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.