The 2014 Cannes festival

MostlyFilm’s intrepid underground reporter Ron Swanson reports back from Cannes 2014.

Mommy

The 67th Cannes Film Festival was unable to live quite up to the 66th. Any one of six films from 2013 (Like Father, Like Son, Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Great Beauty, All is Lost and Inside Llewyn Davis) would have been the best on show in 2014, but this year didn’t have the breadth of quality programming that made 2013 a banner year for the festival. Having said that, 2014 did deliver some superb films from some terrific talents, and I’ve picked out a handful below.

There may be no more reliable film-makers than the Dardenne Brothers, who are on something very close to their best form with Two Days, One Night. The story of a woman (Marion Cotillard – excellent) who, after a prolonged period of sick leave, finds out she’s been laid off when the majority of her colleagues voted to collect their bonus rather than protect their job, this is a more plot heavy and episodic film than they’ve made before. It’s their most straightforwardly political film, too. In fact, the plot could easily have been moulded into a Ken Loach film, but, as always, the Dardennes do such a great job of establishing, and then testing, character that this is a rich, tense and moving film. That the film didn’t win any prizes in the Festival’s awards is a mystery; certainly it was worthy of consideration for the Palme D’Or, or an actress award for Cotillard.

Two Days, One Night
Two Days, One Night

The Palme D’Or went to another of my favourite filmmakers, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, for his near-200 minute opus Winter Sleep. This is not the fast-paced, action packed extravaganza of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but a more reflective, talkier piece, which seems to absolutely relish the description ‘Chekhovian’. As always with Ceylan, the film is exquisitely shot, but there’s a chance that the structure – essentially a series of conversations between largely unhappy people – will alienate all but the hardiest art-house fan. Ceylan’s use of time and space between scenes and characters, so pronounced in his previous film, is also evident here, and the setting plays just as important a role, with the main location a hotel seemingly carved into an Anatolian hillside.

The film deals with issues of power, wealth, charity and identity. It looks at faith and class, servitude and independence, talent and flattery. It’s a towering, fascinating, compelling piece of work, one whose depth may not, ultimately, be quite enough to fully justify such a bum-numbing running time, but which examines as many themes, thoughts and flaws as it can. It wouldn’t have been my choice for the Palme, but I’m delighted at the recognition it, and its magnificent director, received.

Another film from within the main competition that I thoroughly enjoyed was Olivier Assayas’ Sils Maria. A film about an actress, her creative process, how she balances her past and present aspirations and the relationship she has with her personal assistant, it boasts a terrific lead performance from Juliette Binoche, who is nevertheless acted off the screen by Kristen Stewart, in a career-best turn. Assayas is an extraordinary talent, and only a slightly unsatisfactory ending stops this from being almost on a par with his very best work. Even so, it’s beautifully shot, and breathtakingly ambitious.

In comparison, David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, which won the Best Actress award for Julianne Moore, is not able to hold its own. A tawdry and silly look at Hollywood, its foibles, peccadilloes, shifting moralities and lack of a moral centre, it is neither funny nor perceptive enough to work as the satire it appears to be intended as, and the small similarities in themes with Sils Maria do it absolutely no favours at all.

Maps to the Stars is pretty far away from the worst film in competition, though. That award would go to the immensely dull The Homesman, a Western directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones or The Search, a monumental misfire, a puddingy war film directed by The Artist’s Michal Hazanavicius.

I’ll come back to the Official Competition, and my favourite film from it, in a moment or two, but I want first to sing the praises of a couple of other films, from different strands of the programme:

The winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize was White God (Feher Isten), a Hungarian film that is very hard to explain with a straight face. It takes place in modern Hungary, just after a controversial but seemingly popular new law has been passed, making mixed-breed dogs heavily sanctioned. The streets are patrolled by pound vans, citizens are encouraged to report any ‘mutts’ that they suspect of wrongdoing, and there are large financial penalties for owning a mixed-breed.

White God
White God

White God focuses on a 13 year-old girl whose love of her dog, Hagen, irritates her father so much that he throws him out and forces her to abandon him. From here, Hagen is pursued, captured, mistreated and dehumanised (dedogganised?) to the extent of becoming a kind of de facto leader of disenfranchised dogs throughout the city, as they terrorise the ‘superior’ humans. The allegory is unmissable, and far from subtle. Given the recent election results across Europe, the timing is pretty spot-on. The film is so stylish that it’s hard not to find its audacity captivating. There are things about it that I could have lived without, but as a statement film, it’s bold, funny and committed.

It was not, however, the best film in the Un Certain Regard strand. I’d have preferred the award to go to either Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (Bande de Filles), an intoxicating, thrilling look at life in a black teenage girl gang in the outskirts of Paris, or Ruben Ostlund’s terrific Turist (Force Majeure). For the first hour, Girlhood is an absolutely sublime piece of work. It falters, a little, when trying to piece together a narrative beyond the hedonism and friendship it captures so accurately earlier on, but remains a significant piece of work, and a step forward for the director after both Water Lilies and Tomboy. Sciamma also did some work on Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, which is something of a surprise, and featured in the same strand. She’s a major talent.

Girlhood
Girlhood

Ruben Ostlund is also one to watch, based on Turist, his follow-up to the impressive Play. The story of an affluent Swedish family whose skiing holiday is destroyed, slowly, by the parents’ differing responses to, and memories of, an avalanche threatening them, it’s funny, scary and unerringly accurate in the way it attacks each perspective in turn. I was delighted when it won the Jury Prize, but it should have probably taken the main award.

The best film I saw outside of competition, though, was Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a film about a young student (Miles Teller) striving to become one of the greatest drummers of all time, and the demonic teacher (JK Simmons) whose job it is to shape him into the best he can be. There’s not a huge amount in the dynamic between the two characters we haven’t seen elsewhere, but Teller, in particular, does great work with some of the less edifying parts of his part. He treats his girlfriend badly, is rude to his father’s friends, doesn’t have any of his own and is believably obsessive about his dream. Simmons, in the role of a lifetime, is also superb, unleashing one of the great cinematic assholes of our time, part R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, part Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross. The film played as part of the Quinzaine de Realisateurs strand: it’s absolutely compelling, and the music scenes are, crucially, brilliant. If that wasn’t enough, it had the best ending of any film in the festival.

The best film of the festival, though, was the new film by wunderkind Xavier Dolan. Mommy is an exuberant, thrilling, hedonistic, and devastating film. It’s something that could only be made, like this, by someone at the very top of their game, which Dolan now, unquestionably, is, and at the age of just 25. His work saw him share the Grand Jury prize with the 83 year-old Jean-Luc Godard, but should have seen him walk away with the big prize.

Mommy is the story of a widowed mother and her son, who has severe ADHD, and at the start of the film resides in a youth care facility. When the son, Steve, is thrown out of that facility for starting a fire which significantly injures a fellow resident, he is flung into her care once more. The film doesn’t shy away from the hardships of living with a child with intense hyperactivity issues: Steve is a ball of energy, often negative energy, a tensed and coiled spring, whose inevitable release could destroy everything in his way, but Dolan also shows the world through his eyes. He’s an incredible character, one the like of which I’ve never seen on screen before, and his (and his mother’s) journey is incredibly moving.

There is a third character, a teacher, dealing with her own problems, who lives across the street, and has a great influence on both mother and son. The film, in its euphoric, ecstatic phase focuses on how all three, for a short while, seem to be making each other’s lives better. It’s almost giddying.

Dolan’s always been an excellent visual stylist, and here he shoots the majority of the film in 1:1 (a square, basically), a visual signifier of the lack of a horizon for any of these characters, boxed together, never quite fitting in a frame comfortably. It’s an exceptionally successful trick, and some of the cinematography is brilliantly designed (one moment received a hearty and deserved round of applause).

It is not without flaws, but nothing this completely committed and free of restraint could be. What is undeniable is the film’s enormous energy, its huge beating heart and the inventiveness and style with which its young maestro brings it all to the screen.

Two Days, One Night will be released by Curzon Film World in August. Mommy, Winter Sleep, White God and Whiplash all have UK distribution and should be released before the end of the year.

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