lies. It was just a few years ago that I was talking to a director at a Bafta awards party, who believed Kidman had been marooned in the career doldrums, liable to be attached in subordinate roles at script stage to ho-hum features and video-on-demand clunkers because her name would get funding from central Europe and the far east, where she is still a big name. But no. Not a bit of it. Kidman is still big.
For A-listers, Cannes usually lasts three days or so, grouped around the official screening of their film. They do not arrive via easyJet at Nice airport and get a sweaty 40-minute bus ride in, like the rest of us cringing mortals. Instead, Kidman would swoop in on a Gulfstream V, at the studio’s expense, to the bijou Cannes Mandelieu airport, which specialises in private jets, from which she will be whisked by official limo up to the super-posh Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes.
From this agreeable base camp, she would make forays to the private parties, such as those given by Elton John, Leonardo DiCaprio or Paul Allen. She would also make a red carpet appearance, which would be choreographed with military precision, her official festival car bringing her up to the brink of the carpet at the very last moment for the obligatory posing for cameras, and then sweeping into the salle, where she could expect to be excitably introduced over the loudspeaker system as she arrives. (Until recently, the festival stuck to its haughtily auteurist stance of only announcing directors.)
On top of this are the junket interviews with various members of the press — not many, perhaps, but enough to make her, by the end of the day, blearily unsure how many times she had repeated the same old anecdotes and jokes to journalists who all look the same. And that would normally be it. The G5 would take her home.
But Kidman has to do the same thing times four. And, depending when her features are scheduled, she could be at Cannes for the whole festival. She has to have four pre-red-carpet sessions with the stylist for hair, maquillage and gown, each lasting two or three hours. Each of the four red carpet appearances will naturally have to feature a different frock – there can be no question of just showing up in the same thing.
There is also the after-party times four. Although it is a strain keeping up appearances, Kidman could rely on the startling effect her mere presence tends to have. But it is a theatrical performance, nevertheless, and one she will have to keep up four times longer than normal.
Anyone in Cannes for the duration can be affected by weird perspective loss and creeping madness. Kidman may start reading her press or all the tweets about her. That could be unnerving. She had a rough time three years back, when she played Princess Grace in the toecurlingly awful Grace of Monaco, which opened the festival in 2014 – a film whose associations with the Cote d’Azur only made the event more grisly.
It utterly misread Kidman’s style, putting her in awkward, frozen and absymally written scenes, completely misunderstanding her supposed similarities to Grace Kelly, and missing the all-important notes of mischief and humour. The reviewers were disobliging and they included me. The year before, Kidman had been on the jury when the president was Steven Spielberg — who routinely ferried jurors out to his yacht to watch the films there. A rather more congenial Cannes experience for her.
What a contrast the Grace debacle made to her rather brilliant appearance in Lee Daniels’ excellent and much-misunderstood Florida noir The Paperboy, in 2012. Kidman went boldly and brilliantly against type as the brash, over-the-top blond vamp who has a penpal engagement with a sweaty convicted killer on death row, played by John Cusack. Kidman has an outrageous scene in which she masturbates fully clothed in front of her fiance in the visiting area, while the guards hardly know where to look. It was a tremendous firework-display of black comedy, although the snootier pundits didn’t get it.
Before that, in 2003, she had been the somewhat enigmatic figurehead at the apex of Lars Von Trier’s anti-American festival shocker Dogville, in which she had to carry off the tricky diplomatic task of sharing a stage with Von Trier at the press conference. When the director went off on a rant about how much he despised America, and wanted a Free America campaign to compare to the Free Iraq one, Kidman lit up a cigarette (contravening the no-smoking rule) and pantomimed her boredom, completely upstaging him. Von Trier noticed the cigarette and whimpered: “Nicole! Don’t do that! You promised!”
There have been plenty of great female stars who have ruled and continue to rule the tapis rouge in Cannes: Ruth Negga, Isabelle Huppert, Aishwarya Rai, Jane Fonda, Juliette Binoche, Charlize Theron, Salma Hayek, Uma Thurman. Kidman stands tall in this company. Every year, in a spirit of whimsy or caprice, journalists decide who is their king or queen of Cannes. I have in the past nominated Kristen Stewart. But for 2017, Kidman might almost have it sewn up in advance.
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