Love, sex and violence in Cannes

Variety’s senior film critics, Justin Chang and Peter Debruge, sat down to discuss and debate the standouts so far at the 65th Cannes Film Festival.

Peter Debruge: It’s been raining for the last few days in Cannes, which is the perfect kind of weather to drive critics into movie theaters, where we feel grateful for grubby dramas set inside medieval-minded Romanian monasteries — such as “Beyond the Hills,” a skin-crawling, unsensationalized look at a real-life exorcism gone wrong from past Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu — or during the height of American Prohibition, like “Lawless,” a John Hillcoat-Nick Cave collaboration whose blood seems laced with peyote, not moonshine. Still, it’s a bit too early in the festival for the world’s tastemakers to have arrived at anything resembling consensus regarding the films that have unspooled so far.

Justin Chang: Even strong films that play in the competition spotlight are bound to have their detractors, yet I’ve heard unusually few dissenting remarks about Michael Haneke’s runaway critical favorite, “Amour” — and I’m not about to add any. Anyone familiar with Haneke knows the milk of human kindness does not exactly flow through his body of work; here, he’s found a way to be every bit as exacting and pitiless as ever about his subject, but with a devastating counterweight of emotional honesty provided by the extraordinary performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. Is it too early to declare “Amour” a masterpiece? I’m not so sure. There wasn’t a moment in this film when I felt I was anywhere but in the hands of a master.

PD: I wholeheartedly agree “Amour” warrants the “masterpiece” label, as it builds on a style Haneke has cultivated over a quarter-century career, while also taking us in a new direction, where the film’s title and depiction of pure devotion ironically serve to answer the question, “When is it OK to murder someone?” The other competition title where tenderness masks what society would normally deem an enormously controversial scenario is Matteo Garrone’s “Reality,” which brilliantly applies a “Bicycle Thieves”-style neorealist aesthetic to a scripted fable about a man who checks out of his own reality as he becomes increasingly obsessed with being cast on Italy’s “Big Brother.” Set in a Catholic culture, the film suggests television and instant fame as our generation’s new god.

JC: God or the absence of God, always a hot festival-film topic. Certainly it’s central to “Beyond the Hills,” a rigorous, often commanding high-art “Exorcist” that amounts to a 2 1/2-hour cautionary tale about misguided groupthink. To my mind, Thomas Vinterberg tackled a similar theme more successfully with “The Hunt,” an entirely gripping drama about a monstrous accusation that causes an innocent man (an outstanding Mads Mikkelsen) to be banished from his community. And by design or not, boy did I feel the absence of God during “Paradise: Love,” Ulrich Seidl’s powerful, explicit and painfully protracted look at Kenyan sex tourism. I wanted to take a shower afterward, but that would’ve only further emblazoned the movie’s faucet-heavy imagery into my brain.

PD: “Paradise: Love” is one of those rare films that warms me over to the Cannes-beloved style in which directors set up a camera in one spot and then let an entire scene unfold in the distance. (It’s a wonder it’s taken the fest so long to embrace Wes Anderson, who loves squared-off glimpses at bizarre behavior.) Coming into the fest, there was much consternation about the lack of female directors, yet the program has offered no shortage of femme-driven stories, from “Beyond the Hills,” where a lesbian attraction explains the so-called “possession,” to “Paradise: Love’s” sunburned heroine to the incredible performance Marion Cotillard gives in “Rust and Bone,” in which her character finds the strength to overcome self-pity after losing her legs.

JC: Isabelle Huppert gave a typically fine performance in “Amour,” but it was a pleasure to see her cut loose in Hong Sang-soo’s funny, flaky cross-cultural doodle “In Another Country,” in which she plays three different women falling into a series of trysts and near-trysts in a Korean seaside town. (Thankfully Ulrich Seidl didn’t direct that one.) While we’re on the subject of female performances, one of the problems I had with “Lawless” was its ridiculously perfunctory treatment of the women in its story. Yeah, I know it’s a man’s world, blah blah blah, but why bother to hire superb actresses like Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska and give them nothing to do but stand by their men? Frankly, Margarethe Thiesel was treated with more directorial respect in “Paradise: Love,” and she spends most of that movie stripping bare for the camera’s very unflattering gaze.

PD: Chastain’s role in “Lawless” exists more to define the men around her, but then, the film is really about three redneck brothers. Among them, Tom Hardy gives my favorite performance of the festival so far, humanizing a stereotype whose instincts compensate for his unsophistication. Meanwhile, there are no women to speak of in Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” an ultra-stylish but otherwise vacuous genre movie about a criminal called in to kill some criminals who stole from the wrong criminals. The movie would be easy to dismiss if not for a running motif in which every car radio broadcasts political speeches from the 2008 financial meltdown, cynically suggesting that in America, the whole game is run by criminals anyway.

JC: Women indeed have no more place in “Killing Them Softly” than they do in “Lawless” or the vast majority of American crime pictures; at least Dominik’s movie doesn’t waste time pretending that they do. Far more slippery and elegant in its consideration of the fairer sex is Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone in Love,” which unfolds over a night and day in the life of a demure young college student and escort girl (Rin Takanashi). This hypnotic head-scratcher is, on one level, a story about the many shades of male desire, yet it shimmers and quivers with a sensibility that can only be called feminine; I won’t soon forget the sublime shot of Takanashi in a cab at night, the neon lights of Tokyo rushing past her as she listens to her grandmother’s voice messages. With any luck, there are more highs like this to come in the remaining days of the festival.

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