France touts Cannes prizes as vindication for film subsidies

26 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Cannes ends in a shocker: ‘Dheepan’ wins Palme d’Or.

France’s president says his country’s strong showing at this year’s Cannes film festival is no accident — suggesting it’s partly thanks to government subsidies. CRITICS’ NOTEBOOK: Jacques Audiard’s ‘Dheepan’ proved a surprising choice for the Palme d’Or, not least because of the riches to be found elsewhere in the selection.CANNES: A French thriller spotlighting the plight of traumatized refugees building new lives, “Dheepan,” captured the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or top As countries around the world grapple with an influx of people fleeing crises, a jury led by American filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen chose the gritty picture about Sri Lankan asylum-seekers by acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard from a field of 19 international contenders. “To receive a prize from the Coen brothers is something pretty exceptional,” Audiard said after a victory that surprised many critics at cinema’s top showcase.

The harrowing Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” by Hungarian newcomer Laszlo Nemes, offering unflinching depictions of the gas chambers of Auschwitz, claimed the Grand Prize, runner-up for best picture. “The Lobster,” a surreal black comedy about modern love by Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos and starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz bagged the third-place Jury Prize. Woman’s footwear, of all things, was thrust to the forefront of Cannes after several women were turned away from a premiere because they weren’t wearing high heels but flats. In what feels like a twist ending — one that leaves me feeling a bit like Tim Roth at the end of “Chronic” — the Cannes jury has awarded the Palme d’Or to “Dheepan,” a movie that lags among my least favorites in the competition, and the weakest in Jacques Audiard’s filmography. Rooney Mara, paired in “Carol” with more hotly tipped co-star Cate Blanchett, split the prize with France’s Emmanuelle Bercot, in a doomed romance, “Mon Roi” (My King). People have been throwing the word “weak” around a lot this week, grousing that the official selection doesn’t measure up to that of previous years.

Or, as in this case, he walks down to help Jane Fonda, who appears in the film “Youuth,” navigate the climb. (Photo: Bertrand Langlois, AFP/Getty Images) But the winners, and the celebration, are much more widespread. Francois Hollande said the prizes demonstrate “the effectiveness and originality” of French film financing “which I absolutely want to preserve and defend on a European level”. I defer to you, Scott and Justin, since you’ve each been attending Cannes for longer than I have (this is only my fifth time on the Croisette), but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time here, it’s that Cannes critics always like to complain that the present year’s crop feels meager by comparison to past editions, when in fact, there are exceptional films every year, and the biggest challenge facing those who cover the event is being able to recognize greatness at the moment it is unveiled to the world — to stick their necks out and call a masterpiece “a masterpiece” when it’s revealed.

Two of the films which made the biggest noise — Pixar’s Inside Out and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road — were not even eligible for awards due to out-of-competition status. Bercot, who had a film she directed, “Standing Tall,” open the Cannes fest, said: “I am thrilled to share this with another actress because it’s a bit too big for me to carry alone.” In a big night for the host country, France’s Vincent Lindon won best actor for his moving turn as a job-seeker standing up for his dignity in “The Measure of a Man.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls hailed the homegrown winners in a tweet: “French cinema shines tonight in Cannes and out into the world.” President Francois Hollande’s office hailed “Dheepan” for “dealing with virtuosity with the painful subject of Tamils looking to build a future in Europe.” Critic Peter Bradshaw of London’s The Guardian expressed disappointment at the choice of “Dheepan,” saying it was more of a lifetime achievement award for Audiard, who is a Cannes favorite.

Though summer blockbusters usually only supply the festival a flashy red carpet distraction, George Miller’s ‘‘Mad Max’’ sequel-reboot was perhaps the most-lauded film in Cannes, rivaled only by a far more serious sensation: ‘‘Son of Saul,’’ a tracking close-up of a Sonderkommando at Auschwitz who believes he’s spotted his son in the camp’s gas chamber. I’ll be the first to admit to seeing it under less-than-ideal circumstances, at an 8:30 a.m. press screening, immediately following the all-nighter spent reviewing Gaspar Noe’s midnight entry, “Love.”) At the very least, the film brings a fresh angle to the French immigrant genre, focusing on a Sri Lankan “family” — related not by blood, but a desire to escape their war-torn homeland for a better life — who are confronted by violence and injustice in their new home (I never quite bought those crime-movie elements, undermining everything that unspools from there).

And the reaction of the vocal French audience made clear that Hollywood films do not have to play it safe, or pander to the lowest-common-denominator. As the glow of Cannes fades, here are the films from the festival that may sustain the buzz they earned on the Riviera: Premiering just days before Ireland legalized gay marriage, Todd Haynes’s ‘‘Carol’’ is grippingly contemporary despite the lushness of its period drama. Thousands of Bangladeshis and ethnic Rohingya leaving Myanmar are also posing a challenge for Asian nations, especially after a Thai crackdown early this month on human trafficking threw the illicit trade into chaos. “Dheepan” keeps its action centred on its central character, a former Tamil Tiger fighter who escaped the mayhem of his war-ravaged homeland and teamed up with two strangers, a woman and a girl, to pretend to be a family to win refugee status in France. Some have accused the result of being “torture porn,” but to me, it sounded like pure torture — which is one of many reasons I was ultimately so impressed by the film’s thoughtful, self-aware engagement with the challenge of depicting its own subject, typically pushing the horrors off-frame or out-of-focus while the characters themselves struggle to convey the atrocities happening around them.

The actor, Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, brought authenticity to the role, having actually been a teen fighter for the Tamil Tigers who escaped to Thailand, made his way to France in 1993 and eventually got political asylum. Sicario, starring Emily Blunt as an FBI agent pulled into the drug war, left my hands raw from clapping during the ovation it received at its world premiere. Mara shared in the best actress award at Cannes, but Harvey Weinstein, who is distributing, will ensure that’s not the last honor for ‘‘Carol.’’ Also look for the tender Pixar tale ‘‘Inside Out,’’ Cotillard’s empathetic Lady Macbeth, and the veteran stars of Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘‘Youth’’ (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) to find some award season attention.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Well, Peter, you may not have been coming to Cannes as long as the rest of us, but it sounds to me like you’ve got it pretty well figured out. The idea that women premiere attendees were supposedly stopped from hitting the red carpet because they were not wearing heels, though denied as a policy by the festival, actually spurred on discussion about the role of women in filmmaking and challenged the perception of glamour on the famous red carpet. Outside of the festival, ‘‘Dheepan’’ may resonate better for its tale of Sri Lankan refugees posing as a family in order to gain asylum in France. That’s understandable, I suppose, if you (or your editors) presume that Thierry Fremaux and the selection committee who choose the films for the competition are incapable of making mistakes. No matter how much the chattering journalists love to complain about the yearly slate, the schedule is maddeningly full with movies and discussions that are truly rich.

Few filmmakers capture transformation like Audiard, the director of ‘‘Rust and Bone’’ and ‘‘A Prophet.’’ Cannes isn’t known for its genre thrills. But take one look at the elegant trailer that plays before every screening at the Fortnight and you’ll see an impressive roll call of major international auteurs — Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, et al. — who got their starts there before eventually becoming regulars on the festival’s main stage. Late at night, I often notice ruefully that crowds are watching festival-sponsored classic films on a giant screen right on the beach, the type of thing that would be a must-do any other time of the year. But just as the cinematic horror hit ‘‘It Follows’’ drew raves at the festival last year, ‘‘The Green Room,’’ by Jeremy Saulnier, should be marked by thriller fans. Joel Coen, sitting next to his brother Ethan in a post-awards press conference, said of the jury duty: “Any experience as intense as this changes your life and your perspective.” “We watch three strangers, forced to travel to a foreign land, essentially learn to love each other, which is something I’ve never really seen done in the way it is in that film,” he said.

In his second film following the lean revenge film ‘‘Blue Ruin,’’ Saulnier steps confidently into a bigger production, costarring Patrick Stewart, about a touring hardcore punk band that runs into trouble at a backwoods gig for Neo-Nazi skinheads. In addition to being a discovery zone, the Fortnight can also be a rediscovery zone where, in recent years, a number of notable filmmakers from cinema’s past have staged notable comebacks. This year the Fortnight could lay claim to standout works by two maverick French directors: Philippe Garrel, whose elegant relationship drama “In the Shadow of Women” screened on opening night; and Arnaud Desplechin, whose unanimously well-received “My Golden Days” is a rapturously involving memory film centered around the youthful exploits of Deplechin’s cinematic alter ego, Paul Dedalus (once again played as an adult by Mathieu Amalric, and this time as a teenager by newcomer Quentin Dolmaire). Instead Blanchett’s co-star, Rooney Mara, and an actress in a French relationship drama called “Mon Roi”, Emmanuelle Bercot, ended up sharing the trophy.

The Fortnight was also where you could see all three volumes of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ audacious “Arabian Nights,” an alternately playful and angry, hugely imaginative refracting of the titular folk tales through the prism of Portugal’s recent social and economic woes; “Mustang,” the very well-received debut feature by Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven; and “Beyond My Grandfather Allende,” a very moving portrait of controversial Chilean president Salvador Allende made by his granddaughter, Marcia Tambutti Allende. But Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes without a lot of bellyaching from critics and reporters who seem to crave some impossibly euphoric cinematic high morning, noon and night. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s ‘‘The Lobster,’’ middle-age, unmarried singles (Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Reilly) gather at a remote Irish hotel where, if they don’t couple up, they’re turned into an animal. That said, certain past years do stick out to me as having been truly exceptional — none more so than the festival’s 60th-anniversary lineup in 2007, which at one point seemed bent on unspooling a new masterpiece daily: “No Country for Old Men,” “Zodiac,” “Secret Sunshine,” “Flight of the Red Balloon,” “Silent Light” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Next to Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner, plus the seven others that followed in its wake, “Dheepan” feels like particularly thin soup — a proficient but indecisive blend of genre thriller and immigrant character study that has sociopolitical consciousness and superb acting to burn, but little of the singular artistry we come to Cannes looking for.

And at an awards ceremony whose inexplicable musical numbers brought it perilously close to Oscarcast territory, Audiard’s victory certainly seemed to fall in line with the dubious Academy tradition of honoring overdue talents for by far their least impressive work. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised by the compromise choice that “Dheepan” undoubtedly represents, insofar as the film fit nicely with one of the festival’s dominant running themes; its victory made it a fitting bookend to Emmanuelle Bercot’s opening-night entry, “Standing Tall,” another tough-minded yet accessible inquiry into the social, legal and moral heart of contemporary France. That these issues and subjects are weighing heavily on filmmakers, programmers and audiences is hardly surprising at a festival that is unspooling in the very long sht adow of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, and which has thus become an understandable opportunity for a collective act of national self-reckoning. DEBRUGE: I don’t know how you found time to squeeze “jury duty” into your busy Cannes schedule, Scott, but then, your viewing habits have always struck me as superhuman.

This is the first year I’ve ever managed to see all 19 films in competition, and juggling that was tough enough — although I did manage to catch a few documentaries here and there, which mostly served to underscore the fact that Cannes lags far behind other festivals (several of which, like Sundance and SXSW, put equal emphasis on narrative and nonfiction films) in recognizing how some of the most interesting innovations in the medium are happening in the blurry zone between those two categories. During the press conference that immediately followed the awards, Joel Coen remarked how seeing so many grand auteur works in such a short time has already changed the way the jury will see movies going forward.

That’s the power of Cannes, and especially films like “Youth,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” and Hou’s “The Assassin,” which flip the equation so often seen in Hollywood: Instead of trying to anticipate what audiences want from a movie, these films directly reflect the confident (and often confusing) vision of the artists responsible. In the case of “The Assassin,” I found the experience too impenetrable to appreciate, and no amount of beautiful landscapes and immaculately appointed sets could compensate for the lack of narrative coherence in my mind.

In the foyer of the Grand Theatre Lumiere, where the film premiered, the festival displays huge portraits of its competing directors, and the photo of Haynes depicts him posing the dolls in the background of the toy-department scene where his Sapphic couple first meets. Way back at the beginning of his career, in “Superstar,” Haynes retold Karen Carpenter’s tragic life story via stop-motion Barbie figurines, and all these years later, he still seems to manipulating actors as if they were dolls. I missed Carol’s personality, so vivid in Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” and felt as if Therese had fallen in love with her fabulous overcoats, lipstick and hair, rather than the woman behind them. FOUNDAS: “Mon roi” reduced me to tears as well — tears of agony, that is, as I watched yet another unbearably histrionic melodrama a la Maiwenn, the unidentifiable filmmaking object previously responsible for 2011’s Cannes competition entry “Polisse.” In that movie, Maiwenn focused on the detectives in a special child-protection unit of the Paris police department — every one of them an unstable basket case unable to keep his/her private life from bleeding over into the workplace. In “Mon roi,” the director (and I use that term loosely) narrows her focus to just a single couple, but ratchets up her special brand of emotional exhibitionism to previously unimaginable levels.

We then see a therapist explaining to “Tony” that said knee injury is symbolic of her relationship woes — specifically, her volatile marriage to Vincent Cassel’s unrepentant jerk Giorgio— because, in French, the word for “knee” (“genou”) sounds like a mash-up of the pronouns “I” (“je”) and “we” (“nous”). Around that point, I suspected we might be in for something uniquely terrible, but I’ll be damned if, over the next two-plus hours, “Mon roi” didn’t keep surpassing even my own wildest expectations. Peter, I have to take you at your word when you say you identified with the characters here, but all I saw were a couple of narcissists nonpareil who take 10 years to figure out what we know within 10 minutes: that they’re bad news for each other and will never be able to live happily ever after.

Also traveling this shopworn road was “Valley of Love,” in which Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert play two actors, named Gerard and Isabelle, who arrive in Death Valley to mourn their late son, who has promised to reappear to them in spectral form. Huppert and Depardieu last shared the screen in the powerful erotic drama “Loulou” in 1980 (directed by Maurice Pialat, whose widow, Sylvie, is a producer on “Valley”), while Depardieu himself lost a son, actor Guillaume, in 2008 — context that gives “Valley” a handful of oddly touching moments, though not enough to prevent it from ultimately seeming like a pretentious French film buff’s companion piece to Gus Van Sant’s roundly dismissed “Sea of Trees.” Last — and in some ways least — was Sorrentino’s “Youth,” another movie whose charms (whatever they may be) eluded me as it plunged us into life at an elite Swiss resort spa where the clientele includes an aging composer/conductor (Michael Caine) and his equally over-the-hill filmmaker friend (Harvey Keitel), who is putting the finishing touches on a new screenplay intended as a comeback vehicle for an aging Hollywood diva (Jane Fonda). Rachel Weisz co-stars as Caine’s daughter, whose husband (Ed Stoppard) dumps her early on for British pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself), while Paul Dano drops in as a vain Hollywood movie star researching a part. (He’s unmistakably modeled on Johnny Depp, with a dash of Sean Penn, who starred in Sorrentino’s previous English-language feature, the disastrous “This Must Be the Place”).

CHANG: I responded to the Maiwenn and Sorrentino films with neither love nor loathing, and indeed found myself generally absorbed and carried along by stray currents of genuine feeling in between all the emotionally incontinent moodswings of “Mon roi” and the visual/musical indulgences of “Youth.” What I find interesting, as ever, is the glaring difference in critical sensibilities we’re presented with here: Peter, you clearly welcomed Maiwenn’s direct, even pushy emotional engagement and Sorrentino’s extravagantly cinematic approach, whereas in both cases Scott recoiled as surely as if someone had come along and vomited into his steak tartare. What strikes one critic as a film with blood running through its veins strikes another as a grotesquely pornographic wallow — and by comparison, a very different film like “Carol” can seem like either a marvel of emotional restraint or a stilted, bloodless dollhouse of a movie. Yes, Haynes’ filmmaking is not without a certain formalist detachment, and at times you can sense his inner semiotician attending to every carefully studied detail. But style is meaning, don’t we know by now, and in “Carol” all those suggestive noir shadows, the richly enveloping atmosphere, the expressive ellipses in the acting and the piercing refrain of Carter Burwell’s score serve to bridge the gap beautifully, wordlessly conveying thoughts, feelings and insights that a more on-the-nose screenwriter would have felt compelled to spell out.

Indeed, if there’s a reason the tie between Emmanuelle Bercot and Rooney Mara struck so many of us as an odd one, it’s the sheer incongruity of the two performing styles the jury opted to honor in the same instance — sort of like handing a prize to a silent Noh performer with one hand and a one-legged circus acrobat with the other. A calm, fastidious surface can conceal deep and tumultuous reservoirs of emotion — which brings me naturally back to “The Assassin,” and specifically to the charges of Impenetrability, Incoherence, Inaccessibility and various other capital-I insults that are routinely hurled at our greatest slow-cinema artists.

Crucially, the beauty in Hou’s films isn’t a stylistic affectation or a Baz Luhrmann eye-candy distraction; it’s a means of engagement and a way of making meaning. What matters is that we feel so fully absorbed into the film’s reality that we perceive, on an intuitive level, the momentous political, historical and emotional shifts that are taking place behind every suggestive silence and whispered exchange.

Remarkably, the subtlety of Hou’s storytelling works in concert with the perfection of his mise-en-scene, making history seem at once concrete and evanescent — like something we feel we could almost reach out and touch it, only to watch it slip like silk through our fingers. Regardless, he isn’t the sort of filmmaker who likes to manhandle his characters emotionally, or to enlighten us with flashbacks to the early life of his protagonist, Nie Yinniang (the breathtaking Shu Qi). That’s why he shoots in long takes (because life doesn’t come at us in easily digestible bits and pieces), and why he maintains a scrupulous distance from his characters (because like most actual people, they’re in no hurry to reveal themselves). But if you can get on his wavelength, and sense not just the rigor but also the tenderness with which he films every gesture, there arises from every frame an entire world of feeling. There’s no shame in having an indifferent response to all this, and I’m not at all surprised that most of the boredom and contempt for “The Assassin” came from journalists with precious little familiarity with Hou’s cinema and the unique way in which it works.

They’re free to dismiss it, of course, though they shouldn’t pretend they’ve given it anywhere near their full consideration; nor should they suggest (even more noxiously) that just because they couldn’t find anything of value in it, surely no one else could, either. Indeed, it’s hardly an accident that “The Assassin” is an action movie whose heroine spends far more time observing and eavesdropping on people than she does killing them; the more she watches, the closer she listens, the better she understands. As such, she’s a perfect stand-in for Hou Hsiao-hsien the filmmaker, and a seriously instructive one for audiences at arthouses, multiplexes and festivals everywhere, from this Cannes to the next.

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