After queuing under the scorching Provençal sun for two hours, I enter the cool oasis of the Debussy theatre for my first screening. As the lights overhead dim and the projectionist unveils the curtains of the large screen, a voice from the upper balcony howls “Raaauuuullllll!!!!”. According to Cannes lore, a certain festivalgoer once yelled his friend Raul’s name to direct him towards the seat he had been saving for him. Although the origin of the story is disputed – the late American film critic Roger Ebert traced it to the ’70s – it has become a Cannes tradition and has influenced other war cries. This year, a new tradition was invented after a man took it upon himself to scream “Haaaaarrveeey” (with a falsetto voice second only to Barry Gibb) whenever the Weinstein logo popped up before a screening at the Lumière theatre.
I had left last year’s festival with a certain sense of pride after my personal hero, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, won the Palme d’Or for his magisterial Winter Sleep. Although it was my rookie experience of the festival, 2014 was a truly vintage year with films like Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, the Dardennes’ Two Days One Night, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, Alice Rohrwacher’s Le Meraviglie and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Needless to say, I had high expectations for this year as well and looked forward to the new films by Gus Van Sant (The Sea of Trees) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). Ironically, these two films were the biggest letdowns of the festival and received boos at their press screenings by disappointed film critics. Alongside admitting a medley of terrible films both to the main and Un Certain Regard sections, the programmers were found guilty of having far too many French films in competition this year, with all but Stephane Brize’s The Measure of a Man and Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan failing to impress critics, including this author.
That said, Cannes is always a bit like the Roman god Janus, looking to the trite as well as the bright. Although inexplicably relegated to the Un Certain Regard section, Thai director and former Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul (also known as “Joe” for the sake of brevity) delivered his usual meditative brilliance with Cemetery of Splendour. Also in the Un Certain Regard was Corneliu Porumboiu’s brilliant film Treasure, a testament to the enduring power of Romanian New Wave as spearheaded by Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palme winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. At the very top of the films that impressed me - albeit a small bunch this year - was Son of Saul, the directorial debut of Hungarian director László Nemes.
Judging the Jury
The FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) was founded in 1930 and awards an independent prize in festivals like Venice, Berlin and Cannes. In her commencement speech for this year’s award, the organization’s president, fellow Turk Alin Taşçıyan, reminded us that FIPRESCI has given its prestigious award in Cannes since the festival’s genesis in 1946. The day before the festival had its official awards ceremony, knackered film critics gathered in the Salon des Ambassadeurs to uphold this age-old tradition and chug cheap champagne to forget the fact that they were not invited to the main fête. The film they awarded from the Un Certain Regard section was Masaan, Neeraj Ghaywan’s half-Bollywood comedy and half-drama about a girl affected by a sex scandal and two star-crossed lovers from different castes. While a commendable effort, Ghaywan’s film was arguably one of the weaker ones in the alternative section of the festival, with films like Hrutar, Comoara, and Cemetery of Splendour more deserving of the prize. Nevertheless, I was happy to see that, like me, the FIPRESCI thought that László Nemes’s Son of Saul was the best movie from the 19 that were selected for this year's main competition.
The main jury of the Un Certain Regard sectiom was presided over by the legendary Isabella Rosselini, whose mother, Ingrid Bergman, graced the posters of this year’s festival with her angelic face. Unlike the main competition jury, the Un Certain Regard jury's decisions were spot on, with major awards going to Comoara, Zvizdan and Hrutar. Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not to be confused with Akira) gracefully accepted his award for best director in an otherwise slapstick awards ceremony, where seemingly drunken directors awkwardly tried to kiss Rosselini on the cheek or tried their attempt at French, before they were corrected (as can only be expected in France) by Thierry Fremaux, the festival’s boss.
Cemetery of Splendour
The results for the main competition were confusing to say the least. The only ones I (sort of) saw coming was Best Actor for Vincent Lindon and Best Director for Hou Hsiao-Hsien. The Best Actress was awarded, ex aequo, to Rooney Mara for Carol and Emmanuelle Bercot for Mon Roi. Mara was surely great in Todd Haynes’s much acclaimed period melodrama, but her co-star, Cate Blanchett, would have been a better coupling for the award. Bercot, who directed the opening film of the festival La Tête Haute, delivered a performance replete with tonal missteps in Maiwenn’s film, mostly erring on the side of being too over the top. The Jury Prize, which is traditionally awarded to films that divide critics (and the jury), went to Yorgos Lanthimos’ interesting but ultimately disappointing The Lobster. The jury was not brave enough to award the outstanding Son of Saul with the Palme d’Or. It is perhaps some consolation, however, that it joins the ranks of films like Uzak and A Prophet with its well-deserved Grand Prix win. Instead, the Palme d’Or was awarded to Dheepan, Jacques Audiard’s latest film, a decision that seemed more like a celebration of Audiard’s body of work rather than a tribute to the cinematic merit of Dheepan.
Son of Saul, my personal Palme d’Or
Shot and projected on 35mm, which is in the throes of extinction as a medium, Nemes’s Holocaust drama was screened early on in the festival and set a standard of cinematic accomplishment few films came close to achieving, let alone surpass. One can tell from Nemes’s penchant for long takes that he once worked as an assistant to the legendary Bela Tarr, whose frequent use of uninterrupted shots has become a trademark. Yet, as it often can be, Nemes’s long takes are no mere gimmick and it is a testament to the Cemetery of Splendour cinematographer Matyas Erdely’s genius that they are not. By following its itinerant protagonist in the hell of the concentration camp, Nemes’s camera recreates the feeling of chaos and disorder in our minds. Saul’s head is often held in a tight frame, which renders the horrors of the gas chambers out of focus and refrains from making a spectacle out of them. This difficult but masterful film was my Palme favorite, a contention I apparently shared with the FIPRESCI whose independent jury awarded it the top prize.
The Measure of a Man, a well-deserved Best Actor prize
The Measure of a Man is a socially acute drama in the style of the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night presented last year here. An unemployed man (Vincent Lindon) tries to get back on his feet and secures a job as a security guard at a shopping mall. As the title indicates, however, this is no mere walk in the park since the job turns out to be a trying test of the protagonist’s morality. Like the Dardennes, director Stephane Brize´ espouses an aesthetic of austerity that is fitting with the film’s story, shooting his actors from a limited number of camera set-ups and long takes. Yet, the Dardennes’ long takes were charged with immediacy and dynamism in Two Days, One Night, thanks to the swooping motion of a handheld camera. Brizé’s camera, on the other hand, is always static, which does little to galvanize its slow-burning plot. It is in the minimalist performance of Lindon - whose stoic stiff upper lip is never dull to watch - that Brizé’s film strikes the correct balance. Even though it was perhaps the only accurate judgment of all the awards, it was reassuring to see that the main jury appreciated the masterful subtlety of Lindon’s acting and gave him a well-deserved Best Actor prize.
The Lobster, a trippy script is not always enough
After his critically acclaimed Dogtooth and Alps, Lanthimos’ third film was one of the most anticipated films of this year’s festival. As characteristic of Lanthimos’s oeuvre, The Lobster has an absurdist premise: a motley crew of singletons check into the hotel version of Tinder, where they are assisted in finding a suitable match for themselves. Failing to find a significant other means transgressing the marital norms imposed by the dystopian society they live in. As a punitive measure, the hotel turns them into animals, such as the titular Lobster as requested by the protagonist played by Collin Farrell. Lanthimos’s first English language features an ensemble cast including Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman and Le´a Seydoux who try (and often succeed) in juggling Lanthimos’s unique blend of humor and drama. In spite of a host of great performances and an initially engaging script, the director’s idiosyncratic quirks fail to hold The Lobster afloat in the second half. Although inconsistent, the acerbic wit and occasional brilliance of Lanthimos’s film won the Greek director the Best Screenplay award. Its canine star, Lucky the Maltipoo, was also a runner-up for the Palm Dog award. Awarded by British journalists, the Palm Dog honors an outstanding performance by a dog in a film screened at the various sections of Cannes. I can’t think of a better example to illustrate how the seemingly never- ending festival takes its toll on one’s sanity.
Youth and The Sea of Trees, when two masters deceive and the bookies are wrong
The bookies’ favorite for the Palme d’Or, Sorrentino’s Youth, turned out to be this year’s biggest disappointment. The Italian auteur, who won an Oscar for the widely acclaimed La Grande Bellezza last year, was booed by some critics at the morning press screening of his film. Resorting to this vocal form of expression has been a popular outlet for pundits this year. The first to suffer its wrath was Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees, whose star Matthew McConaughey responded to the incident with characteristic cool: "Anyone has as much right to boo as they do to ovate." I should quickly add that Youth is by no means as big a disaster as The Sea of Trees. There are some great moments in the film, thanks to the magnificent photography of Luca Bigazzi, and Sorrentino’s great taste in music gives us an enjoyable score. Though Michael Caine’s performance is as memorable as Toni Servillo’s in Bellezza, the poetic monologues uttered by the cigarette smoking mouth of Jep Gambardella are nowhere to be found in Youth. After the similarly mediocre This Must Be the Place, Sorrentino’s second attempt at an English-language film is a testament to the fact that the Italian auteur vision’s tends to get lost in translation.
The Sea of Trees