Séamas McSwiney continues his thoughts on this year’s Cannes Festival.
The sun shines down on the boulevards and beaches of Cannes, though inside in the sumptuous cinemas nothing is really catching fire yet.
Heading into the home stretch, the general feeling among the critics is that this is not a classic vintage. The promises haven’t been kept. At best they deliver in a minor key, like Moretti’s Mia Madre, while his compatriots Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth both really miss the mark, leaving a whiff of overblown self-indulgence. Both seem to fall foul of the luscious Anglo-saxon casting the producing gods offered them, maybe taking the edge off their usual artistry and originality.
In Youth we visit a luxurious hotel in Switzerland where the rich and famous go to reminisce in the spa and recover from their successful artistic careers. It opens on Michael Caine, who plays Fred, a composer who wants to compose no more and refuses a request to conduct his work for a royal gala. He prefers to reminisce in a sometimes insightful, sometimes cod-philosophical way with his old friend, Mick Boyle, a filmmaker played by Harvey Keitel. Their days are numbered and they know it. While Fred has quit all ambition, Mick wants to do another film, one that leaves a mark. He’s at the hotel-spa with his youthful screenwriting team finishing off the script he wants to shoot with a famous actress Brenda, who turns out to be Jane Fonda. Ironic insights and inside jokes abound, though the only true piece of artistry is shown by an anonymous whale of a man we discover in the pool with a Karl Marx tattoo across his back on the point of having a heart attack. Oxygen saves the day and his life and we quickly realise that this Fellini-esque character is none other than (an uncredited) Diego Maradona, who later treats us to a wonderful session of sky-high keepy-uppy with a yellow tennis ball.
Todd Haynes’ Carol is the critics’ favourite so far. As often with him, it is an elegant pitch-perfect study in emotional restraint, wonderfully executed by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. A lesbian love story set in the repressive early ’50s between a socialite and a sales girl – it exudes quality, has all the right ingredients but it also fails to hit a real summit. Would two lesbian love story Palme d’Ors in the space of two years be enough start a mainstream trend?
Likewise with quality director Denis Villeneuve; he arrives with a bang in Sicario. A major door-smashing FBI assault on a Mexican cartel house reveals a tough field agent played by Emily Blunt. She’s soon recruited as liaison officer for a higher order mission by a hard-nosed CIA operative (Josh Brolin) accompanied by a mysterious Latino (Benicio Del Toro), both of whom seem to have a hidden agendas as they break all the rules crossing into Mexico and turn a blind eye to torture. Villeneuve makes a film of rare impact and technical prowess reinforced by a hell of a lot of military equipment. But the script has character coherence gaps in its triangulation of moral perspectives and dilemmas. And, while efficient and gripping, it does lack Villeneuve’s usual auteurial undertow. Maybe it’s his ‘one for the studio’ and his own voice will return for the next one.
One film that is well reviewed and that definitely does not fall short in auteur panache is Son of Saul, the only debut film in the competition. From Hungarian Laszlo Nemes, it is a harrowingly subjective view from the perspective of concentration camp workers who are destined to become victims of extermination themselves. Somewhat manic following shots succeed and blend into each other with atrocities happening in the blurred background on an industrial scale, as Saul tries his all to block out the experience. All the while he’s on a manic mission to find a rabbi so as to decently bury a boy he takes for his son. It is a study of determination in a field of futile resistance.
At this stage of the Cannes Competition it is also common to look at the personality of the jury and jury members and try and figure out what they would like. Everyone has respect for co-presidents Joel and Ethan Coen, and most also know that they are not the kind to impose their opinions. Some surmise that they will like the quirkiness of the absurdist drama The Lobster, others suggest they would lean towards the tasteful artistry of Carol. But, then again, nobody could have guessed ahead of time President Steven Spielberg’s unabashed enthusiasm for Blue is the Warmest Colour, two years ago, or the Jane Campion jury’s regrettable neglect of Timbuktu, last year.
How will the democratic process work this time? See on Sunday.
Meanwhile, for tell-tale signs, watch the Coen Brothers’ short (below), set in a remote US art house cinema (starring Josh Brolin), which was screened to knowing chuckles at the programme launch conference last month.
Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris.
The 68th Cannes Festival runs 13 – 24 May 2015