(2 / 5)
2015 marks the very first year that I attended Cannes and the phrase “you have to be there to know the feeling” certainly applies here. It’s just one-of-the-kind experience, so much so that I’m glad to overlook the fact that the 2015 lineup is pretty weak, in fact the lowest point out of the whole decade. Dheepan’s win is amongst the least plausible winner pick in recent years, and I could point to the last-minutes choice for where Cannes makes a head-scratching decision: they picked the underwhelmed Valley of Love and Chronic instead of Weerasethakul’s mesmerizing Cemetery of Splendor, even more puzzling with the fact that Cemetery is right after him winning Cannes for Uncle Boonmee and if Cemetery were in, it could comfortably sit in the top 3. To be fair though, the rest of The Coens’ jury choices are fine with me, but truly that one major pick stings.
This edition is notable for having international directors fleshing their muscles and working in English productions, with varying degrees of success. While The Lobster and Youth make a swift transition to Anglo-saxon market, Tale of Tales, Louder than Bombs and Chronic make little impact. If I have to sum up the general themes of films competing this year, this line-up has a strong flavor of costumed pieces (Macbeth, Marguerite & Julien, Tale of Tales and to a larger extent The Assassin and Carol as well). Personal and familial drama are featured frequently in the Main Competition, and “grief” becomes one of the main themes for many films this year (The Sea of Trees, Louder than Bombs, Mia Madre, Valley of Love you can also argue that Son of Saul is in here too).
It’s the first time in a while where there are 3 Italian directors competing for Palme D’or (you can see their pic together below). Asian films are in good shape with all 3 films making it to my first half. It’s just the general field lacks depth as I could only regard the first 7 films as solid. Finally, 2 French women directors are in the line-up but the Marguerite & Julien slot is just plain bad – while Cannes always assert that they pick films based on the quality and not who’s behind the project, it’s films like this that make me think they fill this slot to meet the quota. Pretty uninspiring choice.
Should have been on the list: – Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) – Un Certain Regard
– Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes) – Directors’ Fortnight
– Love (Gaspar Noe) – Midnight Screening
Wed, 13/05 – Opening Ceremony
Thu, 14/05 – Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Koreeda – JPN) – Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone – ITA)
Fri, 15/05 – The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos – IRE) – Son of Saul (László Nemes – HUN)
Sat, 16/05 – Mia Madre (Nanni Moretti – ITA) – The Sea of Trees (Gus van Sant – USA)
Sun, 17/05 – Mon Roi (Maïwenn – FRA) – Carol (Todd Haynes – USA)
Mon, 18/05 – The Measure of a Man (Stéphane Brizé – FRA) – Louder than Bombs (Joachim Trier – USA)
Tue, 19/05 – Sicario (Denis Villeneuve – USA) – Maguerite & Julien (Valérie Donzelli – FRA)
Wed, 20/05 – Youth (Paolo Sorrentino – UK) – Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke – CHN)
Thu, 21/05 – Dheepan (Jacques Audiard – FRA) – The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien – TPE)
Fri, 22/05 – Chronic (Michel Franco – USA) – Valley of Love (Guillaume Nicloux – FRA)
Sat, 23/05 – Macbeth (Justin Kurzel – UK)
Sun, 24/05 – Awards and Closing Ceremony
Tier 4: Mediocre
19. Marguerite & Julien
Valérie Donzelli’s latest film is a tale of star-crossed lovers who just so happen to be related by blood. The film refuses to take a moral stance on the issues, focusing instead on the ill-fated, tragic love of a sibling who isn’t bound by such societal taboo. I guess I applaud the intention, but the end result is empty, half-baked and downright silly. It intends to sweep you away with its “passionate love” but because there’s little care to the character’s development and too much attention to sentimentality we never really root for these characters. I like the“freeze” moments before the characters move technique but that’s the only good aspect I can recommend from this film, otherwise it’s ridiculous and laughable bad that it belongs to so-bad-it’s-good camp.
18. Sea of Trees
(Gus van Sant)
I don’t think Sea of Trees deserves the hate that people make it out to be. I can see many good qualities from the film, namely the fantastic cinematography that makes full use of its forest settings. The performances of the cast, especially Matthew McConaughey (an actor I’m mixed about) shines through as an aloof main lead. It also has a pretty intriguing central premise dealing with loss, death and grief. Yet the plot never feels fully developed, and the characters are inconsistent across the board. I blame that on the inept character writing rather than the performances, and it’s hard to nail it right when the main character Arthur has three, four different emotional “modes” throughout the whole film. All these and the very stupid car crash scene (Chronic is also guilty of this) kind of negate all the genuine character moments. For me Sea of Trees is struggling to find the right audiences: it isn’t arthouse-eque enough to please the critics (and I do think in the hands of someone like Weerasethakul he would do wonder with this premise), and isn’t conventional enough for mainstream audiences. As it stands, Sea of Trees is lost somewhere in the deep forest.
17. Valley of Love
And I had such a high hope for Valley of Love before watching it. Like Sea of Trees, this film serves as a meditation to grief and loss, carried by the powerful performances of its main two leads Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert, themselves being ex-partners in real life. So there is this level of realness and rawness in their chemistry that makes every reaction, every comment from one character to the other carry a real weight. Other than that, Valley of Love does very little else. The bold concept never fully reaches its potential and it falls apart in retrospect because the premise doesn’t develop well enough. Even at only 91 minutes the story stretches out too thin and even if you are fond of either Depardieu or Huppert it doesn’t mean their characters are not annoying at times. The film is decidedly minimal in both scale and technique, and while it does have some affecting moments the end result is insignificant.
Tier 3: Lower Half
Have you ever watched a movie where it holds your attention throughout and then an unexpected twist comes and robs you of all the emotional investment you have for it? For me that is my feeling in a nutshell with Chronic. What are we supposed to take about that bleak ending? That after following David (played superbly by Tim Roth) for 90 minutes we feel he deserves it? Or is life works in a mysterious way and you never know when you meet your end? Anyways, if you ignore the ending (I can’t. I won’t) then the rest of the film has many neat things to offer. Michel Franco’s films have always been bleak – like Haneke he doesn’t back down from long takes that show characters suffering pain, also like Haneke his camera serves as a passenger, we are observers rather than active participants. In Chronic, David goes way beyond his professional duty to look after patients at the end of their lives, and the camera does such a fantastic cold job of representing these moments as raw and naked as possible with no place to hide. Tim Roth delivers one of his career-best with this complex role. Chronic is an unflinching character study that unfortunately fails miserably to stick the landing.
15. The Measure of a Man
You can see the spirits of Dardenne’s brothers there. The Measure of a Man goes with the same realistic approach, focusing solely on one single character, Thierry (the terrific Vincent Lindon), a man who has recently lost his factory job and is now looking hungrily for work. The rise of modern technology, as well as the desperate situation of the economy and his own familial issue are explored in a matter of fact manner, void of any sentiments, except for the very last scene. This restrain approach helps the audiences to get under his skin as he’s struggling through many real, relatable issues just to make ends meet. On the other hand, I found the handheld cinematography to be unremarkable and sometimes the restraint approach highlights the limited emotional range from the cast, especially towards the confrontations. It’s still a solid work from Brize, but he hasn’t reached the level of the brothers yet.
14. Louder than Bombs
Hot on the heel after Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31 (2011), Joachim Trier’s first fortray to English production is somewhat muted. For Trier’s films, it’s always an “observation” to the characters, about what they say, or even more important, what they don’t say, that informs us who they are and what they are struggling with. The same could apply here in Louders than Bombs, as it examines the communication (or lack thereof) between a father and two sons who are still grieving after their mother (Huppert) passed away a few years ago. There’s a well-meaning message of grieving, communication and familial bond here, but the film suffers from juggling between many story arcs, flashbacks, memories and most importantly it doesn’t provide a closure to all the conflicts it raises. The performances are uniformly solid across the board, and each team member is compelling the way they cope with their loss in their own (destructive) ways, but the end result sadly doesn’t quite pack the punch.
13. Mia Madre
Just like many of his semi-autobiographical films over the years (Dear Diary (1994), April (1997) come to mind), Mia Madre is about a director shooting a film while receiving news that her mother is at the end of her life. Moretti’s own mother passed away during his previous film shooting “We Have a Pope”. But Moretti does more to Mia Madre than simply making a film about his own experience, as we see then main lead, Margherita, already in a breaking down situation with both her professional and personal lives. Moretti weaves seamlessly between comedy and sadness in depicting her current situation as she deals with both her Mom about to pass away and the difficulty of the shoot. Moretti also employs fantasy, flashback, dream sequence to highlight Margherita’s inner turmoil – a woman who acts many roles at once: as a daughter, as a film director, as merely a person who suffers midlife crisis. John Turtoro’s egotistical and over-the-top manner serves a nice contrast to the slow-burn and somewhat understated drama – but it’s this approach that showcases Moretti’s maturity on how he’s handling the film. He doesn’t go too personal with the drama or cutting satire about the film-making process, but he injects the right amount of humor and pathos to this well-made character study.
12. Mon Roi
In the first moments of Mon Roi (translated as My King), Toni (Emmanuelle Bercot) is in her physical therapy after a nasty fall during skiing. Her knee is badly injured and it takes time for her to walk normally. It’s a clear metaphor for her bruising relationship with Vincent Cassel’s Georgio and the duration of the film details the beginning till the end of them together. Structure-wise Mon Roi is a bit meandering as it goes back and forth between Toni in present times and her when she first meets Georgio. There is little distinctive visual flare but what Maïwenn brings to the table is the absorbing performances of both Bercot and Cassel and the details of their toxic relationship in the same veins of films like Blue Valentine, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes of the Marriage. Mon Roi doesn’t reach the level of these mentioned above, but the committed performances outshines its occasional missteps and overall conventional structure. It’s melodramatic, yes, but it’s also raw and heartbreaking.
11. Tale of Tales
Tale of Tales is a style over substance fantasy and a departure, stylistically, from Garrone’s previous works – which is to say it’s a welcome change from him. While the three separate parables are light in plot, and the dialogues can feel artificial at times, it’s a lavish visual treat with drop-dead gorgeous production designs, bizarre nightmarish imagery and affecting soundtrack. Tale of Tales is a wild ride, and in turns, its unapologetic cruelty and twisted elements are in the spirits with traditional “uncut” fairy tales. The three tales it chose carry the same themes of obsession, cruelness but while the stories are interweaving they never feel truly connected in terms of scene transition. The large cast of Tale of Tales does a serviceable but not outstanding job, maybe except for Toby Jones who is delightfully weird in the film. Tale of Tales might not hold up as a cohesive tale about tales, but it has individual stand out moments that will be remembered well for years to come: from a flea that keeps growing into the size of an elephant, to the queen eating the beating heart of a sea monster. They are fascinating and terrifying both at the same time.
Tier 2: Upper Half
I confess this is my first experience with screen adaptation of Macbeth, but even me who isn’t that familiar with Shakespeare’s works can understand why his works endure the test of time. This version of Macbeth understands and makes full use of both theatre and cinema medium. While the monologue and conversations (especially between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth – played flawlessly by Fassbinder and Cotillard) are constructed like those in a stage, with dramatic acting and all, it’s also very, very cinematic. I could easily say that the cinematography is the strongest element in this film. These cinematic flair gives an expressionist quality to the tragedy of Macbeth – who starts losing his mind over his bad deed. Both Fassbinder and Cotillard are committed to their roles and deliver raw moments after moments but the real lighting bolt here is how they both successfully transfer stage-acting style to the big screen without losing the gravitas of their roles while never at once feels they overact. Macbeth is a rich, colorful and vivid screen adaptation of Shakespeare tale that honors its source material and at the same time elevates it one notch above with its cinematic flair and strong performances from the leads.
9. Mountains May Depart
Mountains May Depart is a slow-burning, epic yet utterly personal film – a typical Zhangke’s entry. His films always have a firm fixation to the Chinese changing society as backdrops. Here in “Mountains May Depart”, he makes a triptych – three small stories with three different time periods (and aspect ratios) concerning one single family. The end result is uneven – the third part, which takes place in the future in Australia settings, has awkward English dialogues – but Zhangke understands his film and his characters well enough that he ends it with a resonating emotional punch. Part of the reason why the third part works not as well as the first two is because Tao’s character serves as an emotional backbone to the film, and Tao’s performance is truly mesmerizing. She captures the naive demeanor of her character’s young adult self, and her frustration and love towards her son in the second part strikes the chord. Another reason for why these first two sections work so well is that the time period and settings are clearly felt in his first two. There’s a nostalgic feel and keen observation to Chinese capitalism that the film suffers when it moves away from that setting in the third part. All in all, it says something that even after a few years since I saw this, the image of Tao’s character dancing in “Go West” song still makes my heart skipped a little.
(Jacques Audiard) – Palme d’Or
As much as I respect Jacques Audiard who did marvelous jobs with his previous works A Prophet (2009), Rust and Bone (2012), Dheepan is infamously remembered as the worst Palme D’or pick in years. The answer to this is simple: both in terms of his previous works, and in terms of other films screening that year, Dheepan falls around the middle ground. It tells a compelling story of a makeshift Sri Lanka family with non-professional actors with a gritty, realist lense on how they try to assert with the new life, and how the violent past keeps haunting them wherever they go. With Audiard’s skills the family’s journey is gripping and unflinching with urgency. The buildup is so absorbing in this social realist approach that the bombastic climax feels like a tonal whiplash. It suddenly becomes a violent thriller and for me it lessens everything that came before.
Youth is both Sorrentino at his best and Sorrentino at his worst. On one hand, I regard Youth at his most accessible film and an entry point to his works. The film has an irresistible big-name cast, most notably Michael Caine and Harvey Keitei in their most showy roles this decade (and boy did they nail the parts). The production is gorgeous, and the conversations between the characters are fun to follow. But in his later career, Sorrentino’s fascination with the high society – their flourish as well as their pretentiousness and emptiness – has a mixed impact on me personally. It often feels as if he both criticizes and satires the luxurious lifestyle, at the same time celebrates and embraces it. Take a scene in this film when the two old men have a conversation with Miss Universe (yeah, the film goes there), for example. As the conversation flows the film makes sure to give us a sense that “yeah, she’s not just beautiful, she has a brain”. Moments later we see her again, naked as she takes the same bath with our men (to illustrate the “youth” part). As such, she again becomes a sexual object and these scenes feel at odds with each other. The same goes for many plot points and maybe that is Sorrentino’s intention (that beside their “rich mask” they are still vulnerable as people), I can’t help but think that these “deeper moments” are just a pretentious part intended to make us feel that way. That tendency gets worse in his later film, “Loro”, but as far as Youth goes, it somehow finds the right balance between showiness and gives the characters a right amount of substance for us to care.
6. Our Little Sister
Out of all the films that feature in this year’s Main Competition, I feel the most at home with Our Little Sister, for various reasons. It was the very first film I watched for this category, all the back at Cannes where it premiered. I read portions of the manga where it’s based, so I basically know what to expect coming to it. And finally, I have been rewatching Our Little Sister the most out of all films this year. All that is to say I assess it more subjectively rather than “judging” it. You can immediately tell it’s a Koreeda’s film. His usual themes of familial bonds, formal approach, and emphasising small moments are all there. Our Little SIster ultimately lacks the edge, the powerful drama to truly belong to his best (with the likes of Nobody Knows or The Shoplifters), but if you lower your expectations and enjoy the film for its slice-of-life approach to the story, you will find a lot to enjoy here. Boasted by strong performances and sensitive screenplay, the four sisters have distinctive personalities and the chemistry between them is both natural and believable. Here in the film, the growth is gradual, but through the dialogues and through the slow passage of time, you can see how the young girl grows to be more open to her step-sisters and how she gets more accustomed to the new life. It’s small doses of moments brimming with familial love and an eye for details, and for me it’s those small moments that keep me coming back to it time and time again.
Sicario is a tense, taut thriller about the Mexican drug war from the always-reliable Denis Villeneuve, and now it’s even more relevant with the border tension between Mexico and the United States since Trump had his say. Here we have Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), not so much a protagonist but an entrance point of view into the world of grey morals filled with corruption and other bleak acts. The narrative is morally complex and layered, although not without treading back to some Hollywood’s tropes. But what makes Sicario above any other crime thriller films is how well Villeneuve builds the tension throughout the film. Sicario is the cinematic experience that forces viewers to the edge of their seat before sending them right into the thick of it. The cinematography, the eerie soundtracks, the set pieces are all at the top of their game, but NOT at the expense of the overarching plot. The cast produces solid performances all around, especially Benicio del Toro and Emily Blunt. It’s solid filmmaking all around.
The sex scene and the Mexican police subplot are lame, though.
Tier 1: Cream of the Crop
And now we step into the elite zone. In some ways I see Carol as a companion piece of Far From Heaven. Todd Haynes’s career has been exploring the role of household women trapped within the social norms, the way the perfect facade of a model lady starts to crumble apart. Here in Carol, it’s the lesbian romance that serves as a backbone for the crack in that perfect life of Carol (played perfectly by Cate Blanchett). The novel where the film is based from is already a classic, but here Haynes enriches the text with a sensitive screenplay and his refined restraint. He masters the 50s aesthetic and sensibilities of Douglas Sirk, but moreover it’s his nuance approach that holds power. Small moments like lingering gaze, awkward smile, minor shift in facial expressions and little gestures are both engrossing and absorbing. Both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara further raise the game with their formidable performances as they perfectly inhabit their roles. Carol is precise, slow-burn but engrossing and a confident picture from the filmmaker and cast operating at the peak of their powers.
3. The Assassin
The Assassin is as visual poetic as you can ever achieve in a film. Long in the making and was highly anticipated upon its first premiere, Hsou eschews the wuxia genre with its methodically pace (think of slow action movie), and even to his standard, The Assassin feels much much longer than it actually is. And to fully appreciate the film you have to just sit back and let the experience washes over you. There isn’t a trace of accessible in how he approach the story: the plot is sparsely connected, the dialogue is limited, the battle scenes are short and concise to the point they end before you know it, and most importantly, Hsou leaves no exposition to the plot or the characters’ backstory, thus challenging the viewers to pick up or even make sense of it all. But to its defense, The Assassin is not character-driven or story-driven, it operates on a different scale. There’s an extreme care to the settings, costume designs and the shot composition, resulting in visually ravishing and breathtaking, every frame here is indeed a painting. For me, The Assassin plays out just like Shu Qi’s titular character. In it, she waltzes through the stage, making minimal noise and presence, but her impact in the film is clearly felt and it lingers long after the credit rolls.
Fun fact: I watched it back in Cannes and imagine this: It played near the end of the festival run, when fatigue got the better of us viewers. Watching this paint dry, a person right next to my right passed out 5 minutes into the film. 15 minutes later, two on my left didn’t survive and one of them even snored. It was certainly an experience unlike any other 🙂
2. Son of Saul
It says a lot about the sheer power of craft-making that a film by a first time director places as high as #2, and had a real shot for the top spot. Son of Saul is an harrowing experience and it’s the more remarkable that most of the violence happens off the screen or at the edge of the frame. Most of the time the camera uses close-ups to gaze at our main character, Saul, and never leaves a step off him. It’s a literal hell on Earth as you can see the fate of these people is just hanging by the thread, and doesn’t matter what they do or try, it’s a matter of hours, or days before they themselves kick the bucket. To that end, Saul’s quest to properly bury the boy he thought was his son is utterly fragile, but personal and powerful at the same time. Stories about Holocaust and concentration camps are one of the bleakest topics in human history, and it’s damn hard to get it right on film without falling to anti-war sentimentalism, or overtly gruesome desensitized tale of soldiers losing their mind, but Son of Saul finds that fine balance, and Nemes summed it up nicely in his Oscar acceptance about Saul‘s final-days journey: “Even in the darkest hours, there might be a voice within us that allows us to remain human.”
1. The Lobster
Viewers who are familiar with Lanthimos previous works Dogtooth and Alps will know what to expect here. The Lobster, his first in English with a starry cast, retains the same sense of weirdness and absurd humor with an original world setting and an eye for social satire. The Lobster has some neat things to say about a society obsessed with finding a partner, and looking for it in all the wrong places. The dialogue is unnatural and rigid but in this bizarre world it fits like a glove, mostly because the way they talk shows a complete absence of emotion . So are the performances, especially Colin Farell playing just perfectly passive in the lead role. The absurdist lengths to which Lanthimos reaches by his ambiguous ending are simultaneously hilarious and heart wrenching, because the terrifying reality of David’s constant pressure to find the “perfect” match is still always boiling just beneath its surface. Just like the dystopian world in The Lobster where the characters are repressed by its “makeshift” rules, Lanthimos seems to make films by his own rules. The result is a film that is not for everyone, but there’s no denying that it’s a deeply original work
Silver Moon’s Jury Picks
With my own Jury choices, I will give same awards as the actual awards, with some minor modifications. The Jury Prize, which normally equals to 3rd Prize, will be altered as “the most original work”.
Palme d’Or: The Lobster (originally awarded to Dheepan)
Note: Certainly the most disappointing decision in recent memories, to the point that we often overlook the fact that Juries got them right in other categories.
Grand Prix: Son of Saul (also won the same prize at 2015 Cannes)
Best Director: Hou Hsiao-hsien – The Assassin (also won the same prize at 2015 Cannes)
Best Actor: Tim Roth – Chronic (originally awarded to Vincent Lindon – The Measure of a Man)
Best Actress: Cate Blanchet & Rooney Mara – Carol (originally awarded to Emmanuelle Bercot – Mon Roi and Rooney Mara – Carol)
Jury Prize: The Assassin
Best Screenplay: Our Little Sister (originally awarded to Chronic)