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Critical Consensus: What Worked and Didn't at the Cannes Film Festival This Year?

By Peter Howell, Eric Kohn and Jay Stone | Indiewire May 30, 2013 at 9:00AM

"Every year at one festival or another there's something to shake up the troops. But this year at Cannes, the shocks did indeed seem greater."
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Heli
Editor's note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire's Criticwire Network discuss new releases with Indiewire's chief film critic, Eric Kohn. In this edition, Toronto Star critic Peter Howell and Postmedia News critic Jay Stone discuss the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival.

Peter, as you wrote in one of your mid-festival reports, this was an especially graphic year for cinema at Cannes: sex and violence percolated throughout this year's selection. Even so, most of the stories had little in common. What, in your estimation, accounts for the shock factor in these films? Is it programmer Thierry Fremaux's sly attempt to shake things up or has contemporary cinema entered an especially provocative stage around the world?

PETER HOWELL: Every year at one festival or another there's something to shake up the troops. But this year at Cannes, the shocks did indeed seem greater, with much more emphatic sex and violence. Fremaux does like to present bracing and thoughtful cinema. He wants to engage our eyeballs, but I don't think he was deliberately trying to shock for the sake of shock alone.

The impact on the films at Cannes this year was more external than internal. Filmmakers are reacting to two major events of our time: the continuing fallout of the global economic crisis and the normalizing of same-sex relationships and marriages. Steven Spielberg's Palme jury astutely recognized both trends in its impressive slate of winners. Amat Escalante's "Heli" and Jia Zhangke "A Touch of Sin" looked at the chaos that erupts in their respective countries, Mexico and China, when outlaw capitalism takes hold.

Much of what was provocative at the festival was about challenges.

And Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue is the Warmest Color" speaks to rapidly changing times, where gay and lesbian unions are finally considered as valid, passionate and romantic any heterosexual ones. The fact that this year's festival occurred at the same time that France was legalizing same-sex marriage (the first wedding was actually yesterday, May 29) wasn't lost on either the critics, or, I suspect, Mr. Spielberg and his team. Film is a witness to a changing world, and we really saw that this year at Cannes, with all the intensity that implies.

READ MORE: 'Blue is the Warmest Color' Tops Indiewire's Cannes 2013 Poll

Jay, since you wrote about a lot of the press conferences, did you get the sense that filmmakers were actively trying to create controversy and challenge audiences? Or, in a year with no Lars Von Trier, was this year's Cannes one in which filmmakers were perceived as provocateurs by wishful critics?

JAY STONE: Lars von Trier is always a welcome addition to any film festival, for many reasons, but Cannes had its share of provocateurs without him. "Heli," for instance, was the first competition movie screened for critics, and it shocked a lot of us out of our pre-Cannes doldrums (and our jet lag) with a violent expose of the connection between drug dealing and corrupt police in Mexico. The film's signature scene shows a man being tortured by having his genitals set on fire, but Escalante also allowed a bad guy to kill a cute white puppy named Cookie by wringing its neck. It seemed like shock for shock's sake to me, but the jury named him best director.

Much of what was provocative at the festival was about challenges. "Blue Is The Warmest Color" was notable not for its graphic scenes of lesbian sex, but for the way the director allowed scenes to play out, so we got a real sense of the subtlety of the drama in relationships. It took patience — it was three hours long — but it was worth it.

As for the press conferences, where von Trier finds his most fertile playground, the provocations seemed to be mostly a result of old age (and Peter Howell's pointed questioning.) When Jerry Lewis, 87, said he still doesn't find women comedians funny, or Roman Polanski, 79, came out against the Pill — really? in 2013? — because it "masculinizes" women, they weren't being provocative as much as being ancient and out of touch. And ridiculous, of course.

Next: In defense of Alexander Payne's "Nebraska."

This article is related to: Reviews, Cannes Film Festival, Critical Consensus, Blue is the Warmest Color, Grigris, Behind the Candelabra, Heli, Steven Spielberg, Nicole Kidman, Thierry Fremaux