Cannes 2014 halfway roundup: the acting’s the thing…

…and the drumming. And the projection. Nick James tries to waive the auteurism in the face of the piecemeal pleasures of Foxcatcher, Whiplash, the, uh, Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and other highlights so far.

Nick James
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Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night

The Monday mid-term blues that always afflicts the Cannes festival is behind us as I write and I’m delighted to have just seen, back-to-back, the Dardenne brothers’ Two Days, One Night and Damien Chazelle’s amazing jazz drummer movie Whiplash. I’ll come back to the latter, because the Dardennes’ film better conforms to the pattern so far this year of great performances by actors in films that are mostly dissatisfying one way or another.

Not that Two Days, One Night fails to satisfy: it’s as well-crafted and moving as any of the brothers’ works, just maybe a tad more schematic in its portrait of Sandra (Marion Cotillard), a woman recovering from depression who must convince her 16 workmates to give up a bonus for her to retain her job. Cotillard conveys in minimal gestures a powerful sense of someone who believes she’s worthless even as she tries to get her head above water by treating others with the maximum respect.

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher

For a better example of great physical and psychological acting in a slightly disappointing film, you won’t find a more convincing trio than Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher. Director Bennett Miller, of Moneyball fame, conceives one brilliant scene after another in this tonally subtle movie about a super-rich sponsor and his subservient wrestling team, but also keeps beating us over the head with similar observations. Until Foxcatcher came along, Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner  [see Isabel Stevens’ blog post for more details] looked a cert for the acting prize; now he’s up against it.

Haluk Bilginer and Melisa Sözen in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

Haluk Bilginer and Melisa Sözen in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep

All of the performers in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s stove-side chat epic Winter Sleep are full of nuance as they spin their mild philosophic musings in Chekhovian fashion – especially Haluk Bilginer as the former actor turned hotelier trying to reconcile himself to old age. Alas the film itself, though a considerable work, feels baggy and somewhat burdened with high ambition. Still, it would be wrong to criticise this gorgeous film without seeing it twice.

Elsewhere:

  • Mathieu Almaric gives a masterclass in understated angst in his own Le chambre bleue as a man on trial for murdering his wife when his abandoned mistress may well have done it;
  • Jessica Chastain could not have been better as the titular grieving mother heroine in the restrained marriage break-up weepie The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby;
  • though the script makes Tommy Lee Jones the eventual reluctant hero of The Homesman, his own flawed western about broken women [see Geoff Andrew’s blog post for more], it’s Hilary Swank who steals the movie from under him as the determined Christian plains woman;
  • and finally – and this may be stretching the point – Naomi Kawase’s painfully over-sentimental poetic family portrait Still the Water has some of the finest Japanese singing I’ve ever heard.

All this is one way of saying that there is no standout gobsmacking win-all work of genius in the running for prizes here, unless it’s Mr. Turner – though Abderramane Sissako’s Timbuktu and Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders are also considerable achievements, and Winter Sleep is still in with a shout.

Viggo Mortensen in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja

Viggo Mortensen in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja

But to move on again from auteurism, Cannes is the best place on earth to appreciate cinematography, because the projection conditions and quality of ‘prints’ is so astoundingly high. Kawase’s film has breathtaking shots of rolling surf; Winter Sleep, when it moves outside, gobbles up its bleak Cappadocian hilltops; and Lisandro Alonso’s gorgeous cavalry search western Jauja plays the colour of Viggo Mortensen’s uniform off against the grasses of the pampas and beetling green-and-brown rocks that have Argentina competing with Pasolini’s most desolate landscapes.

Whiplash

Whiplash

But let’s quickly return to Whiplash – which, I hesitate to add, premiered earlier this year at Sundance. I’d guess you’d have to be a jazz fan to love this portrait of a teenage Buddy Rich obsessive and his savage martinet of a tutor as much as I did; but you’d be hard pushed to find a film with half as much chutzpah and stylistic élan at Cannes. The drumming is thrilling to watch (and the feat of making it so astounding), but it’s an all-round winner of a film… unless, that is, a full jazz orchestra playing Caravan is your idea of hell.

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