The 68th annual Cannes Film Festival began May 13, and runs through May 24. This is Glenn Heath’s first dispatch from the South of France, with more to follow.
Sweat has been a prominent byproduct of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Shiny brows are in full effect, multiple critics are sporting deck shorts, and nobody can seem to find enough water. Hell, the first screening in The Grand Theatre Lumiere was George Miller’s supercharged bat-out-of-hell action film Mad Max: Fury Road, a desert symphony of sand and blood that drew rowdy applause from the normally subdued Cannes audience.
The incessant sunshine, mugginess, and heat have made the already bustling festival scramble a little more slippery. Hay fever sneezes have vastly outnumbered any rowdy boos (Gus Van Sant’s Sea of Trees aside). Leagues of festivalgoers are already sporting farmer’s tans and slight cases of delirium. No bones about it, people are trippin’ (quite literally in the case of this dear writer).
After four days of competition screenings a clear-cut favorite has yet to emerge. But multiple entries have exhibited an intense volatility and visceral rigor that matches the intense and blinding weather outside the balmy theater interiors. Maybe Festival Director Thierry Frémaux can see into the future, taste be damned.
Cannes opener Standing Tall, by French director Emmanuelle Bercot somehow packs a lifetime of yelling into its two-hour running time. It centers on the tumultuous experiences of a young ruffian named Malony (Rod Paradot) who spends much of his childhood moving through various stages of France’s social services system. Bercot’s camera tries to remain objective, but multiple judgments are made; the teenager’s incompetent mother displays a grotesque streak while his case officer wilts into a weakling after coming out of the gates strong.
The exhaustion one feels after witnessing Malony’s unconvincing rise and fall and rise again toward adulthood is palpable and unrelenting. Bercot’s camera feels like a sideline referee trying to make sense of characters it doesn’t understand.
Matteo Garrone’s wild and wildly superficial period piece Tale of Tales emits heat in different ways. The densely fantastical mise-en-scene appears to be inspired by The Princess Bride, but I found it closer to the oeuvre of Thomas Kinkade, whose cheesy landscape paintings have adorned American shopping malls for years. Maybe that was Garrone’s point.
Based on parts of the novel Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille by Giambattista Basile, the film weaves together three separate stories of love and murder that occasionally overlap. There are conniving kings and heart-eating queens, sea monsters and ogres, flayed skin and a gigantic flea. Drinking more than a bit of rosé before the screening ended up being a proper primer for Garrone’s batshit vision.
A few themes stand out: throughout this absurdly surreal and outlandish satire on modern Italian politics characters give themselves over to monsters, make peace with their body’s fragility, and are often confronted with what it means to be deformed, both inside and out. The film’s cast, which includes Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, and a small cameo by John C. Reilly, are all game to inhabit this world fully.
Like Garrone, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (of Dogtooth infamy) makes his English-language debut with The Lobster, an absurdly dark comedy of sexual repression starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and Lea Seydoux. Set in a nearby future where all single people are turned into an animal of their choosing if they fail to find another mate, the film is decidedly gimmicky and purposefully cruel, riding this wacko plot scenario into disturbing moral territory.
There’s very little sunshine in this Ireland-set dystopia. Every gray-stained shot seems to carry a social statement simply in the way these deadpan characters are forced (like the audience) to witness and partake in punishing embarrassments. Love hurts, a lot. But what does the film amount to? Some critics feel a great deal. I’m not so sure. Lanthimos’ grating aesthetics strain to mean, to exist, to contradict, and to provoke at all times. A film with this many agendas should be held with some contempt, even if it’s always watchable and occasionally nervy.
The fires of hell are just out of frame in László Nemes’s harrowing Son of Saul. Shot in Academy ratio, this strikingly formalist drama follows a day in the life of Saul Ausländer (Geza Rohrig), a Hungarian member of the Sonderkommando, Jews who were forced by the Nazis at Auschwitz to lead their fellow prisoners into the gas chambers and dispose of the ashes.
As one would imagine, the subject matter is unrelenting. Multiple sequences are filmed as long takes, and a few traverse incidents of endless chaotic movement and panic that are incredibly hard to watch. Nemes doesn’t dare stretch the frame any further. Still, Son of Saul’s stylistic imprint convincingly suggests that survival is not a day-to-day event, but a moment-to-moment one.
The most subdued of competition films so far, Todd Haynes’ Carol icily confronts sexual and emotional repression through the relationship of two women loving each other in secret in 1950s New York City. Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) meet cute one day at the department store and begin a long-gestating relationship that ventures into the territory of social taboo.
As with every one of his films, Haynes handles the material with the utmost grace and compassion, but the film feels far more flat emotionally than Far From Heaven or Velvet Goldmine. Signs of a pulse perk up in the final act, which showcases just how good both actors can be when given the free reign to confront each other’s doubts honestly and cinematically.
Carter Burwell’s swirling score adds a layer of resonance, as does the framing of intimate moments of isolation through water-spotted and frosted windows. Carol’s story may be simple, but it communicates themes of stunted desire and courage through layered imagery. After so much sweat and sass (both inside and outside the movie theater), its classic and classy night moves were indeed a welcome respite.