If this year’s Cannes Film Festival could not be described as a great vintage, it was certainly a very decent one, with plenty of fine films scattered throughout the strands. I never managed to get to see anything in the Directors’ Fortnight (which by all accounts was very strong) or the Critics’ Week, as there was more than enough to take up my time in the official selection, both in and out of the two competitions.
Though the films I saw were immensely varied, it was notable that many dealt with love and separation, with death, ageing and mortality, or with how to survive economically or ecologically troubled times – or, indeed, with some combination of those basic themes. Also notable was the number of films made in English rather than in the director’s first language. Whether this reflects a growing reluctance in some quarters to fund films that may not easily reach the English-language market remains to be seen; it does, however, make for occasional linguistic infelicities in certain titles. I’m not sure, for example, that I’ve ever heard any British person refer to “the Prince Philip”, but that does occur in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth – a film which otherwise displays a mostly impressive and often pleasingly witty grasp of English.
Here are 15 personal favourites from this year, listed in no particular order except by thematic links, and all of which I hope will at some point turn up in the UK.
Deserving winner of the best director prize and thought by many to be worthy of the Palme d’Or, this long-awaited gem from the Taiwanese master is a martial arts movie with a difference. The pace, mostly as measured as in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s other work, quickens considerably for the fight scenes where razor-sharp editing (as opposed to credibility-stretching special effects) makes for exciting, elegant action of an unusually realist kind. Historical verisimilitude and visual beauty more than compensate for a narrative that’s occasionally difficult to follow in terms of precise motivation, while Shu Qi, as the titular ninth-century hitwoman, is mesmerisingly effective.
Director Alice Winocour
Generating more electrifying tension than almost anything else I saw, this second feature by French writer-director Alice Winocour is more openly generic than most Cannes movies, and its occasional plot-holes may explain its place in the Un Certain Regard strand rather than the main competition. But with Matthias Schoenaerts giving a fine performance as the Afghanistan veteran-turned-security guard hired to protect the wife and child of a wealthy Lebanese businessman, and Winocour smoothly shifting the film from terse psychological study to full-on siege-thriller, it really does deliver.
One Floor Below
Director Radu Muntean
More well-sustained tension, albeit of a creepier kind, as Radu Muntean looks at the fraught relationship between a canny but otherwise fairly ordinary fixer (Teodor Corban, excellent) and a neighbour he suspects is responsible for the violent death of a woman in a flat downstairs. Trouble is, the neighbour clearly suspects that the fixer knows the truth, which makes for some very awkward encounters… Another ethically and psychologically astute slice of realism from Romania, this sidesteps generic thrills for something far subtler and more disturbing.
Director Nanni Moretti
About a film director (Margherita Buy) and her brother (Nanni Moretti) trying to cope with the possibly fatal illness of their elderly mother, this is Moretti’s most fully satisfying film since he portrayed the effects of a child’s death on his family in The Son’s Room (2001). Sadly, this time he won no prize, perhaps because his balancing of serious drama and comedy (which revolves mainly around the protagonist’s experiences with her film’s leading man, played to perfection by John Turturro) is so deftly managed as to seem almost artless. But there are real insights here into how people with busy lives struggle to deal with the inevitable, and the film is to be applauded for its quiet, unsentimental honesty.
Son of Saul
Director László Nemes
More thoughts on the ethics and psychology of death, fear and guilt, though the tone is far darker in this Hungarian first feature set in Auschwitz in 1944. The protagonist, a Sonderkommando forced to assist the Nazis in exterminating his fellow Jews, believes that a corpse he finds in a crematorium is that of his son, and determines to somehow give the child a proper burial, complete with rabbi’s blessing… If some have found this narrative conceit a tad implausible, it’s hard to deny the integrity, let alone the effectiveness, of László Nemes’s blistering evocation of the hellish chaos of the camps. His imaginative but careful use of framing and sound is especially impressive.
Director Michel Franco
Almost as grim, in certain respects, is this meticulously controlled third feature from the Mexican writer-director of After Lucia (2012). Shot in the US, it boasts a terrific, largely taciturn performance from Tim Roth as a nurse who tends to terminally ill patients in their homes. Not a great deal happens, and nothing of enormous dramatic significance is said (though it did win the best screenplay award), but it’s an insightful, occasionally unsettling character study of an understandably complicated man which offers an admirably forthright account of physical decline, death and the responses they may provoke.
Director Paolo Sorrentino
An altogether lighter-hearted, less challenging look at ageing and the shadow of mortality, Youth is set in a luxury Alpine hotel where the rich and famous retreat from the world – one such being a conductor and composer resisting pressure to come out of retirement for a concert for the Queen. Michael Caine is very engaging as the lead: funny in his banter with an old film-director friend (Harvey Keitel), quietly touching in his dealings with his daughter (Rachel Weisz). Paolo Sorrentino’s audiovisual sensibility makes for a film of striking shots and sequences, though I for one could have done with a little less musical overlay.
Cemetery of Splendour
Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Strangely, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s follow-up feature to his Palme d’Or-winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) was not selected for the main competition, though it’s as imaginative, sensuous and occasionally mystifying as anything the Thai writer-director has made. Set in and around a clinic for soldiers suffering from a mysterious sleeping sickness, as seen through the eyes of a volunteer with a special interest in a young man whose secret notebook she finds, the film is a serene, lyrical meditation on memory, myth, magic, history and the strange power of dreams.
The Measure of a Man
Director Stéphane Brizé
This is the third of Stéphane Brizé’s features with Vincent Lindon, and it’s a collaboration that clearly works, since the star carried off a well-deserved best actor award. Playing a fiftysomething who, after a long period of unemployment, finally gets a job as a security guard in a supermarket, Lindon exudes ordinary, everyday decency and no-nonsense intelligence – qualities that sit perfectly with Brizé’s sharply observed study of professional integrity and moral compromise. Such is Lindon’s skill in the realist mode that he is entirely one with a cast which is, except for him, entirely non-professional.
Director Jacques Audiard
A surprise winner of the Palme d’Or for Jacques Audiard, who had a near-miss in 2009 when The White Ribbon knocked A Prophet into second place. Like that earlier film, Audiard’s latest is largely about integration: in this case the focus is on three Sri Lankan refugees from the civil war – a man, a woman and a teenage girl – pretending to be a family in order to remain in France. Again, they’re in what might be seen as a kind of prison – a rough block of run-down flats in the suburbs – where they must negotiate with the sometimes violent locals and learn to live with each other. Very well acted, written and directed, it’s mostly persuasive, though some may find the finale a touch unnecessary and generic.
Mountains May Depart
Director Jia Zhang-ke
A bold, enormously ambitious film from Jia Zhang-ke, its three parts embracing a quarter-century of Chinese experience from the turn of the millennium and 2014, and then on to 2025. The first two take place largely in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, and chart the relationships between a teacher (Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao) and two suitors, one poor, one rich; the third shifts to Australia where her son lives with her now estranged husband. Despite some linguistic problems in the final part, this is for the most part an engrossing account of relationships profoundly affected not only by character but by economic and cultural change.
Director Todd Haynes
A very different survey of a fraught marriage and problems with child custody, Todd Haynes’s film is a typically rich, exquisite adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel about a department store assistant (Rooney Mara, who shared the best actress prize) who falls for a richer, older, married woman (Cate Blanchett) in early 50s New York. Though less fulsomely melodramatic than his Far from Heaven (2002) or Mildred Pierce (2011), the film nevertheless uses the women’s slowburn romance to make sharp, still salient points about sexual and social oppression and freedom.
Valley of Love
Director Guillaume Nicloux
Largely estranged since their divorce many years earlier, two actors – played by Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu with more than a few nods to their own (perceived) pasts and personalities – are reunited for a few days in Death Valley after receiving letters sent by their son, who killed himself months ago. An intriguing tale of guilt, recrimination and reconciliation rendered all the more enjoyable and touching by the subtlety, wit and humanity of the lead performances.
Our Little Sister
Director Hirokazu Koreeda
Further familial complications: three twentysomething sisters still living together finally meet their teenage half-sister at their father’s funeral, and invite her to come stay with them. From this simple starting point, Hirokazu Koreeda paints a typically lyrical, amusing but insightful portrait of lives shaped by obligation and allegiance, desire and doubt, age and money. Given its gentle emphasis on mortality, marriageability and mutual responsibility, it’s hardly surprising that the film, again, finds Koreeda in Ozu-esque mode.
Not a single title as such, but a wonderful compilation of 114 gloriously restored (and in some cases recently discovered) shorts shot by Louis and Auguste Lumière and their cameramen from 1895 to 1905. Clustered in a dozen or so thematic chapters and ranging from the Lumières’ factory and garden in Nice to Liverpool, Palestine, New York and Vietnam, the films amply demonstrate the brothers’ astonishing visual skill and understanding of the new medium. Presented with an illuminating, insightful and witty live commentary by Thierry Frémaux and Bertrand Tavernier of Nice’s Institut Lumière, this was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Cannes 2015.