Cannes 2015

Ron Swanson thinks that this year’s festival was… good? But wishes it had delivered more soaring highs and crushing downs.

Dheepan - which won the Palme d'Or.
Dheepan – which won the Palme d’Or.

I’ve never quite had a Cannes like this year’s, the 68th iteration of the film world’s most famous festival. There’s a bit in Maiwenn’s Mon Roi, in which the endlessly charismatic Vincent Cassel mimics an electrocardiogram, telling his wife (Emmanuelle Bercot who shared the Best Actress award) that peaks and troughs mean you’re alive, while a flat line means that you’re dead. It’s a metaphor for the excitement and devastation he brings to her life, but it’s also surprisingly apt in describing this year’s festival, one with less unadulterated greatness or jaw-dropping awfulness than any I’ve experienced before.

It seemed like every time someone asked me what a film was like, I answered with a hesitant “it’s… good?”. And, well, that’s not what the greatest celebration of cinema should be about. It should be about films daring to be great, and facing the consequences should they miss. It should feature films that everyone wants to talk about, be that Blue is the Warmest Colour, Tree of Life or Mommy.

This year’s Official Competition was won by Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan. Audiard is a filmmaker I admire greatly, and he’s on quite a run, with me having flipped in a large way for both A Prophet and Rust and Bone. Dheepan? It’s… good?

Actually, for about 80 percent of its running time, it’s very good. The story of a Tamil tiger, a Sri Lankan woman and child (who do not know each other) pretending to be a family in order to flee to France, it’s a fascinating study of three central characters as they adapt to life in a block of flats in the banlieues of Paris. What happens at the end of the film is no great surprise, and those who were critical of a lack of subtlety in Audiard’s previous films will gleefully point out that it does nothing worse than its predecessors. For me, however, the unforgivable thing isn’t the bad ending, it’s the second bad ending. After seeming to finish the film with a stylish, if tonally inconsistent, denouement, we get a coda that is, well, laughable.

There’s plenty to admire in Dheepan, and the ending doesn’t render that irrelevant. Audiard is a visually striking filmmaker, often finding interesting ways to shoot scenes and locations we’ve seen before. Here the tower blocks of a housing estate have a different, fresher feel than we’re used to. He consistently gets star-quality performances from little known actors (Tahar Rahim and Matthias Schoenaerts have gone on to become stars, so he may just have a great casting director). Here he repeats the trick, twice over, with Jesuthasan Antonythasan (as Dheepan) and Kalieaswari Srinivasan (as Yalini, his ‘wife’) giving terrific performances. In fact, had either of them won an acting prize, it would have been richly deserved. As it is, the Palme D’Or feels like a stretch.

(A quick reminder about Cannes awards: no film can win more than one award, so Rooney Mara winning Best Actress meant Carol was not going to win another prize. They award a Best Script, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress prize and then awards for three films. The Palme D’Or is the big one.)

Son of Saul, directed by Laszlo Nemes, won the Grand Prix (the 2nd prize). It’s a holocaust drama, which is brilliantly designed and filmed and incredibly visceral, but never quite connected for me on an emotional level. Saul is a member of a ‘Sonderkommando’ unit at Auschwitz, a Jewish prisoner forced to work in the most horrifying place and circumstances imaginable, burning the dead after hearing their anguished cries in the gas chambers. The film follows him as he tries to arrange a burial for a boy he saves from the incinerator, believing him to be his son. While the film is gruelling and harrowing, it is hamstrung, slightly, by the emotional distance that the film keeps from its characters. While that detachment is almost certainly intentional, it didn’t quite work for me, but this is Nemes’ first film, and it’s a superb calling card.

The Lobster

The Cannes Jury Prize (3rd prize) went to Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. Lanthimos made one of the past decade’s best and most distinctive films – Dogtooth, and The Lobster is, at least, the strangest and most bewitching of this year’s competition films. A black-comedy about a world in which single people are turned into animals if they can’t find a partner, Lanthimos creates a distinctive and rich world, albeit one where the weirdness sometimes feels a little arch and knowing. The first hour of the film, in which we follow Colin Farrell’s attempts to find a partner is superb, hilarious, dark and occasionally vividly frightening.

On a first viewing, the second hour which sees Farrell’s character unite with an underground guerrilla group of singletons (separatists?) is significantly less successful, and robs the film of the momentum it so skilfully built up in the first hour. Farrell is superb, though, playing the weirdest, least charismatic character of his career, and doing so superbly. Even with a misfiring second half, The Lobster was one of the few peaks of the festival, and should generate lots of discussion when it’s released in UK and Irish cinemas later this year.

As mentioned above, Emmanuelle Bercot shared the Best Actress award for her performance in Mon Roi, a film about an intense and destructive love affair. I found this another surprising award. Bercot’s performance is fine, but she’s overshadowed by her co-star, Vincent Cassel, whose effortless charm has rarely been put to better use. The film doesn’t have the same flashiness or confidence as Maiwenn’s debut, Polisse, and doesn’t take us anywhere we’ve not been before, but it’s a solid and entertaining drama.

One of the competition films that didn’t pick up an award, and was instead met with fairly poor reviews was Joachim Trier’s Louder than Bombs. I saw the film after those reviews had broken, so my expectations were slightly dimmed (although given how much I love Trier’s Reprise and Oslo August 31, they were still high). It’s a perfectly serviceable drama about a family trying to put their lives back together in the aftermath of the death of their war-photographer wife/mother (Isabelle Huppert), but there’s no argument to be made that this is anywhere near the equal of his Norwegian-language films. Like most of this year’s lineup it lacks the oomph that would make it a must-see, and which made Oslo August 31 one of the best European movies in years.

I was similarly a little underwhelmed by the latest film by Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale). My Golden Days was seen as a return to his best form by many, after the nearly universally derided Jimmy P, but I found it slightly hard work. A look back at a figurative teenaged relationship, the film promised much, but delivered relatively little. Desplechin’s skill has always been in multi-layered narratives, and the singularity of the focus of the film leaves it a little dry.

I would also struggle to argue that Gaspar Noe’s latest, Love, comes anywhere near to the impact of his last film, the staggering Enter the Void. Love is the story of an American fucking his way through Paris, and a slow start almost kills it – unknown and largely uncharismatic actors fucking in (admittedly well-lit) 3D isn’t really something anyone’s been desperate for, as far as I know. However, when the film gains a little momentum and urgency, it starts to feel a little more like a Noe joint. A couple of the sequences – a threesome which managed to be both sexy and romantic, and a flickering odyssey into a swingers club – could probably not be directed with such skill by anyone else. Noe may be a great filmmaker, but Love is not a great film. It is, however, well worth watching.

The, uh, Scottish Film.
The, uh, Scottish Film.

Another film that did make an impact was Justin Kurzel’s dazzling Macbeth. With Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard playing the title role and his infamous wife, critical interest was always going to be high. Both actors give tremendous performances amongst an excellent supporting cast (from whom Paddy Considine and Sean Harris stand out), but Kurzel and his cinematographer Adam Arkapaw are the MVPs. The film is simply stunning to look at, with some of the images proving to be unshakeable in my mind since seeing the film. Arkapaw is probably best known for his stellar work on True Detective, and the quality of his work here is similarly high. You may leave with the same question you enter (does anyone need to see another version of Macbeth) in your mind, but the answer is yes, if it looks this good.

Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope was one of my most pleasant surprises in the festival; a funny and whip-smart comedy about three geeks in Inglewood struggling to survive their final days of high-school. It’s a lot of fun; maybe it’s the sort of film that plays best in a festival, surrounded by drily serious fare, where it’s levity pays dividends over and over again, but there’s a natural charm here, embodied by the three young leads: Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel).

I’m a big Paolo Sorrentino fan, but thought the trailer for his latest – Youth – looked awful. Given that the last time he worked in the English language the results were pretty disastrous (Sean Penn as a goth Nazi hunter in This Must be the Place), I was pretty nervous about what I was in for. As it turned out, my worries were in vain. I don’t think it’s going to be as popular as The Great Beauty, and the film is unashamedly, unabashedly sentimental. What’s more, I couldn’t defend it from allegations of smugness and being completely unconcerned with the problems of real people (the film is set in an exclusive hotel, which works as a retreat for a disparate group of celebrities including Michael Caine as a composer, Harvey Keitel as a director, Paul Dano as an actor and a bloke playing Diego Maradona).

Yet, when the film reaches its crescendo, I was completely and utterly overwhelmed by it. It reminded me of another film I wasn’t completely convinced about, which destroyed me and left me in a puddle of tears, seemingly out of nowhere – Le Concert. Sorrentino’s film isn’t going to convince anyone that isn’t already keen, but as a self-indulgent, pudding-y kind of vanity project, I found it to be one of the highlights of the festival.

My two main highlights, however, came from the Far East, and from reliable sources. Hirokazu Kore-eda may be the best director around right now, and he certainly essays family life better than anyone else. He’s working on a familiar canvas in Our Little Sister, which is based on a Manga comic and sees three adult sisters take in their youngest sibling, whose existence they’ve just found out about after meeting her at their estranged father’s funeral. It’s moving, gentle and thoroughly beautiful. If it doesn’t have the same impact of Nobody Knows, Still Walking or I Wish it can rest assured that virtually no films do. It’s at least the equal of Like Father, Like Son, which pegs it as a minor masterpiece.

My favourite film of the festival, though, came from the distinctive brain of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who followed up his breakout hit Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives with the action-packed (no, not really) Cemetery of Splendour. Weerasethakul is, again, working in woozy tones here, dealing with death, sickness and grief with the most elegant touch. It’s a dream of a movie, occasionally surreal, always striking and thoroughly discomfiting. In a year of the ordinary on the Croisette, only Weerasethakul transcended that completely, reaching for and achieving the extraordinary.

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