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2014 Cannes Film Festival: Closing Credits

24 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion

Film4 Channel editor David Cox rounds up some late Competition contenders and give us his top twelve across all Cannes sections.

Even though this year’s festival hasn’t delivered a point of genuine excitement to pull it all together, it’s remained steady throughout. There have been a few films that should either help launch or re-define a filmmaker’s career – always the hallmark of a rewarding festival – and the early Competition high point of Mr. Turner has been matched a few times, with the penultimate film to screen arguably surpassing Mike Leigh’s wonderful biopic.

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is precisely the sort of late entry that turns the Competiition upside-down, and is the film that will move the director into the international big leagues (his debut The Return instantly established him as a major talent, while subsequent films The Banishment and Elena never quite caught on despite their strengths). Set in a fishing village that’s clearly seen more prosperous days, the film begins with a volatile family man Kolya developing a strategy with his lawyer friend to keep his land from being stolen by a criminal local mayor. However, the full force of a merciless state, bureaucratic and theocratic, is very much against Kolya; everything around him, from his family to his own liberty, is liable to be crushed in the jaws of a monstrous system.

Leviathan is formidable stuff – heavy, sad and savage but with a humour that one wouldn’t expect to find in either the slate-grey world of the film itself or Zvyagintsev’s overall work. Furthermore, the powerful expressive elements that the director wields to highlight the futility of struggle in modern Russia never get in the way of what is ultimately a very clear and compelling story. There have been a lot of good films in this year’s Competition but they all feel, in one way or another, like they’re missing something. Leviathan manages to pull together the complete picture.

Another consummate achievement – this time in Directors’ Fortnight (and not a Cannes discovery, following its premiere in Sundance) – is Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating Whiplash. The film stars the fantastic young actor Miles Teller as a 19-year-old jazz drummer determined to push himself as far as he can in his attempt to become more than just a professional player. His aided – and obstructed – by a famously brutal tutor at his New York conservatory, played with frightening intensity by J. K. Simmons. The psychological sparring between Simmons and Teller (as well as two other drummers competing for the spotlight) is fascinating enough, but the film goes up a level when the dramatic action turns physical in its extended musical workouts. Chazelle, expanding on a prize-winning short and working from his own experiences, stages, shoots and cuts each scene in lucid and dynamic fashion. The result is extraordinary.

A lot has been made of the amount of ‘masters’ bringing films to Cannes – returning grandees such as Cronenberg, Leigh, the Dardennes and Loach whose every film seems guaranteed a place at the festival regardless of quality. However, two veterans who really excelled are Jean Luc Godard and John Boorman, both brought to the festival some of their strongest work in years.

Godard’s Adieu au Language appeared in Competition and in three dimensions. The director unveiled a 3D short film here last year, but this feature really explores the technology and pulls off at least one visual coup that had the audience in the Grand Theatre Lumiere both rubbing their eyes in astonishment and applauding wildly (trust me, you’ll know it when you see it). Just over an hour in length, the film takes the film  of a beautiful, rapid-fire montage full of delight at how technology can enhance our appreciation of the natural world but also dismay at how it can dull our senses and out curiosity. There’s plenty more here, of course – abstract, direct, purely imagistic, textual – but as usual it’s hard to make sense of after one viewing (I’m always impressed by those who seem to be able to unpack a new Godard film directly after its premiere). It’s a fun, frustrating and fully alive film, causing your mind and your eyes to head off in different directions and then meet up at the end to discuss the experience.

Boorman’s film is an altogether more sedate affair, a continuation of the autobiographical story that he began with Hope & Glory in 1987. This second chapter moves forward a decade to the 1952, with the young Boorman (who becomes ‘Bill Rohan, played by Callum Turner, on-screen) leaving his family home in Twickenham to enter National Service and face the possibility of heading out to fight in Korea. The style is perfectly suited to the period – Boorman seems to have filtered his memory of that time through films of the era – and the gentle comedy is shot through with a poignancy that one would expect from such an unapologetically nostalgic piece (though there’s no attempt to idealise the 1050s or hide the pain of a post-war generation). The film won’t win any awards for innovation but that must be the furthest thing from Boorman’s mind – instead he offers a cast of richly human characters in a story that will resonate deeply with a lot of viewers, young and old. Here’s hoping a third film, following Boorman as he moves through the worlds of dry-cleaning and journalism before entering the film industry, follows quickly.

With the festival finishing today I’m going to end up with a festival Top Twelve, drawn from all sections of the festival. It’ll have to be alphabetical – I’ll leave the hard work of putting them in order of merit up to the juries:

ADIEU AU LANGUAGE (Godard, in Official Competition)

FORCE MAJEURE (Ostlund, in Un Certain Regard)

THE HOMESMAN (Jones, in Official Competition)

IT FOLLOWS (Mitchell, in Critics’ Week)

LEVIATHAN (Zvyagintsev, in Official Competition)

LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT (LES COMBATTANTS) (Cailley, in Directors’ Fortnight)

MR. TURNER (Leigh, in Official Competition)

TIMBUKTU (Sissako in Official Competition)

THE TRIBE (Slaboshpitskiy, in Critics’ Week)

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (Dardennes, in Official Competition)

WHIPLASH (Chazelle, in Directors’ Fortnight)

THE WONDERS (LE MERAVIGLIE) (Rohrwacher, in Official Competition)

 

And finally, my prediction for the Palme d’Or is TIMBUKTU, by Abderrahmane Sissako, with Leviathan, Adieu au Language and Xavier Dolan’s Mommy making it a close race.

 

Peak Cannes

22 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion

Film4 Channel Editor David Cox rounds up four contenders in Competition at Cannes, from David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars to the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night…

Every so often at Cannes, the Competition programme will deliver a brief flurry of highly-anticipated titles over the course of a couple of days – a peak period that seems to send everyone into a mini-frenzy as one must-see movie follows another. This year, crunch-time lasted from Sunday until Tuesday, as Tommy Lee Jones’ second feature as director The Homesman, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars and the Dardenne Brothers’ Two Days, One Night all premiered within the space of 48 hours.

Evan Bird in Maps To The Stars

Evan Bird in Maps To The Stars

Although a hard thing for this longtime fan to admit, Cronenberg’s film is something of a disaster, a tone-deaf Hollywood satire that tries to galvanise proceedings with crude and witless dialogue, schlocky perversion and unhinged performances that in most cases are hide-under-your-seat embarrassing to watch (Julianne Moore specifically). Cronenberg – a cool outsider – seems ill-suited to material that could have done with the thrust of a cynical insider, though I suspect that no-one could make much out of such an over-emphatic but ultimately toothless provocation.

Much more rewarding are Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman and Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher – the former an airy and sometimes antic ‘revisionist’ Western with real gravity, the latter a claustrophobic and complex drama shot through with black comedy. Jones’ film tells the story of a strong-willed yet solitary woman (Hilary Swank, as Mary Bee Cuddy) transporting to a church hospice three others driven to mental breakdown by men and by the hardship of the times. The director himself plays the title character, Swank’s back-up on the journey, and while he gets to enjoy the majority of the traditional action it’s the female experiences – from Cuddy’s desire to marry to the mute longing and desperation in the eyes of those deemed insane – that give the film its true grit and grace.

Steve Carell in Foxcatcher

Steve Carell in Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher has been a source of curiosity since it was pulled from the 2013 Oscar season, and it now has a long six months ahead as it waits to enter the awards race this year. Bennett Miller’s film is based on the true story of John du Pont, a troubled and obsessive multi-millionaire who made a bid to build an Olympic wrestling team by bringing in 1988 Gold Medallist Mark Schultz to train at facilities purpose-built on his estate. It’s a relationship of mutual dependency that causes all sorts of disruptive psychological issues to rise to the surface, with problems intensifying as du Pont hires Mark’s brother Dave to oversee further development of the team. Miller maintains a careful balance between dark comedy and disquieting drama, managing the explosive potential of the situation to keep the characters poised on the edge of triumph and tragedy. Foxcatcher feels a little restrictive at times but it’s a skilful entertainment nonetheless, with detailed and intense work from Steve Carell as du Pont, Channing Tatum as Mark and Mark Ruffalo as Dave. Their performances feel like they were forged deep within the world of the film, and they open it up from its heart.

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night

Most impressive of all is Two Days, One Night, a compelling new social drama from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne that manages to be both calm and urgent at the same time. A workplace ballot that forces employees to choose between a €1000 bonus and keeping on an extra staff member leaves Sandra (Marion Cotillard) facing the sack. With one weekend to save her job – so vital to her family’s welfare and her own mental wellbeing –  she embarks on a mission to visit colleagues in their homes and convince them to vote against their best interest. It’s a potentially wrenching scenario but the Dardennes never twist the knife; they let us know what’s at stake for Sandra and her sixteen co-workers (and their dependents) but  then let each meeting take its natural course rather than prodding us into a reaction.

Even the smallest role is finely drawn, but the co-directors are well-served by their most recognisable lead to date: Marion Cotillard, who as Sandra displays a mixture of fear, sadness, pride and determination in a variety of different situations. The Dardennes have won two Palme d’Ors so far (for Rosetta and The Child); I don’t think they’ll win a third with Two Days, One Night but it’s an exquisite and emotional experience nonetheless. Of course, we’re thrilled that the film will be opening this year’s Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House in August – we’re looking forward to sharing it with you there.

 

The Cannes Question

21 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

In his third report from Cannes, Film4 Channel Editor David Cox delivers a quick-fire round of reactions of films he’s enjoyed so far…

Possibly the hardest question to answer in Cannes (apart from all the ones that are in French) is “What have you liked?”. At the sound of those fateful words one’s mind invariably shuts down, with all the grand passions and personal Palme d’Or predictions that you’ve been boring colleagues to death about suddenly nowhere to be found. One way of dealing with this mental block is to carry one film around in your head like a keepsake, so that you’re primed and ready to blurt out “I LOVED GRACE OF MONACO, ALL RIGHT??” to anyone who looks like they might be vaguely interested. An alternative mnemonic device is to write a blog entry that looks like a festival ‘colour piece’ but which is really just a way to bring my festival coverage up-to-date with a list of ‘films I’ve liked’. So, without further ado:

It Follows

These Final Hours and It Follows

It feels like there’s been an increase in genre offerings at the festival this year, with the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week sidebars showcasing the sort of films you used to have to venture into the Market to find.  These two are my favourites so far. Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours is an end-of-the-world thriller from Australia in which a reluctant man is persuaded to help a young girl find her father before they’re all engulfed in flames. It’s direct, ruthless and surprisingly emotive – maybe not as well made but definitely more juicily enjoyable than David Michod’s The Rover (another Australian apocalypse film at the festival that could almost be this film’s sequel). David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is a creepily clever American horror film that uses its spatial awareness to great effect as it unleashes an implacable, slow-motion threat on a group of resourceful teens. Mitchell’s film boasts heart-stopping ‘gotcha!’ scares but also a sense of sadness and disorientation that really takes the terror deeper. Here’s hoping both these films turn up at Film4 FrightFest in August.

Force Majeure

Force Majeure

Force Majeure

Swedish director Ruben Ostlund springs another of his elaborate narrative traps on both characters and audience in this story of a vacationing family of four that threatens to come apart when an avalanche reveals the father’s cowardice. The fallout from the incident careens through the rest of the film, gathering force and laying waste to all. Ostlund’s formal precision and ability to draw finely-observed performances from his actors means that every excruciating note is perfectly hit; add that to a fiendishly constructed story and you have a film that delivers a considerable amount of both pleasure and pain.

Love At First Fight

Love At First Fight

 

Love At First Fight (aka Les Combattants)

The toughness on the surface of this beautiful debut from director Thomas Cailley gradually turns into something more tender as two youngsters from the south-west coast of France – bereaved Arnaud and brusque, unsmiling Madeleine – forge a relationship almost out of brute force. Where the film ends up is entirely unexpected, but not before a Badlands-style retreat into the wilderness has tested the tentative lovers and allowed Cailley to introduce into his story a range of tones and moods that gently transforms the action.

Amour Fou

Amour Fou

Amour Fou

Director Jessica Hausner’s account of the double suicide of German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist and his friend Henrietta Vogel in 1811 may be spare on the surface but it’s rich with irony and ambiguity just beneath. A companionship that never blossomed into romance became instead a relationship of fatal convenience when Henrietta, having declined von Kleist’s offer to become his partner in death, contracts a terminal illness. Hausner averts the potential for melodrama and instead plays it cool, clipped and formal; ultimately, it’s her reserve that draws the  the viewer in deeper.

 

The Go Go Boys

This documentary about the rise and fall of Cannon Films is perfect Cannes viewing, seeing as the fabled producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus made this festival their playground in the 1980s. It’s here that they hawked their wares most aggressively, with their wild sales stunts and deals for films that didn’t yet exist beyond a catchy title. Director Hilla Medalia’s account of the company is a little dry but it’s still full of great anecdotes (signing a deal with Godard; discovering Jean-Claude Van Damme), unexpected interviewees (Michael Dudikoff, Billy Drago) and nostalgia-inducing archive footage (a montage of Cannon’s London cinemas brought back plenty of fond memories). Mark Hartley, the director of Not Quite Hollywood, also has a Cannon documentary in the works; while that should have a bit more pizzazz, this will do nicely in the meantime.

 

These films, when taken in conjunction in with the titles covered in my previous entry, point towards a festival that’s shaping up to be one of the strongest in years. Even more exciting is the fact that there are still a few days, and a few major entries, still to come. Meanwhile, in the next entry I’ll take a look at Bennett Miller’s popular Foxcatcher, the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, the drumming drama Whiplash and the brilliant return of John Boorman.

 

You can read David’s previous Cannes blog here.

Mike Leigh Vs. The Rest

20 May, 2014 Productions Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion

In his second blog from the festival, Film4 Channel Editor David Cox reports on the growing momentum at Cannes…

A line-up that seemed a bit low-energy on paper began to blossom promisingly over the weekend – the festival’s third and fourth full days.  Each of the main sections – Competition, Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week – has delivered at least one outstanding film, making it imperative to keep all four options open when planning the day’s schedule (often by this point one finds oneself trying to shrink the festival a bit to make it more manageable, which sometimes means adopting a partial blind spot towards one of the non-Competition sidebars). However, a succession of good-to-great films over the weekend has given proceedings a real momentum, making it easier to keep checking out as much as possible in the hope that we’ll find more of what we’ve already encountered.

 

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner

For many, the first great film of Cannes 2014 was Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, which screened for the press on the morning after Grace Of Monaco got things off to such an inauspicious start. Given that this is a Film4 production there’ll be plenty written here about Leigh’s film between now and its release later in the year, but its still worth noting the remarkable richness of this portrait of the 18th/19th-century artist J.M.W. Turner. Timothy Spall may dominate proceedings in the title role but this is a film of many dramatic colours and shades, teeming with life and thick with layers of research into every aspect of story and character. Regardless of what’s still to come, it’s unthinkable that Mike Leigh or his formidable Mr. Turner will be forgotten when the prizes are awarded nine days after its premiere.

Winter Sleep

Winter Sleep

 

The competition, however, is already looking strong. Atom Egoyan’s embarrassing kidnap thriller The Captive aside, each of the official entries to have played so far has built up some degree of support. Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, about a small city in northern Mali under the control of Jihadists, manages – miraculously – to be both directly urgent and evocatively fanciful; Wild Tales by Damian Szifron (and produced by Pedro Almodovar) is a riotous anthology about injustice and revenge in contemporary Argentina; Nuri Bilge’s Ceylan’s Winter Sleep finds the Turkish master of masculine malaise venturing deep into Chekhov and Bergman territory and not emerging for more than three hours; Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent fashions a more stylish take on the life of the designer than the year’s other biopic on the same subject; Alice Rohrwacher spins a semi-autobiographical tale of a father, his daughters and their bees in Le Meraviglie; and Tommy Lee Jones explores the dark ways in which the West was won through a female-focussed story in his revisionist Western The Homesman.

Of the above, Wild Tales is probably the surprise package, its generally comic (though caustic) tone keeping audiences off-guard as anger and frustration bubble to the surface in each of its six stories. The film’s anthology form is well-used here; the target remains clear but Szifron varies his angles of attack as he takes aim at systems of power and bureaucracy that force those at the sharp end to take matters into their own hands. That the victims’ responses tend to be grossly out of proportion to the original offence only makes the film’s already-crazy moral compass spin more frantically, resulting in a crowd-pleaser that may seem out of control but is definitely anything but.

Le Meraviglie

Le Meraviglie

Along with Mr. Turner, my favourite Competition film at this stage is Le Meraviglie (aka, The Wonders). Set in the countryside between Umbria-Lazio and Tuscany – the area where director Rohrwacher grew up – it tells the story of a farm-dwelling family of bee-keepers that consists of domineering German father Wolfgang, three daughters ostensibly led by the eldest, 12-year-old Gelsomina, and a mother who mediates between them (there’s also another woman called Coco, but I couldn’t quite figure out where she fitted into things). Their way of life is clearly out of step with the modern world but Wolfgang shows no sign of changing with the times, driving the children harder and harder in an attempt to keep up with European laws and churn out honey for local sale. However, life beyond the farm is always threatening/promising to intrude (most unexpectedly in the form of Monica Bellucci as host of a national competition ‘Countryside Wonders’), revealing to the girls glimpses of an existence that their father has denied them.

Le Meraviglie isn’t as didactic as that outline makes it sound. It’s constructed and realised with a lot of freedom, letting the behaviour and desires of the family members guide the narrative to such an extent that you can’t really stand back from the film and understand its shape. It’s a beguiling piece of work and far less simple than it seems on the surface as Rohrwacher casts a shimmering fabulist spell over the rustic naturalism – it may look initially familiar but it positively glows when held up to the light.

At this point I’m starting to feel that the festival is running away from me a bit and that I’m very much behind when it comes to coverage. For that reason there’ll be a ‘quickfire round’ tomorrow, dealing with all the notable films so far in an attempt to get back on track with the upcoming screenings as they happen. There’ll be a bit more opinion on some of the films mentioned above, plus some notes on Cronenberg’s Maps To the Stars (already extensively considered on this blog by Catherine Bray), Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and some of the discoveries alluded to in the opening paragraph).

 

You can read David’s first Cannes blog here.

It’s Cannes O’Clock!

17 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Film4 Channel, Opinion

Film4 Channel Editor David Cox surveys his early favourites at the Cannes Film Festival and makes the case that Nicole Kidman starrer Grace of Monaco isn’t the write-off some have said.

By general consensus, the 2014 Cannes Film Festival got off to an underwhelming – if not flat-out disastrous – start with Olivier Dahan’s Grace Of Monaco. The film at least served a purpose by creating an immediate sense of solidarity amongst the critics, who merrily banded together to put the collective boot in.

Maybe I was just grasping for positives due to my impending visit to the Hotel Du Cap to interview Dahan and Nicole Kidman (which you can see on Film4 along with a week of Grace Kelly films, starting with High Noon on Monday 2nd June), but the film feels like an ambitious attempt to filter the story of its eponymous subject – specifically the period in the early 1960s when, as Princess Grace, she was considering returning to her film career – through a number of  genres, creating a very different form for what could have been a conventional biopic.

Unfortunately it’s all rather clumsily done, but I can’t deny finding some pleasure in a film that’s continually shapeshifting – sometimes within individual scenes –  between romantic thriller, espionage, melodrama, ‘Pygmalion’-style self-creation and glamorous fairytale tropes. Dahan has a confident sense of colour coordination too, which brings unexpected resonance to dramatic action which is frequently risible. The film is no write-off though, as many have suggested; I wouldn’t make any great claims for it but it’s very visibly wrestling with its material, and that at least makes for fascinating viewing.

Still, all that’s old news by now, even more so given that Grace Of Monaco feels like it screened a lot longer than just three days ago (I’m writing this on the Saturday following the film’s Wednesday night premiere). You can’t really keep track of anything by Festival time, a unique temporal state that expands as you fill it with more and more films. Ultimately, the only way to account for your days is by remembering the order in which you visited 19th century Margate (Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner), 15th century China (the Cannes Classics screening of King Hu’s 1967 masterpiece Dragon Gate Inn), the Yorkshire Moors (Daniel Wolfe’s Catch Me Daddy), the Steppes of Turkish Cappadocia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep) and, most recently at time of writing, a border region between Umbria-Lazio and Tuscany for Alice Rohrwacher’s Le Meraviglie (aka The Wonders).

Speaking of time, I’m aware of how late I am in getting these Cannes blogs up and running. So, for now, the above will have to stand as a broad sweep across some of the films seen so far, along with significant entries from Jessica Hausner (Amour Fou),  Mathieu Amalric (The Blue Room) and Damien Szifron (Wild Tale) (plus less noteworthy efforts from Atom Egoyan and David Michod). I’ll return to some of these in more detail during the next week, while trying to keep up-to-date with what’s to come (tomorrow alone – Sunday 18th – brings new films from David Cronenberg, Ruben Ostlund and Tommy Lee Jones). However, for those keeping score, Leigh’s loamy and novelistic biopic, Rohrwacher’s fresh and bittersweet family drama and the intensely scary American horror film It Follows (in the Critics’ Week section) are my favourites at this early stage. Though you can expect that  to all change within 24 hours of Cannes time.

 

Read more updates from Cannes 2014 here, including Catherine Bray’s review of David Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars.

 

 

 

by David Cox

David Cox is Channel Editor of Film 4 and the Programmer of Film4 Summer Screen at Somerset House.