Variety Critics Weigh in on a Strong 67th Cannes Film Festival

The festival standouts, as usual, proved to be far richer than the negative early buzz suggested

Foxcatcher Cannes 2014

JUSTIN CHANG: Shortly after the Cannes Film Festival lineup was unveiled more than a month ago, I cautioned festival-goers against jumping to the conclusion that this year’s slate would be dull, disappointing, a waste of time, etc. I’m happy, if hardly surprised, to report that my optimism was well founded: No festival that gives us movies as rich and varied as “Foxcatcher,” “Leviathan,” “Two Days, One Night,” “Winter Sleep,” “Mr. Turner” and “Timbuktu” — and those are just the competition highlights — could possibly be deemed a wash. And what I’m struck by yet again, as I am year after year, is the mysterious, intuitive (sometimes counterintuitive) way that films from different filmmakers, different countries and different sections of the festival wind up in dialogue with one another (such as the great “Tree of Life”-“Melancholia” smackdown of 2011). To wit: Were the festival programmers aware that two English-language pictures in the competition, David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” would both touch specifically on the tricky subject of actresses grappling with the challenge of growing older, played by two brilliant performers (Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche, respectively) in their early 50s?

For that matter, were they cognizant of the pointed gender critiques going on in two pictures in the official selection that, on the face of it, could not be more different in tone, style, setting and overall approach? Tommy Lee Jones’ Western “The Homesman” is an often clunky but ultimately resonant tribute to the frontier women who endured the unendurable, as well as a picture in which virtually every male character, save Jones’ homesman himself, is depicted as almost entirely lacking in courage, character and basic decency. Even better is Ruben Ostlund’s “Force majeure,” a razor-sharp dissection of contemporary male cowardice, wringing deliciously confrontational entertainment from our collective self-delusion, our ego and, yes, our tendency to remain glued to smartphones and emails while on family vacations. (That one really hit home.)​

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Cannes itself has been blessed with warm temperatures and sunshine this year (after last year’s monsoon-like downpours), but two of the festival’s best films seem to take place in an endless, bleak midwinter. One is “Winter Sleep,” which seems to me another career peak for the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who made his international breakthrough here in Cannes in 2003 with his third feature, “Distant,” and who won the Grand Prix in 2011 for the masterful “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.” But Ceylan’s latest has more in common with his first two films, “The Small Town” and “Clouds of May,” both of which were riffs on Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.” In much the same way, “Winter Sleep” feels like a partial reconfiguration of “Uncle Vanya,” by way of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Dostoevsky and Voltaire.

The setting is a small hotel tucked into a mountainside in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, where an aging, Lear-like theater actor tends to a loveless marriage, a fractured relationship with his sister, and impoverished tenants who seem on the verge of a class revolt. It’s a rapturously involving five- (or maybe seven-) course meal of a movie, in which even the smallest characters are given vivid, three-dimensional personalities, conflicts and inner lives. It’s tempting to liken the film to a great evening of theater, or being immersed in a sprawling 19th-century novel, except that Ceylan is also one of the most richly cinematic stylists at work today, whether he’s turning his camera upon a muddied, craggy landscape stretching endlessly toward the horizon, or the equally majestic, expressive faces of his marvelous actors.

The other magnificently chilly competition entry is “Foxcatcher,” Bennett Miller’s lauded retelling of the strange and sordid events leading up to the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz by the eccentric millionaire John du Pont. Watching the film, I wondered if it would be nearly so compelling if we didn’t know going in the tragedy lurking at the film’s end, and the answer is yes, it would be, because Miller’s film is less a true-crime tale than it is an exploration of the abuses of power by the elite one percent, deeply ingrained notions of success and winning in the American psyche, and the fragile nature of the male ego. On top of which, it’s a brilliantly acted film (by Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo and especially Steve Carell), and a brilliantly structured one too, holding its three main characters in almost perfect balance and making its titular metaphor felt without ever overstating its case. There are great American movies, and then there are great movies that take America as their very subject, from “Greed” and “Citizen Kane” to “There Will Be Blood” and “The Social Network.” “Foxcatcher” has that same, soaring ambition, and that kind of power.

PETER DEBRUGE: Let’s not get carried away. The way I see it, “Foxcatcher” is Bennett Miller’s stab at making his own “In Cold Blood,” a logical goal for someone who admires that book enough to have made the film “Capote.” Like Truman Capote’s book, “Foxcatcher” provides a window into the American condition through the retelling of a true crime. As such, it challenges the United States perception of itself as a democracy: That old fantasy of a low-class kid rising through the ranks to attain success if offset by an extremely troubling portrait of American oligarchy, where the power rests with a very small group of wealthy, well-connected individuals (like the du Pont dynasty Steve Carell and Vanessa Redgrave represent in the film).

However, like so many of the films I’ve seen this year at Cannes, “Foxcatcher” drew me in on the promise that all the energy I’d invested in it would pay off in the end, only to wind down with a whimper, depicting the crime and capture. (By contrast, “In Cold Blood” plunges deeper as the case develops.) I’ve been similarly disappointed with Bertrand Bonello’s overlong “Saint Laurent,” a safe-sexy re-creation of the fashion designer’s glory days that fell apart for me in its suddenly nonlinear last reel, and David Cronenberg’s DOA satire of misplaced Hollywood ambition, “Maps to the Stars.” Instead of going for broke, it seems broken from the word go, its pulse never rising above a standstill.

By this point in the festival, people have long since moved on from “Grace of Monaco,” and though there’s not a lot to defend about the opening-night film, at least in sheer storytelling terms, director Olivier Dahan delivers. The same goes for “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” a thrilling follow-up to DreamWorks Animation’s 2010 coming-of-age fantasy, which preserves the integrity of the original and has unexpectedly proven the experience to beat here. If only the competition offerings were as satisfying!

CHANG: Oh, dear. If “How to Train Your Dragon 2” delivers the way Olivier Dahan delivers, then that’s one animated blockbuster I’ll plan on skipping. We obviously all have different notions of what constitutes a satisfying cinematic experience, and so I’ll just note that I found “Winter Sleep” every bit as scrumptious a seven-course feast as Scott did, even as I knew that Ceylan’s film would strike the vast majority of moviegoers as completely indigestible — which, to me, is an instructive reminder that some of the very best movies are acquired tastes. Along similar lines, Peter, I think it’s one thing to suggest that “How to Train Your Dragon 2” deserved a place in the competition (which may well be true), and quite another to suggest that every competition entry should be pitched at the level of “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” The very reason a festival like Cannes exists is to provide the viewer with as varied, challenging and adventurous a diet of international cinema imaginable, and to provide a welcome respite from the kinds of movies we’re typically spoon-fed on a year-round basis.

And so, while I’d concede that “Foxcatcher” could have gone down any number of productive avenues following its grisly denouement, I’d suggest the chief satisfaction of Bennett Miller’s movie — and what distinguishes it from so many lesser American movies torn from the headlines — lies in its sheer volume of subtext, the subtle accumulation of thematic layers in the material. I was particularly struck by how incisively Miller examines the role of athletic achievement as a source of national pride, the way that du Pont continually extols the mission of his wrestling team using terms such as “honor” and “patriotism,” as if winning Olympic gold were a matter of personal integrity. It’s a theme that “Foxcatcher” shares, incidentally, with another official-selection highlight, Gabe Polsky’s excellent documentary “Red Army,” which offers a sharp and moving inquiry into the enormous burdens borne by Russia’s national hockey team. Here were men revered for their toughness and skill, who were repeatedly barked at and battered into shape by Viktor Tikhonov (no less dictatorial a coach than du Pont), and who ultimately paid a very dear price for their well-earned celebrity.

FOUNDAS: We’ve reached the point in the festival now where I always find myself amused by two recurring Cannes phenomena: the stooped, head-hung-low critics and journalists complaining that this wasn’t a vintage year, and the rampant speculation that this or that film is a shoo-in for the Palme d’Or based on how it played at the official press screening. To the first accusation, I can only say that, however things seem in the moment, when you look back on any given Cannes six, nine or 12 months down the road, it generally holds that anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen of the movies that premiered there have gone on to remain prominent in the discussion of the year’s most significant cinematic achievements. And when I say “premiered at Cannes,” I mean premiered in any of the festival’s various sections, no matter the many journalists who seem to slavishly follow the main competition at the expense of Critics’ Week, Directors’ Fortnight, and even the truly independent ACID section.

Last year was something of an anomaly in that Cannes featured an unusually large number of competition films by noted U.S. directors (the Coen brothers, James Gray, Jim Jarmusch, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh) that pacified those for whom American movies — and, especially, potential Oscar contenders — are the only things worth getting truly excited about. Fortunately, the organizers of Cannes fail to see things the same way, and any year on the Croisette that includes top-drawer work from such indisputable masters as Ceylan, Lisandro Alonso, the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Luc Godard, Mike Leigh. Sergei Loznitsa and Andrey Zyagintsev feels like a banner one to me.

As to the incessant handicapping of the awards race, it’s amusing up to a point, but most of it is indeed based on the reactions of journalists and critics who don’t take into account that the actors and directors who comprise the jury don’t always see movies the same way as them. For starters, there’s the fact that the people on the jury make movies for a living rather than writing about them, and while there may be passionate film buffs among them (especially in this year’s crop), it’s still rather unreasonable to assume they’ve seen every previous film made by every director in competition. So, what may strike some in the press corps as a “minor” film by a major director may strike fresher eyes as a revelation.

And in still other cases, a jury may be excitingly ahead of the curve. Back in 1999, when the Cannes jury headed by David Cronenberg awarded two prizes (including the Palme d’Or) to the Dardennes’ “Rosetta” and three prizes to Bruno Dumont’s “Humanite” (in both cases, the filmmakers’ first competition appearances), many in the press thought they had lost their minds. Now, the Dardennes are beloved Cannes fixtures, while Dumont has won an additional Grand Prix (for “Flanders” in 2005) and continued to turn out rigorous, uncompromising work that puts him at the front rank of contemporary French directors. As to what this year’s Palmares may hold in store, your guess is as good as mine.

DEBRUGE: Your guess may be better, actually. I’ve been spreading myself across the festival and have missed more than half of this year’s competition lineup. I hope to catch up with the Argentinian breakout “Wild Tales” and Naomi Kawase’s “Still the Water” in the reprise screenings this weekend. The thing about trying to accurately predict the Palme is that it has so little to do with quality and so much to do with second-guessing what nine wonderfully independent-minded jury members can agree on, with the ridiculous rule that films can’t collect multiple prizes. In the years before I had the chance to attend Cannes, I foolishly maintained the impression that some sort of consensus formed around the films in competition after they had premiered here, but in practice, that’s hardly the case. Nearly every film has passionate adherents and detractors alike.

Even a movie like Xavier Dolan’s “Mommy,” which has garnered perhaps the most enthusiastic response among American critics (if Tweets and snippets of overheard conversation can be any sort of barometer), seems to have dozens more cursing his name. I tend to prefer my stories a little less boisterously unhinged than Mr. Dolan does, but if we can accept that he likes his drama with a capital D, then I am delighted to see that he has finally found his own voice. A fair number of the directors here — including Ceylan, the Dardennes and Zvyagintsev — are operating at or near the top of their game without necessarily surprising us with their latest work.

I suppose the two films I haven’t been able to shake are Mike Leigh’s unshakable “Mr. Turner” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which I saw just this morning. It’s sheer coincidence that both happen to be hyper-intimate portraits of aging artists and the codependent relationships that help them cope with an audience hungry for fresh new alternatives. As Kristen Stewart tells Juliette Binoche’s insecure character in “Sils Maria,” “You can’t be as accomplished an actress as you are and still hold on to the privileges of youth.” That’s a lesson that applies to directors as well. As critics, we tend to thrill to Dolan’s mischief (or the energy of “Wild Tales”) out of sheer novelty and respectfully yawn at the familiarity of the established pros, but there’s thrilling work being done in both camps.