Cannes Film Festival 2015

Cannes maintained its position as the best film festival in the world by awarding a very smart Palme d’Or to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan.

It’s not Audiard’s best film (A Prophet, The Beat My Heart Skipped) but it is a movie that cements his status as just about the coolest film maker in the world. It’s a terrific social thriller, about Dheepan, a Tamil man who escapes the civil war in Sri Lanka by pretending he has a wife and daughter, which apparently makes it easier for them all to claim asylum on arrival in Paris.

There, they are quickly billeted to a decrepit housing estate outside Paris, where rival drugs gangs operate. Dheepan becomes caretaker of one of the blocks while his “wife” becomes a carer for an elderly crime boss.

This isn’t so much a fish out of water scenario as an out of the frying pan into the fire one – Dheepan is thrown from one war to another and try as he might, he cannot keep his family out of the firing line.

As ever, Audiard creates energy, tension and social comment, focusing one man’s behaviour when faced with a moral choice, a character who is forced to forge his own destiny and find his own form of heroism. That’s typical of the film maker whose shotmaking ability adorns the picture and ratchets up to an action climax many critics in Cannes had certain issues with but which I found to be the whole point of the film, an inevitable denouement.

After last year’s dreary win for Winter’s Sleep, this was a good Palme winner, one to restore faith in the festival to champion an urgent and vital film, one that many people will actually go and see – a film without stars but in which the auteur director is the star attraction. I can’t think audiences will be disappointed.

So France can claim a home win, although much of the film is in Tamil, too. Indeed, at the awards, the home nation also awarded acting prizes to Vincent Lindon and Emanuelle Bercot (for Loi du Marche and Mon Roi, respectively), results which hint that this was some kind of banner year for French cinema.

The selection, which included five French movies in Competition, did point to a French renaissance, although I can’t say I was really impressed by any particular freshness here. The new wave is still a ripple at the moment, though with Audiard around, anything is possible.

To be honest, I was happy with Dheepan’s win but the Palme d’Or should really have gone to Saul Fia, The Son of Saul. This outstanding Hungarian debut from director Laszlo Nemes was the only film to deliver a shock of the new, a blast of style and substance to leave audiences reeling.

Set in the final infernal days of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the film focuses intently, in close-up, on one man, a Hungarian prisoner named Saul Auslander, who has been made a member of the ‘special’ Sonderkommando, the Jews who were awarded certain privileges for helping out the Germans with jobs such as cleaning up the ash, hauling bodies out of the showers, shepherding the prisoners into the death chambers…

Saul spots what he thinks might be his son and he pulls him from a pile of bodies and hides the corpse, beginning a desperate, whispered quest to find a Rabbi who might say Kaddish (the key Jewish mourning prayer) over this dead child.

The camera sticks on Saul’s haunted, hunted face in long, unbroken, relentless takes. The sounds and horrors of the camp’s unceasing death factory go on in the background, so the viewer has to imagine them, feel them. It is a striking approach to this “genre” and amazingly effective. Somehow, brilliantly, it is not too much to handle either. It’s a depiction of hell, certainly, but Saul is spry enough, motivated enough to plough on through it.

At the same time, there’s a plot brewing, a prisoner revolution to overthrow the guards, so there are elements of the ‘prison movie’ adding to the tension.

It really is a masterful work, its intensity and utter control reminding me of the Romanian Palme d’Or winner from 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But it has an even more wide-ranging importance, with its inherent debates about cinematic representation of the Holocaust.

Although it won the second prize of the Grand Prix, in the end, Son of Saul will be the Cannes 2015 film that gets talked about most as it journeys, almost inevitably, to an Oscar nomination (Hungary has already announced it as its official entry). You can read a fascinating interview between me and the lead actor Geza Rohrig here.

Many people wanted Carol to win. It was never going to. That’s not to say it isn’t a terrific film, just that you can expect it to do well at BAFTAs and Oscars rather than Cannes. It’s a wonderful adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novella, the story of the titular wealthy New York socialite (beautifully played by Cate Blanchett) who, in the straight-laced 1950s, seduces a pretty shop girl (a revelatory Rooney Mara) who ended up sharing the best actress prize with Emmanelle Bercot, rather controversially, because Blanchett is every bit as good. “What a strange girl you are,” purrs Carol. “Flung out of space.”

It’s directed, consummately, by Todd Haynes and could serve as a companion piece to his Sirk-like Far From Heaven, the way it explores personal sexuality amid the confines of society’s judgements and laws. It does simmer gently at the start but bubbles to deliver thrills and threat. I was slightly reminded of early Mad Men and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road, but Carol has great style of its own – the costumes, by the ever-dazzling Sandy Powell, which practically tell the story on their own, should have won a special award themselves (as she did at Cannes back in 1998, collaborating on Haynes’ glam-rock drama The Velvet Goldmine). There’s great music too, with Billie Holliday, Eddie Fisher and The Clovers singing One Mint Julep.

In a year defined by everyone making films in English, except, of course, the English themselves (not one British film selected in any competition), there was quite a lot of love for The Lobster, by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos. It even carried off the Jury Prize but to be honest, I hated it.

A pudgy Colin Farrell plays a man checking into some kind of odd hotel where residents have 45 days to find a mate or they are sent to live in the woods where they turn into an animal of their choice. There is some humour in the way this hotel works, with its musical nights hosted by manageress Olivia Colman.

But then Farrell runs off to the woods to live with Rachel Weisz and a group of resistance fighters led by Lea Seydoux and it becomes not only unfathomable but dreary, too. I have no idea what Lanthimos thinks he is satirising or criticising here.

Far superior (and also part-funded by Film 4) was Italian director of The Great Beauty Paolo Sorrentino and his second English-language effort Youth, also set in a hotel, this time in the Swiss Alps, where the rich and famous go to preserve themselves.

Here, Michael Caine turns in one of the best performances of his late career as a retired English composer and conductor requested to perform one last time for the Queen. He is friends with a washed-up Hollywood director played by Harvey Keitel and they’re joined by Rachel Weisz, Jane Fonda, a Maradona-look-a-like, Paloma Faith and Paul Dano. As discernible from just that cast, it’s all a bit baroque and bonkers in the increasingly-signature Sorrentino style, but I liked it and found its keen blend of yearning and mortality funny as well as rather moving.

Another Italian maestro going for the increased audience and acting talent pool English-language clearly offers was Matteo Garrone, whose awesome mafia film Gomorrah premiered at Cannes back in 2008. He’s back on Neopolitan turf, but with stories of a rather different nature in Tale of Tales, adapting the 16th century folk tales of Giambattista Basile into a magical mosaic of violence, duty, sex, betrayal and death. Plus ca change, or whatever they say in Naples…

The stories are fabulously strange. Salma Hayek is an imperious Queen trying to conceive a son, for which her King (John C Reilly) has to slay a sea monster; Vincent Cassel is a randy Duke who beds an ugly sister; Toby Jones is a King who falls in love with a flea before promising his only daughter to an ogre.

Garrone makes the sort of film last seen when Peter Greenaway was in his pomp and the result is nothing if not surprising. I’d have liked a bit more sex and violence in these adult fairy tales, to be honest, something to really pierce the dark heart of Neapolitan culture but it was certainly one of the more memorable movies at Cannes.

Sadly, I can’t say the same of Macbeth. Ordinarily, I think Shakespeare might have won the screenplay award because, you know, he’s pretty good but he never shows up, never does press….

However, the Bard’s script is so butchered in this latest adaptation, reduced to a sort of mash-up of monologues, a suite of soliloquies that we’re left with very little poetry and no sense of tragedy. And that’s even with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard trying their utmost (too much, I reckon) in the leads.

Visually, Australian director Justin Kurzel, who made the superbly horrific Snowtown, does have something to offer, although his picture of Scotland is dreary, wet, and looks flippin’ freezing. Everyone looks miserable, with even the witches done as depressed hags wailing and moaning to the accompaniment of wheezing bagpipes. Sean Harris steals the show as MacDuff.

Elsewhere, Gus van Sant’s Sea of Trees took a helluva critical beating, with Matthew McConaughey lost in a forest at the foot of Mt Fuji, trying to find his inner peace and Zen balance.

I wanted to love Mountains May Depart by China’s Jia Zhangke, but it was a bit of a grind and quite the mess, a story of bitter love and soured hopes, set in 1999, 2015 and 2025. I think this undoubtedly masterful director was attempting to tell the story of modern China through a poisonous love triangle whose consequences reverberate through generations. However, while the opening section held promise, the middle sections was unrelentingly grim and grey, while the final coda in Australia was silly, stilted and ugly. I much preferred China’s Berlin winner from 2014 Black Coal, Thin Ice, with which it shared many themes – particularly that of coal mining, which always seems to occur in Chinese movies (btw – my favourite Chinese mining movie: Blind Shaft).

In the end the two best movies outside of Son of Saul weren’t in any competition. I loved Asif Kapadia’s enormously moving doc Amy, piecing together the life of Amy Winehouse and giving us tragedy, poetry and wonderful songs. It also had the best party, with Gregory Porter singing live, followed by Mos Def (Yasiin Bey, he’s called now).

But if we’re honest, the best thing anyone saw all Cannes was Inside Out, the genius new movie from Disney Pixar, which had the Grand Theatre Lumiere in raptures like I’ve never felt at Cannes before. The story of the emotions inside a little girl as she adjusts to her new home in San Francisco, the wit and daring of the idea was dizzying. Most critics would be loathe to admit it, but this was the film that most displayed sheer mastery of form, coupled with narrative clarity, visual bravura and a tight, zingy, inventive, funny and wise script.

A cartoon could, surely, never win the intellectual Palme d’Or? But Inside Out would have been the bravest, coolest, most credible winner you could wish for. Maybe the Oscars will take the unlikely upper hand and make history with a winning animation, just as they did when silent French comedy, The Artist, went all the way in Hollywood after Cannes only reluctantly allowed it into competition. There’d be no shame in turning that particular record book Inside Out.