What a strange festival. From the very beginning of Cannes 2015 things have felt slightly out of whack. The press lounge was stripped of some key seating, making it even more difficult to overtake the swaths of paparazzi that defend key sections of terrain like warlords. Queues are ballooning with Bleu badges earlier and earlier. Strolling down the Croisette is like trying to maneuver a sea of drunken walkers; more than a few espressos have been felled thanks to errant elbows. It’s survival of the swiftest.
Somewhat fittingly, as extreme exhaustion sets in desperation has become a key theme in the last throes of Cannes’ festival slate. On polar opposite sides of the quality spectrum live the singularly fractured and sublime narrative of Hou Hsian-hsien’s quiet masterpiece The Assassin and two laughably self-important social critiques: Jacques Audiard’s loud misfire Dheepan and Michel Franco’s absurd and antiseptic euthanasia drama, Chronic.
Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario resides somewhere in between.
A blistering crime film with striking formal vision and very little political smarts, the film stars Emily Blunt as Kate Macy, a talented FBI agent working kidnapping cases in Phoenix. Most of her hostage rescues involve people held for ransom by various Mexican cartels operating in the US. This narrative detail suggests that the line between northern “civilization” and southern “chaos” has finally been breached.
After raiding a cartel stash house containing over 40 dead bodies hidden in the walls, Kate’s recruited to join a special ops team led by two shady government henchmen (Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro). Their mission is to shake things up on both sides of the border. An extended set piece through the streets of Juarez proves Villeneuve can be a master of pacing. Ace DP Roger Deakins provides every image with a sense of crisp texture. One long shot overlooking the city of Juarez being torn apart by explosions and tracer fire is a perfect pastoral of the film’s rigorous aesthetic and deep sense of space.
But Sicario has nothing fresh to say about how Mexico’s drug war will inevitably have long-term implications for the United States. Villeneuve simply suggests that America’s only protective measure is to become just as ugly, murderous, and brutal as the cartels themselves, a pitiless and debilitating message.
Stories with the same characters from different time periods make up the triptych of Jia Zhang-ke’s oddly affecting Mountains May Depart. In the strangely jovial section set in 1999, a trio of swooning young people navigate jealousy and love on the verge of New Year’s celebrations and China’s imminent economic expansion. Subsequent segments in 2014 and 2025 continue to explore the country’s social and political contradictions through their human point-of-view, to various degrees of success.
Tonally unique dance sequences bookend the tempered narrative that touches on everything from poor working conditions to unattainable healthcare. Jia manages to jump between various layers of the relationship drama, but after A Touch of Sin this can’t help but feel like a slightly less impacting experience. Yet Mountains May Depart steadily and interestingly continues the filmmaker’s interest in identity, Chinese-ness, and the self-destructive properties of capitalism.
Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure quite literally digs for similar themes, regarding the stranglehold of money over regular citizens. A desperate man with financial woes enlists a neighbor’s help to recover the missing treasure hidden by a family member in advance of the communists’ arrival in the late 1940s. Absurdly comedic undertones infuse their every move; Porumboiu uses long takes to give his hapless men time to dig themselves deeper and deeper. This frisky morality tale hovers slightly above the dark side, much like the howling metal detector hilariously searching for subterranean booty. Long live the sly fox of the Romanian New Wave.
There’s no mistaking Roberto Minervini’s disturbing The Other Side for a prank. Existing somewhere between documentary and fiction, the film embeds itself in the bayous and forests of deep Louisiana where actors (playing representations of their actual personas) partake in drug use and radical ideologies, fueling a do or die version of America rarely seen on screen. The erosion of mind, body, and spirit can be seen in both of The Other Side’s equally relentless passages. Obama’s likeness doesn’t fare well, nor does the possibility of a future laced in forgiveness.
As the lights dim on Cannes 2015, the consensus remains that this was a down year. The highs were high (The Assassin, Cemetery of Splendour, Arabian Nights) and the lows were low (Paulina, Journey to the Shore, Chronic). Most of the Competition was considered disposable, save for a few titles. Thierry has some explaining to do.
For those award watchers, here are my futile projections ahead of tomorrow’s announcement from Joel and Ethan Coen’s jury.
Palme d’Or: Son of Saul
Grand Prix: The Assassin
Jury Prize: The Lobster
Best Director: Denis Villeneuve, Sicario
Best Actor: Vincent Lindon, The Measure of a Man
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Carol
Best Screenplay: Matteo Garrone, Tale of Tales
And on that note, I bid you adieu. Until next year.