Cannes 2015 – La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot)

After two years of underwhelming opening films, the Cannes Film Festival appears to have erred on the side of caution in its selection of the 68th opener. After The Great Gatsby was deemed a vapid excercise in decadence, and Grace of Monaco was generally panned, perhaps it seemed like the time to change tactics, and opt for something less glamourous and potentially substantial?

Emmanuelle Bercot’s Opening Film for the 68th Festival de Cannes, La tête haute, considers the life and social circumstances of Malony (Rod Paradot), a juvenile delinquent, constantly both the perpetrator and victim of his own downfalls. Consistently committing crimes that he is too young to be legally convicted for, Malony is tossed about juvenile correctional centers, and even prison, authorized by a steadfastly hopeful judge (Catherine Deneuve) who is witness to his life trajectory, and believes that it is possible for him to reform his behaviour, and find discipline and purpose in his life.

Rod Paradot is outstanding in his role as the central character Malony. His is a role that is so technically and emotionally demanding, that therefore his debut performance is even more astonishing. As Malony is ever inwardly ablaze in his premature bitterness towards life, Paradot is able to sustain this cold fury, while suddenly switching gears as he snaps into violent outbursts that feel so genuine and spontaneous. But it is not all just impressive, shocking histrionics: Paradot has an abundance of beats in which he conveys a quiet sadness in his frustrations and shows how vulnerable, discouraged and heavy-hearted Malony is feeling.

Malony’s insistence to hide behind barriers persistently begs a couple of pertinent questions about his character. What is it that sent him into these premature manifestations of delinquency? How will he be able or unable to subvert his own self-destructive tendencies? The film appears not to know how it wants to approach or explore these motivations or complexes and, frustratingly, these questions remain unanswered. There are moments when Malony appears to be maturing, and conquering his self-sabotage, but they are nearly instantly undone in moments as banal and cliché as his crashing a car, or impregnating a girl he starts to care for, and stopping the abortion of their child. La tête haute also bizarrely forces racial considerations late into the film, suggesting that because Malony is Caucasian, he is afforded chances that would not be granted to minorities, but there is no build-up to this preachy epiphany, nor is there any conclusion after. Even fleeting moments of imagery that aim to underline a possible change in Malony’s attitude and character are heavy-handed and obvious: one scene where he is massaged by a nurse at a probation facility zooms in on his clenched fists releasing.

While the film appears not to fully understand Malony, struggles to find what to do with him, and is unable to get inside his head, Paradot has such a strong understanding of his character that his performance transcends the film’s weak story and sense of direction so that he still manages to command attention, and carries the film entirely on his own shoulders. While clunky and clumsy, La tête haute still boasts a revelatory performance, and is not the worst possible choice for the opening of the Cannes Film Festival.