Variety Critics Debate the Best and Worst of Cannes 2015

CRITICS' NOTEBOOK: Jacques Audiard's 'Dheepan' proved a surprising choice for the Palme d'Or, not least because of the riches to be found elsewhere in the selection.

Cannes Film Festival: Critics Debate the
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

PETER DEBRUGE: Well, I didn’t see that coming. In what feels like a twist ending — one that leaves me feeling a bit like Tim Roth at the end of “Chronic” — the Cannes jury has awarded the Palme d’Or to “Dheepan,” a movie that lags among my least favorites in the competition, and the weakest in Jacques Audiard’s filmography.

People have been throwing the word “weak” around a lot this week, grousing that the official selection doesn’t measure up to that of previous years. I defer to you, Scott and Justin, since you’ve each been attending Cannes for longer than I have (this is only my fifth time on the Croisette), but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time here, it’s that Cannes critics always like to complain that the present year’s crop feels meager by comparison to past editions, when in fact, there are exceptional films every year, and the biggest challenge facing those who cover the event is being able to recognize greatness at the moment it is unveiled to the world — to stick their necks out and call a masterpiece “a masterpiece” when it’s revealed.

Maybe my appreciation for “Dheepan” will grow upon second viewing. (I certainly hope so. I’ll be the first to admit to seeing it under less-than-ideal circumstances, at an 8:30 a.m. press screening, immediately following the all-nighter spent reviewing Gaspar Noe’s midnight entry, “Love.”) At the very least, the film brings a fresh angle to the French immigrant genre, focusing on a Sri Lankan “family” — related not by blood, but a desire to escape their war-torn homeland for a better life — who are confronted by violence and injustice in their new home (I never quite bought those crime-movie elements, undermining everything that unspools from there).

For me, the clear masterpiece of the competition (and there are several) is “Son of Saul,” a debut film from Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes which tells a powerful story of moral ambiguity, centered around a group of Jewish prisoners tasked with aiding the Nazis in their extermination work. Coming into the festival, this was the film I dreaded most: a Holocaust film from an unknown director who got his start working for Bela Tarr. Some have accused the result of being “torture porn,” but to me, it sounded like pure torture — which is one of many reasons I was ultimately so impressed by the film’s thoughtful, self-aware engagement with the challenge of depicting its own subject, typically pushing the horrors off-frame or out-of-focus while the characters themselves struggle to convey the atrocities happening around them.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: Well, Peter, you may not have been coming to Cannes as long as the rest of us, but it sounds to me like you’ve got it pretty well figured out. At the end of the day, I never feel that any one Cannes is that much better or worse than another — at least if one takes into account the whole breadth of the festival. But like the main character in “Son of Saul,” more than a few journalists in the international press corps seem to go through Cannes with blinders on, slavishly follow the competition, with perhaps a few treks next door to the Un Certain Regard sidebar, but relatively little if any time spent exploring the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sidebars. That’s understandable, I suppose, if you (or your editors) presume that Thierry Fremaux and the selection committee who choose the films for the competition are incapable of making mistakes. But take one look at the elegant trailer that plays before every screening at the Fortnight and you’ll see an impressive roll call of major international auteurs — Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, et al. — who got their starts there before eventually becoming regulars on the festival’s main stage. In an “off” year for the official selection, the Fortnight is almost always “on,” and 2015 was no exception.

In addition to being a discovery zone, the Fortnight can also be a rediscovery zone where, in recent years, a number of notable filmmakers from cinema’s past have staged notable comebacks. This year the Fortnight could lay claim to standout works by two maverick French directors: Philippe Garrel, whose elegant relationship drama “In the Shadow of Women” screened on opening night; and Arnaud Desplechin, whose unanimously well-received “My Golden Days” is a rapturously involving memory film centered around the youthful exploits of Deplechin’s cinematic alter ego, Paul Dedalus (once again played as an adult by Mathieu Amalric, and this time as a teenager by newcomer Quentin Dolmaire). While it’s arguable that Garrel — who makes intimately scaled, black-and-white films about the lives of Paris artists and intellectuals — might have been better off at the Fortnight than in competition (where his “Frontier of Dawn” was violently received in 2008), the downgrading of Desplechin was a real head-scratcher, especially in a year when the five French films that did make the cut met with generally underwhelming reactions (including, as you noted Peter, “Dheepan”).

The Fortnight was also where you could see all three volumes of Portuguese director Miguel Gomes’ audacious “Arabian Nights,” an alternately playful and angry, hugely imaginative refracting of the titular folk tales through the prism of Portugal’s recent social and economic woes; “Mustang,” the very well-received debut feature by Turkish director Deniz Gamze Erguven; and “Beyond My Grandfather Allende,” a very moving portrait of controversial Chilean president Salvador Allende made by his granddaughter, Marcia Tambutti Allende. Allende’s film emerged as the winner of Cannes’ inaugural prize for the best documentary presented in any section of the festival — the Golden Eye (L’Oeil d’Or) — from a jury that I had the honor of serving on alongside the noted nonfiction filmmakers Rithy Panh, Nicolas Philibert and Diana El Jeiroudi, and the Swiss-French actress Irene Jacob. Meanwhile, the Camera d’Or prize for the best first feature presented in any festival section went to the Colombian film “Land and Shade,” presented at the Critics’ Week, despite much speculation that “Son of Saul” had this one in the bag.

None of that is meant to slag off too badly on the official selection, which did, after all, give us Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful “The Assassin,” Todd Haynes’ “Carol” and Jia Zhangke’s “Mountains May Depart” in competition, alongside special out-of-competition screenings of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Pixar’s “Inside Out.” All that in the span of 12 days on the Croisette sounds pretty good to me, especially when you consider the risk-to-reward ratio one encounters in an average week at the local multiplex. But Cannes wouldn’t be Cannes without a lot of bellyaching from critics and reporters who seem to crave some impossibly euphoric cinematic high morning, noon and night. Me, I’ll be heading back to the States with enough indelible moving images dancing in my head to last me until at least Toronto.

JUSTIN CHANG: Every Cannes, even a “weak” one, will have at least a handful of outstanding films on offer. That said, certain past years do stick out to me as having been truly exceptional — none more so than the festival’s 60th-anniversary lineup in 2007, which at one point seemed bent on unspooling a new masterpiece daily: “No Country for Old Men,” “Zodiac,” “Secret Sunshine,” “Flight of the Red Balloon,” “Silent Light” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Next to Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner, plus the seven others that followed in its wake, “Dheepan” feels like particularly thin soup — a proficient but indecisive blend of genre thriller and immigrant character study that has sociopolitical consciousness and superb acting to burn, but little of the singular artistry we come to Cannes looking for. And at an awards ceremony whose inexplicable musical numbers brought it perilously close to Oscarcast territory, Audiard’s victory certainly seemed to fall in line with the dubious Academy tradition of honoring overdue talents for by far their least impressive work.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised by the compromise choice that “Dheepan” undoubtedly represents, insofar as the film fit nicely with one of the festival’s dominant running themes; its victory made it a fitting bookend to Emmanuelle Bercot’s opening-night entry, “Standing Tall,” another tough-minded yet accessible inquiry into the social, legal and moral heart of contemporary France. The same goes for Stephane Brize’s labor drama “The Measure of a Man,” which struck me as easily the best of the five French films in competition, not least for the forceful yet delicate Everyman humanity of Vincent Lindon’s prize-winning lead performance.

That these issues and subjects are weighing heavily on filmmakers, programmers and audiences is hardly surprising at a festival that is unspooling in the very long shadow of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, and which has thus become an understandable opportunity for a collective act of national self-reckoning. As it happens, both of the festival’s parallel programs offered films that could be interpreted as companion pieces of a sort to “Dheepan”: Directors’ Fortnight gave us Philippe Faucon’s “Fatima,” a winningly low-key dramedy about a Moroccan-born woman struggling to raise her two daughters in Paris, while Critics’ Week closed with “Learn by Heart,” Mathieu Vadepied’s sturdy banlieue drama about a 14-year-old kid trying to work the system in ways both crooked and honest.

Still, while there are several films by which Cannes 2015 will be remembered, it seems safe to say that, with the glorious exception of Desplechin’s “My Golden Days,” the most lasting ones will not be French. I’m hardly the first to note that the Palme d’Or might much more satisfyingly have gone to “Son of Saul,” the most arresting and accomplished debut picture I’ve seen in some time; or “Carol,” directed with transfixing technique and tremulous feeling by Todd Haynes; or, better still, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s rapturously beautiful wuxia epic “The Assassin.” This may not have been the strongest or most consistent Cannes, but no festival experience that boasts these three titles in particular could be seen as anything but time well spent.

DEBRUGE: I don’t know how you found time to squeeze “jury duty” into your busy Cannes schedule, Scott, but then, your viewing habits have always struck me as superhuman. This is the first year I’ve ever managed to see all 19 films in competition, and juggling that was tough enough — although I did manage to catch a few documentaries here and there, which mostly served to underscore the fact that Cannes lags far behind other festivals (several of which, like Sundance and SXSW, put equal emphasis on narrative and nonfiction films) in recognizing how some of the most interesting innovations in the medium are happening in the blurry zone between those two categories.

Certainly, the widespread use of non-professional actors, as seen in everything from “Standing Tall” (whose teenage lead, Rod Paradot, took a break from carpentry school to make the movie) to “Land and Shade” (to say nothing of the two courageous young women who agreed to star in Noe’s sexually explicit “Love”), carries on a doc-driven tradition that dates back at least as far as Italian Neorealism, while Italian helmer Roberto Minervini’s “The Other Side” brings such an elegant eye to its marginal Louisiana characters’ low lives that you can’t help but wonder if all the drug use, gun play and candid (mis)behavior he witnesses is somehow being “directed.”

Ironically, for arch, distractingly unnatural performances, one need look no further than the three big Italian contributions to this year’s selection: Sorrentino’s prize-robbed “Youth,” Garrone’s English-language “Tale of Tales” and the melodramatically acted mush pot that was Moretti’s “Mia Madre.” Of the three, Sorrentino’s film strikes me as the most successful — a bit too similar to his Oscar-winning “The Great Beauty,” perhaps, but a ravishing personal statement on the frailty of the flesh, versus the enduring power of great art, wherein it’s possible to achieve a lasting perfection that nature simply doesn’t allow.

During the press conference that immediately followed the awards, Joel Coen remarked how seeing so many grand auteur works in such a short time has already changed the way the jury will see movies going forward. That’s the power of Cannes, and especially films like “Youth,” Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster” and Hou’s “The Assassin,” which flip the equation so often seen in Hollywood: Instead of trying to anticipate what audiences want from a movie, these films directly reflect the confident (and often confusing) vision of the artists responsible. If these films aren’t too your taste, that’s fine, but the directors expect their audiences to put in the effort of interpreting the work.

In the case of “The Assassin,” I found the experience too impenetrable to appreciate, and no amount of beautiful landscapes and immaculately appointed sets could compensate for the lack of narrative coherence in my mind. But I’m willing to accept that’s a subjective response, and one that doesn’t seem to have limited the film’s many adherents in Cannes. At the same time, it chafes me that critics have been so dismissive of Maiwenn’s “Mon roi,” which worked first and foremost (for me) on an emotional level, reducing me to tears at one point midway through, not through manipulation, but simply because I found myself identifying so completely with the characters — a testament to the collaborative way she works with actors and the moments of human truth they elicit in the process.

Many were outraged that the jury split the best actress prize between “Mon roi’s” Emmanuelle Bercot and Rooney Mara, who plays the younger half of the lesbian couple (opposite Cate Blanchett) in Todd Haynes’ “Carol.” That was a problematic film for me: Strong and Important, sure — being a tony LGBT drama with mainstream potential and a still-revolutionary happy ending (nobody gets clubbed to death with a tire iron here) — but also stiff and disappointingly lifeless. In the foyer of the Grand Theatre Lumiere, where the film premiered, the festival displays huge portraits of its competing directors, and the photo of Haynes depicts him posing the dolls in the background of the toy-department scene where his Sapphic couple first meets. Way back at the beginning of his career, in “Superstar,” Haynes retold Karen Carpenter’s tragic life story via stop-motion Barbie figurines, and all these years later, he still seems to manipulating actors as if they were dolls. I missed Carol’s personality, so vivid in Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” and felt as if Therese had fallen in love with her fabulous overcoats, lipstick and hair, rather than the woman behind them.

FOUNDAS: “Mon roi” reduced me to tears as well — tears of agony, that is, as I watched yet another unbearably histrionic melodrama a la Maiwenn, the unidentifiable filmmaking object previously responsible for 2011’s Cannes competition entry “Polisse.” In that movie, Maiwenn focused on the detectives in a special child-protection unit of the Paris police department — every one of them an unstable basket case unable to keep his/her private life from bleeding over into the workplace. In “Mon roi,” the director (and I use that term loosely) narrows her focus to just a single couple, but ratchets up her special brand of emotional exhibitionism to previously unimaginable levels. Here is a movie that begins with Bercot’s character injuring her knee in what is surely the cinema’s first-ever instance of attempted suicide-by-reckless-downhill-skiing. We then see a therapist explaining to “Tony” that said knee injury is symbolic of her relationship woes — specifically, her volatile marriage to Vincent Cassel’s unrepentant jerk Giorgio— because, in French, the word for “knee” (“genou”) sounds like a mash-up of the pronouns “I” (“je”) and “we” (“nous”). Around that point, I suspected we might be in for something uniquely terrible, but I’ll be damned if, over the next two-plus hours, “Mon roi” didn’t keep surpassing even my own wildest expectations.

Peter, I have to take you at your word when you say you identified with the characters here, but all I saw were a couple of narcissists nonpareil who take 10 years to figure out what we know within 10 minutes: that they’re bad news for each other and will never be able to live happily ever after. Along the way are lots of knock-down, drag-out, semi-improvised shouting matches to endure — all set against a decadent backdrop of exclusive nightclubs, high-end sports cars, white-tablecloth restaurants and expensive jewelry that, at one point, results in the characters having all of their furniture repossessed by the bank. And because Maiwenn is the kind of filmmaker for whom too much is never enough, both stars have been allowed/encouraged to give screechingly over-the-top performances that begin at a fever pitch and head towards the nuclear. (As more than one Cannes wag noted, the merit of Bercot’s performance seems to have been measured in the amount of tears and snot she produced on screen.)

Although the characters in “Mon roi” aren’t explicitly showbiz people, the movie is said to be inspired by Maiwenn’s real-life relationship with the real-estate developer and playboy Jean Yves Le Fur.” That made it one of a number of films in Cannes this year that juggled rather tired metafictional notions of life imitating art imitating life, with actors playing roles somehow based either on themselves or on their own filmmakers. Also traveling this shopworn road was “Valley of Love,” in which Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert play two actors, named Gerard and Isabelle, who arrive in Death Valley to mourn their late son, who has promised to reappear to them in spectral form. Huppert and Depardieu last shared the screen in the powerful erotic drama “Loulou” in 1980 (directed by Maurice Pialat, whose widow, Sylvie, is a producer on “Valley”), while Depardieu himself lost a son, actor Guillaume, in 2008 — context that gives “Valley” a handful of oddly touching moments, though not enough to prevent it from ultimately seeming like a pretentious French film buff’s companion piece to Gus Van Sant’s roundly dismissed “Sea of Trees.”

Last — and in some ways least — was Sorrentino’s “Youth,” another movie whose charms (whatever they may be) eluded me as it plunged us into life at an elite Swiss resort spa where the clientele includes an aging composer/conductor (Michael Caine) and his equally over-the-hill filmmaker friend (Harvey Keitel), who is putting the finishing touches on a new screenplay intended as a comeback vehicle for an aging Hollywood diva (Jane Fonda). Rachel Weisz co-stars as Caine’s daughter, whose husband (Ed Stoppard) dumps her early on for British pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself), while Paul Dano drops in as a vain Hollywood movie star researching a part. (He’s unmistakably modeled on Johnny Depp, with a dash of Sean Penn, who starred in Sorrentino’s previous English-language feature, the disastrous “This Must Be the Place”). But all these layers of references and allusions ultimately feel like an empty shell game in a movie that is (like most of Sorrentino’s work) only interested in the alternately grotesque and glittering surfaces of things, whether the screen-filling majesty of the Alps or the folds of sagging flesh of old age. Sorrentino is reaching for “Sunset Blvd.” territory here, and he ends up with what feels like a late-career Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau pairing directed by a hack Fellini.

Cannes is such an incestuous, industry-centric bubble to begin with, it scarcely needs such movies to add to the hall-of-mirrors feel. Which may be one reason why the jury looked so kindly upon movies like “Dheepan,” “Son of Saul” and “The Measure of a Man” in its distribution of prizes — movies that, whatever else one may think of them, gaze out at the world rather than down at their own navels.

CHANG: I responded to the Maiwenn and Sorrentino films with neither love nor loathing, and indeed found myself generally absorbed and carried along by stray currents of genuine feeling in between all the emotionally incontinent moodswings of “Mon roi” and the visual/musical indulgences of “Youth.” What I find interesting, as ever, is the glaring difference in critical sensibilities we’re presented with here: Peter, you clearly welcomed Maiwenn’s direct, even pushy emotional engagement and Sorrentino’s extravagantly cinematic approach, whereas in both cases Scott recoiled as surely as if someone had come along and vomited into his steak tartare. What strikes one critic as a film with blood running through its veins strikes another as a grotesquely pornographic wallow — and by comparison, a very different film like “Carol” can seem like either a marvel of emotional restraint or a stilted, bloodless dollhouse of a movie.

Yes, Haynes’ filmmaking is not without a certain formalist detachment, and at times you can sense his inner semiotician attending to every carefully studied detail. But style is meaning, don’t we know by now, and in “Carol” all those suggestive noir shadows, the richly enveloping atmosphere, the expressive ellipses in the acting and the piercing refrain of Carter Burwell’s score serve to bridge the gap beautifully, wordlessly conveying thoughts, feelings and insights that a more on-the-nose screenwriter would have felt compelled to spell out. Indeed, if there’s a reason the tie between Emmanuelle Bercot and Rooney Mara struck so many of us as an odd one, it’s the sheer incongruity of the two performing styles the jury opted to honor in the same instance — sort of like handing a prize to a silent Noh performer with one hand and a one-legged circus acrobat with the other.

A calm, fastidious surface can conceal deep and tumultuous reservoirs of emotion — which brings me naturally back to “The Assassin,” and specifically to the charges of Impenetrability, Incoherence, Inaccessibility and various other capital-I insults that are routinely hurled at our greatest slow-cinema artists. To which I would counter, without an ounce of hyperbole: What exactly is so difficult about one of the most astoundingly beautiful movies ever made? I saw “The Assassin” twice in Cannes, and both times I was utterly mesmerized — and all but certain that Hou and his genius d.p., Mark Lee Ping-bing, had somehow managed to devise shades of gold, green and vermilion never before glimpsed by the human eye. Crucially, the beauty in Hou’s films isn’t a stylistic affectation or a Baz Luhrmann eye-candy distraction. It’s essential to our understanding of how this artist perceives the world.

And so in “The Assassin,” the fact that certain narrative minutiae may escape our grasp on first viewing (and Hou’s films are built for repeat viewings) is ultimately of no greater importance than the fact that we don’t catch every last snippet of dialogue in, say, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” to cite a very different movie that also chooses to be a film rather than a flow chart. Why should an artist impose an artificial coherence on human events and exchanges that are, by their very nature, complicated and elusive? What matters is that we feel so fully absorbed into the film’s reality that we perceive, on an intuitive level, the momentous political, historical and emotional shifts that are taking place behind every suggestive silence and whispered exchange. Remarkably, the subtlety of Hou’s storytelling works in concert with the perfection of his mise-en-scene, making history seem at once concrete and evanescent — like something we feel we could almost reach out and touch, only to watch it slip like silk through our fingers.

What I find interesting, Peter, is that the concern for the ethics of representation that we both admire in “Son of Saul” is precisely what governs Hou’s own filmmaking decisions, even if the Holocaust doesn’t happen to be his subject matter of choice. Regardless, he isn’t the sort of filmmaker who likes to manhandle his characters emotionally, or to enlighten us with flashbacks to the early life of his protagonist, Nie Yinniang (the breathtaking Shu Qi). It may suit Maiwenn to manipulate narrative and chronology in service of a connect-the-dots dramatic payoff, but it simply doesn’t suit Hou. That’s why he shoots in long takes (because life doesn’t come at us in easily digestible bits and pieces), and why he maintains a scrupulous distance from his characters (because like most actual people, they’re in no hurry to reveal themselves). But if you can get on his wavelength, and sense not just the rigor but also the tenderness with which he films every gesture, there arises from every frame an entire world of feeling.

There’s no shame in having an indifferent response to all this, and I’m not at all surprised that most of the boredom and contempt for “The Assassin” came from journalists with precious little familiarity with Hou’s cinema and the unique way in which it works. They’re free to dismiss it, of course, though they shouldn’t pretend they’ve given it anywhere near their full consideration; nor should they suggest (even more noxiously) that just because they couldn’t find anything of value in it, surely no one else could, either. Indeed, it’s hardly an accident that “The Assassin” is an action movie whose heroine spends far more time observing and eavesdropping on people than she does killing them; the more she watches, the closer she listens, the better she understands. As such, she’s a perfect stand-in for Hou Hsiao-hsien the filmmaker, and a seriously instructive one for audiences at arthouses, multiplexes and festivals everywhere, from this Cannes to the next.