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Cannes film festival 2015: to gaze, to glimpse.

The Palme d'Or at Cannes this year went to Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, an engrossing film with a politically topical plot. Three Tamil refugees (a man, a woman, and a child, disguising themselves as a family unit) escape to France, only to discover that the hardships of immigrant life in a Paris banlieu can be as devastating as the arbitrary bombings they once experienced in northern Sri Lanka. The make-shift family takes up residence in a public housing complex, one that happens to be dominated by North African drug traffickers: soon the three are caught in the crossfire. There are also psychological barriers to overcome: the little girl must integrate into a French school system where she soon realizes that "without friends you are cacca [excrement]"; the woman and man (who do not know each other) must learn to be "husband" and "wife."

Dheepan has the standard Audiard traits: energy, rhythm, and a compassionate gaze. The growth in the love relationship between "husband" and "wife" is psychologically subtle. The nervy tension Audiard creates in each scene--whether it is one of urgently looking for a child in a refugee camp, the scene that opens the film, or in a Paris schoolyard of nasty children--is masterful, as usual. Yet every so often, Audiard seems like he is trying to out-do Audiard, for dramatic effect. The last forty minutes of the film provide a tour-de-force of action, with fire blazing and (for good measure) concrete blocks thunking to the ground. The startle effect sometimes seems forced, yet the film works well overall, up until its moralistic punch-line (a slug against France). Cannes critics were surprised, however, that Dheepan won the highest prize. But given a Competition that boasted a number of strong (yet flawed or controversial) films and a greater number of mediocrities or flops, Dheepan was a safe choice. Explaining the decision, Ethan Coen (head of the jury, along with brother Joel) explained: "It was swift, everybody had an enthusiasm for it. To some degree or another we all thought it was a very beautiful movie."

A far more accomplished film, in terms of storyline and polish, is Todd Haynes' Carol. The story of a love affair between a pretty young shop clerk (Rooney Mara) and a wealthy unhappy housewife (Cate Blanchett), set in 1950s New York City, Carol stuns with its sensuous elegance, reminding one of the Hollywood cinema of old, where the camera takes time with lingering shots on characters, turning them into stars. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt (1952), the story begins (after a flash-forward) with the timid petite clerk spotting the commanding lady in a department store as the latter shops for her daughter's Christmas present. We follow the clerk's sensitive eyes as she stares with rapture at the mink coat, the elegant gloves, the sweep of coiffed blonde hair. Desire--glamour--is born from the gaze.

Indeed, the gaze is the cinematic theme of Carol. Acclaimed cameraman Ed Lachman films Therese, the shop clerk, with her eyes peering mournfully out a rainy window or gazing obsessively at Carol's gloved hands on a steering wheel, as the two take their first drive together. In turn, Carol--when the dynamics shift--stares longingly at Therese's fleeting figure through the reflecting glass of a cab window. For the duration of the film, the women alternately "look" at each other: their hands, their mouths, their eyes.

Haynes, who has a semiotics background from Brown University, explained that "the gaze" in this film expresses one of his key concerns: the shift in power relations between two people.

   Carol is the emblem of the privileged class, a perfect
   manifestation of female glamour and elegance that
   disarms Therese and initially furthers her anxiety
   about who she is. Carol is a construct of Therese's
   imagination. In this film, we are always in the
   point of view of the more amorous character: the
   disempowered person. We shoot through windows
   and glass to make you think of the act of looking and
   looking back, with people positioned on either side of
   the glass. When we think of our love affairs, our most
   memorable ones are those that put you on the side of
   the weaker and desiring subject.

A case in point: critics expected Blanchett to win Best Actress for her performance. Yet it is "the weaker desiring" Rooney Mara who took home this honor (along with Emmanuelle Bercot)--an intelligent choice, as it is Mara who carries the weight of the film, with her mysterious watching eyes. It is she whose gaze matures into that of the woman who determines the frame: literally (plot spoiler), she becomes an acclaimed camerawoman.

The one critique that could be levelled at Haynes' film is that it is a bit too controlled: fitting the contours of the American melodrama re-make in perfectly politically correct form. Indeed, while Carol was revered unanimously, the film most championed for the Palme d'Or was the far more turbulent Son of Saul, the Holocaust film by Hungarian newcomer, NYU-trained, Lazslo Nemes. Son of Saul tells the story of Saul Auslander, a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, who, when he sees a boy being murdered (apparently his son), becomes determined, and then obsessed, to give the boy a religious burial. Saul is so determined to honor this boy that not only does he take extraordinary risks to hide the cadaver--and to find a rabbi to read the Kaddish mourning prayer--but his mission becomes more important for him than helping the Sonderkommando plan a rebellion (the parallel story), which leads to a climatic dramatic clash.

The director uses startling techniques to make us experience the madness of the camp viscerally. The first shot is out-of-focus, from the perspective of Saul, who is trudging towards his work as a Sondercommando to collect the cadavers from the gas chamber. We hear the loud sounds of feet pounding, the desperate screams from the chamber, the guards barking orders. We are right there in the chaos, the horror, as the Sondercommando slump cadavers over their shoulders and come close to the frame, near us. The shallow-focus technique is used throughout the film, so we are constantly glimpsing traces of the horror in a fog and hearing screams, just as the prisoners would.

Many Cannes critics were wowed by this Hungarian entry, claiming that Nemes' extraordinary techniques were enough to warrant giving it the top prize (it won the Grand Prix). Yet these same formal devices were the reason I disliked it. While contemplating the Shoah, I do not want to be distracted by the ever-obvious creative hand of the filmmaker. In Son of Saul, the director's artistry is more present than Auschwitz. I also found the out-of-focus technique disturbing because it makes horror something like what Tom Gunning might term an "attraction." Our eyes strain to see what is blurry, and there is quite enough in focus at the edges of the frame to see it all anyway: the child being suffocated by a man's hand, the bodies being taken to the ovens, the huge dusty grey piles of human ash. The director explained to me that he deliberately "only suggested" the horror, as he "did not want the viewer to be in the horror, because it is not understandable." Yet anyone who sees this film and thinks the horror is only "suggested" must be numb to graphic images of corpses being desiccated, humans screaming as they are pitched into ditches. Moreover, the main character is unbelievable. And as Saul loses credibility, so does his mission: the sacred meaning of a burial deflates to absurdity, becoming a matter of grabbing rabbis out of the firing line. And once one does not believe in Saul, the story becomes a gimmick--one that verges on the obscene--whatever the filmmaker's well-meaning intention.

A less controversial highly acclaimed film--yet no prize given--was Nanni Moretti's La Madre: the story of what it means to lose one's mother, based on the director's own experience. Margherita Buy plays a film director making a movie about striking workers in a factory as her beloved mother (played with great dignity by theatre actress Giulia Lassarini) begins her descent into death. Throughout most of the film, Margherita (the director) stares with distraught blue eyes and seems on the edge of a breakdown. She bursts into panicky tears when a utility man asks to see her mother's electricity statements; she paddles through a flood in her apartment, ineffectively dropping newspapers; she wakes in terror having dreamed her mother is already covered in shrouds. Meanwhile, her hospitalized mother remains calm and humorous.

The unusual structure of the film gives balance to the heavy subject: the camera regularly cuts away from scenes of grief to Margherita's film set where actor John Turturro comically plays an American actor (Barry) playing a stem Italian factory owner who refuses to listen to the workers. With his wide infectious grin and campy antics, Barry steals the show. He forgets, flubs, invents, or simply does not say his lines. The boisterous humor of these lively scenes provides an exuberant (and necessary) contrast to the grief. The spectator is emotionally drawn into both extremes, from laughter to tears. Ultimately, it is life that prevails. The mother (like Moretti's own) is a former classics teacher who will always be remembered by her students after her death. La Madre itself is a tribute, a testimony to the power of remembrance.

Another outstanding film with integrity and moral grounding is Stephane Brize's Measure of a Man, the story of a middle-aged man laid off from work, determinedly seeking new employment to save his homestead. The opening scene is a conversation between the anxious man Thierry (Vincent Lindon) and his employer, who announces that he is fired. What surprises us is that the conversation seems so natural, like that in a documentary. The pauses between the sentences, the gestures, the eye-glances have the immediacy of an actual encounter. Each scene that follows has the same gritty feel: a conversation with a banker who advises Thierry to sell his house; a dinner in a somber kitchen with Thierry's close-knit family sharing chicken, green beans, and a cheap carton of wine; a session with an employment agency where fellow job-seekers give constructive feedback to Thierry about his faults: "Your voice is monotone," one says. "Your posture is not good," says another. Thierry nods stoically.

In the second half of the film, when Thierry finally hooks a job as a security guard in a supermarket, this low-key realism becomes uncannily dramatic. Thierry's new job is to surveil customers on video monitors, aiming to catch shoplifters. The camera tracks down the aisles, following a woman checking out stockings, an old man kneeling before a box of spaghetti. We experience the invasion of privacy of these surveyed customers, their vulnerability, their status as cogs in the machinery of capitalism. We feel badly for Thierry, who is clearly uncomfortable in his policing role. We are transfixed by the drama, and yet this is just a story of modest people in a supermarket where nothing much is happening.

The success of Measure of a Man stems from the neorealist choices director Brize made in setting up his narrative. The film features actual clerks, cashiers, and real-estate agents in the suburb of Paris where the story takes place. The banker is the casting agent's banker. The humble customers in the supermarket are people who actually work there. It is because of this docu-drama aspect that the film (entitled "The Law of the Market" in French) remains so powerful. We are in a real milieu of blue collar workers trying to get by, some of whom need money so dearly they will shoplift, while others (like Thierry) are so desperate, they will accept jobs as security guards and arrest them. "I am concerned with what one is capable of doing in order to eat," Brize told me. "How the social environment can change the inner person."

But a good socio-political message does not a good film make. What gives the film its extraordinary tension is the unremitting gaze of the surveillance camera. "Once you have a camera," Brize quipped. "Everything becomes dramatic." We are in suspense as we watch a man picking up cans of tuna, even though no theft ensues. The other strength in this film: Vincent Lindon. He is the center of the film. His brooding eyes capture us. His nervous energy captivates. We are absorbed as he crosses a parking lot, gives his son a bath, stares pensively into the video monitor. Lindon received the award of Best Actor for his performance.

On the other extreme: the most creatively daring and zany film in Competition was Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster. Its sci-fi premise is darkly comic: in the near future, single people, according to the rules of "The City," are arrested and transferred to "the Hotel." There they are obliged to find a mate in 45 days. If they fail, they are transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into "The Woods." The setting of the film--the fine hotel--is so coldly and eerily sumptuous (with hot tubs, swimming pool, and green lawns) that it made me drop my lifelong attachment to fine hotels. Each room is a masterpiece of alienation created by cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis and production designer Jacqueline Abrahams. The conversations are cuttingly ironic, with an underlying Foucauldian critique of society's control of personal sexuality. "Are you heterosexual or homosexual?" the intake clerk asks the lead character of the film, a middle-aged depressive with a dog (Colin Farrell). "Urn, well, I was in a long term relationship with a woman. But I did have an affair with a man. That was pretty good. Um, could I say both?" "No," the woman says, looking at her boxes. "You must pick one. I only have one box to check."

The bleak weirdness of the first half of The Lobster--replete with grotesque conversations between charmless singles--shifts into a more human story in the second half, when Farrell's character runs away to the Forest, where he falls in love with a beautiful woman, part of a rebel gang. But in the Forest (the Foucauldian critique continues), rules are forged anew. Like a perverse reflection in a funhouse mirror, here, in this new society of "free" singles, falling in love is taboo. Any society of humans, the director suggests, eventually becomes draconian and oppressive. The scenes in the Forest are equally creepy to those in the hotel with arbitrary violence punctuating the plot every so often. But here is also where the film lost the esteem of many of the critics at Cannes. The love story within the strange new Forest Group fails to gel into a clear narrative trajectory. A side-trip to the City pushes the film into dramatic looseness, and soon The Lobster seems burdened with a sense of inchoate lengthiness. The violence begins to seem nastily macabre rather than like campy cultural criticism. The unsatisfying ending between the two lovers in a cafe (one of whom is now blind) is an enigma; nevertheless, The Lobster won the Jury Prize.

Winning the screenplay award was Mexican director Michel Franco for Chronic. Tim Roth gives an outstanding performance as a male nurse who bizarrely goes beyond the call of duty to care for his dying patients. The film follows him as he takes care first of one patient (until the funeral), then another--and then another--each time scrupulously washing the patient's back, or encouraging him or her to speak about their lives. What is odd is that his care for his patients is absolutely deadpan--and he, for an unfathomable reason, seems deeply depressed. Chronic is a relentlessly cold film. There is no joy in the movie, and very little warmth. The other characters (mostly family members of the patients) have little affect, rushing about or indifferently, and speaking to each other in monotone. The director puts a fluorescent spotlight on how estranged we human beings are. The nurse, in his strange dense way, is the most "human" character.

The granting of the screenwriting award to Chronic was not positively received, perhaps because this static portrait of bleakness seems so flat. Yet the unchanging plot (nothing good happens) is integral with the director's vision. Franco told me: "My film is close to real life, in that life rarely has that arc where everything changes for the better. I like movies that do not solve the conflict, because when the conflict is solved, it satisfies the spectator and all is forgotten in an hour. But if the conflict is not solved, as in my film, you are forced to keep thinking about it." One is reminded that John Frankenheimer's masterpiece Seconds (1966) was also booed at Cannes, for its "bleak" portrayal of humanity.

Two other films were more favorably received: Paolo Sorrentino's Youth and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin. Youth, a conversational encounter in a Swiss spa between two old friends (one a retired music conductor, the other a scriptwriter) received accolades for its aesthetic splendor. Variety critic Jay Weissburg praised it as "an emotionally rich contemplation of life's wisdom gained, lost and remembered" (May 20, 2015). For me however, it was candy for the eyes. Take away that candy, and alas, it is a series of tedious conversations between old men (Harvey Keitel and Michael Caine) about aging. The conversations do not even have the edginess of despair: what we hear is benign witty banter. Cynicism is not wisdom. The film is addictive, however, as Sorrentino ups the ante of startling visuals in each scene: fire-fighters by the poolside, a Felliniesque Miss Universe appearance, a nocturnal dream-scene of Venice drowning in water, and (my favorite) the weary conductor leading an orchestra of cows and birds in lieu of human musicians.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien's The Assassin, an artful wuxia film set in the 9th century Tang Dynasty, received the Director's Prize. The director had worked for over ten years to accomplish this visually sublime story of feudal Chinese internecine fighting, with stunning scenes of martial arts combat in sumptuous locations. However, the story itself, about a girl sent back to her hometown to kill the prince to whom she was once betrothed, is so unengaging that many in the audience (including myself) walked out. The misty castle, evocative framing, and glorious costumes are not enough to keep one's interest given the characters' lack of depth and the fact that the story seems to have no meaning.

Then there were the flops. The worst film in Competition was hands-down Maiwenn's Mon Roi, starring Emmanuelle Bercot as a woman addicted to her wealthy, debonair, and abusive "king" (Vincent Cassel): two hours of histrionics and retrograde gender relations that only made one wonder how it got into Competition. Guillaume Nicloux's Valley of Love was a washed over Gerry (with some good horror effects), featuring two parents (Isabelle Huppert and Gerald Depardieu) dazed in the Californian desert as they look for signs of their dead son, who has committed suicide. Sadly, Michel Garrone's Tale of Tales, Justin Kurzel's Macbeth, Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees and Valerie Donzelli's Marguerite & Julien quickly dropped from radar after glimpsing.

Films aside, the most moving experiences for me at this year's Cannes were my encounters with two Asian directors, Zhangke Jia, discussing his opus Mountains May Depart, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, describing Cemetery of Splendour, which screened in the Certain Regard. Jia's film, a family saga, is a breathtaking allegory about how China has devolved into materialism since the economic boom, with the resultant break-down of the family unit. Weerasethakul's Cemetery, a dreamlike composition about soldiers who have sleeping sickness in a hospital, is a subtle parable about the dictatorship in Thailand.

When I asked Jia to comment directly on his political epic at the press conference, he blushed, stumbled, and immediately passed the microphone to his lead actress. "She can speak best about her role," he said, skirting both question and answer. His fear to respond was warranted; his last masterpiece, A Touch of Sin, has been unofficially banned in China. Any "politics" that one sees in his film--he later told me fearfully in a private interview--just "happens" to be there, he stated innocently, because the "film is set in an environment, so one must address this environment." Eventually, however, Jia confided his critical view of the shifting family structure in contemporary China. My conversation with Weerasethakul took a similar tone. Although at first refusing to speak about politics in his film, Weerasethakul very quickly admitted he was "afraid" to speak--and then spoke at length, nevertheless, about the state of slumber that had become Thailand. "Please do protect me in your article," he said, touching my arm.

It is a strong experience--at an international film festival with such bold and inventive films--to see two masterful directors not able to speak at ease about their own work. Their testimony alone speaks to why Cannes is important.
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Author:Badt, Karin
Publication:Film Criticism
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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