Ryan Gosling did not come to Cannes last year.
But he was still the talk of the town. He starred in the most controversial film of the festival: Nicolas Winding Refn's blood-soaked revenge drama Only God Forgives (five stars from Peter Bradshaw, outrage from almost everyone else).
And he impressed as himself in Seduced and Abandoned, a documentary shot at the festival the previous year and seeking to explode myths surrounding the movie business. In a series of interviews, Gosling punctured the puff and cogently exposed the truth. The earnest hunk proved himself an expert sceptic.
Taken together, the two films introduced us to a new model Gosling. One who still looked like The Notebook dreamboat, but was also a deep thinker familiar with the industry, and a risk-taker eager to embrace the arthouse.
Gosling's excuse for last year's no-show is the reason he's a lock-down for this year's festival, which starts on Wednesday: he was shooting his first film as a writer-director. In 10 days' time, Lost River will premiere as part of Cannes's Un Certain Regard sidebar – not eligible for the Palme d'Or but debuting in the second most sought-after part of the programme.
Formerly known as How to Catch a Monster (the title was probably changed to avoid a clash with a toddlers' bedtime book), Lost River is billed as a dark fantasy drama, which features former Doctor Who Matt Smith and Irish actor Saoirse Ronan, as well as Gosling's Drive accomplice Christina Hendricks, and two co-stars from The Place Beyond the Pines, Ben Mendelsohn and Eva Mendes.
One name absent from the acting credits is Gosling himself, who does not feature on screen. And it's this aspect of Lost River – that its director isn't capitalising upfront on his own profile – that sets it apart from the directorial efforts of Gosling's pin-up peers (such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Keanu Reeves and James Franco).
Hollywood correspondent Anne Thompson reports that early word on the film suggests it's strongly influenced by Refn, and compares Gosling's debut to that of the winner of last year's best picture Oscar, Ben Affleck. Though Affleck cast himself in his two subsequent films as director, The Town and Argo, he gave his brother Casey the lead in 2007's Gone Baby Gone, freeing himself up to run things backstage. "Lost River is also mid-budget and mid-range ambition," says Thompson. "Affleck didn't put too much on the line his first time round. He was looking to show what he could do. And it paid off."
Unlike Vincent Gallo – whose The Brown Bunny, which he directed, produced, wrote, shot, scored and starred in, prompted mass walkouts at Cannes in 2003 – Gosling has "no bad-boy baggage. He's a smart, serious guy and likely to take directing very seriously."
For Gosling, Cannes is an ideal berth for his pet project: slightly insulated from the mainstream and lent an air of sophistication simply by association. For the festival itself, selecting the film for their schedule is similarly a no-brainer. "They love celebrities," says Thompson. "They've had him before [for Drive, in 2011, when he and Refn were the big breakout hit] and they know they like him. Whether or not he acts in the film, he'll still turn up, and people will make a fuss, and it all grabs attention."
Cannes has long had a fondness for American actor-directors, previously championing the films of Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn; this year giving a competition spot to Tommy Lee Jones's The Homesman (he also stars in the film as a cowboy escorting Hilary Swank and three women with learning difficulties across the midwest).
But by placing himself firmly behind camera, Gosling strikes out into new territory, sidesteps accusations of vanity and aligns himself instead with the likes of Angelina Jolie and Sarah Polley – two other leads-turned-directors who have been at pains not to cast themselves.
Gosling has taken more than a year out to work on Lost River. And he seems in no hurry to return to the limelight: there is still only one forthcoming project on his slate – a biopic of the choreographer extraordinaire Busby Berkeley. It seems fitting that Gosling's return to acting, when it happens, will be playing a director.
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