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

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

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.

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.”

JS: Peter, didn’t you think there was also an interesting contrast between the haves and the have-nots? Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring,” which opened the Un Certain Regard program, and “Behind the Candelabra,” the Liberace movie, were both decorated with furs, crystals, fancy shoes, overwhelming design: the trappings of success meeting bad taste. Then, later in the festival, we saw Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” about an old guy who thinks he’s won a million dollars — you can almost hear Dr. Evil chuckling — in a direct-mail scam, and wants to go on a road trip to claim it. The America that he goes through is a blue-collar landscape of hopelessness, and the movie looks especially grim because it’s in black and white. I think we both agreed at the time that it was minor Payne, but now that I’m back and I’m putting it into the context of Cannes — not just the movies, but the real-life jewel robberies — it seems more like a bracing gust of reality.

PH: Yes, great points, especially about “Nebraska.” That film spoke more poignantly to your haves vs. have-nots observation because it showed how people in a country as great as America can be reduced to chasing an illusion of wealth, rather than simply acquiring the visible signs of it. I thought the best line of the entire festival was at the end of “Nebraska” when Will Forte’s David is asked whether Bruce Dern’s Woody has Alzheimer’s, and David replies, “No, he just believes what people tell him.” It made me think of all those Frank Capra movies where the protagonist is fighting for a vision of America he believes in.  In “Nebraska,” the believer is the chump, because cynicism has invaded society’s soul.

At Cannes, the media tends to rush to judgement, sometimes to the detriment of films worthy of finer scrutiny. The environment is harsh on difficult movies or those, like “Nebraska,” that seem altogether less involving than some of the more audacious films on display. Aside from that one, were there other films that you felt were unfairly maligned at the festival? And can you single out any titles that you’re looking forward to revisiting in the coming months?

PH: “Inside Llewyn Davis” was my favorite film of the fest. I went back to see it again on repeat Sunday because I didn’t want to have to wait until the fall festival season to see it again. I saw it as a knife’s-edge balance between sincerity and satire by the Coens. Here you had a lead character, played by Oscar Isaac, who is aching to be taken seriously as a musician yet who is false to the core. He arrogantly uses people for sex, beds, food, smokes and cash. His interest in genuine American folk music seems born of opportunity, of surfing a cultural wave, rather than from any deeply held conviction. And to stretch that surfing analogy further, he’s so preoccupied with maintaining balance on his own tiny board and wave, he can’t see the approaching tsunami: Bob Dylan.

And let me just mention Alex van Warmerdam’s “Borgman,” which I liked more than many critics. While it gets away from itself in the final third, the story of an insidious presence taking root in an affluent Dutch family created a palpable feeling of dread because we weren’t made privy to the intent of the invasion.  We never know exactly what Jan Bijvoet’s title character is up to. He’s sincere about being secretive and it’s highly unsettling.

JS: I agree: I loved “Llewyn Davis” at the festival, and I suspect I’m going to love it even more on a second go-round. A lot of festival movies don’t get a fair shake because they come in the middle of a busy week, or you have to see them at an 8:30 a.m. screening after a late night. At the final press conference, jury member Nicole Kidman said she went to some 8:30 a.m. screenings — she’d never seen a movie at that time of day — and it struck her how different an experience it was from seeing a movie at, say, the 10 p.m. screening.

That said, there wasn’t much I have second thoughts about. I want to see Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” again: I loved it in Cannes, but to tell you the truth, I might have nodded off for a minute or two somewhere in the middle there. I think it’s a movie that will reward a second viewing, mostly because it’s so rich visually and it’s about such interesting things, at least to those of us who — like the film’s hero — are on the far side of 60 and are looking back more than we’re looking ahead.

I also want to see the Jim Jarmusch vampire movie, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” again. It’s just filled with clues about a hipster/bohemian/undead lifestyle, combined with a cultural critique that’s wonderfully, well, Jarmuschian. I think I’ll like it even more the second time.

I can’t agree with you on “Borgman,” Peter. I thought it was too much of a surreal thing. It hasn’t really stayed with me, but I admit that it was one of those wonderfully offbeat works that only seem to surface at Cannes. It will probably irritate as many people as it delights,
but like we said at the beginning, being irritated, or at least provoked, is part of the experience. Too bad Ryan Gosling didn’t show up, because he missed a great time. Too bad his movie did.

PH: I was a little underwhelmed by “Nebraska” overall, thinking the lottery angle was overworked, but I liked parts of it enough that I’m eager to see it again with fresh eyes. I’m also looking forward to revisiting Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty,” because his attempt to out-Fellini Fellini was like trying to eat an entire birthday cake at one setting. Fabulous imagery in a hard-to-follow story. The film that I think got the least respect at Cannes, and deserves further consideration, was Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Grisgris,” about wannabe dancer with a paralyzed leg whose good intentions go dangerously awry. Souleymane Démé’s title character is like Bruce Dern’s in “Nebraska,” as they’re both naively convinced that they live in the world of their dreams, rather than the world that exists. I would have given Démé the Best Actor prize over Dern, although I did like Dern’s take on stubborn delusion.

Next: Was Michael Douglas robbed of a trophy? Plus: Why go to Cannes when you can watch movies at home?JS: Interesting. I thought “Grisgris” was a movie that was entirely constructed around the unique abilities of its star: It’s a showcase for his amazing talent to dance with a bad leg, but it seemed like more of a stunt than a performance. I loved the choice of Dern, but I
had some sentimental hopes for Michael Douglas, because he was good as Liberace in “Behind the Candelabra,” but also because he’s been through a rough year and he’s not eligible for an Oscar. Not good reasons for an acting award, I guess, but Cannes has given prizes for less-than-artistic reasons in the past. (The Palme d’Or for “Fahrenheit 9/11” leaps to mind. When is the last time you watched that one?)

PH: I was so glad that Spielberg’s jury didn’t give the male acting award to Michael Douglas, which to me would have been like one of those Oscar wins that is given not for the performance, but out of sympathy or as a toast to a long career. Douglas did a fine job as Liberace, but there was nothing terribly revealing or elevating from it. I thought Matt Damon’s conflicted Scott Thorson was the more interesting portrayal. And after the first hour, the champagne fizz of “Behind the Candelabra” started to go flat.  By the end, it really did feel like the TV movie it was.

JS: You’re right, but I was hoping for him anyway. It may not have been artistically sound, but it would have made for a good story.

Speaking of “Candelabra”: Readers eagerly following Cannes coverage from home are already able to watch at least one competition film, since “Candelabra” available to anyone who has cable (or their friends’ HBO Go password). Meanwhile, industry professionals can watch a bunch of other festival titles on streaming services like Festivalscope and Cinando. One can imagine the volume of available titles will increase each year. Given the wider access to these films, what’s the real value of attending a festival like Cannes once we reach a stage where you can find most of its selection from your living room?

JS: Plus which, there’s rarely torrential rainstorms in your living room.

But it’s a question that goes to the heart of the movie business as a whole. It’s not just film festivals that are in peril; people can stop going to theaters as well. The arguments in favor of Cannes are similar to those in support of cinemas: the big screen, the communal experience.

Sitting at home to watch a film festival movies, and then, say, interviewing the talent by Skype, is such an isolating idea. You have to be in the big theaters of the Palais — the Lumiere or the Debussy — to feel the electricity when the familiar theme plays, and the cheers go up for the festival symbol, the golden palm. And then at the end, there’s the passionate cheering or, sometimes, the passionate whistling and booing.

Films matter in Cannes, and part of the reason is that we’ve traveled there to see them, and the filmmakers have travelled there to show them to us, and we’re all nestled by the sea under warm skies (most years, anyway) in a beautiful setting that energizes you with the possibilities of beauty. Journalists get together with friends they don’t otherwise see from one year to the next, and filmmakers probably do the same. It’s a meeting place as well as a festival.

You might even run into a movie star here or there. There’s little glamor sitting in front of you TV.

PH: I think you raise a valid point, Eric.  I sometimes wonder what will happen to film festivals, when the day comes that every release is readily available via Vimeo or some other online service. But I think it’s impossible to replace the in-person festival experience. I get so much out of going to the Cannes, Toronto and Sundance fests, not just the films but the interaction with fellow critics, talents, directors and programmers. I agree with Jay that those cheers and boos all make an impact. The Cannes press conferences are pure gold for stories, and for gaining insights into how directors and talent think. My festival experiences inform all of my writing, and I think for the better.

I have one anecdote to share about this.  I once interviewed Geoff Gilmore, the former director of the Sundance Film Festival, back when he still the man in charge. He was musing, not very happily, about a future day when journalists would show up in Park City and spend all their time in their hotel rooms, watching films on TV or online. He seemed gloomy about the future of the in-person festival experience. That conversation was in January, 2000, or more than 13 years ago. Gilmore’s glum forecast hasn’t come true yet, and I hope it doesn’t for many more years to come.

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