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CANNES – 2015








by Harlan Kennedy


Ingrid Bergman gazes out from the poster for the 2015 festival as if to say “You must remember this.” How could we, dear Ingrid, forget? Every Cannes cine-thrash – this year’s no exception – engraves itself on the soul like a ring on a tree. The older you grow the bigger the ring gets. And you can no more remove it, or no more casually, than you can a wedding ring. You’re stuck with good memories and bad. Live with them or find another set of vows, O cinephile!

The zeitgeist, too. carves its name on the Welt-Film-Baum (World-Film-Tree) as surely as world history changes everywhere around. Forget the anodyne inanity of last year’s opening film, GRACE OF MONACO. The globe has marched on: wars, earthquakes, generational division. Instead of blonde goddess Nic Kidman presiding over champagne froth in Monaco, we have blonde goddess Catherine Deneuve inaugurating the Main Comp with gritty social drama STANDING TALL (LA TETE HAUTE). It’s all about a judge (Deneuve) tussling with a delinquent boy teen, as if to say to the diamante crowd, this year we’re real, not ritzy. “Are you sitting comfortably? Then change your position. Discomfort is what we and cinema are about.”

That condition, artistically subdivided (from disorientation to disruption to disturbance of the heart or mind), gave us the best moments in this year’s movies. Those dream or nightmare sequences in Nanni Moretti’s MIA MADRE, which seem seamless with real life. That scary menace, turning to viral violence, of the street gangs in DHEEPAN. In THE WAKHAN FRONT the Taliban warriors suddenly rising from the rocky landscape in which they have been invisibly concealed. The joltings of the ordinary into the extraordinary in the US horror romp GREEN ROOM or the Gallic marital warfare marathon MON ROI (MY KING).      

But discomfort lay in wait. The competition and main companion sideshow, Un Certain Regard, both kicked off with movies synergetically sweet-natured. Both Japanese; both feelgood-poignant; and both waxing wonderstruck – as ERS (Empire of the Rising Sun) flicks do – about the seasonal magic of cherry tree blossom. Ah the pink-tinged white snowfall of spring! Ah the bridal gorgeousness! In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s OUR LITTLE SISTER, opening the competition, a freewheeling cycle ride along a ‘tunnel’ of cherry trees is the gauntlet of welcome offered their never-met-before half-sibling when three sisters bond with a little stepsister after their dad’s death.

The new girl, 13, is welcomed into the all-female family in this virtually all-female movie. Think of Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS, add a fourth and take away all the men. It’s a pretty, touching, elegiac film, though if we want to complain, didn’t the bygone Kore-eda (MABOROSI, AFTERLIFE) surround his stories’ soft centres with harder meanings and metaphors?

Naomi Kawase, opening Un Certain Regard, chucks cherry blossom at us with equal abandon. It’s the besotting, heraldic annual flowering for two spring lovers aging, each in his/her different way, into wisdom’s years and maturity’s melancholy. One is the 40-ish ex-con now serving time making and selling doriyaki – bean-paste pancakes – from a kiosk attached to his house. The other is the eccentric old lady and cooking nut, terrifically played by veteran Kiki Kirin, who transforms his bean paste into bestselling nectar. Only downside: she might be a leper. Cue heart-seizing plot about unlikely love: the kind of love (platonic) that grows, too late if not too little, between a natural-born orphan of life (him) and a natural-born foster mum (her) nine tenths of the way to the grave.

So far, though, so balmy and beatific with the Cannes banquet. Nice food; nice flower settings; nice people. The first shudder came with the opening film in the Critics Week sideshow. THE WAKHAN FRONT (NI LE CIEL NI LA TERRE) is a scarily wacky war film, bringing horror, comedy and a dark, giddy surrealism to the Afghan war.

First-time French director-writer Clement Cogitore, working with veteran Jacques Audiard scenarist Thomas Bertigain (A PROPHET), has soldiers vanishing – literally – from the warfront landscape. Not just French coalition squaddies, disappearing while sleeping, but Talibs too, whisked away during the day or night. Are they being kidnapped by savage animals? Abducted by Allah? The mystery deepens, so does the film. By the end it’s a blend of sci-fi terror with arthouse existentialism. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS getting into a grainy clinch with BEAU TRAVAIL; though not even that film’s kooky-indelible dance coda quite matches the late scene of demonic capering here: a spooky summation of the story’s scare elements in a soldier’s St Vitus solo, the naked back we watch tattooed with two all-seeing eyes that laser straight out at us and at watching ‘hero’ played by Jeremie Renier.     

The first big guns to be wheeled out in the Competition were from Italy and Hungary. Nanni Moretti’s MIA MADRE (MY MOTHER) is his best film since he won the 2001 Golden Palm with THE SON’S ROOM. It’s a treasure chest brimful of his glittering skills. It’s funny, touching, thoughtful, it’s about love and memory and perception. It’s also, we strongly guess, part autobiographical. Moretti takes the important if smaller role of older brother to Margherita Buy’s 40-ish film director  heroine. Both are poignantly distracted – at a precarious point in both careers – by their mum’s stay, perhaps her dying one, in hospital.

The film’s arc is a rainbow infused with different colours, moving towards crisis point through a varied flicker of tones and hues. Dream sequences blur with actuality, reveries with real life. And comedy crashes seraphically in when John Turturro’s bombastic loudmouth of a Hollywood star jets into the filmmaker heroine’s  pic-in-progress – an industrial strife factory drama – and shakes everyone, at least for a scene or two, out of their emotional narcolepsies.

The comic sequences are up there with Moretti’s best: from the Turturro ego tantrums (fuelled by fantasy invocations of an acting history with Kubrick) to illustrations of the ever widening rift in art – movie art at least – between ideal and practicality. Heroine Margherita strives to match script vision with daily setbacks. But what director can deal with catastrophe-prone car-towing conversation scenes, fluff-ridden canteen confrontations and her own tendency to pitch bereavement fears into moments of actor-prepping? The mother’s death becomes the film’s all-mothering metaphor. The organising, nurturing spirit; the force that gave us life and at times reason to live. What happens when that goes? Answer; everyone for himself or herself. Sadder, wiser, hopefully stronger. Hopefully too, more sensitive and seeing.

Shown in competition, Lazslo Nemes’ SON OF SAUL from Hungary may be – in the best and most powerful sense – a judgment day for Holocaust cinema: the movie that raises past concentration-camp movies from their archival resting places, sending them to the final praise or damnation, while colouring the sky with its own torrid, vivid, apocalyptic immediacy.

The central story matters less than the engulfing detail. Jewish-Hungarian prisoner Saul (Geza Rohrig), working as a Sonderkommando (assigned clean-up tasks and partial free movement as they await their own deaths), stumbles on the dying body of a boy gas-chamber survivor. Tending him as his own, up to and beyond the boy’s murder by an SS officer, he desperately seeks a rabbi to give the corpse of his notional ‘son’ last rites.

The quest matters less than the hellish geography it passes through. Headlong and barely stopping, a seemingly handheld camera powers through the infernal fresco of a recreated Auschwitz: from the horror of the gas chambers to the shootings, torchings, burials-alive that are part of everyday, and every-night, life in this factory of death. The film is not just in your face. By the end it’s in your skin, your hair, your nostrils, your soul.

There’s always a collection of movies at the May Med-fest that can be labelled ‘Great lunacies of our time.’ I loved Matteo Garrone’s TALE OF TALES. How do you follow, as an Italian helmer, GOMORRAH (Mafia drama) and REALITY (neorealist telly satire)? Answer: you don’t. Going ape you venture into a whole new merry jungle. Here it’s the portmanteau movie. Garrone picks and mixes period tales from 17th century author-fantasist Giambattista Basile. A king (Toby Jones) falls in love with a giant flea; an old crone wins another king (Vincent Cassel) by metamorphosing into a young beauty, only to change back at just the wrong time ; a princess is kidnapped by a cave-dwelling cannibalistic ogre…. And so on. It’s gaga, giddily enjoyable stuff; though when I discovered that the ogre (or actor playing him) was staying in my own hotel I thought of ankling to a different five-star cave. But he proved a friendly guy, who didn’t eat human flesh.

Two more great lunacies of our time. One is the life and legend of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse, blazed up like neon in Asif Kapadia’s AMY, a documentary from the maker of SENNA. Poor Amy. She sang like a strung-out goddess of soul, with a voice large enough to sound through the cosmos. But off the concert stage she was a human car crash. Drugs, drink; coke-and-whisky while recording; the other coke while not. The film could be subtitled DAYS OF WINE AND NOSES. But it’s surely the definitive testament, even while seeming (sometimes) as wacked out as its subject and even while snorting up from the photo archives all the scuzzy ambush-footage – O those paparazzi! O those tabloids! – that it so condemns as having wrecked Amy’s life.

Great lunacy number three. American director Jeremy Saulnier’s second Directors Fortnight outing – the first was BLUE RUIN (2013) – is the hysterically egregious GREEN ROOM. The audience went mad. We almost had to be put in straitjackets. Saulnier strands a seedy heavy metal group in a cesspit Oregon backwater, where the neo-Nazis no sooner applaud the gig than they hold the group prisoner – in their survivalist tavern cum HQ – as inadvertent witnesses to a killing. Cue blood, ballistic carnage and desperate breakout attempts. Cue Patrick Stewart growling into view as chief baddie. Cue Imogen Poots and Anton Yelchin, risking life, limb and ligament (don’t look, it gets very nasty) as chief wannabe escapees. Very witty, very visceral.     

No Cannes Film Festival is complete without clinkers. Cannes clinkers are serious, sonorous things: legion d’honneur clinkers. So when Gus Van Sant’s THE SEA OF TREES falls among jeerers, it’s as if God Himself has fallen from the sky. This man once won the Golden Palm (ELEPHANT, 2003). But he’s all at sea in this mind-number about a bereaved man (Matthew McConaughey) wandering Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, a suicide hotspot known – Google it – as “the perfect place to die.” Sentiment, mysticism and crap music overwhelm. Much the same combo overwhelms Joachim Trier’s LOUDER THAN BOMBS, a trite, tendentious chamber drama about a family haunted by the death of a photojourno wife/mother (Isabelle Huppert): and Yorgos Lanthimos’s THE LOBSTER. The Greek director’s newest begins promisingly – an Ionesco-esque, absurdist hotel of the future where guests (led by Colin Farrell) are ordered to mate or become animals – and then meanders into the great outdoors for a love-and-resistance plot, preciously portentous, that tries the patience and talent of, among others, Rachel Weisz and Lea Seydoux.

Elsewhere at this year’s fest actresses had a mighty, even memorable time. Emmanuel Bercot may not have dazzled as a director (STANDING TALL), but she’s superb as the emotionally battered lover/wife of Vincent Cassel in Maiwenn’s perkily overwrought MON ROI (MY KING). Emma Stone and Parker Posey rip into Woody Allen’s IRRATIONAL MAN as young/old harpies sent to tune and pluck Joaquin Phoenix’s heartstrings. And Todd Haynes’s CAROL stars Cate Blanchett – in her first Haynes role since playing Bob Dylan (!) in the 2003 I’M NOT THERE – making music as Rooney Mara’s Sapphic lover. Rich, spoiled, despairing; dressed to the ninety-nines by costumier Sandy Powell; Blanchett looks like Lana Turner in Douglas Sirk while acting like the formidable force of nurture we know already from ELIZABETH and BLUE JASMINE.  

It was an uncanny Cannes outside the movie theatres. No one seemed sure if it was more hectic, crowded and hyper than usual – or less. The uncertainty grew and grew. At the reassuring end of the Croisette the stars descended and ascended on their nonstop moving stairway from Heaven: Catherine Deneuve, Julianne Moore, Jane Fonda, Cate Blanchett, Sir Mike Caine, Colin Farrell, Matt McConaughey, Gerry Depardieu…. As in every year, in this rehearsal for cosmic infinitude that we call the Cannes Film Festival, the heavenly bodies descend from the galaxies, then go up and down the red carpet in a mini-version pageant of astral apotheosis; then return to the greater altitudes from which they came. (Cannes is, don’t forget, a twin town of Beverly Hills. And Beverly Hills, some are sure, is a twin town of Heaven).

That much was normal. What wasn’t was the mystery absence of buskers along the Boulevard de la Croisette, the seafront promenade. Usually there are living statues, jugglers, Pierrots, costumed folk doing wacky things with cats or dogs…. This year, almost nothing. Only the annual breakdancing troupe (impossible to make them go away) and us punters perambulating to and from the pictures.

What’s happened? Have these troubadours and saltimbanques been snatched up into space or sudden non-existence like the soldiers in THE WAKHAN FRONT? Has the town’s mayor tried to clean up this Dodge City of dotty street shows? Shame upon him or her if so. Next year we’d like them back. None of us Cannes-going regulars is happy with this TWILIGHT ZONE of nomadic-art no-shows. If we stop seeing the showbiz spirit spilled generously all along the seafront, we fear, the God of Entertainment may shut down the whole festival enterprise. (And I can’t keep breakdancing every year).

We live, after all, in an age of hair-trigger techno-cultural contagion. It’s called SIP. The Sophisticated Interdependence of Parts. One atom spooked in one sector of the modern world’s machinery and the whole thing can go bust. No one understands this better than the great Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke. His new film MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART is a wonderwork of warning wisdom.

Jia made PLATFORM and STILL LIFE (Venice Golden Lion). He’s peerless at creating panoramas of time in which people, communities, even countries, change subtly yet epochally. Here a young student (Zhao Tao) grows up through 25 years, from the millennial-eve champagne burst of the movie’s opening ‘act’ in 1999 to the third and final part, set partly in a 2025 China, mostly in what Jia sees, mischievously, as its imaginary future off-world. Australia. Here the heroine’s estranged son, dwelling in mansions of marvel suggesting that the globalised globe has turned into a giant Four Seasons Hotel, tries to reclaim identity, humanity, a missing sense of family.

It’s a wry, brilliant conclusion to a warmhearted epic of love (triangular) and destiny (tentacular). Pulled between two men, a blue-collar suitor and wealth-destined go-getter, heroine Tao is, after a fashion, China herself. But she’s also an engaging, individualised human dreamer, her story bookended by two beatific dance sequences. The first opens the film in a blaze of ensemble pop euphoria, as the 20th century turns crispingly into the 21st. The second is a lonely, weird, gorgeously poignant dance in the snow, to the very same catchy music from a famous Chinese chart hit. The audience roared its approval at this bitter-sweet, feelgood coda.

Baying at judges and critics, demanding attention in the final Palm runup, were three well-known filmmakers who’ve won plaudits at Cannes before but no top prizes.

Paolo Sorrentino (THE GREAT BEAUTY) pitched in with YOUTH, starring M. Caine and H. Keitel as two aging art types – conductor and filmmaker – trading memories and hallucinations in a spa hotel at the foot of the Alps. It’s becoming Sorrentino’s weakness to make films about everything which end up as films about nothing. Just forget the whole – or attempted whole – and relish the parts. Here they include dream sequences, scenic intermezzi, a Paloma Faith music video, a Jane Fonda cameo and lots of Italianate natter about life, love and death.

It’s a long time since Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien won the Venice Golden Lion for CITY OF SADNESS (1988). At 68 he’s still a master, but we’re not sure of what. Contempo youth dramas and recent-history epics are no longer his thing. Like many aging modernists (Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou) he’s fallen in love with costumes and swashbuckle. Ninth century dynastic China is the setting of THE ASSASSIN, a wuixa (martial arts) romp about royal intrigues. There are court conspiracies, forest battles, and a dashing hit-woman (Shu Qi) who seems to be everywhere at once like a militarised Avon lady. It’s hard to follow the plot, not hard to like the picture. Or pictures. The fabulous sets and scenery are photographed with virtuosity by Hou regular Mark Lee Ping Bin, whose very name sounds like a firework show.

Jacques Audiard has been praised so regularly it’s hard to believe that, on awards nights, he’s been palmed off rather than Palmed on. Closest he got? In 2009 he won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize with A PROPHET.  DHEEPAN has another go at luring the frond from the tree. This year’s Audiard pic, co-written with favoured collaborator Thomas Bertigain (A PROPHET, RUST AND BONE), comes at audiences from a surprise direction. It’s a domestic-front political thriller. Tamil Tiger Deephan, played by real ex-Tiger Jesuthasan Anthonythasan, flees Sri Lanka with a willingly whisked ‘wife’ and ‘daughter’, two strangers from the war inferno he takes along for the asylum quest in France. They settle in a town which street gangs and drug wars soon make a conflict-fire worse than the frying pan he left.

The film captivates and compels, then overcooks, then anticlimaxes. An action-thriller crescendo worthy of DIE HARD (though not) gives way to a cockamamie coda in English suburbia. The good will earned by acts one and two are squandered by act three.

Not for the jury, though. In a burst of bubbleheadedness some found endearing, others confounding, the Coen brothers and their team gave DHEEPAN the Palme d’Or. Audiard was overdue a top Cannes gong – they and others perhaps felt – and if he didn’t get it this year there might not be another. He’s 63. Time for the Legion of Honneur or a good pipe and pair of carpet slippers.

The Grand Jury Prize was surely, from its first screening, a cinch for SON OF SAUL. Everyone paean’d this purgatorial master-pic from Hungary. And how often does a first film get into the Cannes competition, let alone have a chance to lift its second best bauble? Laszlo Nemes’s film also won the International Critics Prize.

Best Actress was shared between Rooney Mara for CAROL and Emmanuelle Bercot for clawing the scenery in the French marital drama MY KING. Vincent Lindon, dolefully appealing, sometimes appassionne, in the French social drama THE MEASURE OF A MAN, won Best Actor. Best Director was Hsou Hsiao-hsien for THE ASSASSIN. (For my and others’ Euros the film should have got Best Cinematographer: Mark Lee Pin Bing), And THE LOBSTER got its pincers on a consolation Prix du Jury.

It was a good Cannes. Once or twice it was a great Cannes. Mainly it was a Cannes that showed absolutely no sign of going away. Adieu, 2015. Vive, 2016. On the last two days the crowds were back on the Croisette and we festivalgoers re-experienced that shudder of the soul unique to this culture event. A sense that you are about to be trampled to death, but not before experiencing the best that the human mind, heart and imagination can create.




©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved