Local talent raises the bar at Sundance Festival

THE film legend Robert Redford had warned that this year's Sundance Film Festival would be different, and he wasn't kidding. In a year where star power has been noticeably thinner on the ground, and fewer deals appealing to studios, this year's event in Utah has focused on the one constant audiences now expect in an ever-fragmented world: that of change.

Leading the seismic shift: a record number of female filmmakers who for the first time match their male counterparts one on one. More than 100 features by women are screening at Sundance. That, together with a broad, sweeping look at sexuality, has ensured this year's Sundance is both controversial and, for audiences, more relevant than ever.

Tales of forbidden love have loomed large at this year's event. Australia's Guy Pearce plays a married music teacher distracted by a foreign exchange student in Drake Doremus's riveting drama Breathe In. Mia Wasikowska stars opposite Nicole Kidman in Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's stylishly offbeat horror Stoker, in which she plots to elope with her deranged uncle (Matthew Goode).

The festival director, John Cooper, points to Australasia as a key territory that kicks the process off.

"We always look to Australia and New Zealand," he said. "There's always great ideas coming through, clearly and succinctly. Filmmakers there are always ready to go. They're super organised. They're hungry. This year has been no different."

Mr Cooper points to veteran talent such as Jane Campion, whose coming ABC TV series, Top of the Lake, screened back-to-back in one day, in a festival first.

"We've got more female filmmakers than ever this year," Mr Cooper said. "I'm not exactly sure why, but there's been a noticeable shift."

Similarly, Anne Fontaine, whose first English-language film - the controversial Australian feature Two Mothers - has screened to wildly expectant crowds.

"I only can be happy about that," she told Fairfax Media, before the film's world premiere. "It can only be interesting to have male and female [points of view], particularly in America. In France, it's not so rare. In America, it's less frequent."

The film, which will be released in Australia later this year, has not been without detractors. Industry bible The Hollywood Reporter branded it as an "absurd forbidden-love scenario".

The film - a beachy, breezy and bizarre tale of taboo love - focuses on the relationship between two lifelong friends (played by Naomi Watts and Robin Wright), who fall in love with one another's sons (played by Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville).

Australian talent has been ubiquitous at this year's event:Toni Collette (in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's The Way, Way Back), Radha Mitchell (in Michael Polish's Big Sur) and Frances O'Connor (in Francesca Gregorini's Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes). Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney's documentary about Julian Assange, entitled We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, is also due to have its world premiere at Sundance.

Actresses Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman pose for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Larry Busacca

Actresses Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman pose for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Photo: Larry Busacca

This story Local talent raises the bar at Sundance Festival first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.