Cannes 2015 – The Aftermath

The 68th Festival de Cannes may be over, but thoughts about it still linger. By many this was perceived as a weaker edition, certainly in the official selection (Palme d’or competition, Un Certain Regard sidebar, and out-of-competition slots). Opponents point out that the official selection still had great films that were raved by many, like The Assassin or Carol. That is certainly true, but each year brings three or four masterpieces, or five in a particularly good year. The weakness, however, is defined by the number of misfires, and that is where this edition’s competition showed its true mediocre face. The problems started with the French slate, comprised of five films, of which two were outright panned (Valérie Donzelli’s anachronistic incestuous love story Marguerite & Julien, and Maïwenn’s loud relationship shout-a-thon Mon Roi), two were met with middling reviews (Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love, starring Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert basically playing themselves, and Palme winner Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, a fine enough immigration drama that turns into a Tamil Rambo at the drop of a hat in the last fifteen minutes), and just one film that got a generally favourable response, Stéphane Brizé’s social drama La Loi du Marché, even if several of our ICS members labelled it a second-rate Dardennes. Add to that the much-derided return of Gus Van Sant to the Croisette with The Sea of Trees, for which critics pulled out their sharpest, acid-dipped pens, Michel Franco’s much-maligned Chronic with its baffling ending, plus a minor effort by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Our Little Sister), and Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to La Grande Bellezza, Youth, that many felt was missing something, and you have a competition in which at least five films are really subpar, and a few more are at best mediocre. This is why this year’s competition was weak, as in other years there may be as many highs, but there are far fewer lows.

And it’s not as if this couldn’t have been prevented. By contrast, the Directors’ Fortnight this year was strong, on average getting much better reviews for its films than the competition. Most noticeably the two bigger-name French entries, Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Years and Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women, got rave reviews across the board, and would have been far worthier inclusions in competition than the Maïwenn or the Donzelli, who may have been chosen by Thierry Frémaux just to quell the yearly returning criticism of there being too few female directors in competition. Elsewhere, the Quinzaine also had perhaps the most acclaimed film to hit the Croisette this year, Miguel Gomes’ sprawling magnum opus Arabian Nights. Granted, split up into three films for a total of 6-1/2 hours, the Portuguese film could have posed some scheduling problems, but given that on the final day the festival noticed they actually had just one film in competition and an open slot in Lumière (which was filled with a press screening of Valley of Love, that not much of the press knew about), one has to wonder if the approach by the Directors’ Fortnight of screening Gomes’ film over three separate days could not have just as easily been applied to the official Palme d’or competition.

And the Un Certain Regard sidebar also didn’t garner much enthusiasm, with only Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure, and to a lesser extent Indian drama Masaan (by first-time helmer Neeraj Ghaywan) getting well-above-par scores. Oh, and of course Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a former Palme d’or winner, whose Cemetery of Splendour was almost unanimously considered a great effort (if perhaps not his best), and just as unanimously considered an inexplicable exclusion from the main competition. The rest of the sidebar’s films had their champions, but none felt like true discoveries, with the exception perhaps of Iranian film Nahid.

And even the out-of-competition films raised many eyebrows, not least because two of them, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Pete Docter’s Inside Out, were considered two of the best films to hit the Palais this year. The former might not have been a typical competition entry, but would it really have been such a stretch to see Pixar’s return to form in the main competition? Elsewhere, Natalie Portman’s directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness was perceived as pretty much terrible, and even in the midnight slots Frémaux faltered. Asif Kapadia’s Amy, a documentary about singer Amy Winehouse, was very well received, but what should have been the festival’s absolute event, the midnight screening of provocateur Gaspar Noé’s Love, with its many unsimulated and explicit sex scenes, turned out to be more flaccid than expected. The energy in the room before the film started was electrifying, but as soon as the novelty of the sex (admittedly quite well filmed, although not really the hardcore porn some may have expected) wore off, the emptiness that filled the gaps between those scenes turned this into perhaps the worst film the festival screened this year. And not even 24 hours later, the Directors’ Fortnight again showed Thierry Frémaux how it’s done, when Takashi Miike’s craziest film in a long time, after a hilarious on-screen introduction in full geisha drag by the Japanese director himself, got a huge reaction out of the crowd that ate up the insanity Miike threw on screen in his Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld. That is how you do a midnight screening (even if it started at 22:30), and when one of the stars of the film, a guy in a full-size frog costume (don’t ask) came on stage afterwards together with star Yayan Ruhian, the roof of the Marriott almost came down.

So in all, the official selection disappointed, and in ways that could have easily been amended, but there were still great films to be seen, certainly in competition. Lesbian love story Carol, with the luminous pairing of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, got very strong reviews. Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s return to Cannes with his long-awaited The Assassin silenced all doubters about the Chinese master’s choice to make a wuxia film, and first-time director László Nemes’ concentration camp nightmare Son of Saul was divisive, but did ignite a lot of intelligent discussion about its concept and the applicability of that concept to the Holocaust. Elsewhere, Nanni Moretti made his best film in years (Mia Madre), Denis Villeneuve was praised for tight action thriller Sicario, and though Youth slightly disappointed, many still loved Paolo Sorrentino’s old-men rumination and its winning performances, especially its lead Michael Caine. So everything could still turn out well once the awards were given out, right?

Wrong. Obviously it’s just a nine-person jury, and reaching consensus over such widely diverse films is difficult, but the closing ceremony provided some baffling choices. Michel Franco’s Chronic received the Best Screenplay award, while the final minute of the film is the most blatant example of bad screenwriting in recent years. And much of what came before it wasn’t all that great either. In contrast, Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster had at the very least a more original pitch, and even if most felt that the film sagged in the second half, it felt like it would be a much worthier winner for its writing. Instead, it was awarded with the Prix du Jury, the equivalent of a bronze medal, a fair enough choice even if there were certainly three better films in contention (Cannes awards rules do lead to results like this sometimes though).

In Best Actress, the jury deemed it necessary to award two ladies. When presenter Tahar Rahim held up two winner scrolls, many thought this would lead to a Cate Blanchett/Rooney Mara combo for Carol, which would have been a totally logical choice if the jury wanted to honor two actresses instead of one. Both actresses feed off of each other in their respective roles, and it’s fair to say that both reached great heights not just because of their own skill, but because they were being pushed there by their co-lead, a situation akin to Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Colour two years ago. Then-president Steven Spielberg had the sensibility to award both women together (by including them in the Palme d’or no less, an unprecedented move), because he and his jury realized the two acted as a unit, as do Blanchett and Mara in Todd Haynes’ film.

To everybody’s surprise, however, only one of them (Rooney Mara) was lauded, the other half of the award going to Emmanuelle Bercot for Maïwenn’s Mon Roi in a loud role championed (according to many) by jury member Xavier Dolan, himself no stranger to directing histrionic female roles. This decision is a slap in the face of Cate Blanchett (though the actress herself during the festival showed enough distance from all the hoopla, which probably means she doesn’t care that much about this snub), and it led to the unpleasant situation of director Haynes having to accept half an award for one of the actresses in his film that revolved around two major female performances.

And just to add a little more insult to injury, Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan, a film that was mostly praised for its two central performances, but was otherwise met with “yeah, it was good” shrugs, snatched the coveted Palme d’or. Now, Audiard is certainly a director who deserves a Palme, but this film is seen as a minor effort on his part, and will certainly not be remembered as a great winner. In fact, one has to fear the film may receive some unearned backlash because of this win, since it blocked a number of films that most critics felt were just plain better.

Still, with three French wins, the third being Vincent Lindon for his role in Stéphane Brizé’s La Loi du Marché, Thierry Frémaux may feel validated. If so, he has to remember that, again, these awards are decided by just nine individuals. Many more individuals (the critics) feel the selection and the awards were not up to par, and many of his choices and decisions indefensible. Being upstaged by the Quinzaine must sting, as does a film from the Critics’ Week, La Tierra y la Sombra, surprisingly winning the Camera d’or for best first film, and one can only hope that Frémaux will learn from this year.

So that concludes a festival that will still be discussed for some time, for its programme and its awards. And we at the ICS are not quite done with it yet either. In the coming days, we will post more thoughts on some of the other films that we didn’t cover until now. So stay tuned.