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Cannes 2013: Some thoughts on the Competition and awards

Posted on Sunday June 2, 2013, 14:45 by Damon Wise in Words From The Wise
Cannes 2013: Some thoughts on the Competition and awards

Last weekend, there was a lot of talk about sex in Cannes, especially the explicit lesbian variety on display in Abdellatif Kechiche's La Vie D'Adèle (pictured), also known as Blue Is The Warmest Colour. Its formal excellence and artistic daring made it an obvious choice for such jurors as Lynne Ramsay, Christoph Waltz and Cristian Mungiu, not to mention Ang Lee, whose own Lust, Caution caused similar controversy for its erotic scenes. But what about jury president Steven Spielberg? Would he steer it towards a less provocative contender, like Asghar Fahadi's The Past or Hirokazu Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son? Or would he bite the bullet and face the wrath of the moral majority back home, where the issue of same-sex marriage makes the news on a seemingly weekly basis?

In retrospect, it seems like a storm in a teacup, although the decision to award a three-way Palme D'Or to Kechiche and his two female leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, seemed to make an interesting distinction: that this was a fiction, cooked up by three collaborators. But although there have been complaints from both sides of the fence – the right say it's filth, the left say it's sexist – there really wasn't another serious contender for the main prize. Personally, I didn't love it, and I know there will be a lot of disappointment when the film gets a UK release later this year (or early 2014), but there is a level of commitment in Kechiche's movie that is hard to fault.

Exarchopoulos is Adèle, a schoolgirl struggling with her social and sexual identity when she encounters the blue-haired art student and painter Emma (Seydoux). An affair begins, which is why we see some ten minutes of energetic sex, and this soon settles down into a relationship, which is threatened when the bored Adèle, feeling out of place in her lover's bohemian world of art and artists, decides to stray. Filmed largely in close-up, with no music or voiceover, Kechiche's film is a tough watch, especially for three hours – quite a bit of information is omitted, including Adèle's catastrophic fling with a co-worker, while the mundane details of her dayjob as a nursery school teacher are shown as graphically as the sex. Maybe I was tired but Adèle's moping began to grate on me, and although both actors give great performances, I found myself a bit more curious about Seydoux's Emma than her glum and somewhat tiresome muse.

For me, the only rival for the Palme would have been Farhadi's The Past (aka Le Passé), his follow-up to A Separation, and although it marked a deserved win for Bérénice Bejo in a rare dramatic role, I thought it could have been given a bigger leg up from Spielberg's jury. The amazing thing about Fahadi's film is just how much it achieves with performance and dialogue; almost nothing actually happens in the film and yet it unfolds with a detective-story intensity. In this case, the detective is the Iranian Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who returns to Paris to finalise his divorce from his chaotic ex-wife Marie (Bejo). Marie is planning to remarry, but there is a hitch: her fiancé's wife is in a coma an thus in a legal limbo between life and death. As Ahmad starts piecing things together, he begins to uncover a complex sequence of events, with each discovery upended by another. The result is a commercial arthouse drama with an ambiguous final scene that will split audiences right down the middle.

There was some talk of Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son winning the Palme, but I think that mostly had to do with the director's previous works, like the wonderful Nobody Knows or the acclaimed I Wish. Kore-eda's delicate direction of children, and stories involving children, would certainly have placed him on Spielberg's radar in recent years, but his latest was a little slight for the main prize. The premise, however, is killer: after six years, hard-working businessman Ryota and his wife learn that their son was switched at birth and that their real offspring has been raised by another family. What to do? It's a beautiful conundrum, which Kore-eda has a lot of fun with, painting Ryota as a rigid and overly ambitious authoritarian, while his “real” son's family are fun-loving and – to Ryota – anarchic. Sadly, the film never quite peaks, but it's a testament to Kore-eda's subtle film that an attempt at a US remake would either lead to the lowest of farces or the highest of dramas.

The mere presence of Spielberg at the head of the jury table immediately set back the American contenders to the bottom of the pile, since many believed the director wouldn't follow Robert De Niro's example of 2011 and give the Palme D'Or to one of his own (Terrence Malick's Tree Of Life). Still, it was clear that new films by the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, James Gray and Steven Soderbergh would be hard to ignore come awards time. Gray's film The Immigrant was by far the weakest of the bunch, a soapy period piece that some, weirdly, proclaimed a masterpiece, but with a lead turn by Marion Cotillard it was in the running for an acting prize at least. Some felt the same about Michael Douglas for his flamboyant turn as not-so-closeted gay entertainer Liberace in Soderbergh's Behind The Candelabra, but in the end it was an absent Bruce Dern who took the prize for Best Actor in Payne's wonderful Nebraska. Indeed, if there was one thing Cannes 2013 proved it's that next year's Oscars will see a lot of veterans on the campaign trial. Fighting Dern for the Academy Award and Douglas for the Bafta (since Behind The Candelabra is a TV movie in the US) will be Robert Redford, whose near-wordless, highly technical turn as a sailor stranded in the Indian Ocean in JC Chandor's All Is Lost – shown Out Of Competition – was one of the revelations of the festival.

Inside Llewyn Davis, however, deserved its Grand Prix, even though it looked more likely than Jia Zhangke's A Touch Of Sin to win Best Screenplay, and star Oscar Isaac was another decent bet for Best Actor. Oddly, though, many of its supporters appeared not to be on the same page as the Coens, mistaking their early 60s musical drama for a goofy feelgood comedy. Although there's plenty of time to adjust expectations, since the US release is not until Christmas (followed by the UK in January), the Coens were even surprised that their film was being received as a comedy, since it tells the story of a man on the verge of artistic redundancy, and is filmed in the harsh hues of winter.

I didn't see Amat Escalante's Heli, which took home Best Director, suggesting that this award is increasingly becoming a wild-card slot, following Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive in 2011 and Carlos Reygadas's obscure Post Tenebras Lux last year. For this award, many were tipping Paolo Sorrentino's glossy La Grande BellezzaThe Great Beauty – the languid tale of a well-to-do Italian journalist (Tony Servillo) whose life has lost its meaning amid a sea of spectacular parties. As studies of ennui go, Sorrentino's film kicked seven bells out of Baz Luhrmann's truly shocking The Great Gatsby, a dreadful piece of cultural vandalism by a number of people who should know better. Nevertheless, it is hard to feel much sympathy for a man adrift in a sea of excess, which is perhaps why, despite some excellent, deadpan comedy moments, Sorrentino's handsome film went home unlauded.

Similarly, despite the Palme and Best Actress, a big showing from French-directed and French-supported movies (just over a third of the 20-strong Competition) didn't quite pay the expected dividends. Especially disappointing was François Ozon's Jeune Et Jolie, about a middle-class teenage girl who turns to prostitution for reasons that are never fully explained. Ozon has always been a little hit and miss, and despite a convincing central performance by Marine Vacth, his follow-up to the much better In The House is definitely one of his minor works, lifted (as usual) by his use of some great, if ever so literal French pop. Likewise, Arnaud des Pallières' Michael Kollhaas proved to be a non-event, despite a stellar Euro cast that included Mads Mikkelsen, Bruno Ganz, Denis Lavant and Sergi Lopez. In principle, the story of a 16th century horse trader who rises up against a robber baron and incites a civil war in the meantime would appear to be the stuff of a good, bloody period action-thriller. Sadly, somewhere in the handling des Pallières’ film became a rather dull character study, dotted with good moments but way overlong at two sluggish hours.

Finally, locked out of both the awards and the critical consensus was Nicolas Winding Refn's unfairly maligned Only God Forgives, a violent, hallucinatory fantasy mistaken for a narrative thriller. Its release in the UK on August 2 may see some slightly different reactions from those who see it for what it is: a psychedelic tale of purgatory or, as I've been calling it, The Sopranos (Literally) Go To Hell. Refn's film appalled the critics largely for the crime of not being what they had in mind, but something tells me this film will have a cult life in the long run. Indeed, just as those who flock to the Kechiche in the hope of some light, sophisticated titillation will surely be confounded, anyone expecting Only God Forgives to be a self-indulgent car crash could be in for an eye-opening experience. For me, it was on of the films of Cannes 2013, a consistently surprising and oddly innovative edition of a festival that continues to move with the times.

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