Cannes goes from bling to crisis with US road movie

Cannes turned its back on bling Thursday with a road movie set in today's crisis-ravaged American Midwest, featuring the latest standout performance by a star from Hollywood's 1970s golden age.

After a raft of films at this year's festival gorging on wealth and splendour such "The Great Gatsby" and Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring", "Nebraska" stars Bruce Dern in what director Alexander Payne called a film for the modern "depression era".

Payne, 52, won two Oscars for his screenplays for "Sideways" set in the California wine country and "The Descendants" with George Clooney, and made "About Schmidt" starring Dern's friend, Jack Nicholson.

His new picture, one of 20 in the running for the Palme d'Or top prize, sees Dern play Woody, an alcoholic Korean War vet who believes he's won a magazine sales company's sweepstakes.

Dern, the character actor of such 1970s classics as "The King of Marvin Gardens" and "Coming Home", won warm applause at the festival, following buzz for films starring fellow veterans Robert Redford and Michael Douglas.

In "Nebraska", shot in black and white, Woody's long-suffering son David (US television comedian Will Forte) agrees to humour Woody and drive him from their home in Montana to his father's native Nebraska to claim his purported million-dollar winnings promised in a bogus marketing letter.

David and Woody travel through ravaged communities on the Great Plains of the United States where for-lease and home-loan signs hang from dilapidated buildings.

When they reach his hometown, Woody immediately tells everyone he has struck it rich, sparking a frenzy among old friends and relatives who all want a piece of the action.

Payne told AFP that the film jabs at the American Dream.

"It's about the economy tanking and the cloak coming down between the haves and the have-nots and certainly the American illusion that we're this -- but in fact, no, maybe we're that," he said.

"I just take the camera out into the country and point it at things and say, 'this is what I find'. This is a report back to my home planet."

Payne, a Nebraska native, said his love for the kind of pictures Dern and Nicholson made in their heyday had prompted his return to that style of filmmaking.

"I try to make '70s movies. That's when I was a teenager in Omaha saying, 'Oh, I'd like to try that someday'," he said.

"So it's really cool to work with some of the guys who embodied that era."

Payne made the movie for less than $14 million -- modest by Hollywood standards -- which he said kept the production studio off his back.

"I'm very willing to keep my budgets as low as possible so that I can make (films) in the way I wish to make them, beginning with the casting," he said.

Dern, 76, told reporters he had worked with "geniuses" including Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino and said Payne shared their talent but was a more nurturing director.

"What you need is assurance to take risks. I never had much of a relationship with my own father but at the end of the movie I found my father and that's him," he said, pointing to Payne.

"The difference that Alexander has is that the others all pushed you to the edge and made you make those risky choices. They have a butterfly net to catch you and eventually bring you back up. But this man (Payne) goes down to where you are, picks you up in his arms, puts you back on the edge and says 'let's make magic'."

The Cannes festival wraps up Sunday when an all-star jury led by Steven Spielberg will award the Palme d'Or.