Last week at this time, even attentive Cannes-goers hadn't heard of "The Sapphires," an Australian comedy about an Aboriginese singing troupe that's directed by an unknown and featured no prominent stars.
But as is often the case at a festival, Wayne Blair's 1968-set movie -- which centers on a quartet of struggling Aussie singers who find unlikely fame in Vietnam performing for U.S. troops -- vaulted from obscurity in the blink of an eye. And as is also often the case at festivals, Harvey Weinstein was the reason for the jump.
As Cannes was getting underway last Wednesday, Weinstein bought the movie's U.S. distribution rights -- he would go on to pick up three movies in three days -- putting the film on the map for festival-goers. On Saturday "The Sapphires’" stock rose further after a spirited premiere screening that saw the unknown Australians who play the singers (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell) as well as Irish actor Chris O'Dowd (who plays their manager) get rousing ovations.
Weinstein stoked the flame further when, later that night at a party for his Cannes film "Lawless," he walked up to a reporter and, grabbing the reporter's arm, said: "Have you seen ‘The Sapphires’? ‘The Artist’ just happened again."
Fans of the film said that while it may be a little too soon to make that proclamation, the movie’s music, comedy and feel-good premise position it strongly for breakout success.
But not all Cannes-goers were on board. Around the festival's parties Saturday night and the screening halls Sunday morning, some said the whole thing had the feeling of classic Weinstein showmanship. While the naysayers acknowledged that the film (which is not yet dated for release) had crowd-pleasing elements, it was nothing that hadn't been done before or better in working-man comedies like "The Full Monty."
And others pointed out that it was unlikely to get anywhere close to the critical support of "The Artist." Indeed, a quick survey of critics around Cannes suggested that the film did not measure up to the festival’s top offerings. As Variety critic Justin Chang tweeted a few hours after he had seen Michael Haneke's "Love," "A film like 'Love' reminds you of the folly of festivals. Went straight to 'Sapphires' afterward, resented having Haneke's spell broken."
Festivals are often about the delicate game of managing expectations. The same movie can be a masterpiece or a disappointment depending on whether people see it believing it should or will be great. Weinstein has now set the bar high. We'll see if he meets it...or moves on to another acquisition.
Photo: "The Sapphires." Credit: The Weinstein Co.