The Best, The Middling and the ‘What-Happened-Here?’ of Cannes 2015

Who knew that watching films can be this exhausting? The first thing any press person at Cannes will tell you is probably how tiring festival grind is – press screenings from  8.30 am till midnight, endless queueing sessions (variously put to use for writing up or sun-tanning), the adrenaline rush of the literal rush to the next screening.

What few filmmakers premiering their work at Cannes seem to realise – based on the average two-hour run of the majority of films this year – is that at a film viewing marathon such as Cannes, critics’ attention is yours during the first hour and twenty minutes and then you’d better start getting ready for a wow of an ending. The editor is your friend and if you want the press to be a friend too, it’s good to shed extraneous long-windedness and not irk the critics – unless you are Miguel Gomes, then you can go on forever…

Here are the films that enchanted, underwhelmed or exasperated me (excluding the two biggest turkeys, Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees and Gaspar Noé’s Love, which I didn’t catch).

The Best

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  1. Son of Saul (Saul Fia) directed by László Nemes

Son of Saul was probably the only film that transcended the boundaries of the festival and of cinema, and gave me actual goosebumps. While quite a few of this year’s crop arguably had meta-social significance (La Tête Haute, La Loi du marché, Masaan, Dheepan, Sicario), the one film that exuded an urgency to bridge great art and historical importance was Saul Fia.

  1. Arabian Nights (As Mil e Uma Noites) directed by Miguel Gomes

No doubt the most original, wacky and ambitious, yet sincere film, Arabian Nights is likely not going to be a blockbuster. Yet magic, the rare, irrational quality that goes beyond good film-making into the realm of poetry, was there despite the lengthy offbeat, nonsensical stretches (training your bird to sing with a CD, anyone?)

  1. The first two-thirds of Mountains May Depart (Shan he gu ren) by Jia Zhang-Ke

While the first two chapters of this tripartite drama were close to a masterpiece, the entire work was nearly undone by the amateurish quality of the last part. The first two segments are set in 1999 and 2014 China, following a love triangle as Chinese society and the characters evolve. The beautiful cinematography of bleak industrial landscapes, part social realism and part poetry, is coupled with magisterial acting by Zhao Tao, Zhang Yi and Liang Jingdong. Were it not for the misguided third segment, Jia Zhang-Ke should have been the one to get the direction prize.

  1. The Treasure (Comoara) by Corneliu Porumboiu

This humble realist comedy is a typical Romanian new wave piece featuring unadorned characters, a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, vérité style and a genre-defying ending that will charm the cynic out of anyone. Initially intended as a documentary on one of the actors, real-life director Adrian Purcarescu’s inability to complete his film due to lack of funding, the project transmogrified into a fictional fable about the real treasures in life.

  1. The Measure of a Man (La Loi du marché) by Stéphane Brizé

The hyper-realist social drama carried by Vincent Lindon’s dignified working-man performance eschewed theatricality and sentimentality and produced discomfort worthy of a documentary. The lack of romanticising of the working class condition doesn’t amount to traditional entertainment but the hard-hitting verisimilitude makes this a cinema-vérité classic.

The Middling

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  1. Macbeth by Justin Kurzel

The mud-drenched, blood-soaked revisit of Shakespeare’s play delivers predictable quality by Michael Fassbender and superb atmospheric cinematography that have the making of a blockbuster. Though textbook perfect, the frisson was lacking.

  1. Chronic by Michel Franco

A finely crafted genre-defying drama starring an enigmatic Tim Roth as a seemingly creepy home-care assistant, Chronic mixes episodes of dark humour and ominous hints to construct a nuanced portrait of a man involved in the rarely depicted, unglamorous profession that is caring for terminally ill patients.

  1. Youth by Paolo Sorrentino

Paolo Sorrentino overshoots the target in his over-ambitious, tacky opus built around a trite, crudely delivered message on the passage of time and old age. What the film lacks in subtlety is somewhat offset by flashes of crass hilarity and Michael Caine’s captivating taedium vitae. Harvey Keitel on the other hand is largely off the mark in the role of a feisty, upbeat American filmmaker who suddenly and unconvincingly gets in touch with his emotions and leaps to his death.

  1. The Lobster by Yorgos Lanthimos

The Lobster was perhaps harmed by an overdose of buzz build-up. Dark humour and a dose of goriness prove insufficient to elevate this dystopian fable from mere uncanniness to cult.

  1. Louder Than Bombs  by Joachim Trier

The grass is not always greener on the English-language international co-production side of the fence and Joachim Trier is one among a few European filmmakers who were unable to replicate the success of their home produced previous works. This New York state set family drama lacks the urgency and raw emotion of Oslo, August 31st and features one of Isabelle Huppert’s weakest performances in recent times, while Devin Druid’s antisocial teenage incarnation Conrad (Huppert’s son) is probably this festival’s character most in need of a good old slap. While there are moments of cringe-inducing hilarity, badly rendered upper-middle class angst fails to ignite the drama.

The What-Happened-Here

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  1. The Assassin by Hou Hsiao-Hsien

The Assassin would have likely not made this list were it not for the adulation cum incomprehension it garnered among a lot of critics, who despite not understanding the plot, apparently loved it. If a gaggle of critics were unable to comprehend the storyline, maybe the problem was with the storyline.

  1. Rams (Hrutar) by Grímur Hákonarson

The incongruous winner of the Un Certain Regard section, Rams was mostly predictable, minus perhaps the man-on-sheep love one would expect from such an ovine romp. There is only so much interest a couple of eighty-year old siblings’ shepherding plight can sustain and by the turn of the first hour one cares neither about the humans nor about the sheep.

  1. Mia madre (My Mother) by Nanni Moretti

The film I loved to hate this festival, despite the overwhelmingly positive reception by other critics, earned my ire mostly on account of its author’s solipsistic presumption that anybody else should be interested in how Nanni Moretti was sad when Nanni Moretti’s mother died. That plus Moretti’s onscreen smugness and Margherita Buy’s habitual middle-aged neurotic persona…

  1. Marguerite & Julien by Valérie Donzelli

This French incest drama had the rare quality of being so bad it’s good. What must have originated as an ambitious, post-modern, social mores project on transgressive love unwittingly ends up as a preposterous, unbelievable romp whose fraternal lovers seem the only ones taking their throes seriously. Nevertheless, once you’ve made peace with the kitschy sentimental overkill, Marguerite & Julien somehow becomes entertaining.

  1. Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti) by Matteo Garrone

Speaking of kitsch, Tale of Tales was a big-league contender.Instead of harnessing the surreal charm of medieval Neapolitan folklore, it went for a mismatched jumble of English-speaking ‘stars’ to the detriment of its artistic authenticity.




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