Cannes films dare to ask big questions

Strong selection offers up disturbing, thoughtful choices

After a midfest conversation about artistic considerations (Cannes Show Daily, May 18), Variety’s senior film critics compare notes on a festival at which films of extreme violence and bitter parent-child conflict were plentiful. A film fest is considered a success if it unveils just a few films that get people talking. By that standard, this year’s Cannes was a resounding success.

PETER DEBRUGE: This year’s Cannes lineup has been an unusually strong one, and one image captures the spirit of the competition for me: It’s the shot that immediately precedes the title card in Lars von Trier’s surprisingly tame “Melancholia” (surprising in light of the controversy his press conference caused, of course), in which we see Earth colliding with a big blue planet, resulting in their mutual, foundation-rattling destruction. That visual is a nice metaphor for the polar-opposite approaches Terrence Malick (a Believer with big questions for God) and von Trier (offering the atheist counterargument) took to projects that dare to examine man’s place in the universe.

JUSTIN CHANG: It has indeed been a very strong Cannes. Unfortunately, von Trier made his idiotic “I’m a Nazi” comments and the festival reacted by turning an awkward situation into full-blown Larsgate — all of which has accomplished nothing except to draw attention away from “Melancholia,” a mature and accomplished film from a director whose talent often gets less ink than his impish showmanship. As much as “Melancholia” and “Tree of Life” embody opposing worldviews, I can personally attest that it’s possible to admire both. I can’t help but feel that the intense spirituality of Malick’s film is giving pause to some critics, who I imagine admire Malick’s artistry yet harbor reservations about his insistence on asking those big questions.

PD: Big questions (and even little ones) are what make a festival like this great. Your average Friday-night movie doesn’t go near the topics filmmakers have been exploring at Cannes this year, ranging from what’s a mother to do when she finds it impossible to love her son (Lynne Ramsay’s stunning “We Need to Talk About Kevin”) to how a child learns to accept being abandoned by his parents (“The Kid With a Bike,” “Breathing”). Another unconventional treatment of parental concerns was Paolo Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place,” in which Sean Penn plays a former rock star whose unresolved daddy issues motivate him to continue his father’s life work to track down the Nazi who humiliated him in Auschwitz.

JC: Unresolved daddy issues were unusually prominent this year — quite obviously in “Tree of Life,” less obviously in the haunting Turkish “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” which derives much of its dramatic undertow from the unspoken tensions between fathers and children. Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” has one of the most moving scenes of father-daughter reckoning I’ve ever seen. And there may have been no more juicily entertaining daddy drama than Joseph Cedar’s “Footnote,” which compounds father-son enmity with academic rivalry. Of all the films in competition, “Footnote,” whichSony Classics acquired, stands one of the best chances of becoming an arthouse hit — not something I ever thought I’d say about a movie set in the insular world of Talmudic scholarship.

PD: It’s funny to make associations between seemingly unrelated films when seeing them in the crowded context of a film festival. In Austrian helmer Markus Schleinzer’s unsettling “Michael,” an office drone keeps a 10-year-old boy locked in his basement, which would be weird enough if Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In” didn’t feature Antonio Banderas playing a plastic surgeon tinkering with the mysterious woman trapped in the spare bedroom of his mansion. The latter is the most palatable presentation of perversity I can think of, which should help its arthouse odds (Sony Classics grabbed that one, too), though I can’t help wondering what David Cronenberg would have done with the film’s twisted body-horror premise.

JC: I’m not sure how I would have reacted to Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” — does stabbing someone in the eye with a fork count as body horror? — under non-festival viewing conditions, but sandwiched in my schedule between a somber Russian art film and a black-and-white Korean talkfest, it worked like a tonic. It’s a vehicle that runs on pure, unleaded style and a bracingly unpretentious choice for the competition; kudos to Thierry Fremaux for programming hardcore genre fare in the official selection. Na Hong-jin’s ultra-gory “The Murderer” made for a nice palate-cleanser, too. Like most festgoers, I wanted more swordplay from Takashi Miike’s misleadingly titled “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai,” but that seppuku-with-a-bamboo-blade sequence is one of the most excruciating things I’ve ever sat through — or listened to.

PD: Agreed. Cannes seems to have included a few too many films in which hammers and other household objects are wielded as deadly weapons. In the press notes for “Sleeping Beauty,” Australian director Julia Leigh says, “I’m interested in Wonder Cinema. I wanted to make a film where the audience responds with, ‘Did I really see that?’?” Cannes must have the same agenda. How else to explain showing old men molest a sleeping Emily Browning in “Beauty” or a Joker-faced Parisian prostitute crying semen tears in “House of Tolerance”? Personally, I could have done without the “wonder” in “Porfirio” and “Play,” a pair of grubby docu-style pics that both feature scenes of characters defecating onscreen. For me, wonder arises out of identification, not shock. Far more effective in my book was the raw honesty of Maiwenn’s “Polisse,” a simultaneously intimate and monumental look at the pressures of a Paris police squad dedicated to child-protection cases.

JC: My own list of Wonder Cinema moments would include the scene from “The Skin I Live In” in which a woman reaches for her gun under the pretext of grabbing a bottle of lubricant — what could be more pure-essence-of-Almodovar? The dawn-of-time sequence in “Tree of Life” is a succession of Wonder Cinema moments. Alain Cavalier’s “Pater” strikes me as a sort of Wonder Cinema event: I couldn’t stop wondering what this impenetrable cine-trifle was doing in competition. Chalk it up as a rare misstep for an otherwise memorable edition of Cannes, one from which festival and arthouse audiences will be reaping the benefits — whether it be Michel Hazanavicius’ delightful silent-cinema romp “The Artist” or Sean Durkin’s peerlessly unsettling “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — for some time to come.