Jaques Audiard’s Dheepan, winner of the Palme d’Or
Séamas McSwiney wraps up his coverage of this year’s Cannes Festival.
The perfect sun shines down on Cannes, as the packed wagons get in line to trek out of town after the 68th Cannes, a revolutionary number that did not really live up to its significance. The 1968 festival was abandoned mid-stream through protest by enraged French cineastes such as Godard, Truffaut et al, and though the last two years brought tempests, the high winds and rain also brought with them some great films.
Alas, this year’s balmy weather brought cinematic doldrums and few reel pleasures in the form of artistic turbulance. In the end, even the prestigious jury presidency of Joel and Ethan Coen did little to enhance the spotty selection by coming up with a puzzling palmarès. Cannes is bubble with its own tastes that are revised in real cinemas as the films are released (or not) throughout the year and the jury process is a bubble within the bubble. In years like this one there is even more talk of the politics of the prizes and the unwarranted democracy of each film getting only one prize. Thus, once the red carpet walk begins the be-gowned and be-tuxed filmmakers called back for the ceremony are spotted and a new short list is hastily jotted down. But who will win what? remains the question.
Those of us who left town early did manage to miss three of the laureates, notably Dheepan, Jaques Audiard’s mostly Paris-based Tamil immigrant drama. Though quite well appreciated by most of the press and punters, many were surprised that it took the top gong, the Palme d’Or. It tells the socio-political tale of a Tamil Tiger who seeks to flee Sri Lanka and to qualify for asylum cobbled together a with a young woman he’s just met who in turn recruits an orphan girl to complete the ideal application. They wind up in an immigrant Paris housing project and Dheepan’s paramilitary skills wind up becoming necessary again in this haven because of local drug gang wars.
One of the interesting things about the film is that Jesuthasan Anthonythasan, who plays Dheepan, was himself a teenage Tamil Tiger before finding his way via Thailand to Paris, where be became a foreign-based activist for the Tamil cause and later a writer. In many ways his own story mirrors that of Dheepan.
Dheepan was one of five French films in Competition (six if you count the opening out-of-competition La Tete Haute/Head Held High). Most had their narrative roots in social issues and two of them managed to pluck the actors awards. Vincent Lindon, an actor of great merit, bagged the male award for his emotionally constrained turn as newly unemployed factory worker in La Loi du Marché/The Measure of a Man by Stephane Brizé. Jumping through the hoops of the French social system and retraining programmes, he finally finds a job as a security officer in a large provincial supermarket. Here, he is regularly confronted with dilemmas as he is obliged to play a role in sackings for minor transgressions, which are often opportunistic as they are cheaper than redundancy packages. It all rolls out in a series of canvas scenes in a French Ken Loach environment (though without the jokes!) and its denouement somewhat saves it from tedium.
The actress award was shared by Rooney Mara in Todd Haynes’ Carol and Emmanuelle Bercot in Mon Roi by Maïwenn. While most found Carol quite sublime, many (including most French critics) were seriously irritated by Mon Roi, an hysterical tale of an ill-advised marriage. Emmanuelle Bercot plays a lawyer who marries the wrong guy (Vincent Cassel) and takes many years to find out what a mono-maniac he really is. Meanwhile, we have to sit though two hours of frantic marriage counselling when we could see from the get-go this was not on. Think Cassavetes, stripped of the poetry and humanity. Bercot is a good actress (she also directed opener La Tete Haute), but here she is badly written into a performance which has far more troughs than summits than Vincent Lindon’s performance but much less meaning. Her co-Laureate, Rooney Mara, also plays more reserved and nuanced, though it is odd that Cate Blanchett, the leader of the amorous duet, should be notably excluded. All in all, Carol was sold short and Mon Roi was overrated.
Jorgos Lanthimos’ Irish co-production The Lobster, filmed in County Kerry, picked up the bronze, so to speak, in the form of the Jury Prize. Colin Farrell and his fellow cast were in fine fettle (especially Olivia Coleman) in this dystopian drama where singletons are prohibited. Farrell also became a ‘dad-bod’ icon in the new trend for dumpy middle-aged men in the semi-raw in this film. His fan base will be relieved to learn the Dubliner was back to his dapper athletic best for the Cannes’ experience.
The Assassin, by Hsiao-Hsien Hou, got best director. Set in 9th century China, it recounts the odyssey of 10-year-old general’s daughter abducted by a nun who initiates her into the martial arts, transforming her into an exceptional assassin charged with eliminating cruel and corrupt local governors….
A bright spot among the prizes was the silver or Grand Prix going to Saul Fia (Son of Saul), the Hungarian holocaust epic directed by first-time director Laszlo Nemes. The fact that he made his film from shooting right through to the projection in 35mm film only added to the satisfaction of discovering a truly artistic and singular if harrowing cinematic experience of feeling the spiritual necessity of pointless resistance against relentless tyranny.
Despite all of this, it was again a good Cannes worthy of itself. The films are only part of the circus. After the revolutionary #68 that fizzled looking forward to the erotic #69 that rises to the hype…
Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris.
The 68th Cannes Festival runs 13 – 24 May 2015