Cannes Roundtable #1
Scott Foundas, chief film critic, Variety
Todd McCarthy, chief film critic, The Hollywood Reporter
Marco Grosoli, www.spietati.it
Joan Dupont, International Herald Tribune
Stefan Grissemann, Profil
Jonathan Romney, contributor to FILM COMMENT, Sight & Sound, The Observer, and Screen
My Golden Days
Gavin Smith: So what’s the general feeling about the festival this year?
Todd McCarthy: Well, I think it’s a pretty slack festival, but the first thing I would say is that, from what I’ve seen, the festival’s decision to throw its lot in with French cinema this year has not paid off at all. I don’t know why they did that, I think a lot of the films are okay, ordinary, good films—if you were to see them in cinemas, you might think, “Well, one’s okay, one’s better than another”—but they’ve not been, in my view, really high-end, festival-worthy French films. So I think that’s the first thing to say.
GS: One exception being the Arnaud Desplechin film My Golden Days.
TM: I’m avoiding even including that because it was rejected for the competition, which, now that we’ve seen some of the other films, is particularly shocking. What could have motivated that?
Jonathan Romney: Well, there’s no surprise—the Audiard film Dheepan is something we would expect to be in the competition.
Scott Foundas: Yeah.
TM: Yeah, but one could say that about Desplechin too. So there are a number of French films that you would call, I would call films that you’ve got to come to a film festival to see.
SF: The festival under Thierry Frémaux has made this concerted effort to not play certain filmmakers just because they are who they are, and we saw that back in the year of Mike Leigh and Vera Drake where the film was rejected and then it went to Venice and won Venice. I’m all for the idea of including younger and less well-known filmmakers in the competition. I think it’s great that this year, among the French directors, they put in Stéphane Brizé with The Measure of a Man. He's a very interesting French filmmaker.
GS: And Valérie Donzelli’s Marguerite and Julien!
Joan Dupont: I saw that.
SF: —which went over like a lead balloon…
JR: It’s a very problematic film.
Marguerite and Julien
JR: I think it was partly there because it has this heritage link with Truffaut. The Jean Gruault script that she re-adapted was originally going to be a Truffaut project, and it’s got a kind of Truffaut homage element running all the way through it. But it’s also very weird because it’s this postmodern play with conventions, a complete anachronism—at one point it’s quite clearly a medieval story, but then it seems to be taking place in the 1900s. And then it has modern microphones and helicopters. It just doesn’t come across in any way—it just feels really banal, it’s almost as if the anachronisms are the only thing it has going for it.
GS: I heard it dismissed as a kind of a Wes Anderson imitation, because of its whimsical trimmings.
JR: It’s pure kitsch, but not in any sort of interesting, self-ironizing way.
JD: I can’t say I’m disappointed because I don’t think I was expecting much, but I thought it was very, very all over the place—a little of this, a little of that. The only nice moment for me was getting a glimpse of Geraldine Chaplin, who plays a kind of wicked witch mother-in-law! I thought she was great.
SF: She has a habit of coming into movies and turning them up a notch.
JD: Yeah, but isn’t it nice to see that, you know? With those eyes, and all that… But otherwise, I don’t know what Donzelli was after. It’s not romantic, it’s not sexual…
JR: It’s quite insipid, strangely, especially given the subject of incest.
Marco Grosoli: Gruault very clearly thought of this idea for Truffaut—it’s a pastiche of pretty much every aspect of Truffaut’s filmmaking. So you have to ask some questions when you approach such a subject. The approach is completely anti-Truffaut—which could be a good thing if there is some awareness in it, but there is none. Truffaut would have clearly stretched the childhood of the characters, up until their mature love story when they’re adults. Here, the exact opposite takes place: when the two main characters are children, they’re already adult and provided with sexual tensions that read very clearly in the film, which goes in a direction that’s completely different from the one that was intended in the script. And all of the other mistakes that she makes—and there are a lot—come from this original fault in the way she conceives the film.
GS: We started with one of the minor films in competition. Maybe we should step back and talk about the things that either had high expectations or have been met with great acclaim.
Our Little Sister
Stefan Grissemann: Jonathan was speaking about cinema heritage, or heritage culture, and I think two of the best films that I’ve seen here were Todd Haynes’s Carol and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister. Both of them have a sort of melancholy quality that is directly derived from nostalgia for the classical era. Our Little Sister, of course, harkens back to Ozu and Carol goes back to classic melodrama. Even though they look very different, they have a lot in common: they’re both almost 100 percent actress’s films and I think both of them work very well because they’re also very toned-down, they’re decidedly unspectacular. I appreciate that very much, and I know that Haynes is criticized by some because of the texture or quality of his films, because of the emphasis that he lays on costumes and gestures, suggesting that he can be perhaps too superficial or not deep enough or cold or chilly as I’ve read in some reviews. I don’t think so at all. I think this is the perfect way to tell this particular story.
SF: I also think in this one he really finds the perfect balance of his interest in all of those surfaces and the meaning of objects and gestures and in just a really compelling story, which I felt totally wrapped up in from the very beginning. I never felt that sort of distance that you sometimes feel even in his good films. And I totally agree with you about the Kore-eda film. I’ve felt that with the last four or five films by him that if you wanted to imagine what an Ozu film would look like today, this is it. He has the same kinds of concerns about looking at Japanese society through the prism of the family in a totally effortless, lucid way.
SG: Totally, yeah. It’s really masterful, and it’s deceptive because the story seems so slight.
SF: He had some ups and downs in his career early on, and now I think he’s completely found his voice.
JR: What’s very interesting about those two films, I think, given the fuss last year about there not being enough women directors in competition, is that this year has become a women’s festival, but not with women directors. Donzelli really kind of blew it I thought, and Maïwenn blew it dreadfully, and Emmanuelle Bercot didn’t really pull it off in the opening film, Standing Tall. But the women in the films—I didn’t like Maïwenn’s film at all, but I think Bercot gives a really, really strong performance in it, even if it goes off the rails. The women who played the sisters in the Kore-eda film, the ensemble of women I’ve just seen as Moroccan prostitutes in the Nabil Ayouch film Much Loved—they’re really strong performances, and, of course Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara—
SG: And even on a more frivolous level, of course, in Mad Max: Fury Road.
SF: Not frivolous at all!
JR: And not forgetting Amy Poehler as, you know, an emotion in the head of a little girl in Inside Out, which I think is a great film.
SF: And I think you could also add Emily Blunt in Sicario, where she is literally the only woman in a film totally dominated by men, but it’s all through her eyes.
GS: She’s the moral center of the film, in fact.
JD: If there is one.
JR: While it’s not a very interesting film, it wouldn’t have functioned at all if she hadn’t been there just kind of frowning through the whole thing, constantly saying, “What is going on?” I mean, it’s not even a role, but she somehow carries it nevertheless.
TM: I didn’t care for Kore-eda’s film. I thought it remained in a minor gauge for me the whole time, and I got very tired of it. I don’t know why. I love Ozu, but not that. The one film that I would speak for that just knocked me out way more than any other was Son of Saul.
Son of Saul
JR: Yeah, absolutely.
TM: I think it’s an extraordinary film, one of the most amazing opening shots I’ve ever seen that completely establishes the perspective from which you’re going to experience these events, which, in a way, I think is the most appropriate and convincing way of showing Holocaust-related material I’ve ever seen in any fiction film. In other words, the perspective—you know what’s going on outside the frame or out of focus in the back of the frame, the character doesn’t want to see it, doesn’t want to think about it, you don’t actually see everything that’s happening but you know what’s happening. And I think that was sustained in an extraordinary way all through the film. It’s the one film that just stays in my mind in a way that I could say it was worth coming here to see. I felt like everything else that I’ve liked—like Mad Max, Carol, and Inside Out—you know, they’ve already opened or they’re going to open very soon, and somehow the sense of discovery at Cannes hasn’t been there for me this year, the one exception being Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul.
GS: Whether you like it or hate it, that’s definitely the big discovery and flashpoint of the festival, at least so far.
JR: It’s quite brilliant, because formally and thematically, it completely rethinks the Holocaust film and the whole question of whether you can represent the Holocaust, whether you should represent it, the question of there being a taboo and if you stage these horrific events, whether you can show them at all or not. So it’s extraordinary to think about all of these things going on, apparently being reconstructed very realistically and panoramically, but they’re all out of shot or they’re obscured by the protagonist’s head. And as you said, it also becomes a kind of metaphor for his situation because he’s someone who’s completely innocuous. And it radically de-sentimentalizes the Holocaust, because one of the ideas that we always hold onto about the Holocaust which is very sort of reassuring, is the idea that among the victims there was some sort of solidarity and people were able to reach out to each other emotionally, and this suggests that the horror and the oppression was so complete that even that became impossible and is now isolating people, making victims into Sonderkommando executioners and then making executioners back into victims. And it’s just a genuinely horrific—and I think very, very lucid—rigorous rethinking of what it means to think about the Holocaust cinematically.
TM: And while the character knows what’s going to happen to him eventually and we know what’s going to happen to him in three or four weeks, he’s blocking it out. He can’t think about that at this moment, he’s just going to make it one more day and one more day and as long as he can—it is the perfect metaphor.
SG: I agree that it is a virtuoso film in a way—it’s a knockout. But I think that’s already part of the problem for me, because I think the Holocaust doesn’t need a knockout director but a responsible director. I think that Son of Saul is a very smart-ass film in a way, because he’s on top of the discussion, he even makes the Lanzmann argument of focusing on the Jews that rebel and revolt and not on the Jews that let themselves be slaughtered. And the thing that he incorporates, the true story of the photographs being done within the camps, the four photographs that remain—there’s one being taken in the film—shows that he has something to say about the making of images and the question of should we make images of this. But nevertheless, I think the whole enterprise of doing a film like this, in such a knockout form, is in itself highly problematic and also obscene, I think. Just thinking about staging such a thing, just thinking about laying 20 nude dead women on top of each other and then let one be dragged across the floor with her legs open… I think that’s highly obscene and it doesn’t give me any clearer or more enlightening picture of what happened.
MG: But the knockout aspect of the film is on the margins. The film is about an obsession, which is precisely why it manages to avoid sentimentality: obsession and sentimentality are mutually exclusive, something obsessive is by definition “unsentimental,” and we are 100 percent on the side of the obsessive main character here.
GS: Do you think that justifies the style of the kind of bravura plans sequences?
MG: Well, yeah, because you don’t see anything beyond the main character because the character doesn’t see anything around him beyond his own obsession.
Son of Saul
SG: But in the scene where he gets almost shot, it turns into a thriller, into a genre film: can he escape, will somebody identify him as a Sonderkommando and save him? And then he drops the whole system of keeping everything on the fringes, it’s totally clear how people are shot, over and over again. It’s a totally narcissistic adventure story. The narcissism kills the objective that it should have, mainly, to enlighten about the Holocaust.
MG: But it didn’t want to enlighten about the Holocaust!
SG: Then what does it do?
MG: It tries to be about the obsession of the main character. The Holocaust is a kind of contour, is a kind of side thing.
JR: You can put it like that, but the Holocaust and the question of how you represent it is absolutely essential—but then it becomes marginal precisely because of the strange mechanism by which it’s blocked out and literally placed on the edges.
MG: I think what is essential is the testimony of the Holocaust, not its representation, which are two distinct things. When you consider the film as a testimony of the Holocaust, you already have in mind a possible addressee, so the issue that it tackles is not really how to represent the Holocaust but to what extent is it conceivable to want a testimony of the Holocaust at any price. It has such an outstanding pace and obviously spectacularizes the Holocaust, but at the same time, by means of the things that the main character does and thinks, it kind of implies that anything can be sacrificed for the sake of the testimony, and of course the immorality itself falls within this “anything.” So in a way it says, “Okay, I am immoral because I spectacularize the Holocaust, but on the other hand it’s true because everything can sacrificed—including morality itself—in order to provide a testimony of it.”
TM: Could I just ask what examples you would hold up as a successful or, in your view, correct or moral representation of the Holocaust? In a dramatic format, not documentary.
SG: Well, yeah, there’s a film called Passenger by Andrzej Munk.
SG: I think it’s very tough to portray things like this. It’s also tough to portray the Vietnam War. But the Holocaust of course is a very, very special point in history and it’s very hard to represent. I mean, Nemes is a first-time director, maybe he shouldn’t feel that it’s his duty to do that. I think if you’re doing it, it should really be painful. If you want to be true to the Holocaust, you should make a really painful film.
JR: I found this film acutely painful—
SG: —I found it more technically brilliant.
JR: Well, I also found it very kind of polemically important. Having been coming to Cannes over the past 20 years, I’ve become aware of a shift in that line where the taboo lies, and of course in the mainstream it started with Schindler’s List but then it went on to what I regard as the genuine obscenity of a film like Life is Beautiful, which I thought was horrific! Now that’s an obscenity because it’s saying, “It’s okay, we can laugh about the Holocaust.” And I know that some writers have tried to do this, even a very fine British comic writer, Howard Jacobson, has attempted this in Kalooki Nights. And for me that’s the only attempt—it’s called—that’s the only attempt to sort of laugh at the Holocaust, but it comes from a particular kind of sort of tradition of Jewish humor. Benigni’s film was just gross sentimentalizing, and at that point it almost felt like a spell was broken, that once he’d done that then you could also have that terrible film Jakob the Liar, and I thought, well, where can you go after this? So I think what Nemes is doing in his film is saying, “Okay, let’s kind of reposition this question of taboo, let’s remember this question of taboo, and now let’s confront it, but confront it from a very serious position.” And I can absolutely see why you’d still feel there is that element of obscenity there, and I think he wants us to be aware of it, but I think he also wants us to be aware of the position from which, you know, that obscenity might possibly be regarded and analyzed. Now, I think it’s a very difficult, brave, polemical film, and I do hope that people are going to be arguing about it very passionately.
GS: Stefan, when you spoke of the narcissism of the film, I have to say the “Look Ma, no hands!” virtuosity of the camerawork does somehow undercut the gravity of the material.
SF: But don’t we come back to the Godard-Rivette discussion of the tracking shot in Kapò? This is that question all over again.
GS: It might almost be a reference to that.
JD: Son of Saul absolutely works for me. I don’t see why this is more narcissistic than anybody else’s film!
GS: Maybe because of the context.
JD: But it’s that context that is a very difficult context, but is extremely powerful. And this fantasy that he gives birth to something beautiful, that he wants to bury, it’s an extraordinary thing, and…for me, it was very emotional.
GS: What’s stood out for you so far?
JD: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore I liked a lot… I found it very mysterious. And I’ll say something about Carol right here: I did not find Carol mysterious or intriguing. I found it beautiful to look at, but very surface. But the Kurosawa film took me other places. And that’s what I like: to not know where I’m going, and to go into the woods with somebody. And that film for me does it, because the way he shifts from the husband who comes back and then their voyage together, I found really interesting, really intriguing.
MG: It’s a very free kind of writing.
JD: It’s very supple.
MG: It’s basically his genre films, his horror films, minus the genre, if such a thing is possible. And it is, I mean, this film is a demonstration that a rather interesting reflection about the thin line between life and death can be carried out by itself without the genre structure.
SF: So it’s a better version of Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees then? ‘Cause I haven’t seen that one yet. [all laugh]
GS: Yeah, it’s the antidote to The Sea of Trees.
JR: It’s a really different, interesting thing, this whole question of “mystery.” There’s a certain quality that we all look for when a film sort of touches us, where we don’t just see events that are being staged in front of a camera and filmed in a particular way and edited in a particular way—where it becomes something else.
GS: An experience.
JR: An experience that becomes more than the sum of its parts, in the classic formulation. But somehow when you see some works, all the ingredients are there, but it’s not clicking somehow. And there are a couple of films which could have almost been calculated to please me, on paper they would be exactly my kind of thing—I fully would have expected to like Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales but somehow, no magic there whatsoever, I saw an absolutely deliberate construction and elements put together in a particular recipe. And perhaps worse in a way, was Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster. I loved Dogtooth and the one he made before that, Kinetta—they showed a genuinely strange sensibility. And this one just felt like it had been bolted together in a particular way, and it felt very deliberate and labored, and there was just some sort of tonal thing about it that stopped it from going up a bit further and acquiring that spark. It’s very disappointing.
GS: Was that a universally disliked film or is there anyone here who will speak up for it?
SF: Oh, I’ll speak up for it a little bit but I’ll agree that on paper it sounded like a love letter to Jonathan Romney. [laughter all around]
SF: I didn’t care for Dogtooth at all, for all the reasons Jonathan just said about this movie, because I felt it was so arch, it was so deliberate, everything was with a yellow highlighter over it. You knew that at some point this pristine environment of the film was going to be corrupted by some kind of explicit violence. And then I thought in Alps, he had kind of loosened his style of bit and he’d hit on a more interesting metaphor, with performance in life and performance in art. And this movie in the realm of directors trying to make a more accessible English-language film that’s still in their own style, he certainly does more successfully than most. It’s totally his film from top to bottom, but I think in a way he’s hit on his most interesting concept thematically, and then he doesn’t quite work it through all the way. Somehow the idea of exploring marriage as both this social construct that’s imposed on people but also kind of a prison, and all the ideas about what people look for in a partner and that kind of thing, it’s such a rich idea for a movie, and somehow he ends up not having enough ideas about it to keep the movie going.
GS: I think there’s a bit of Gone Girl in that idea about marriage—
SF: I thought of that, I said on Twitter I thought of a number of Marco Ferreri films that are centered around these ideas about a male ego and the domestic prison. There’s a lot of Dillinger Is Dead in this movie, although whether Lanthimos would ever fess up to it or not I don’t know, because apparently he doesn’t acknowledge any influences…
GS: It doesn’t have the rigor of his other films.
SF: But it’s a memorable film. Because you go, “Oh look, there’s Léa Seydoux, and there’s Colin Farrell, and there’s John C. Reilly…”
SF: But Colin Farrell is wonderful in this movie, and you never see Colin Farrell play this kind of role. He plays a total dweeb, and he’s wonderful. And so, by the way, is Olivia Colman, as the head manager at this hotel…
GS: What about Tale of Tales? That’s the one I was referring to where I had the impression it was universally rejected.
TM: That’s not true. I would say both films that we’re talking about had something going for them in terms of style, but I think they were both all set up and had no real delivery at the end. I would say half of The Lobster was interesting, as long as they were at the hotel, but then it narrowed so much that it really withered down to nothing in the end, with no payoff. So it ended up being disappointing, but there was still something there. The Tale of Tales too, when you’re first figuring out what’s going on, all these different actors, and the art direction and all that, it was interesting for a while, but then it just sort of withered away. I think in both cases there was a certain degree of interest, but it wasn’t rewarded by the second half of either film.
JR: I think there’s a narrative problem: certain films are great as long as you’re thinking, “Where are you going with this?” And then as soon as you figure out where it’s going—end of story.
SG: I would like to strongly defend The Lobster, even though I agree it’s too long by 20 minutes or so, because once we’re in the woods, it becomes a bit repetitive. But it’s still wildly original. It’s a very quirky film. You can hate the eccentricities he puts on the table but I was still totally surprised by most of it, for the first 80-90 minutes. And Ferreri is an interesting reference point because I thought the whole time it had a sort of cynical surrealism… Surrealism is always cynical in a way, but, it was quite deserved. I think that’s the right tone. And the voiceover made me think of Kubrick in a way, because it has the coldness of Kubrick, Barry Lyndon in particular. It has the same sort of detached cynicism to it. So I enjoyed it. I think he’s one of the more intelligent forces of European auteurism.
MG: Yeah, I agree. And I don’t think that Ferreri would have ever been able to film the space of the forest, like this place of freedom as more—how can I say—more narrowed down and more compelling than the concentrationary hotel itself, which is what Lanthimos does—it turns out to be one of the best things in the film. Basically there is the establishment, which is a strong constriction, but then it turns out that the absence of that constriction in the forest is even worse. It’s an overwrought film, of course, but I found it interesting how it conceptualizes the rule and the exception, and to find something else that doesn’t belong to the rule or the exception. And in this respect I think one of the perhaps better ways to enter the film is to try and think of it as a film that goes against the grain that it chooses to belong to, namely the Von Trier-ian, Haneke-ian pessimist film. At the beginning you think that you’re going to be in that zone, but then it ends up being an optimistic film.
SF: It’s romantic in a strange way.
MG: Anti-romantic but definitely optimistic.
GS: I definitely prefer being in Lanthimos’s forest than Garrone’s, and this does seem to be the competition of forests, so logically we should now talk about Gus Van Sant’s film.
SF: “Cannes 2015: Days and Nights in the Forest” [laughter]
The Sea of Trees
SF: The Sea of Trees—what is there to say? It’s like kicking a dead horse. There seems to be one of these movies every year, that just baffles everyone as to how this film could’ve possibly been selected. Clearly this wasn’t a banner year for American films, just in terms of what was available, because a lot of, let’s say, the usual suspects of Cannes didn’t have new films this year. I think they were kind of scrambling just to get the three that they have.
JR: But there is a problem with those selections, because there’s a very simple question that they’re clearly not asking, which is: can we ask people to sit through this film for two hours? Is it right to say to people—you know, it’s implied: we’re going to offer you something good, you’re going to like this, you’re going to have a good time, it’ll be interesting. But to actually ask people to spend two hours watching The Sea of Trees? I think it’s an appalling thing. Someone clearly has not thought about what it means to watch a film like that. So why are they giving it to us?
SF: It’s a Gus Van Sant film.
JD: I think it’s a Cannes-quality idea. And I think that they’re very obsessed with that. We are the festival who gives you people like Van Sant, and they belong to us.
GS: No more so than the case of Naomi Kawase.
TM: Do you think they actually watched that film and liked it?
JR: Who knows?
JD: Of course they did.
TM: Because, for the record, I haven’t encountered anyone who has stood up for that film yet. Usually some film has a defender here or there, and I haven’t found a defender on this one.
GS: I found one, but just one.
SF: I think the press is slightly complicit in this, in that every year when Cannes announces the selection, you always have this immediate pre-criticism of the selection, based on no one having seen any of the films. And you have all of these—I wouldn’t even say critics—just these social media prognosticators and entertainment industry analyst types who will always immediately criticize that “There aren’t enough big names in the competition. There’s nothing to look forward to. Why didn’t they take the new Jeff Nichols film?” Or whatever. So I think that there is an implied pressure on the selection committee to take some big Hollywood-type names so that they aren’t pre-criticized for having too obscure of a selection, even if that means taking a film that’s as bad as The Sea of Trees.
GS: Is Gus Van Sant a really big Hollywood-type name?
JD: Not really.
JR: But people see it.
SF: It’s like the Atom Egoyan film last year—it’s in the same position.
TM: These are pre-approved, Cannes names that have won things in the past, so they can be justified on that level. You always come to the festival with good will, and you say, “Well, they picked this, so there must be something worthwhile about it.” But then you look a little deeper, and there are one or two people on the committee who are real champions of these people, so these directors are going to be at Cannes no matter what.
GS: So there’s a sense that the committee says, “This person won the Palme d’Or 10 years ago, so they’re in our club.”
TM: That’s what was interesting in the festival this year. Some of these people were “demoted” to Un Certain Regard. Or in Desplechin’s case, went over to the Directors' Fortnight.
GS: But Desplechin hasn’t ever won anything, has he?
SF: But I think one interesting thing is the fact that you have Apichatpong and Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Naomi Kawase all in Un Certain Regard does suggest one thing: that Venice has now declined in importance to the point where directors of this level are willing to come to Un Certain Regard to be in Cannes rather than go in competition in Venice, which always used to be the model when films by directors of that stature, who were either regulars in the competition or had won prizes in Cannes, didn’t get selected. I think you could say the same thing about Desplechin or Miguel Gomes. All these guys could’ve waited to go into competition in Venice, very easily, but it means more to be somewhere in Cannes than to wait for Venice at this point.
Cemetery of Splendour
SG: I think that Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour should’ve been in competition. He’s just as much a name in cinephilia as Van Sant—actually, a much bigger name. It’s another one of those films that constantly surprise you. It has a particular blend of the everyday and the fantastic, which nobody else does like him. I thought it was richly textured and brilliantly realized, and reflected on cinema and the act of seeing and dreaming, both states that we associate with cinema. It’s a wonderful film.
MG: I found it a rather cheap reproduction of what he’s always made with a more linear, legible narrative, which doesn’t amount to much in the end.
TM: I am too. You really have to think about the audience: he has a lot of fans, but if you’re considering filling a theater built for 2,000 people? And what’s wrong that’s being in Un Certain Regard? You just have to admit that it’s smaller or more specialized film. You’re still in the club. Sometimes, you hit a home run, sometimes, it’s going to be something less. I don’t think it’s such a shame.
SF: But I think what makes a difference is that the most mainstream press, or the press writing for the biggest outlets, tend to follow the competition predominantly and see other films as they’re able to fit them in. And when the festival does take a chance and puts something like, let’s say, Colossal Youth by Pedro Costa in competition—
GS: —they’re never gonna do anything like that again!
SF: —it forces a lot of people to be exposed to that who ordinarily would never see the film.
GS: Name a film since Colossal Youth that’s been of that caliber.
SF: Let’s just say that Tropical Malady had a pretty violent reaction when it was shown in competition with a lot of walkouts. But then when they showed Uncle Boonmee, it was very well received. I think there’s something to be said for gradually exposing the larger audience to a more radical kind of cinema. They may not take to it at first, but by the second or third time that director comes into competition, they know how to enter into that kind of film. If you put Lav Diaz at Un Certain Regard, you’re more guaranteed to only get the people who are already interested in seeing the new film by Lav Diaz.
GS: So if you were Thierry Frémaux, you would’ve put it in competition?
SF: In that case, yes. But this becomes a question: Shame was shown in competition. You had the year of Marco Tullio Giordana’s The Best of Youth. It wasn’t shown in competition, but everybody said it should’ve been. I think in this day and age where you have this very fine line between long-form TV series and feature films, and you have all these filmmakers going back and forth, you have to evaluate it on a case-by-case basis. I know Jonathan and I are both big fans of Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights that has been showing at the Directors' Fortnight, where the third volume shows tomorrow, and that is another film that very, very much deserves to be—
GS: —it would’ve been a very daring thing to do, and a real statement, to put it in the competition.
SF: It would’ve also said that narrative cinema can take all kinds of forms. But this is not a difficult film to—
GS: —but there’s no red carpet life in , unfortunately. The audience wouldn’t have had it.
TM: You have to be realistic: how do you show a film like that to the black tie evening audience? It’s six-hours. That’s impossible. Plus, they’re presented as three separate films.
JR: As far as the red carpet factor goes, what do people feel the logic was for choosing the opening night film? Because I could see them not wanting to do a big-budget, prestigious clunker like Grace of Monaco again. Still, Standing Tall is a very odd choice.
GS: Catherine Denueve is in it.
TM: I found the film insufferable because it’s so full of itself, self-justification for the French legal system: we don’t let anyone slip through the net, there’s always someone there to catch them. I think it probably made the French audiences very happy for that reason, whether they acknowledged why or not.
GS: As the French insider, what do you say?
JD: I don’t think that’s fair. I think that they thought they were making another kind of Truffaut film about this lost boy who they were trying to humanize.
TM: But it’s all about the system and Marianne, Catherine Deneuve, who’s at the center of it all.
GS: She’s the Truffaut figure in the film.
TM: But she’s the symbol of France.
JD: I don’t think it was about France.
SF: The important thing to point out is that this is already a massive hit at the French box office. It’s like a new record in first weekend ticket sales. On paper, it looked like a strange film to put in the festival, but it looks good for the festival to have it. In the year where the Coen Brothers were the head of the jury and Mad Max was showing the next night, I think there was a certain pressure to find a French film. Of course, you could say that they could’ve shown a film with French stars—there was a Jean-Paul Rappeneau film that was apparently under consideration with Nicole Garcia, Mathieu Amalric, and a lot of other people like that. But they decided to go in the direction of something more like The Class, which won the Palme d’Or a few years ago.
The Measure of a Man
GS: Maybe we should wind up with the other notable French film in competition, the Stéphane Brizé film, which seemed to be very well received, and another film that’s attempting to wrestle with contemporary France and its problems.
JR: You talked about the problem of images in Son of Saul, and for me, the most interesting thing about Brizé’s film is what it says about the abuse of images in society. It’s about economic collapse, how people are forced to do whatever they can to make money, and thereby enter into this system of the oppression of others. The most interesting aspect of the film was the use of images, not only surveillance system in the supermarket—which is absolutely terrifying. Who would’ve thought that the most amazing tracking shot you’ll ever see is from the ceiling of a CCTV system in the supermarket!?
GS: I thought that was kind of a wink to Tout va bien.
JR: Exactly, yeah. But there’s another moment where they’re looking at his interview footage—
GS: Oh my god . . .
JR: —and every aspect of his physical, vocal comportment is being monitored. And there’s a really interesting French documentary called Rules of the Game about young people being trained to enter themselves for job interviews in which every aspect of their behavior is monitored.
GS: Not monitored, but critiqued.
JR: So unless you conform to a certain code of social behavior—physical, social, vocal, dress—you’re screwed.
GS: Posture, too. I say that as I’m slouching a bit.
JR: Which is why we’re all film critics, because none of us would ever pass that test in the real world! But the idea of his image being critiqued in that way really frightened me. I think it hit a very painful note.
MG: I can’t say that I liked this film, but it’s still interesting the way in which the film finds this abuse of images by overindulging with ellipses: you don’t see when the main guy is hired, you don’t see when the woman who is fired kills herself, and probably a few other things I didn’t notice.
SG: Cinema is the art of making images or images in motion, or the illusion of motion, so the self-reflexivity of films at this year’s festival seems really high. We have photographers all of the place— Isabelle Huppert in Joachim Trier’s Louder Than Bombs, Rooney Mara in Carol—and we have two filmmakers—Margherita Buy in Nanni Moretti’s Mia Madre, and Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women. They all seem to be talking about the same thing.
SF: The Iranian film in Un Certain Regard, Nahid, has an important plot revelation that is conveyed via a surveillance camera, which puts it back in conversation with The Measure of a Man.
JR: Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario has another important use of surveillance cameras too, with the bank.
TM: We haven’t talk about the two big American films, Inside Out and Sicario, and I think they’re both quite interesting. Inside Out seemed to be hugely well received, and in my mind it’s a Sixties head-trip packaged as a mass-audience film in a very clever way.
JR: It’s also kind of a lesson in how Pixar films work on us. I find the best Pixar films completely emotionally effective, and I mean that they’re very manipulative: I know that something’s going to make me laugh or cry. It always happens, even when I try and distance myself. But this film actually shows you how it works: you see when they’re pressing the joy button or when they’re pressing the sad button.
SF: More self-reflexivity.
JR: But it’s reflexive in a way that’s incredibly enlightening about how all films work. On one level, it’s going to be a very joyous experience for kids who will see it—younger kids will see it as an adventure story—but it also uses those more juvenile elements, such as the funny elephant, which 2-year-olds will like. But it says, “This is the image for 2-year-olds, and this is what it means to 2-year-olds.” It’s a really self-analytical film, even in terms of the plasticity of the image, the way it uses colors, the way it uses textures. There’s that strange, trippy moment where it deconstructs the image and basically shows you how CGI works. It’s an extraordinary film that’s given me more intense pleasure than anything else here. I didn’t even feel the same level of pleasure with Arabian Nights.
SF: I’m sure that someone’s probably written their dissertation on this by now, but the Pixar films are so formally daring and so full of this kind of self-deconstruction: Wall-E, with the long, silent opening, or Ratatouille, with the Proustian childhood flashback and the synesthesia of eating food and seeing colors and shapes. There are all these very heady concepts in these films that are ostensibly for children, and it’s something that when live-action filmmakers try to do it, the studios run in panic. Including, quite frankly, a lot of the tension between Warner Brothers and George Miller throughout the making of Mad Max is all about ways to make the film—
GS: You keep bringing it back to Mad Max. It’s like an obsession with you.
MG: He spent three months with George Miller, he can’t get it out of his head.
SF: But that film is just in a class by itself.
GS: As it should be. Do you have anything to say about any of these films? What about Sicario? I heard a lot of people dismissing it as run-of-the-mill after the screening.
SG: It has a dark, gloomy quality to it. It’s a very commercial film. If any of us would’ve lost someone in the drug war there in Ciudad Juárez, we wouldn’t be so excited with the suspense things that they do with it. It has an obscenity to it as well.
TM: And it has the obsessive main character.
SF: I think it’s easy to write off Villeneuve as a high-end genre filmmaker because his technical filmmaking is so good. But I do think in this film and Prisoners and the one before, Incendies, he is asking some interesting questions about revenge, the morality of violence, who’s on the right side, and is there even a right side, whether it’s in Lebanon or suburban America or this drug war—
GS: But they’re not very deep questions. They’re very obvious questions that are resolved very effortlessly in the film. I don’t think you’re really left pondering the moral dilemmas afterwards.
SF: I think a lot of people will leave wondering if there’s a hero in Sicario at all.
JR: I found this one essentially banal. I’m quite happy to watch Emily Blunt frowning for two hours, which is basically what she does. The idea that she’s the moral center to this film, saying, “Should we be doing this?” So what? Is that all they can come up with? I found it very laborious and sub-Michael Mann. I could see that topic, and indeed that script, could be given a different dimension somehow.
SF: It’s like pre-digital Michael Mann.
GS: There is something in that film in addition to Emily Blunt frowning, which are the scenes involving the cop and his family, and that’s the residue that’s left behind after all of the action of the film has been worked through is the wife and the son. That’s kind of an interesting device to insert into the film, because you could easily see a studio executive saying, “Do you really need this stuff about the guy’s family when we don’t even know who he is? Does it really matter?”
JR: It felt like it owed a lot to Soderbergh’s Traffic, but Soderbergh would’ve made more with that character and would’ve been smart enough to realize that he’s actually kind of the central story. Villeneuve sees him as a marginal device.
GS: It is a device.
SF: I liked the abstraction of the film. You don’t really know what’s going on for a very long time, and you never really know what everyone’s motivation is. Think about his last film, Enemy, which was about a guy who had a doppelgänger—Villeneuve seems very interested in this idea of multiple identities. Everybody in the movie, except for Emily Blunt, says that they’re one thing, and then turns out to be someone else and have a hidden agenda.
TM: I agree with Scott on that, but I think in terms of set pieces, when they go over the border in Mexico, that’s as good as it gets with this kind of thing.
SF: The movie literally starts with a bang, and you think that it can’t possibly sustain that level of tension for two hours. I felt on the edge on my seat in a way that I haven’t felt since Prisoners, which managed to do that for two and a half hours.
GS: I feel that Prisoners is a much lesser film. You haven’t seen it? How dare you! You’ll get to see it. We’ll stop now. Thanks, everybody.
JR: We should utter a prayer that the next few days will give us something major…