Of the 115 titles in the 2014 Cannes lineup, I managed to see 53, 25 of which I considered to be somewhere between good and great (and I missed three reported highlights). That seems like a decent ratio, and so while the general feeling was that this was a middling edition overall, once I’d put together my Cannes 10-Best list, this year’s festival started to look pretty good. (And most of the 28 disappointments and disasters had their virtues—I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the universally derided festival opener Grace of Monaco was never boring, and I rather liked Tim Roth’s suave performance as Prince Rainier.)
Clouds of Sils Maria
Shut out of the awards, Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria was certainly one of the festival’s standouts, and the director’s best since Summer Hours. Invoking the spirit of Ingmar Bergman (Persona in particular), it rematches Assayas with Juliette Binoche in a low-key, finely modulated psychodrama ostensibly about the relationship between successful actress Maria (Binoche) and her capable personal assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart). Reckoning with middle age, Maria agrees to revisit the stage play in which she made her name at age 18, in the role of a scheming assistant whose actions lead to the undoing of her businesswoman boss. In the proposed revival Maria will play the older woman, while a Lindsay Lohan–esque American (Chloë Grace Moretz) will essay Maria’s original part. The ambiguous, shifting dynamics that play out as Maria discusses the role and runs lines with Valentine suggestively mirror and echo—and sometimes reverse—what’s going on in the play. And then a truly stunning coup on a hilltop that culminates in a close encounter with the Sublime invites the viewer to completely rethink the relationship between actress and factotum. Under Assayas’s tight direction, Binoche delivers one of her greatest, least self-indulgent performances, while Stewart continues to demonstrate why she’s one of the best actors of her generation.
Returning to Cannes for the eighth time, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne proved that their aesthetic system is sturdy enough to withstand even the presence of a star of Marion Cotillard’s magnitude without losing balance. In Two Days, One Night, Cotillard plays Sandra, employee of a small solar-panel manufacturer who’s faced with redundancy unless she can persuade the majority of her co-workers to vote to forego their bonuses, which will allow her to stay on. It’s no overstatement to describe what follows as an emotional rollercoaster—with only 48 hours to make her case, Sandra visits the homes of 16 men and women accompanied by her husband (Fabrizio Rongione), the outcome of each encounter far from certain.
Two Days, One Night
The Dardenne Brothers are nothing if not consistent—if suspense is their habitual secret ingredient, it’s always embedded in a compelling and lucid moral framework (Ken Loach could learn a thing or two from them). But while their previous films have been largely defined by their protagonists’ struggles to accept responsibility for or embrace commitment to another person, this is their first narrative predicated on ideas of solidarity and sacrifice. And it’s the renewal of this (at times seemingly near-extinct) ideal within the hard realities of modern life that gives the Dardennes the solution to the tricky narrative challenge they set themselves by building up to the workers’ ballot: how to resolve things in a way that evades the obvious dramatic pitfalls of either triumph or defeat? Where other filmmakers might resort to grandstanding, the Dardennes simply remain steadfastly true to life, which, along with Cotillard’s restrained performance, is what makes Two Days, One Night finally so beautiful and deeply moving.
No competition in Cannes is complete without at least a couple of designated Important Films—films that aim for grandeur and too often settle for bombast. In an effort to make an Important Statement, Michel Hazanavicius’s Chechen War drama The Search (a remake of Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 film) certainly fell well short of success. Although it seemed okay to me on the terms it sets for itself, its over-familiar story—weary EU aid worker (Bérénice Bejo) takes in an ostensibly orphaned boy and attempts in vain to tell the world about the genocide that’s in full swing—was widely despised. Although the film seems to be about communication breakdown, the takeaway for most was: how dare the man behind The Artist have the temerity to lay a banal War Is Bad message on us. Apparently we’re all experts on the horrors of war now, so we can safely consign an entire genre to the dustbin of history.
Anyhow, with the lumbering momentum of a true White Elephant, this year’s Palme d’Or went to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep—to the surprise of few and the delight of many. Talk about predestination: Ceylan had already won the runner-up Grand Prix not once but twice (deservedly for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia in 2011, less so for Distant in 2002), not to mention Best Director (for his worst film, Three Monkeys, in 2008). So it fell to a secret ballot by Jane Campion and her jury to finally put the poor guy out of his misery and lift him up where he justly belongs, in the pantheon alongside Bille August and Roland Joffé. Set in a mountain village and improbable tourist trap, Winter Sleep is a talky, just-about-watchable three-and-a-half-hour drama centered on a self-satisfied, overbearing middle-aged former actor turned hotelier/ landlord/newspaper columnist (Haluk Bilginer). Ceylan’s protagonist has been putting off writing a not-very-interesting-sounding book on the history of Turkish theater, happy to divert his energies into a series of inconsequential moral debates and musings with whoever’s in earshot.
He’s flanked by two discontented women—his much younger wife (Melisa Sözen), whose misery owes as much to her endurance of her husband’s impervious sense of superiority as to the fact that she’s stuck in this backwater; and his recently divorced sister (Demet Akbag), who launches into an epic tirade against her brother (I’m still not sure quite why) that devolves into yet another moral disquisition. These woefully overextended dialogue scenes reduce the film to a series of theatrical vignettes that are as exhausting as they are inconclusive. To be sure, through these and a handful of secondary characters, Ceylan’s grappling with an Important Theme—the ethics of charity, or put another way, the idea that Charity Begins at Home—but while it’s not entirely simplistic, this philosophical exposition isn’t terribly compelling or revealing. Have I made you hot to see this one yet? There’s more! An existential motorcyclist passing through, a well-meaning imam, and an angry unemployed ex-con who’s behind on his rent (and so naturally, in a gesture straight out of Dostoevsky, throws a wad of euros into a burning fireplace to show he’s too proud to accept charity from his landlord’s wife). And guess what? (Spoiler alert.) When all is finally “resolved” in surrender/defeat/acceptance/ whatever, Ceylan’s protagonist finally makes a start on that book of his. Despite passages of real cinema—particularly in the promising opening scenes—this moral treatise feels like a dauntingly attenuated and mildly enervating literary exercise, unprofitably harking back to Bergman’s dramas of estrangement (Scenes of a Marriage, Winter Light) and Chekhov’s studies in bourgeois complacency.
The Best Screenplay award went to another post-millennium certified auteur, Andrei Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin for Leviathan. Like Ceylan, Zvyagintsev is prone to self-seriousness, but he seems to be coming out of it a bit. Once you get past the title and the ponderous opening scene with its straining-for-importance score, the fourth film by Russian art cinema’s Great White Hope proves to be his most enjoyable and least oppressive to date. The mise en scène is as muscular as ever but less in your face, and a welcome sense of humor helps to keep Zvyagintsev’s predilection for overwrought portentousness in check. Clearly invoking Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan is a fairly clear-eyed look at the State of Things in today’s Russia, encapsulated in a bitter dispute between hotheaded mechanic Kolia (Alexei Serebriakov)—who lives in a house overlooking the coastal town with his young wife, Lilya (Elena Liadova), and teenage son by a previous marriage—and the corrupt local mayor who has obtained legal authorization to appropriate Kolia’s land and demolish his home to make way for a vaguely described “communications center” for the town. Kolia’s close friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), a sharp Moscow lawyer, quickly puts the mayor on the back foot, but he’s also having an affair with the unhappy Lilya, so things clearly aren’t going to end well. (Have you ever stopped to wonder why the wives in these Important Films are always so unhappy?) And as this involving but predictable drama of family conflict, betrayal, and heavy-handed gangster tactics unfolds, the ambiguous figure of a local priest comes into the picture—and the Russian Orthodox Church and its interests become part of the equation. Though visually never less than striking, acted with rough-edged vigorousness by the three leads, and laced with a couple of nicely unresolved ambiguities, Zvyagintsev’s bid for political relevance is hobbled by the film’s melodrama and ultimately it’s all very obvious—but it makes its point, and it leaves Winter Sleep all the more anemic by comparison.
The awards ceremony, by the way, was a hoot. Award presenter Monica Bellucci seemed stoned. Best Actor Tim Spall completely lost the plot. Bennett Miller concluded his acceptance speech for the Best Director prize with a resounding “this is quite affirming.” And Campion couldn’t even pronounce Zvyagintsev’s name properly when she announced his award—somehow she didn’t have a minute to write it out phonetically on a scrap of paper (it’s zvee-ah-gint-sev, Jane)—but because she also, amazingly, seemed incapable of correctly pronouncing the names of half her jury members, including Willem Dafoe’s, that’s all right then.
Queen and Country
The received wisdom is that the Directors’ Fortnight came into being because Cannes’ lineups were seen as too safe and behind the times, its selections limited to work drawn from the world-cinema establishment. The Quinzaine aimed to introduce the work of young Turks not on Le Festival de Cannes’s radar—hence Bertolucci, Oshima, and Garrel in 1969, its first year. It’s intermittently scooped the main festival in the years since, breaking new talents that went on to become cinema giants—Herzog, Fassbinder, Ruiz, Angelopoulos, Brocka, Scorsese, and more recently, such competition favorites as Oliveira, Jarmusch, Kaurismäki, Hou, and Haneke. Meanwhile, the Quinzaine’s other purpose—to make room for work that was more radical or counter-cinema in character—has largely faded away.
But the first edition of the Directors’ Fortnight also presented the work of an old master that the main festival hadn’t seen fit to select for competition—Robert Bresson’s Une femme douce (Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably were later shown as well). The Directors’ Fortnight still does this occasionally, as they did this year, with the coup of Queen and Country by octogenarian five-time Cannes veteran John Boorman (who debuted there in 1970 with Leo the Last). A hugely pleasurable follow-up to the director’s autobiographical 1987 Hope and Glory, Queen and Country is set in the early Fifties and details the bittersweet rites of passage of the now-grown-up Bill (Callum Turner) as he does his National Service stint in the British Army. Boorman’s stand-in avoids being shipped off to Korea and lands a desk job as a typing instructor, a cushy post but for a military-regulation-fixated Sergeant Major (David Thewlis in top form) who makes life miserable for Bill and his two office mates in an escalating grudge match. The counterpoint to this seemingly light service comedy is Bill’s romantic pursuit of an alluring but unhappy Oxford student (Tamsin Egerton) who’s clearly out of his league. The action of both narrative strands eventually converges in a sense, as the psychological problems afflicting Thewlis and Egerton’s deeply troubled characters come to the surface, with the implication that both are, in different ways, casualties of Britain’s all-but-obsolete class system. I found the film deeply moving, perhaps because in the loving re-creation of postwar England and intimations of a country on the cusp of a new era Boorman’s nostalgia and gentle sense of loss are so unabashed and sincere, and his filmmaking still so vital. The director has let it be known that while there’s potentially a third autobiographical film to be made, filmmaking now seems a daunting prospect to him at his age. Come off it, John: if Jean-Luc Godard and Manoel de Oliveira can pull it off, so can you.