Cannes Roundtable #2
Charlotte Garson, film critic for Etudes
Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum
Wesley Morris, staff writer for Grantland
Anton Dolin, film critic for Moskovskie Novosti
Scott Foundas, chief film critic for Variety
Gavin Smith: Well, we just learned that Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan won the Palme d’Or. What are your reactions to this bombshell?
Charlotte Garson: I’m surprised, but I have to say I don’t hate the film as much as my French colleagues, so I’m not very representative of the French critics here. I think I like it better than Alex, maybe he should start just destroying it, and I will try to compose a vague defense … because there were so many French films in the competition, it’s quite strong in terms of an outmoded form of realism that’s still classical, and organically it works in terms of recreating some form of fluidity of life. I believed in the characters, I believed in the story, even though it seems a little silly to talk in these terms. And I actually thought that the way he describes the suburban housing project, and life there is stylized but also well-documented. My French colleagues were absolutely outraged but I don’t think it’s a caricature. Audiard’s fascination with physical force, which was really a problem for me in his previous films, has toned down a little. And I know that there’s a twist where finally the guy becomes a warrior again and becomes more of a strong man.
GS: Where he reverts to who he was before he left Sri Lanka.
CG: It’s not ridiculous that a guy who’s lived through war would project it onto situations that are very foreign to war, so I didn’t think it was too broad a political statement; it makes sense for this man to think that way, it’s pretty well-written into it. I will accept that the ending is a bit of a problem.
GS: Audiard wound up very lazily opting for a Death Wish kind of ending: the title character has been cleaning the place as a janitor, and finally he gets to work on cleaning out the vermin … and then he leaves France for the lovely, tolerant suburbs of England, where people of color are greeted with open arms.
CG: I think the ending is about the fact that he is a communitarian, he’s got more of an idea of communities nourishing their own people, which is not at all the way we think here in France, where there is a failure of integration politics. Politically I don’t agree with his idea that you’re better off within your own group … what has happened with integration policies in these past few years in France are such a disaster, so that’s how I understand the ending.
GS: It does show the school that the child is sent to as being a well-meaning institution that’s trying to do its best, I mean you see his teacher is a little bit helpless, but that girl does get an education, so that’s one positive aspect of the French welfare state.
Alexander Horwath: Which is why this should not be discussed in terms of the film as such. Right before the Palme d’Or was announced, Gavin and I were saying that it’s hardly imaginable that a film like Dheepan could receive the top prize. I would more or less agree with Charlotte that it’s not a film that I would hate, or that I would say I actively dislike. On the other hand, it’s a film of such limited, simple virtues that I find it mind-blowing that it received the Palme d’Or, which makes me think that there are other, more ideological reasons, and that the jury either involuntarily or willingly fulfilled the theme that Cannes gave out this year: that we should all care more about social injustice and the ecosystem. Even in the press conference a month before the festival, certain themes were being fed to the press. Films about women, of course, was one, and the other was choosing an untypical opening night film—so the jury also chose an untypical Palme d’Or, I guess, both films showing how the French—though probably the most aggressive class-ridden society in all Europe, in my view—show their soft side, their pro-integration side, after the events of January. When Charlotte and I met in a line a few days ago, I spoke of the social democratization of a certain notion of French cinema: Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Tall, Stéphane Brizé’s The Measure of a Man, or the Audiard film. Films by directors who were not much known for going in that direction. For me, Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love was the best French film, but it was perceived as an absolute outsider here, maybe because it belongs to a more art film-oriented, self-reflexive, minimalist tradition. Very few people seemed to like it, and despite the fact that Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu starred in it, it didn’t receive much notice. So I think a certain tendency was prescribed for this festival, and the opening film and the choice of the Palme d’Or confirm it. As opposed to Charlotte, I’m quite a fan of Audiard’s work, and I love it when he’s virile, or when he’s physical. He does violence between men better than almost any other European director I know, from See How They Fall to The Beat That My Heart Skipped to A Prophet—he could’ve easily deserved a Palme d’Or for any of those, especially for A Prophet, which was in competition here. This is clearly the weakest, the most simplistic, the most “decent” in a not very interesting way of his films, so it just feels so wrong and weird that this is the film for which this director is given his biggest honor so far. Audiard has been around for a while, and like at the Oscars you feel certain prizes are given because finally it’s his turn. It’s just really for the wrong film. So I’m not against this guy having a Palme d’Or in his resume—he deserves one, but not for this film.
Nicolas Rapold: In another way, it does seem like the film for this year’s festival, because most people are okay with it. It’s a decent film, and for a lot of people that was the overall experience of the festival—it was a sort of mediocre, average festival. I don’t know how the jury really works, but when I see a movie like this win, it suggests that maybe there was a split between two other movies that had very strong camps. Three obvious candidates would be The Assassin, Son of Saul, or Carol, and that’s how you get a result like this. I do think there were interesting ideas in Dheepan beside the social realism aspect. It starts out a bit differently from a lot of films like this in the sense that the main character is kind of sketchy. He’s a guerilla fighter, he has to deceive the authorities in order to make his way along, and I was really taken by that idea that they are playing roles—they have to pretend to be family members, they have to work their way into society, so there are legitimate and illicit ways in which to become a part of society, which seems more real than a lot of situations in movies about illegal immigrants. An interesting comparison is Mediterranea, a film in the Critics’ Week, which was good, and actually in some ways better. In that one, you’re definitely starting with people you don’t have any ethical qualms about in terms of their identity—the main character’s a hardworking, decent guy.
GS: Unlike some of the protagonists of other Audiard films, the protagonist of Dheepan is somewhat opaque as a character—it’s hard to read who he is, or what he really believes in. We know that he’s rejected violence at the start of the film because he’s obviously disgusted by what he’s had to do as a soldier in Sri Lanka, and he’s escaping from that. There’s a scene in which another Sri Lankan immigrant, his former commander, tries to inveigle him again into being involved in getting arms to the Tamil Tigers and it sets up the expectation that the film’s going to be about him being pulled back in—but in fact it’s completely extraneous, it doesn’t pay off in any way. It’s a red herring.
CG: I think he’s as ambiguous as the previous characters in Audiard’s films, the ones in The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet. It’s the same idea: cynical men who can adapt to situations and are not very morally sound.
GS: That’s true, but there’s more psychology in those films, and there’s much less psychology in this film it seems to me.
AH: I don’t really see why the film is called Dheepan, as if it were really a portrait of this one man. This is very much about three people who immigrate to form this fake family because it’s easier for them to come into France as a family even though they are unrelated. The film’s title could easily have been the name of the woman. I think if you measured screen time, she’s equally as present.
CG: I appreciate the fact that it’s different from the rest of the French films. In The Measure of a Man and Standing Tall, in the official selection, that social element is really on the side of the law—there’s a very strong institutional presence in those films. But what was interesting is that Audiard is really depicting a world where there’s no police anymore. The French want to think that institutions and the law are still there, and the trust Standing Tall places in the judge is really almost wishful thinking on Bercot’s part. It’s a crowd-pleaser in that way.
AH: I agree with that but I think The Measure of a Man is not at all on the side of the institutions. It shows the presence of the controlling gaze, it shows the presence of a new type of workplace in which the selling of one’s own subjectivity and of one’s self, and being rated by others, is the central element. But this is maybe even too obviously done in a critical fashion so you cannot say that the film takes the viewpoint of the well-meaning institution as Standing Tall does.
CG: It doesn’t take the viewpoint of the well-meaning institution, but it makes you wish, as a viewer, that Vincent Lindon’s character could be helped by the welfare state. Not so long ago, he would have received more help, and the whole point is that now he’s left alone, he’s got his family—
AH: “The law of the market,” as the original title says, has overruled the institution of the social state. It regrets the former proud position of the welfare state, which now seems to have been defeated by the so-called logic or laws of the marketplace.
GS: There’s an interesting parallel between The Measure of a Man and the Grand Prize winner Son of Saul. They’re both about guys who are forced, ultimately, to become the enemy of their fellow men. Like the Sonderkommando in Son of Saul, Vincent Lindon is put in the position of being an enforcer working on behalf of a system and at the expense of people who are essentially in the same boat as him, but are even more powerless. He’s given a small amount of power, and he tries to use that power responsibly, but the film’s outcomes are diametrically opposed. In The Measure of a Man he rejects the system. It’s clear that he’s doesn’t embrace his job morally or emotionally, but he accepts the responsibility, and he fulfills his duties until he can no longer stomach being a part of an oppressive system.
AH: It fits with the current philosophical or political discourse that argues that today, there’s no longer a clear divide between the oppressor and the oppressed, that the forms of oppression have invaded the subject’s own body and mind, so that the formerly oppressed are now carrying the various forms of oppression in themselves. So both the Sonderkommando model of Auschwitz in Son of Saul, even though it’s set in the Forties, and the model of how the worker today abides by constantly having to sell him or herself and by becoming the observer of his colleagues and spying on them in the supermarket—these are both examples of the integration of the oppressor function and the oppressed function to an enormous degree, This is one of the reasons why the political struggles and the forms of resistance that our generation or earlier generations have been trained in no longer seem to work. In that sense I see the connection that you described.
The Measure of a Man
GS: The other thing that’s interesting about The Measure of a Man is that it shows you an average guy who is systematically stripped of everything, of his dignity, and of his confidence, through a series of encounters starting with the Skype interview in which the interviewer critiques his resume.
AH: An evaluation of his ability to present himself.
GS: He is steadily reduced to something that is then useful to be repurposed as a human guard dog. Store detectives aren’t a new phenomenon; they’ve existed for many years.
AH: But the surveillance of your coworkers, at least equally if not more so, is a new element. Not that it’s such an important film, but I would more happily say The Measure of a Man is a decent film, and in the list of awards, Vincent Lindon as Best Actor is the only one of the eight that feels right. I can’t relate to the other awards in any way. I don’t see how a film like Carol could be marginalized so radically by being given a shared Best Actress award for what’s not even the film’s best performance. But this goes for everything. I love Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin, but it feels almost like an aggressive slighting of the greatness of this film by giving it the Best Director prize. Best Screenplay and Best Director are awards that films get that often don’t feel right. It’s not an issue of being a good director—The Assassin is a Gesamkunstwerk in my view. It’s the work of someone who cannot be reduced to the director function. The Assassin was clearly the best film in competition. At least Vincent Lindon for Best Actor feels right.
GS: It’s deserved and I can’t really think of an alternative. Who deserved it more than he did? In an ideal world, The Assassin would win the Palme d’Or, but do you seriously think there was any chance of that happening?
AH: [quick sigh] I don’t know about chances, I don’t know these eight or nine people on the jury. I remember 22 years ago when Flowers of Shanghai was in competition. The Puppetmaster did receive the third-highest award, the Prix du Jury. The Puppetmaster is easily as difficult. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s cinema is difficult cinema almost always, but there was a time when it was more possible for him to win. To understand the historical connections The Puppetmaster deals with—it’s definitely not a film in which your average moviegoer will have any clue what the main character is talking about. I think now it’s just an awful time for acknowledging work of that type, so maybe the odds were long. Only a few years ago, we had a similar jury give the Palme d’Or to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, so The Assassin shouldn’t be seen as impossible to receive an award with a somewhat film historically-versed or cinephile jury. They could have said, “Well it may be a somewhat esoteric film, it may be hard for the general audience to understand, but Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s body of work deserves a Palme d’Or, and we have a great film to do it with. That can’t be said of Jacques Audiard.
CG: Best Director is saying you’re still the best director, even though this film is not quite satisfactory. I think they really did a set of intelligent, calculated choices given the mediocre competition that they had. I don’t think anything is a scandal.
GS: Anton, maybe you give us your take on the awards.
Anton Dolin: Well, I don’t want to risk explaining why they decided to give such a prize to this or that film. The Golden Palm is the only prize that matters—that becomes part of film history, that is important for someone who’s not here in Cannes following the competition, for people in the outside world, although not for cinephiles. I’m not saying that Jacques Audiard is an insignificant director, but Dheepan is another rich French movie made with good intentions, quite professionally, with good non-professional actors who act well, with completely unbelievable plot twists in the screenplay, which makes it not bad, but just mediocre. The only logical explanation I could imagine is that the members of the jury couldn’t agree on anything, so it was the only compromise they could agree on. Or we can think that maybe it is a political decision, maybe, because of its ideas about integration, of love and family and all those clichés of art cinema. Maybe that touched the Coen brothers in some way. Why such a film became the best film in a competition featuring The Assassin, Carol, Youth, The Lobster, and Mountains May Depart… I believe Carol and The Assassin are quite perfect. The other films I mentioned aren’t perfect, but they are all unique, they are all real auteur cinema. Even Son of Saul, which is not as good as many critics believe, but still, if such a film could win a Palme d’Or, it would be maybe a scandal, but in a good way. It would be an event, a discovery of a new name, a return to a very violent kind of filmmaking.
GS: You described it to me early in the week as an exploitation film.
AD: Yes it is, for me. Son of Saul is a film that doesn’t contain any emotion but tries to put it quite rationally into a little bit unbelievable story about a son who maybe never existed. The story is too symbolic to make you feel anything. Son of Saul of course is connected with the Bible, with Saul, the first king of Israel, who lost his three sons in battle and then killed himself. It reminds me of Jonathan Littell’s book The Kindly Ones, which won the Goncourt Prize, five or so years ago. It’s a very important book not just about Auschwitz, but also Krakow and Stalingrad, told from the point of view of a Nazi. It’s a retelling of Aeschylus’s story of Orestes, so it involves incest, of killing a father, of vengeance, but hidden in the history of World War II. The novel works very well and has a psychological approach, which I couldn’t find in Son of Saul. And the second comparison, of course, is Shoah, in which the real story of a barber who tells us how he was doing this everyday job and starts to cry when he describes it. It’s a very strong point in the film. In Son of Saul, I couldn’t stop thinking of a highly professional artistic experiment, made in a fantastic way with great camera movements. I could say great acting, but the film’s really all technical for me. I can’t say anything about this man. So it’s a film that’s choreographed for a camera, which pretends to tell a human story. And there are only two things it can use to manipulate us: the horror of Auschwitz, which is shown to us in a very beautiful way. Because all the horrors are in the dark, we can’t see them clearly, we have to imagine them. And the second thing is the camera. That’s it. So for me, it didn’t work. After the first 15 minutes, when you start to get the idea of how it’s done, it became a very mechanical experience.
GS: What about The Assassin?
AD: I think it’s a great event in cinema when someone can make a very accurate historical film that’s actually saying something very modern, and really trying to say something important for us, but not in a way of changing real history or the circumstances of the original story. Here, the Asian way of seeing violence and being against violence and making violence too beautiful and being against the beauty of violence—it’s all presented here. This is the first time I have seen it in a wuxia film. When great directors like Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige started to make wuxia films, they were always about the beauty of killing or the beauty of dying. Hero, for instance, is a great film but it’s so totalitarian compared to Zhang’s earlier films, and he’s less attentive to ethical questions. Hou Hsiao-Hsien has succeeded in making a true wuxia film about warriors and the code of being a warrior, dying for a greater idea—but he’s made it a human film. It’s not just an idea in a screenplay, it’s in its imagery. He shows us nature, and never shows us the faces of characters or goes into psychology—in some ways, what he does is on a higher level than psychology. Kurosawa would be the closest point of comparison with this film, except that for me Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film is even more noble.
CG: I didn’t relate to it—it never got me into the film. I had this sense that I was seeing some parts of a much bigger thing, and I only got the parts that were the most disconnected. It was impossible for me to get into any kind of narrative, even just the simplest parts—identifying which character is which was a problem.
GS: That’s why I sat in the fifth row.
CG: I felt like I was looking at a series of beautiful stills. I loved the color, but I found myself thinking about how it was shot and arranged, not what was going on. And honestly, the Shu Qi films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien are for me the least interesting. Maybe it’s because she’s so perfect and beautiful that it draws the films she’s in toward an aestheticizing that’s over the top. He’s so fascinated by image and imagery, and I feel bad because what touches me about his cinema isn’t that at all.
GS: Wesley, are you also part of team Assassin?
Wesley Morris: I like it a lot—it’s beautiful. I admire all of its formal qualities. I was awake, which helped. But the reason I was able to follow it was because I didn’t go on the first night. I had been warned by a sufficient number of people to be alert. But hey, it’s a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film, you should always be paying attention. It might have been the best-directed movie of those 19 films. It’s the best-made of all of them. At the same time, I don’t love the movie. I feel no passion for it, really. I have passion for other movies of his.
GS: How was the festival as a whole for you?
WM: I thought this year the festival was stronger outside the competition films. Every year there’s some conversation about what the festival could have done better to make the competition stronger, but from Thierry Frémaux’s perspective, it was a huge success—he rigged it for success, you know? I feel like a lot of what goes into the competition has to do with finding movies that he suspects will speak to the jury he’s gathered, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a cynical way to approach it. If you’re him and you believe in the Cannes brand, you set it up so that no matter which movie winds up winning the Palm, it doesn’t damage the brand. In terms of what it will go on to do outside the festival.
Mountains May Depart
AD: In general I feel good. It’s my 17th Cannes Film Festival, I’m a great fan of it. Every year I go to Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, and the strongest films are always at Cannes. Even if you feel a little disappointed at first, by the end of the year, you understand that the most important and interesting films, in a good way and a bad way, are at Cannes—besides Hollywood movies, of course. I’m sorry to say that there was only one masterpiece here, and it’s the Pixar film Inside Out. I’m a big fan of Pixar, and I can’t wait to show it to my children. I was really touched, and it’s a new step in the history of animated cinema. It’s really a pity it wasn’t included in the competition. I’ve read that it was supposed to be included, but Pixar didn’t want to because it’s bad for business—if it won, it might put off the multiplex audiences. I have no idea if that’s right or not. The Lobster’s not a perfect film, but it’s the first by Lanthimos that was interesting; I think he’s moving in the right direction. It’s a film I’m thinking about every night. I can say the same thing about Sorrentino’s Youth. It’s not his best film, but it’s complicated and interesting filmmaking. Same thing with Mountains May Depart by Jia Zhang-ke. The third part of this three-part film is not really successful in an artistic way, but it’s an interesting change of point of view in how he sees the modern world, and I see many parallels with modern Russia in his exploration of modern China. I can name a number of other films I liked, like The Brand New Testament by Jaco Van Dormael in the Directors’ Fortnight, an absurdist comedy—I couldn’t imagine it playing in the competition. Maybe I liked it because in Russia right now we’re seeing the rise of Orthodox fascism in theaters everywhere. When I see such a free film about religion, it makes me feel good. It’s interesting to me that it was made by someone from Belgium. Also the small Icelandic film Rams, which won Un Certain Regard—it’s not going to change the world or the cinema, but nevertheless it’s beautiful and it’s a pleasure, and it’s important that such a film won a prize. So for me it was a good year.
CG: I definitely went out of the competition to see interesting films. I’m surprised that there were five French films in competition, and yet the best ones for me—Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Years, Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women—weren’t there. By now we understand more or less why they weren’t in competition, but for me they would have done better in competition. The choosing of social films is a bit cynical.
WM: It’s rigging — you’re setting the jury up to only make certain choices and not have to think about a whole other universe of films.
CG: Now what we didn’t talk about is the absence of Apichatpong Weerasethakul from the main competition.
AD: Yeah, it’s weird.
CG: No, it’s not weird, because Frémaux didn’t want Apichatpong to win again, because it would have been another low-admission film to win the Palme d’Or.
AD: There were three Asian filmmakers in Un Certain Regard, all of them with big prizes in the past. An, directed by Naomi Kawase, is one of her most accessible films, and she’s a Grand Prix winner for Morning Forest. Then there’s Brillante Mendoza, who was a Best Director winner, though he’s not my favorite director, but his new film, Taklub, is better than Kinatay, the film that won him his award.
GS: Coming back to Dheepan, I just had the sense that there was a collective will to finally give Audiard what he wanted. He didn’t win it for A Prophet, he didn’t win it for Rust and Bone, but this time, dammit….
Scott Foundas: Except that there are filmmakers who have competed many more times than him, Hou has been here many more times and has not won the Palm. Desplechin has been here more times and has not won anything, so in a way Audiard is not necessarily even one of these you would call “most favorite of Cannes.”
GS: But when you dig deeper into the relationship between the head of the festival and the company that produces both Depleschin and Audiard’s films, the company that sells them, and the connections between these guys that go back a long way—it’s a weird dynamic at play behind the scenes. But given he’s the moneymaker, Audiard always seems to be the favorite.
SF: Well he won the Grand Prix for A Prophet and, you know, he’s an accessible filmmaker and it’s obviously a big push for this film to get the Palme d’Or because it’s an incredibly uncommercial film. It’s a foreign-language immigrant drama with no stars. The only selling point is Audiard’s name, and that doesn’t mean a whole lot outside of France. So for whatever it may be worth—and we know that the Palme d’Or doesn’t even mean that much when you look at the box office of Winter Sleep, of Uncle Boonmee both in France and elsewhere in the world—it certainly means more that Dheepan has this prize than it would for a film that has a lot more going for it like Carol. Even The Assassin has already been sold in a lot of territories, apparently on the basis of Wild Bunch putting together this sort of canny, sizzle reel of the action scenes.
But I want to come back to Anton’s point about the film that won Un Certain Regard. I think it’s complicated. On the one hand, only Kyoshi Kurosawa won a prize from the Un Certain Regard jury so they passed over these other films you mentioned as well. It’s pretty well-known that Naomi Kawase is not a favorite for Thierry Frémaux but is a favorite of other people on the selection committee, and that’s one of the reasons she’s been here so many times. I think she’s now the most shown Japanese filmmaker ever in the history of Cannes, which is kind of remarkable considering that she hasn’t been very well known. It’s especially interesting that all these filmmakers we’re talking about—Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Kyoshi Kurosawa, Arnaud Desplechin, Philippe Garrel—prefer to be in Cannes somewhere rather than wait for Venice. It’s an unfortunate reflection on Venice’s decline in the world that all these movies felt a little more important to be in Cannes somewhere rather than waiting for the fall.
GS: Better to serve in heaven than to rule in hell.
SF: Evidently. So that’s one take away from the festival this year. Also, there’s a real resistance to putting super challenging art films or avant-garde films into the competition. They’ve periodically pushed something out of left field like Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth, but now they are just very, very reluctant to do it. And it’s unfortunate because those films tend to get seen by the people who are already interested in seeing them. If we think about the more mainstream kind of press that covers Cannes, they are basically following the competition and maybe Un Certain Regard, but not really trekking that much down to the Directors’ Fortnight or Critics’ Week.
GS: Anton, you were a fan of Sorrentino’s Youth—
SF: Oh my God!
GS: —which both Scott and I found truly excruciating. But this was a year in which three Italian films were in competition and that’s the first time I’ve seen that. It’s usually one of those guys in competition, whether it’s Moretti, Sorrentino, Garrone, and sometimes it’s Bellocchio. But this year, all three. Italy has hardly become a creative hotbed again.
AD: It’s not a renaissance of Italian cinema, clearly. It’s a coincidence that three filmmakers made new films the same year and coincidentally that all the three films are in English. Moretti is of course mainly in Italian but we have John Turturro as the biggest star in the center of the film, and the best thing about it, for me. I found Sorrentino and Garrone’s experiments not completely successful, but somewhat interesting.
GS: All these filmmakers are also in the Cannes club we were talking about that in the first roundtable.
AD: Last year we had a great Italian film which won the Grand Prix, The Wonders, which was a newcomer.
GS: Yeah, she’s in the club now.
Son of Saul
AD: Well-deserved, really. She’s a real discovery. The only discovery we have this year in competition is Son of Saul. Otherwise, it’s nothing new. We can say good films, bad films, but nothing’s really new. And Son of Saul, it’s a new name, new actors and a new energy. You can love it or hate it but it has energy. I didn’t like the film, as I say, but I can feel it.
SF: But it’s very rare to have a first film in competition. I don’t think you typically look to the competition to make discoveries.
AD: No. But sometimes it happens.
SF: Yeah, once in a blue moon. They did give something to Porumboiu’s The Treasure, which by his standards is a pretty accessible, easy film, the Certain Regard jury went for movies that worked on them emotionally. I mean I watched that Icelandic film and I was just baffled to think…
GS: I thought you were about to say that tears were running down your cheeks.
SF: How anyone could think that was the best film in that section just mystified me.
CG: Un Certain Regard has become the number two competition or a dumping ground as well as a place to make discoveries, but it’s just because too many auteurs make their films for Cannes. You were saying it’s a coincidence this year that three major Italians had films here. But it’s not a coincidence. Everybody in Europe works with the target of Cannes. And then you have a traffic jam. So they have to put films wherever they can, no pun intended.
SF: What movies would you like to have seen given a prize or that warranted one?
CG: Oh well, Desplechin like we already said. And Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side would have been an interesting Un Certain Regard award.
The Other Side
SF: Yeah, that’s an interesting but somewhat problematic film for me. It was a lively talking point on the documentary jury that I was on. We’ve admired a lot of things and battled over some questions about the gaze of the film at certain points. It’s certainly one of the only documentaries in Cannes that’s formally interesting, and he’s certainly an interesting filmmaker.
GS: And this is the first year that there has been a documentary jury, the equivalent of the Camera d’Or across all the sections.
SF: Except that, of course, there are really very few documentaries shown in Cannes that aren’t documentaries about cinema. Of the 14 films competing for that prize, 10 of them were in the Cannes Classics section. So I think it’s a nice idea and hopefully in the future, it will encourage the different sections of Cannes to show more of what we might think of as theatrical quality documentaries.
GS: The documentaries in competition have been mostly directed by Michael Moore.
SF: Yeah, never Frederick Wiseman, never the Maysles.
AD: I had another very strong emotional impression, from Cannes’ Classics, actually. It was the posthumous Oliveira film. This is not a good film; this is a great film. And in a way, it is a documentary. Like some of Oliveira’s other films, it really refused the divide between documentary and fiction. He appears in it as himself, and it’s a portrait of his house. It was too personal for him to show to anyone because he did it when he was in his 70s. He was sure that he would die soon and he told the director of the Portuguese Cinemateque to show it only after his death—so 33 years later. Now it’s somehow an absolutely new film. It feels fresh in a strange way. And it’s a historical document in which we see an almost young man. I was lucky enough to interview him two or three times in Venice. Cannes could have made a special presentation or big premiere in Lumière or Debussy, but it would be hard to explain to everyone who follows the new films why it was so important.
GS: I think they buried it by putting it in Cannes Classics. A lot of people didn’t even know that it was screening.
SF: It was screened at an odd time too…
SF: But I agree with Anton a hundred percent. It was one of the truly great films…
AD: It’s a jewel!
SF: A film on the level of The Assassin, Carol, or any of the better films at the competition. Just like all of the best of Oliveira, very playful, very contemplative of man’s place in the cosmos, the passage of time … you see these fantastic family photographs, you see Oliveira as a child… It’s the ultimate home movie. It’s a movie about his home so it’s also a movie about his whole life.
GS: We haven’t really talked about Carol, a film that everybody likes and which was expected to get a rather more significant prize than a shared Best Actress award.
SF: You often have a kind of Hollywood-style movie that’s either totally ignored by the jury or gets a kind of minor prize because it always comes to the discussion of, “Well, does this film really need a prize?”
GS: Should that really be a factor though?
SF: It shouldn’t be, but it’s become one of the criteria when you have more films that you want to award than you have awards to give. And also people come with different agendas, some people want to vote for political reasons or have other reasons than whether it is the best film.
AD: I completely agree.
SF: So do we get to talk about Maïwenn’s Mon roi? Because to me that was just like watching some horrid soap opera. Yet, you couldn’t turn away from it.
GS: I really didn’t find the film to be so terrible, actually. In certain ways it was quite nuanced and it had some interesting insights about the complexities and difficulties of relationships between men and women in their 40s. All of that embedded in, yeah, a very overacted or semi-histrionic treatment. I didn’t think it was a dumb film. I really didn’t.
AD: Simply unbelievable, no?
GS: I didn’t find it that unbelievable. What was clunky about the film was the intercutting of the development of Emmanuelle Bercot’s relationship with Vincent Cassel with her slowly recovering from her skiing knee injury—
SF: —and the metaphor of the French word for knee—genou is je et nous…. she thinks she’s making A Woman Under the Influence or something like that, but it’s like this kind of tawdry, superficial version of a real relationship movie. And to the extent that someone compares this to Claude Sautet—Claude Sautet is turning in his grave at such mention of his name.
GS: Maïwenn is something of an anomaly in French cinema…
SF: In human history.
GS: I’ll never forget her receiving the award for her first film, Polisse, and literally having a breakdown on stage. It was one of the most grotesque things I’ve ever seen in any award ceremony. And when I finally saw Polisse it was perfectly serviceable but just didn’t really live—
SF: You are so kind. To me her two movies are totally the same. Polisse is this absolutely hysterical melodrama. If the police behaved that way in real life, they would all be rounded up and there’d be a public scandal. A film of totally unethical behaviors from beginning to end, and then the suicide at the end was so ridiculous.
GS: Maybe you can tell us about the status of Maïwenn in French cinema, how she got to be where she is?
CG: I agree with you that there’s something in this histrionic quality that makes her special in this autobiographical, autofictional cinema. I don’t really think Cassavetes is a reference point for her. She’s playing the cards of instinct, and she really believes it, you know? But that doesn’t make it good. That makes it sincere. What I like in what she does is the latitude that she gives to the actors. The fact that you really see them understanding that somebody is giving them that, and they’re really enjoying it in an almost obscene way.
GS: Maybe giving them a little bit too much latitude.
Valley of Love
SF: But the meta-fictional quality in Mon roi seemed part of a running theme in the competition. That movie, the Guillaume Nicloux movie Valley of Love, and the Sorrentino movie Youth are all to some extent predicated on actors playing characters who are either based on themselves or based on the filmmaker, and they all have these narratives about being famous and the lifestyle that goes with that. Maybe it was the cumulative atmosphere of the films together, but they just felt so toxic to me. We’re at a film festival, and we’re watching movie after movie about the bubble of this world, so that when something else came along—like the Stéphane Brizé film that was so much about looking at society and people who aren’t typically the subjects of movie, or the Audiard film, which is such an uneven film and not the best Audiard—even for the jury, I can understand why a film like that was a real breath of fresh air.
AD: And what do you think about Michel Franco’s Chronic? I felt that it was quite terrible.
SF: Yeah. Terrible.
AD: And the screenplay is terrible.
SF: It’s a good performance by Tim Roth. I think I can almost seek out some example of this kind of sub-Michael Haneke Theater of Cruelty every year…
AD: It’s like medium cruelty. It’s really not shocking.
SF: The whole subconsciously distended style felt so arbitrary in terms of how long a shot would be. And it has one of the most ridiculous endings. But it has something in common with other prizewinners here over the years. It reminds me of Battle in Heaven because it’s just one miserable tableau after another of, you know, people suffering with no discernable point.
CG: No, I think there is a point. I don’t like the Austrian-Mexican school at all. Maybe it’s silly, but the idea that we get at first, that he may be a serial killer or some kind of stalker, is kind of interesting. It’s not gratuitous because then the whole film questions why somebody would have a calling to help others. It cannot be empathy. It’s questioning that and in that way it’s interesting that the screenplay makes you wonder whether he’s a pervert.
SF: Well, he is a sociopath and he does go around pretending to be other people.
CG: That’s just a liar, that’s not a sociopath. And the film kind of plays on that.
AD: He’s not a sexual pervert but he’s not normal.
CG: When you’re 95 and shitting on yourself maybe you’ll be happy to find someone who’s normal.
AD: Probably. I just feel that it’s very constructed. It’s proof that it’s a bad screenplay because you can feel how self-conscious the film is, how the director’s working on it, how he’s trying to make a film. I had the same problem with Son of Saul. It’s just a film, not a real story in which you can feel something.
GS: I’m really on Charlotte’s side on this film. I have no enthusiasm for it at all, but I didn’t once think of Haneke or Reygadas, although they’re valid comparisons. I never thought this guy was a sociopath, I just thought he had lost himself in a kind of work that is incredibly demanding, and the people who go into that line of work sometimes have issues to begin with. And this is what the film demonstrates, ultimately, as his backstory is pieced out gradually—we learn that he lost a child.
SF: The single most overused backstory in film.
GS: When we finally get the revelation and the psychological motivations, they’re really banal, and we’ve seen them before. But Tim Roth was fascinating to watch for once. This is one of the best bits of work he’s done in a many years. The movie is showy in the way it wallows in its own aesthetic. I found it to be a disturbing experience at times, and there’s a lot of ambiguity in that character. The fact that it turns out that there’s a very clear personal motivation doesn’t really change all of that ambiguity. So the patient’s watching pornography, for example, and then the Roth character is unjustifiably accused of sexual harassment—that’s a really interesting passage in the film. You’re left wondering what’s been left out. Is this a pleasurable film? In no way.
SF: No, but that’s not a deal-breaker for me—I love Haneke and a lot of Reygadas, so I’m not just complaining about it being unpleasant, I just thought it was incredibly self-conscious.