Cannes Dispatch #2: Son of Saul and Carol
Claude Lanzmann (left), Thierry Frémaux (center), and László Nemes (right)
Of the 19 films chosen to debut in the prestigious competition section at Cannes, two of the films that have screened in the fest’s first half are already standouts: Todd Haynes’s Carol, a tender and touching adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith love story The Price of Salt, from the United States; and from Hungary, László Nemes’s Son of Saul, an up close and brutal look at one man’s quest to protect a young boy's body from an unceremonious disposal within the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
“We wanted to talk about something that is only too often historical, the stuff of books,” Nemes, the 38-year-old director of Son of Saul, explained. “We wanted to make this very present, very alive, and we wanted to boil everything down to the dimension of a single human being.”
Nemes’s story, set over the course of a day and a half at Auschwitz-Birkenau, focuses on a single man and his mission: a member of a Sonderkommando group—Jews who were enlisted by the Nazis to dispose of those who had been gassed—believes one victim to be his son, and sets out in search of a rabbi who can properly bury the child. Shot with long takes, his protagonist stays in focus in the foreground while the background remains blurry. Married to a harrowingly precise soundtrack, viewers witness graphic moments from the carnage within the camp and inside its crematorium.
“Our approach was to exclude everything that was not fundamental to our story. Not to represent anything that gives you a sense of where we are and what was going on,” the cinematographer, Mátyás Erdély, added.
This approach sustains intensity for the viewer, witnessing an individual who is navigating an overwhelming experience while trying to remain focused on his personal mission.
“We didn't want to be emotional in the conventional sense of the word,” Nemes continued. “These people work in the crematorium, and after several months they are so empty of normal emotion. Normal emotions have been eroded away.”
Son of Saul
A rare debut feature in the Cannes competition, Son of Saul arrived at the festival with a strong pedigree. Nemes spent two years working as an assistant to Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr on the 2007 competition entry The Man From London, a background that added a level of expectation to the movie. Today, Nemes downplays their bond.
“Béla Tarr was my school, a way to learn the tools of the trade. There’s no other relationship, not consciously,” Nemes told me during the press conference. “He is nervous when I talk about him. I haven’t talked to him in eight years, but he’s glad and at the same time nervous.”
Nemes and Erdély shot Son of Saul on film stock, and it is apparently the only Cannes competition entry that will be projected on film here this week.
“I might be part of a dying kind, but I only want to shoot film,” Nemes explained in response to my question during the press conference. “This is the soul of cinema, the physical image projected. Everything else is a screen.”
Erdély and Nemes are quite passionate about the analog format.
“It’s not okay with us that industrial trends make film disappear,” Nemes continued. “I think the bottom line is that the viewer gets less in the end. It’s a regressive state. We want to fight against that. We want to make sure the new generation of filmmakers understand what it means to shoot on film.”
Cate Blanchett (left), Todd Haynes (center), and Rooney Mara (right)
A world apart, Carol was shot on Super 16mm film stock, and at its gala premiere, Todd Haynes’s latest film received a lengthy standing ovation.
Set in the early 1950s, Carol traces a love story that grows between two women, one a seemingly self-possessed mother and the other an aspiring young photographer. Their romantic interest in each other was a foreign notion to mainstream America at the time, and as if to reflect this fact, the characters are often shown viewed through windows or reflected in mirrors.
In a chat before the press conference, cinematographer Ed Lachman told me that the decision to compose scenes in this way was about “fragmenting the world emotionally.” Haynes elaborated on their creative decisions in the press conference. He’d thought a lot about “the act of looking and being looked at. An optical experience. And positioning people on either side of that optical experience.”
The film begs comparison to Haynes’s Far From Heaven (02), which featured a closeted man coming to grips with his sexual orientation. Yet other than the period elements, the two movies are quite different.
“Todd didn’t want to do a Sirkian world of heightened reality or artifice,” Lachman, who also shot Far From Heaven, said during the press conference. He said Haynes wanted to depict the more lived-in, even dirty environment of post-war New York. The two looked to the photography of Vivian Maier, among other sources of inspiration.
In Carol, the title character (played by Cate Blanchett) is an idealized female subject as seen through the lens of Therese (Rooney Mara), a budding street photographer. When the movie begins, Therese observes and desires Carol, but as time goes on and external forces challenge their relationship, the dynamic shifts and Carol is forced to observe and pursue Therese.
“Therese changes. The two women at the end of the film are very different from the two women at the beginning,” reiterated Todd Haynes. He cited David Lean’s Brief Encounter as one film that was a reference for Carol.
“Carol is almost a construct of Therese's imagination,” screenwriter Phyllis Nagy said. “She has really invented a whole world for Carol.”
Asked about the importance of telling this story at this moment, Nagy, who spent years trying to get the project off the ground, contemplated that while gays and lesbians have made some progress, there’s still a long way to go for many.
“Nothing has changed and everything has changed because we can have this movie now,” Nagy explained. She said that she hopes the film starts a discussion at a time when homosexuality is still illegal in many countries around the world. “We politicize the material by just allowing people to live their lives honestly.”
“When you live your life, your identity is front and center, but it’s something we are not often treated to seeing in films or in art,” Nagy concluded. “I hope it has some ripple effect eventually.”