Cannes: Critics Debate Festival Highs and Lows

Variety's critics agree to disagree on the best and worst of the fest's 66th edition.

Inside Llewyn Davis Cannes Joel and

PETER DEBRUGE: Even without Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” in competition, it was a pervy, provocative year for Cannes, which awarded its top prize to Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color” — a blue movie, in the old-fashioned sense, and one of two films in this year’s fest (the other being Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic, “Behind the Candelabra”) where underage gay characters are seduced and abandoned by more seasoned same-sex lovers.

It’s a long, literal-minded coming-of-age/coming-out tale whose extended unsimulated sex scenes seem to have delighted straight film critics, vocally gaga just a few days earlier over Francois Ozon’s teen-hooker romp “Young & Beautiful.” Sexual provocation seems too easy these days, and watching Kechiche’s all-in-closeup character portrait, I was left craving the laser insight of Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past,” which strips its characters on an emotional level instead.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: I was glad to hear jury president Steven Spielberg say at the post-awards press conference that the jury had left politics — sexual or otherwise — out of their deliberations, and I think it’s selling Kechiche’s film more than a bit short to chalk up its rapturous reception here (by people gay, straight and otherwise) to a case of sex selling and everyone buying. As a longtime admirer of Kechiche’s work — in my programming days at Lincoln Center, I screened his debut feature “It’s Voltaire’s Fault” and his recent “Black Venus,” both never released in the U.S. — I was enthralled by “Blue” (aka “La Vie d’Adele: Chapitres 1 et 2”) from its very first scenes, long before anyone takes his or her clothes off.

In his equally remarkable “L’esquive,” Kechiche followed a group of teenagers from the suburban Paris housing projects as they discovered parallels between their own lives and those of their characters in a school production of Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux’s 18th-century play “Games of Love and Chance,” and in “Blue,” Kechiche again has Marivaux on the brain, putting the writer’s unfinished novel “La Vie de Marianne” in his main character’s hands and allowing her to find herself in it. It’s a shame, I think, that people have been so busy talking and writing about the sex scenes in the movie that they largely haven’t even begun to unpack the many, many artistic and literary references Kechiche layers throughout “Blue,” not to show how smart he is, but to show his belief in the lasting power of great art and how it can touch our lives — art, if I may be so bold, like this very film.

JUSTIN CHANG: I’d only add that, no less than Asghar Farhadi, Kechiche strips his characters bare on an emotional level, too.  What’s marvelous about the sex scenes in “Blue” is not that they’re so explicit (although they are certainly that), but that their explicitness is perfectly consistent — thematically and stylistically — with the bold, inquisitive nature of Kechiche’s filmmaking. He is a director innately fascinated by all forms of human exchange — or human intercourse, if you will — whether it’s the act of sharing a meal or having impassioned bull sessions about Tiresias. To have skimped on sex in a movie so minutely attuned to the rhythms and textures of communication would have been uncharacteristically coy, not to mention dishonest.

There were many other films I admired at Cannes this year.  I loved the consummate craft on display in the Coen brothers’ very deserving Grand Prix winner, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” just as I appreciated the emotional intricacy of Farhadi’s “The Past,” even if it’s ultimately a soapier, more mechanical thing than “A Separation” (now there’s a film that deserved its top festival prize). But I come to Cannes looking not just for exquisite technique, but for something with a real feeling of life pulsing through its veins, and no film achieved or sustained that sense of vitality like “Blue Is the Warmest Color.” Some have predictably griped that it’s “undisciplined,” but length seems beside the point when a filmmaker’s vision is this expansive. It’s the rare three-hour movie that can keep a festival riveted from start to finish.

DEBRUGE: Eloquently put. However, no less a master than Wong Kar-wai began “In the Mood for Love” by shooting an explicit love scene, which he later decided not to use. Kechiche should’ve done the same. The hot-and-heavy sex scenes in “Blue” are at odds with his naturalistic style, suggesting that its teen heroine needs no coaching and can jump right into porn-caliber lovemaking. Gone is all the awkwardness, self-doubt and denial that makes coming-out stories unique. In my view, being gay is as much about emotional connection as physical attraction, but Kechiche’s approach directs the focus to the bedroom, while so much of the rest is an unwieldy sprawl.

I know this puts me on the unpopular side of a critical divide at Cannes, but I do come to the festival looking for topnotch technique. While innovation excites me (be it the stylistic loop-de-loops of “The Great Gatsby” or the curious, high-concept live-action/animation hybrid seen in “The Congress”), I fear too much of what passes for art cinema verges on incompetence. Cannes is the world showcase of cinema, and it should be a place both to challenge conventions and unveil peak-form offerings, like the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Granted, “Llewyn Davis” finds the previous Palme winners on familiar turf, doing for folk music what “Barton Fink” did for the film biz, but I responded to the Coens’ depth of insight into the title character. Where Kechiche thrusts his camera right up in his character’s pores as if that will allow us to see into their heads, the Coens succeed by dint of great writing. Llewyn is a self-absorbed heel revealed through his choices, which range from sponsoring multiple abortions to keeping track of a friend’s cat. Like “The Past,” “The Immigrant” and “Borgman,” it’s an impeccably conceived film with not one shot out of place.

CHANG: What Wong did in “In the Mood for Love” is so radically different in form and content from what Kechiche is doing in “Blue” as to render any comparison nonsensical in my mind; it’s like trying to compare elliptical poetry and linear prose. In any event, as long as there are artists willing to push the boundaries of form, there will be critics who dismiss them as incompetent (and God help us if Baz Luhrmann’s 3D confetti explosion is what passes for innovation these days). Incompetent, by whose standards exactly? By the standards of an industry that relies again and again on the same moribund formulas? The studios could actually learn something from “Blue Is the Warmest Color”; among its many virtues, it’s surely one of the greatest comicbook movies ever made.

I adored every minute of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” and I would argue that the Spielberg jury’s decision to give the Grand Prix to the Coens and the Palme d’Or to Kechiche, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux (recognizing a seamless artistic collaboration) was a supremely elegant one, perfectly satisfying the world-showcase-of-cinema mandate Peter describes: a superb piece of studio craftsmanship on one hand, and a tour de force of raw emotionalism on the other. We can have both. We should have both.

FOUNDAS: I’m hoping we can eventually move on to other films here, but I feel compelled to stick up one last time for Kechiche, who I think is as much a master of technique as any of the other filmmakers you mention, Peter, albeit one working in a style that owes more to directors like Cassavetes, Rivette and Pialat than to classical Hollywood cinema. There’s one truly extraordinary sequence midway through “Blue,” a long dinner party at which you first begin to sense that the two main characters have drifted apart; it goes on for more than 20 minutes, but there is scarcely a misjudged shot or mistimed gesture, each subtle glance between the characters revealing volumes about what they’re feeling. As with Cassavetes — who, people always seemed surprised to learn, worked from quite detailed screenplays — Kechiche’s use of long scenes and a handheld camera can seem improvised and off-the-cuff, but upon closer inspection is craftsmanship of a very high order.

I can’t share the enthusiasm for “Borgman,” which is indeed beautifully made, but rather ugly on the inside — a simplistic eat-the-rich satire of the sort we’ve seen done a thousand times before. I’ll take a revival screening of “The Exterminating Angel” over this any day of the week. But “The Immigrant” is something special, indeed. You said it best in your review, Peter, when you called James Gray the great classicist of his generation. I’m inclined to agree, and I speak as one who didn’t harbor much enthusiasm for the moody, ’70s-influenced crime dramas that first put Gray on the map (though, when I looked at it again recently, “The Yards” held up quite well).

It was “Two Lovers,” in 2008, that really made a huge impression on me, and “The Immigrant” is several degrees greater than that — which makes it all the more puzzling that some of Gray’s usual partisans weren’t on board with the movie here in Cannes. Maybe, as you also suggested in your review, it will take 20 years for the film to be fully appreciated, but I hope not: Gray is someone who should be making a film a year, not once every five.

CHANG: I’m one of those Gray fans who couldn’t quite get on board with “The Immigrant,” which, apart from Marion Cotillard’s superb performance, struck me as a gorgeously designed but creakily plotted melodrama, with an oppressively burnished interior lighting scheme that only reinforced the sense of characters trapped in amber (which may, of course, be entirely the point). What I wanted from Gray’s vision of 1920s New York was even one setpiece orchestrated with a sense of Coppola-esque grandeur or Altman-eque spontaneity, something that conveyed the texture, the odor, the teeming vibrancy of 1920s New York, in addition to all the hardship and the degradation and the martyrdom that Gray nails so stolidly.

The American film that took me by surprise this year actually played out of competition, rather inexplicably in retrospect. I’m referring to J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost,” a daringly minimalist survival-at-sea procedural that featured one of the great performances of the festival, and certainly Robert Redford’s greatest performance in years, maybe decades. Watching as Redford’s character went about performing a series of wordless, mundane but utterly essential activities on board a damaged, drifting boat — patching up holes, lowering sails, studying a map, fighting for his life — I found myself asking: Why can’t more mainstream movies be like this? Sturdy and polished and impeccably made, yet also intelligent enough to trust the audience, to know that we don’t need to be spoon-fed mouthfuls of motivation to be transfixed? In the unimprovable words of A.V. Club critic Mike D’Angelo, “All Is Lost” handily demonstrates “that most backstory is unnecessary bullshit.”

DEBRUGE: At least “Borgman” had some edge, which too many of the films in this respectable but seldom revelatory year lacked. The French call such polite efforts “des films corrects,” indicating that they make all the right aesthetic choices, but lack a certain life. I sense that vitality is what you two like so much about “Blue,” but it was muffled to such a degree in such sentimental films as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son” and Alexander Payne’s unusually low-key “Nebraska.” I’m not even certain Ryan Gosling’s character has a pulse in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives,” while the vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s disappointing “Only Lovers Left Alive” most certainly do not.

In order to find the more shocking statements, one had to look to the other sections of the festival — most notably, Un Certain Regard, which turned up another exceptional Lea Seydoux starrer, “Grand Central”; the tense and unpredictable cross-Mexico immigration tale “La jaula de oro”; and Alain Guiraudie’s explicit male gay-coupling allegory “Stranger by the Lake.” It also boasted Claire Denis’ convoluted and needlessly sordid revenge fantasy “Bastards,” a film I loathed with every fiber, but would have gladly welcomed in competition, where it might have stirred up some heated debate in place of a genre programmer like Takashi Miike’s “Shield of Straw.” With the exception of “Blue,” Cannes seemed to be playing things awfully P.C. this year.

CHANG: Given that Denis means to shine a light on moral bankruptcy and inhumane practices in her country (no less than Jia Zhangke does in “A Touch of Sin”), I’d say “Bastards” is quite needfully sordid, a truly twisted plunge into literal and thematic darkness. And speaking of darkness, I actually rather enjoyed Jarmusch’s vampire movie, a typically eccentric and endearing genre-movie riff that not only featured Tilda Swinton’s most relaxed performance in years, but allowed us to spend a couple of hours in the presence of a loving, well-adjusted heterosexual married couple. In Cannes, that’s what I call radical, maybe even revelatory.

As for “Like Father, Like Son,” I found it a completely fascinating experience, even as I recognize the somewhat muffled quality you describe, Peter. I’d say the film is more interested in exploring cultural nuances and emotional paradoxes than in giving you a really good cry (although for some it’s been the tearjerker of the festival). There’s an almost perverse delicacy and reserve in the way Kore-eda examines every angle of this impossible dramatic situation and the unsentimental, patriarchal Eastern context in which it unfolds. Clearly that level of detachment has put off many of the critics I’ve talked to, who can’t connect with a movie in which a parent would seriously consider giving up his child for another. Whether a particular film is rejected or embraced, it’s precisely this cinematic exposure to different countries, lifestyles and worldviews that makes an international festival like Cannes so indispensable.

FOUNDAS: The accusation of Cannes being overly PC reminds me of the comment I read by one usually very smart critic suggesting that some of the very same films you mention, Peter, were intentionally kept out of the competition in order to avoid offending the delicate sensibilities of Spielberg. That really gave me a chuckle. A lot of things that get said and written about Cannes during Cannes belie how little the people saying and writing those things know about how the festival works.

Indeed, one could argue that if Cannes were trying to shape the selection to Spielberg’s presumed tastes, it would have moved “Shoah” director Claude Lanzmann’s latest Holocaust documentary, “The Last of the Unjust,” from its noncompeting slot to a competition one — and ditto “Stranger by the Lake,” since Spielberg was, after all, once set to direct the movie that became William Friedkin’s “Cruising.” And can anyone really think that a Spielberg-customized Cannes would have included Amat Escalante’s “Heli,” with its extended scenes of torture and bodily mutilation — a film that, nevertheless, ended up winning a major prize? Of course, it’s always easier for critics and other writers to fill column-inches with pointless innuendo during Cannes than to do the hard and necessary work of dealing with the films themselves.

Of course, there can be some real head-scratchers at Cannes — movies where you feel that someone must have done someone a favor in order to get such a coveted slot. (Wim Wenders’ “Palermo Shooting,” anyone?) But this year, even when I didn’t like a film, I felt it was pretty easy to understand why it was there. Compared with “Drive” in 2011, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Only God Forgives” went over like a lead balloon, with the press (and with at least one juror I spoke to), but the air was abuzz with rumors that if Cannes had refused Refn a competition slot, he would have migrated over to the rival Directors’ Fortnight.

Likewise, a lot of people ganged up on Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s “A Castle in Italy,” an admittedly slight but charming bourgeois family dramedy that was both one of the official French films in competition and the only one directed by a woman. Considering that the competition needed both some levity and some distaff direction, Bruni Tedeschi may have been the most logical choice. (I remember the selection committee of the New York Film Festival taking one of her previous films for much the same reason.) Are “Grand Central” and “Bastards” both better films by better filmmakers? Absolutely, but given how divisive “Bastards” proved in Un Certain Regard, it surely would have been even more harshly treated in competition, like such other highly demanding high-art entries of recent years as Philippe Garrel’s “Frontier of Dawn” and Pedro Costa’s “Colossal Youth.”

It’s easy to say that by relegating such fare to the sidebars, Cannes is playing things safe, but I would argue that the festival is actually trying to protect certain films from knee-jerk dismissals and choruses of jeers. As Fremaux told me in an interview published here just before the start of this year’s festival, Un Certain Regard shouldn’t be thought of as “second best” so much as another way of screening in Cannes, a true parallel festival if you will. One of my favorite movies in Cannes this year, Lav Diaz’s “North, the End of History,” would certainly have been a bold inclusion in competition, but also a disastrous one — for the film itself, much more than for the festival — with its four-hour-plus running time and dense web of allusions to Filipino political and cultural history. Screened instead in Un Certain Regard (which has its own jury and set of prizes), it was insulated from the hordes of mainstream journalists who slavishly follow the competition, while those interested in such fare could — and did — seek it out. Much the same can by said, I think, about “Stranger by the Lake,” which had some of the best word-of-mouth buzz of any movie in Cannes, in part because people felt like they were discovering it in Un Certain Regard rather than having it foisted on them, at an 8:30 a.m. press screening, burdened by all those heavy expectations that come with those two words, “in competition.”