Cannes 2014: a roundup

So did the prizes go to the right films? The BFI’s Senior Film Programmer, Geoff Andrew, gives his personal lowdown on the best that Cannes had to offer in 2014.

Geoff Andrew
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Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu, 2014)

Winter Sleep (Kış Uykusu, 2014)

However I look at it – as a programmer, as a critic or simply as a cinephile – this year’s edition of the Cannes film festival had a lot to offer. It may not have been one of the greatest vintages, but it certainly demonstrated that what the French like to call ‘le cinéma d’auteur’ – which basically denotes filmmaking of artistic interest rather than of primarily commercial ambition – is still alive and well around the globe.

Indeed, what was particularly striking this year, as I visited the various sections of the Festival, was the sheer range and diversity of fine filmmaking on display. Even within the official selection it was easy to come across an extraordinary thematic and stylistic variety: on one day alone, I began with a partly ironic deconstruction of genre cinema (Atom Egoyan’s Captives), followed by a Simenon tale of adultery and murder swiftly related in the cool style of early Alain Resnais (Mathieu Amalric’s The Blue Room), before moving on to a lengthy, out-and-out art movie (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep) and finishing up with boisterous black comedy (Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales). Small wonder that so many emerge from a week or more of such viewing experiences feeling dazed and confused!

To start at the top: Ceylan’s film, though it disappointed some, was greeted by many, myself included, as a thoroughly deserving winner of the Palme d’Or. Centred on a series of increasingly acrimonious conversations that take place between an actor-turned-part-time-writer who owns and runs a hotel in deepest Cappadocia, his embittered sister, his unhappy young wife and various local friends, employees or tenants, the film is – at 196 minutes – rather longer, talkier and more confined to claustrophobic interiors than Ceylan’s earlier films. Openly indebted to Chekhov and reminiscent in certain respects of late Ingmar Bergman, the film is a tour de force of writing, acting and subtly meticulous mise-en-scène as it steadily and surely makes its mesmerising way through a maze of deftly interwoven themes. Gorgeous to look at, and packed with astute psychological, social and ethical insights, it demands and amply rewards close attention; it’s not what one would call an easy film, since Ceylan is pushing both himself and his audience, but it’s a marvellous achievement that will probably seem even more impressive away from the crowded and tiring schedules of Cannes.

Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit, 2014)

Two Days, One Night (Deux Jours, Une Nuit, 2014)

To the surprise of many, two other very fine films went unrewarded by Jane Campion’s jury. In the case of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night, a typically fast-paced, seemingly straightforward but rich and deeply affecting drama about a woman who’s been off work for depression desperately struggling to hold on to her job, it may be that it was felt the brothers had won quite enough Cannes prizes already. If that were the case, however, it’s unfortunate that Marion Cotillard’s superb performance went away empty-handed.

On the other hand, it’s something of a mystery why Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, a likewise powerful drama about the terrible effects of jihadist fundamentalism on everyday life in northern Mali, failed to win anything (apart from the Ecumenical Jury Prize), as it was undoubtedly one of the most elegant, imaginative and assured films in competition, as well as one of the most politically impassioned and relevant .

At least Andrei Zvyagintsev’s virtuoso Leviathan, a scathing portrait of corrupt, arrogant and murderously vengeful officialdom in a northern Russian coastal community, deservedly won recognition with the award for best screenplay, while the altogether gentler, less epic but no less impressive The Wonders, the second feature by Alice Rohrwacher (Corpo Celeste), was a fairly popular winner of the Grand Prix (the second prize). Apparently partly autobiographical, it centres on a teenager growing up in rural Italy with her eccentric, volatile beekeeper father and her long-suffering mother, aunt and sisters, and shows that the most intimate stories told with the lightest of touches can still reap substantial dividends.

Timbuktu (2014)

Timbuktu (2014)

Intriguingly, in Still the Water, Japan’s Naomi Kawase, the only other women director in the main competition, also explored matters of life, love and death through teenage eyes – a girl and a boy hesitantly embarking on a relationship – though her more determinedly ‘poetic’ approach felt a little unfocused compared to that of the Italian.

The best actor prize went, to the delight of many, to Timothy Spall for his playing of the title role in Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner, a film that is concerned rather more with the painter’s character and unusual domestic arrangements than with the progress of his working life or his creative impulses. As with Topsy-Turvy (1999), Leigh revitalises the period drama by making the past feel properly alive. Through close attention to all sorts of historic details – language, costume, food, the interests of the day – he makes the world on screen feel at once utterly strange and utterly lived in.

Coincidentally, the two other British veterans in Cannes also dealt with the past: Ken Loach with 30s Ireland, feelingly portrayed as a country under the baleful influence of the Church and deeply traditionalist landowners in Jimmy’s Hall, and – over in the Directors’ Fortnight – John Boorman with 50s England, when conscription to National Service was the order of the day, in the touching and often delightfully funny Queen and Country.

Queen and Country (2014)

Queen and Country (2014)

The two Hollywood films that made it into competition were also concerned to some degree with history. Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman – like his first feature The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), a western of sorts – offers a wry, affecting portrait of the hardships and injustices suffered by women living on the frontiers of the Old West. Foxcatcher – which won Bennett Miller the best director award, presumably in acknowledgement of the excellent performances elicited from Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo – tells the strange but true tale of a billionaire providing financial and other support to two brothers who won gold medals in wrestling at the 1984 Olympics. Though it may sound of specialist interest, as a study of class, money and celebrity, and of a fateful encounter between power and vulnerability, ambition and grievance, it’s consistently gripping and persuasive.

But it was Canada that fielded the lion’s share of North American contestants for the Palme. Atom Egoyan’s typically complex, fragmented account of abduction, paedophilia, grief, guilt and recrimination in Captives proved divisive, largely due to tonal qualities which may be deliberate distancing devices but which nevertheless require viewers to privilege a metaphorical rather than a realistic reading of the narrative.

To some extent the same might be said of David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, a wickedly satirical saga set in today’s Hollywood and boasting some pleasingly lurid performances (Julianne Moore’s award for best actress came to many as a complete surprise), though its tone is happily rather more consistent.

Maps to the Stars (2014)

Maps to the Stars (2014)

It was, however, the Québécois Mommy, by prolific 25-year-old Xavier Dolan, that attracted the most attention with its visual eccentricity (most of it plays out in a cramped 1:1 aspect ratio, with only brief forays into widescreen) and its fast, bold story of a feisty single mum trying to cope with her beloved, dangerously ADHD son. Again the film proved divisive, but impressed the jury enough for Dolan, the competition’s youngest director, to share the (third) Jury Prize with its oldest contestant, the eternal enfant terrible Jean-Luc Godard.

Unsurprisingly, Godard’s Goodbye to Language was as generally mystifying as most of his work of the last two decades. Shots of his admirably soulful dog Roxy wandering the Swiss landscape often felt more illuminating than the epigrammatic scenes involving human performers. That said, it’s often visually striking – and not only for its ingenious play with 3D – and there are, as usual, intriguing juxtapositions of image and music (Beethoven and ECM composers like Kancheli, Silvestrov, Pärt and newcomer Dobrinka Tabakova).

And whatever one makes of its obscurities, it’s probably preferable to Michel Hazanavicius’s The Search, a well-meaning, well-mounted but frequently clunky tale of the experiences of four eventually interlinked characters in war-torn Chechnya in 1999. Running two and a half very earnest hours, it provided a very different viewing experience from that of the premiere of Hazanavicius’s The Artist three years ago.

Saint Laurent (2014)

Saint Laurent (2014)

The two other French films in competition could not have been more different. For Saint Laurent, with Gaspard Ulliel as the designer sliding into drug addiction and an obsessive relationship with Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel), Bertrand Bonello appears to have taken an almost arbitrary approach to constructing his narrative, following one apparently inconsequential scene with another and then another; some rate the film as experimental, others as incoherent. Whatever, the film is undeniably notable for the paucity of dialogue given to its female characters, which mercifully cannot be said for Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. Focused primarily on the relationship between a celebrated actress (Juliette Binoche) about to revisit the play that made her famous two decades ago – but in the role of an older character – and her young assistant (Kristen Stewart), with whom she rehearses her lines while taking a break at a remote Alpine chalet, the film is both a meandering but mostly fascinating look at the relationship between life and art and, incidentally, a celebration of acting, thanks to the excellence of the two central performances.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in competition was Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, in that it is a broad, black comedy, consisting of half a dozen sketches depicting nightmarish situations of one kind or another. The first half of the film is funniest, with the third episode offering an enjoyably excessive account of murderous road rage resulting from a minor insult, while the second half, though less laugh-out-loud, is more effective in assessing the psychological and moral well-being of Argentinian society; one tale (a little reminiscent of Three Monkeys and The Headless Woman) of a wealthy couple trying to cover up a hit-and-run accident perpetrated by their son is particularly caustic.

Wild Tales (2014)

Wild Tales (2014)

Away from the main competition, there was plenty more to savour, and though I won’t write here about all the films I saw, I shall briefly note a few personal favourites. Mathieu Amalric’s exquisite if coolly detached The Blue Room I already mentioned; another French title to look out for is André Techiné’s In the Name of My Daughter, starring Catherine Deneuve, Guillaume Canet and Adèle Haenel in a pleasingly ambiguous recreation of events leading to a still unsolved real-life murder mystery.

Two documentaries impressed: Sergei Loznitsa’s Maïdan, chronicling, with long takes and a static camera, the progress of the Ukrainian revolution in the Kiev square; and Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Of Men and War, a compelling, admirably straightforward look at soldiers and medics undergoing therapy for traumatic experiences suffered in Iraq.

Then there was my strangest film of the festival: Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Owners, an unremittingly bleak but occasionally darkly amusing tale of two young brothers and their ailing sister trying to hold on to their family hovel in the face of opposition from violent squatters, corrupt cops, widespread injustice and sheer bad luck. It all ends very badly indeed, but somehow Yerzhanov’s deadpan style makes the almost inexorable slide towards catastrophe wholly compelling, notwithstanding some very odd moments featuring improbable dancing to bad rock ’n’ roll and repeated allusions to Van Gogh. Bizarre, then, but a real discovery. That’s Cannes for you…

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