Cannes Film Festival – first report

Two great truths exist about the human heart. There is no such thing as loneliness and there is no condition other than loneliness. Fellow mortals crowd about us on this planet. At Cannes, God knows they do. Try to clear a path into any screening, especially when umbrella wars in a downpouring May turn almost every melee into a fracas. But as the festival has also shown – in its early films, a set of oddly kindred chamber dramas from a connoisseurs’ list of international directors – company can intensify solitude and italicise singularity.

You never saw so many movies about families in crisis, or about isolated souls camouflaged by domestic togetherness. They are all at it: Iran’s Asghar Farhadi (of 2011’s Oscar-winning A Separation), Hollywood’s Sofia Coppola, France’s François Ozon; best to date, Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda.

Like Father, Like Son develops the fascination with small kids seen in Kore-eda’s last film I Wish – and with the helpless good intentions of grownups trying to understand a world they have (they think) grown out of. A medium-rich architect and his wife discover that their six-year-old boy is not biologically theirs. Tots were swapped at birth by a disturbed hospital nurse. Their real son lives with poor but loving parents above an appliance-and-repair shop. What to do? The architect’s orderly, controlling mind insists that bloodlines be re-established. So the kids, amid much upheaval and maternal misgiving, are re-swapped.

It can’t work, can it? The story becomes a rocky road to re-enlightenment. Kore-eda never spares the instructive ironies – the kid raised by poor-but-happy parents can’t repress the gypsy in his soul – or indeed the instructive ivories. Piano lessons become a wry running motif. The architect-reared kid, while still en famille, dashes dad’s pride by botching a school recital, only for dad to learn later that the boy had hidden gifts he never noticed. The piano shadows forth greater schemes in the movie’s symbolic harmony. Music is an emblem-art, Kore-eda seems to be saying, which shows that logic, control and mathematical calculation are not the enemy but, in the right world, the ally of instinct and emotion.

Ozon and Farhadi both portray distraught teenage daughters in distrait families. Newcomer Marine Vacth is terrific in Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie, one of those cautionary stories about the worst thing you can imagine happening to your child. Seventeen-year-old Isabelle loses her virginity – more matter-of-factly, even scientifically, than we are comfortable with – on a vacation. She parlays that moment of dispassionate transport into a student-age sideline as a prostitute. The parents discover all and go into meltdown. The girl keeps her cool even when parted, resentfully, from her earnings. The director of Under the Sand and Swimming Pool is at his best treating shocking subjects with a clinical cool. And as so often in Ozon’s cinema there’s a dream cameo, late and unexpected, for Charlotte Rampling.

Iran’s Farhadi also sets his story in Paris. His Tehran-based protagonist (Ali Mosaffa) arrives in France to finalise a divorce from French wife Marie (finely played by The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo). The catalytic character, though, is Marie’s daughter (Pauline Burlet): a quiet teenage tornado so convulsed by the game of musical marriage beds – her mother plans to wed a puppy-cute French Arab (Tahar Rahim) – that she starts ripping up the landscape of tolerance exhibited, if only for civility or its appearance, by her elders. It’s a subtly crafted tragicomedy until the last reel. Then the “twister” role passes to Farhadi, who puts too many melodramatic twirls into a final act including a revenge intrigue and a coma victim.

Some loved but I hated Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring. The script is as ditzy as the satirical target in this truth-based tale of teenage girls burgling Hollywood celebrity homes. Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom, Lindsay Lohan: they all get ripped off, as they actually did, in an orgy of burglary apparently choreographed by web research. (Find a famous person’s home. Check their next out-of-town date.) Emma Harry Potter Watson broadens her range and accent as one petty-crime cheerleader; Leslie Mann (This Is 40) gets brief titters as a prayer-saying mum. The rest is as tripey in style and character as the source events.

Life plagiarises art, so at Cannes we’ve already had a real jewel theft – a million dollars’ worth of Chopard “bling” – plus a man threatening a CanalPlus TV studio with a blanks-filled gun. No one knows what will come next, least of all on screen. Who expected the Coens, for instance, to make a wistful comedy with dark shimmers about the early 60s folk-singing scene in Greenwich Village? And who expected it to be the Palme d’Or favourite at the festival’s half-way point?

Fantastically subtle and likable, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a penniless, gig-seeking folkie (screen newcomer Oscar Isaac) with no apparent skills except that of making us care what happens to him. He kidnaps a cat; alienates friends and fellow singers (Justin Timberlake); scrabbles cash for a girlfriend’s abortion (Carey Mulligan, ascending to higher filmic things after Gatsby); takes a benighted trip to Chicago, meeting a scary super-agent (F. Murray Abraham) and a crazed crooner in a chauffeured car (John Goodman merging Burl Ives with Captain Pugwash).

The quaint songs tell us where New York’s folk music was going before Bob Dylan – nowhere – and the story is to appearances spectacularly inconsequential. But isn’t that the Coens’ magic? All the characters in Fargo were hard at work wasting their lives, criminally or quotidianly; we still cared and were spellbound. No character seemed worth our time in The Big Lebowski, yet they swell with time and memory. Inside Llewyn Davis has learned, like Coen films before, from Homer and James Joyce. (A cat called Ulysses is just the beginning . . . ) This circular seriocomedy, chasing its own tail or tale, ends up where it began. But so does life. Both are voyages between oblivions: it depends how much you learn and enjoy on the way.

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