Cannes: Festival Films Offer a Lesson in (Bad) Parenting

CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK: The kids are not all right, to judge by the films that have screened so far at Cannes 2015.

Louder than Bombs Cannes Film Festival
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Louder Than Bombs,” Joachim Trier’s sensitively rendered family drama about the lingering aftermath of a mother’s untimely death, begins with a shot of a newborn’s hand clutching his daddy’s finger. It’s a perfect opening image for a film that largely concerns itself with the tensions that can arise between parents and children, particularly when each party is typically doomed to a partial understanding of the other at most. As it happens, it could also serve as one of the defining images for the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival (with apologies to Ingrid Bergman, whose regally disembodied head graces the poster for this year’s event), which has screened a number of pictures in which the price paid by neglectful, irresponsible or just plain ineffectual parenting turns out to be a steep one.

“They f— you up, your mom and dad,” Philip Larkin wrote, and some of the characters at this year’s festival don’t even have the benefit of both. In her tepidly received opening-night entry, “Standing Tall,” the director Emmanuelle Bercot traces the long, difficult reform of a French juvenile delinquent named Malony (played by Rod Paradot) under the tough but compassionate eye of a magistrate (Catherine Deneuve), but with little help from his absentee dad or his junkie mom (Sara Forestier), who’s seen noisily dumping the kid in the lap of social services in the film’s very first scene. By contrast, the four Japanese daughters at the center of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s lovely, leisurely “Our Little Sister” seem markedly better adjusted, despite having weathered their own fair share of parental short-sightedness in a movie that climaxes with two of them screaming out their anger at Mom and Dad from the hilltops.

The messed-up monarchs in “Tale of Tales” aren’t setting a much better example. So bent on motherhood that she’ll pig out on sea-monster offal and sacrifice her husband (John C. Reilly) in order to conceive, the imperious Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek) turns out to be predictably domineering, alienating her son (Christian Lees) by forcing him to stay away from his identical twin brother-from-another-mother. Still, the worst-parent crown in Matteo Garrone’s lavish 17th-century fantasy omnibus easily goes to the neighboring King of Highhills (Toby Jones), who’s more infatuated with his pet flea than with his princess daughter (Bebe Cave), whom he whimsically marries off to an ogre — a bitter twist in a film that gives us no shortage of supernatural creepy-crawlies and then slyly asks us to consider who the real monsters are.

A tragic real-life example of monstrous fatherly neglect could be found in “Amy,” Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the too-short, too-troubled life and career of singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. Presented in the Midnight Screenings section, “Amy” has been one of the most resoundingly applauded films anywhere in the festival, and it’s one I’m eagerly looking forward to catching up with. I can’t claim quite the same level of anticipation for Valerie Donzelli’s “Marguerite & Julien,” which rivals only Gus Van Sant’s insipid “The Sea of Trees” as the most roundly despised film in competition, but by all accounts, neither Maman nor Papa turns out to be parent-of-the-year material in this tale of brother-sister incest.

Fortunately, not all this year’s parent-child dramas been quite so pessimistic. Maiwenn’s polarizing but deeply involving “Mon roi” is an intense, and intensely observed, romance between two uniquely self-destructive individuals, played by Bercot and Vincent Cassel. The characters’ behavior is frequently indefensible (and at times just plain inexplicable), but the young son they share has a way of uniting them and bringing out their best instincts, even though he inevitably becomes a bit of a bargaining chip, as children of divorce often do. Something similar happens in Todd Haynes’ 1950s lesbian love story, “Carol,” easily the best-received film in competition so far and a presumed frontrunner for the Palme d’Or, in which our eponymous heroine (Cate Blanchett) faces the threat of losing her daughter to her jealous soon-to-be-ex-husband (Kyle Chandler) sues for custody — a clash that leads to one of the most honest, cathartic scenes of reckoning between two parents in recent memory.

Nanni Moretti’s moderately appealing comedy-drama “My Mother” stars an excellent Margherita Buy as a stressed-out film director trying to cope with her mom’s terminal illness while also striving to be a good mother to her own teenage daughter; it’s a cross-generational family portrait that, for all its transparent manipulations, conveys a real sense of the affection and generosity that close family members feel for one another. The same goes for an even better film in the competition, “The Measure of a Man,” Stephan Brize’s Dardennes-influenced study of a working-class husband and father, Thierry (a superb Vincent Lindon), at the mercy of everyday capitalist inhumanity. The scenes in which Thierry and his wife take care of their teenage son, who has what appears to be cerebral palsy, are deeply yet understatedly moving, with none of the grotesque sentimentality that often attends stories of the developmentally disabled.

Still, perhaps the most hopeful vision amid all this parent-child Sturm und Drang has been Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days,” which is simply one of the most enveloping coming-of-age sagas I’ve seen in years — a film as spontaneous as it is surefooted, and one that wisely suggests that our parents’ bad behavior need not be the end of the story. Notably, the film opens with its young hero, Paul Dedalus, waving a knife and screaming insults at his frightfully overbearing mother, who promptly commits suicide; in a later scene, Paul’s depressive father smacks him across the face after seeing his son’s poor report card. As was widely reported before it had even screened, “My Golden Days” was passed over for a competition slot (it’s no “Sea of Trees,” after all), which is why it wound up premiering instead at the Directors’ Fortnight program. Vindication has been swift and sweet: When all is said and done, this unwanted child of the official selection will long be remembered as one of the festival’s finest.