There are certain silences (you get them on good nights in Cannes) when a pin drop would sound like an atomic bomb. During Blue Is the Warmest Colour, by French film-maker Abdellatif Kechiche, the audience was so hushed that the words “Palme d’Or” seemed to form themselves invisibly and inaudibly in the airwaves. Here, surely, is the Cannes 2013 winner. And newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos is surely the Cannes 2013 Best Actress. In a marathon same-sex love story, the 15-year-old schoolgirl of the film’s secondary title The Life of Adele Chapters 1 and 2 – yes, there may be more coming – falls for a blue-haired artist (Léa Seydoux) a year or three older than her.
The first audience silences come when early flirting turns to calf-eyed kisses and tender touchings in deep, immersive close-up. This film is actually capturing the vertigo of falling in love! The next and more profound silences come when graphic sex scenes cause our ebbing, flowing stupefaction. Should we be getting turned on? Or should we be moved to awe by the transcendental convulsions of two bodies limning a rapture, at once sculptural and spontaneous, that we feel to be deeper than sex?
At 187 minutes, you get more than gay bar and bed. The dialogue’s articulate diffidence is brilliant and Rohmerian. These youngsters build their airy castles of intellectual debate at drink- or pot-fuelled parties: Marivaux, Sartre, Picasso. They gossip about who’s romancing whom. The parent generation is sketched with quick, deft, acerbic lines. Adapting a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, Kechiche brings enough of his own lithe structuring to make the movie’s signature instantly recognisable. This is the director of the L’Esquive and Couscous: the man who can make the intimate seem epic and the epic intimate.
Movies are made in heaven, life is made on earth. How else to explain Behind the Candelabra? (More gay romance, this time for men.) We thought director Steven Soderbergh had retired, that Michael Douglas was recovering from cancer and Matt Damon was older than yesterday. Apparently not. This kitsch-intensive Liberace biopic swoops down from the skies and into Cannes like a flock of scantily clad putti released from a Tiepolo ceiling. The camp and crazy life of the piano-playing, mink-wearing, ring-festooned entertainer who died of Aids after a lifetime of repudiating gay rumours is given soberly crazy treatment. Produced by HBO, it’s a television film in the US. Internationally, though, how can you confine a Soderbergh/Douglas/Damon movie to TV?
The script is based on the memoir of Scott Thorson, Liberace’s lover. Expect a cosy relationship between Thorson and Thorson, storyteller and story hero (Damon in blond wig and soft focus), while “Lee” – Michael Douglas with mile-high bouffant hair and mile-wide lacquered grin – gets to eat the scenery. Viewing, too, will be done with open mouths: jaws entr’ouverts with astonishment as Douglas and Damon get naked to share sex and a Jacuzzi and exchange tenderly conjugal kisses. Life gets rough eventually. All unhappy marriages, as Tolstoy said, end in chihuahuas launched across living rooms. Even here the film strives to be comforting amid the brouhahas. Thorson and Lee are reconciled at his deathbed; “dead” Lee sings us out onstage while ascending to a starry Vegas heaven.
But it’s not all love-at-first-sight gay romances. Sterner movies flex their subtitles too. Three for your thoughts: Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin from China, Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman from the Netherlands, Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) from Italy. Each had a different posse of critics purring. Only Sorrentino, divisive but dynamic in his Fellini-ish tale of a cynical author (Il Divo’s Tony Servillo) cutting aphoristic swaths through Rome society, has an outside chance at the Palme d’Or.
It looks gorgeous, this carnival in colours moving through parties, social politicking and panoramas of old and new Rome. A giant apartment terrace overhanging the Colosseum hosts the film’s chatter-feasts, witty, fractious and indefatigable. But 8½ and La Dolce Vita mixed charm with their epigrammatic misanthropy. They also had Mastroianni, lovable, handsome and woebegone. Servillo is more like Vittorio De Sica crossed with a lizard.
The audience applauded the film at its close but rose as if relieved to exit. Then we were re-detained, turning back to stand wonderstruck, by an end-credits sequence of staggering beauty: a boat journey up the Tiber, threading old bridges with music and sunset colours from a dreamy Roman otherworld. Sorrentino might be saying, “Hey, I can be a nice genius as well as a nasty or mordant one.”
Borgman is a clever caprice from a Dutch director (The Northerners) who loves ruffling the feathers of the bourgeoisie. Spooky interlopers take over a suburban home. They dig up the garden, seduce the wife and are soon administering surgical procedures. Droll, surreal, diverting, the film mates The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie with Invaders from Mars.
A Touch of Sin is a quartet of action-and-revenge stories from the Chinese director of those gnomic, lapidary movies Platform and Still Life. Watching Jia Zhang-ke film shootings, stabbings and beheadings is like reading a Proust novelisation of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Love the massacres. When do we get the madeleine?
Kechiche apart, it has been an underpowered competition. Better films have shown on the fringe, best of all a Cambodian memoir/documentary of force, intelligence and terrible beauty: Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture. Panh has versed us in the atrocities of the Pol Pot era before. He made S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. What can be left to say? Plenty. The Missing Picture fills in the missing picture. Here are the director’s childhood years in the tilling/killing fields. Pol Pot’s dream of an agrarian Utopia was, for those forced to fulfil it, a nightmare of hard labour, disease, starvation and death. Little filmic evidence has survived, so the director reconstructs scenes of suffering or horror with clay models.
Sounds ridiculous? No more so than the near-cartoonish lines and feral faux-naïveté of Picasso’s “Guernica”. The poignant mini-humans, with their painted eyes, sit or stand in handcrafted landscapes of fastidious detail. Sometimes a flicker of rare archive footage interrupts the toy-town recreations. But we don’t doubt the truth of either reality or feel from either a diminished impact. This was Cambodia in the late 1970s/1980s: the worst world that humans can contrive, apart from the other worst worlds (a rich choice) the 20th century gave us.
At every Cannes there are torments as well as transports. May the gods preserve me from re-enduring Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, a cack-fisted psychoanalysis drama with Mathieu Amalric (who doesn’t sound Romanian) as a French-Romanian shrink and Benicio Del Toro (who doesn’t look or sound Native American) as a Blackfoot with mental problems. And James Franco’s As I Lay Dying lies dying for two hours, a Faulkner novel forked to death (I want to use a ruder verb) by an actor fancying himself an auteur.
Then again there are treats from nowhere. I loved Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, a Coen-ish murder thriller on a mini-budget, and bits of the out-of-competition Mengele-in-Argentina drama Wakolda and, well, just watch this space. Coming soon: the final, prize-reporting dispatch.
Read Nigel Andrews’ first and (from Monday) final reports from Cannes at www.ft.com/film