On Thursday night in France, three days before Jacques Audiard’s stirring social-realist drama-turned-action-thriller “Dheepan” won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the Lumiere Theater shook with applause and an extended standing ovation following the movie’s premiere.
A very different response greeted the announcement of the prize on Sunday, next door at the Debussy theater, where throngs of international press watched a live stream of the ceremony: “Light boos, some applause, clear disappointment,” reported one person in the room.
So it goes at Cannes, a festival that thrives on ambiguous perceptions of quality, in which critical reactions, the arbitrary decisions of a small jury, and the whims of the industry are constantly at odds. Above all else, though, Cannes does a better job than anyone at projecting the sense that cinematic quality stands tall above other factors. And to the mind of this critic — like many others, hypersensitive to quality after two weeks of rampant engagement with the Cannes lineup — “Dheepan” fell short of Palme material.
Audiard, a Cannes favorite whose “A Prophet” and “Rust and Bone” played to strong reactions in previous years, certainly deserves serious recognition for his string of muscular narratives about marginalized figures in French society. “Dheepan” is an uneven by well-acted immigration drama in which an ex-Tamil Tiger soldier from Sri Lanka (Jesuthasan Antonythasan, in a remarkably subtle turn) makes his way to Paris with two young women, posing with them as a family in order to secure their employment.
Tasked with working as the caretaker in a lower class housing project, Dheepan winds up facing down with local gang members while struggling to keep his background a secret, ultimately going full-Rambo for the explosive finale. Slow-going until that time, “Dheepan” maintains a respectable focus on the plight of its title character as he struggles to assimilate against impossible odds. “Dheepan” ultimately works best when it amplifies the degree to which the trio of Sri Lankans continue to face disappointment. They’re safer than before, but no less happy. Making this point in gentle, unassuming fashion before the roaring climax, Audiard delivers a souped-up version of kitchen sink realism that’s at once impressively handled and lightweight in its melodramatic focus.
While well-directed and expertly performed, the Audiard movie hardly deserved the top prize in a year when far more daring accomplishments stood out.
These include best director winner Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s exquisite period drama “The Assassin,” a mesmerizing period piece in which every frame exuded rich, painterly details, and dared to position its visual poetry ahead of narrative exposition. Jury prize winner Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Lobster,” meanwhile, envisioned a bizarre world in which being single was illegal with a savvy blend of social critique and genuine romanticism. Every moment offered a fresh surprise imbued with sophistication and absurdity in equal doses.
But no single entry in this year’s competition impressed more than first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” a restless depiction of one man’s attempt to bury his son while interred at Auschwitz. Nemes, who won the Grand Prix, came out of nowhere with this powerfully engaging approach to depicting the horrific uncertainties plaguing every moment of concentration camp life. Mostly shot with close-ups of his beleaguered leading man (Geza Rohrig, whose sullen expression epitomizes the extent to which Holocaust trauma defies verbal explanation), the movie provides a bracing new context for exploring its grim topic.
Just as Audiard borrows energizing genre tropes for “Dheepan,” Nemes imagines concentration camp survival as a kind of real world thriller, which it surely felt like for anyone enmeshed in its stakes. But whereas “Dheepan” allows its leading man to emerge victorious, “Son of Saul” arrives at a far more credible outcome — asserting that no cathartic escape can obscure the darker side of persecution.
While “Son of Saul” lost the Palme, it still deserves to define the essential value of Cannes, a festival that thrives on its tensions with the rest of the world. If you believe what you read in the papers, the most dramatic friction between this prestigious gathering and evolving global standards came down to whether or not women were allowed to wear flats on the red carpet. While on some level an absurd distraction from the event at hand, this awkward fashion scandal showed the extent to which Cannes doggedly holds onto its insular tendencies.
But for Cannes to remain relevant, it must herald the new. “Son of Saul,” a genuine discovery on several fronts, illustrates the potential for cinema to push its linguistic and interpretive boundaries into new arenas. Such radical approaches are more valuable than ever, particularly as those of us buried in the Cannes mayhem wake up in the real world — where “Mad Men” just ended, David Letterman recorded his final show, and “Pitch Perfect 2” beat out the innovative (and Cannes-acclaimed) “Mad Max: Fury Road” at the box office. At Cannes, no such outrageous imbalances overtake the sense that creative achievements take prominence over other factors. To that end, the festival stands alone. “Cannes does not compete with anyone,” artistic director Thierry Fremaux told me in a 2011 interview. “Cannes is Cannes.”
But Cannes is also a way station to everything else: the hustle and bustle of the Croisette, the winding road positioned alongside the French Riviera, symbolizes the overcrowded and imminently confused nature of the global marketplace and the various competing interests therein. Nothing — not “Dheepan” or “Son of Saul” — stands a fair chance of breaking through the clamor for the recognition it deserves. But at least now “Dheepan” gets a modest boost. And if there’s more to Cannes than just the Palme, “Son of Saul” will, too.