Listen to this article
You can’t escape the razzmatazz at the annual Riviera rave. We were just starting to think the Cannes festival had entered a historic period of sanity – so many good and intelligent films – when the barmy army arrived. Two giant tanks drew up at the Carlton Hotel. Brouhaha’d by photo-snapping crowds, they decanted Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford . . . and just about every star you can think of capable, not long ago, of opening an action blockbuster worldwide.
Cannes draws the intelligentsia and draws the crazies. Sometimes the two meet and merge. A few days after Operation Croisette Storm came a miraculous competition movie, Foxcatcher, which showed that Hollywood can still nuclear-fuse art and entertainment. It’s a truth-based spellbinder. An Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler (Channing Tatum) and his co-athletes are trained and mentored by an eccentric, capricious, even sinister multimillionaire (Steve Carell in make-up and prosthetic nose, faintly Nosferatu). Events on either side of the 1988 Seoul Olympics go from weird to weirder. They culminate in murder.
Every principal plot happening is true. Chemicals dynasty heir John du Pont (Carell) did kill a man in the 1990s: gold medallist and team coach Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), brother of the Tatum-played Mark. Du Pont himself died in jail four years ago. Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) and his screenwriters spin legitimate, fascinating speculations. Was du Pont halfway to psychosis already? Exhibit A: his patriotic ravings. Exhibit B: his relationship with a dominant mother (think Norman Bates, cast a spooky Vanessa Redgrave). Did he develop an obsession with Mark? Was the obsession gay, or was it merely a fixation on the man who, almost alone, could bring Seoul Olympics glory?
Mark and du Pont fell out catastrophically. And in America the only thing that sorts such difficulties is the gun. Much of the film’s power comes from Steve Carell. His uncanny disappearance into the role of du Pont sets him up, surely, for the Cannes best actor gong. Complete with soft high-whine voice, gnomic pauses and an indescribable gait and body language – a panther with piles – Carell’s acting is a revelation. This is the guy who has been marking time with 40-Year-Old Virgins, Evan Almighties and TV Offices?
Foxcatcher rose to the peak of the Cannes critics charts, an eminence reserved till then for Britain’s Mr Turner and Turkey’s Winter Sleep (both reviewed in my last dispatch). Deux Jours, Une Nuit, from the two-time Golden Palm-winning Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, L’Enfant), soon joined the vertigo set.
The simpler a Dardenne plot, the madder audiences go for it. This one has factory worker Marion Cotillard going from door to door, in her locality, canvassing for workmates’ votes. Management has decided that either Cotillard, returned from a sickness break for depression, is made redundant or the workers forfeit a freshly promised bonus.
What is a person’s self-worth – or survival – worth to others? The question is subtly addressed and shot with an on-the-hoof vividness unique to the Dardennes. What’s it like to be cast out by your day-mates and fellow humans? (Think of television’s Big Brother and write it cinematic.) Can you, should you, fight to present your plight as more poignant, or more prioritised, than theirs?
The lives and living needs of the people Cotillard woos, and must impoverish to stay employed, are cleverly diversified: from the short-term-contract black worker scared of a punitive dismissal to the young working wife who defies a bawling, angry husband. Cotillard, improbably cast by a directing duo long wedded to non-professionals, is raw, unaffected, harrowing.
French-Canadian film-maker Xavier Dolan – speciality, broody-garish gay-tendency dramas (I Killed My Mother, Tom at the Farm) – presents Mommy as his first-time Golden Palm contender. Think of a manic pop video with interludes for narrative and (almost) naturalism. A single mum (Anne Dorval) takes her ADHD teenage son out of care; she tries to cope at home, with help from a shy but Boho female tutor-neighbour. She finds it going pear-shaped, even though the screen, contradictorily, is square-shaped. It’s an intriguing style choice; the 1:1-ratio images go by like pictures in a swiftly turned scrapbook. Despite longueurs, the exuberance, funkiness and sheer eccentricity are infectious.
The competition had its stinkers. Atom Egoyan’s The Captive is a dreadful art-thriller, mazy plotting adding pretension to a lame paedophilia/kidnapping yarn. Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent gives us another all-about-Yves fashion biopic: there wasn’t enough story fabric to make the first. In the main Cannes sideshow, Un Certain Regard, France’s feyly imbecile Bird People – airport hotel chambermaid takes to the sky as all-spying, all-seeing sparrow – competed with Israel’s sub-porn-sensational That Lovely Girl, a gorblimey, going-nowhere tale of daddy/daughter incest.
Some movies got a divided response: cheers to the left, boos to the right. Michel Hazanavicius was flavour of the year in 2012 with the Best Picture Oscar-winning The Artist. The Search is massively ambitious in its 160-minute sweep across war-savaged Chechnya in 1999. It is also massively anti-Russian. Rape, pillage, racism; cold-blooded executions; even, back at base, brutal barracks-room bullying, sometimes fatal.
Did some booers think the film sentimental as well? The main story’s orphaned Chechen nine-year-old, played by Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev with a Chaplinesque appeal (which won’t appeal to some), strays into the arms and heart of NGO fact-finder Bérénice Bejo, star of The Artist and Hazanavicius’s wife and muse. My own wince reflex stayed unaroused. The film earns the tears it wins from us, doesn’t it? It wrings them from, or through, the arduous, harsh, graphically believable docu-style battle sequences.
Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home finds me in the opposite camp. Set at the end of the Cultural Revolution, the novel-based script reunites a political prisoner with his wife (Gong Li, greying but still formidable), who fails to recognise him because of “psychogenic amnesia”. Quite what that is – apart from a Hollywoodish device for triggering pathos – we’re not told. Some sequences are classic Zhang, powerfully uniting feeling and image. Others creak a little with contrivance.
The Directors Fortnight, traditionally a young film-makers’ forum, showed the latest, possibly last, feature from an 81-year-old John Boorman. The Point Blank and Hope and Glory director came on stage aided by a stick and got an ovation. Citizen Cane? Queen and Country, his sequel to Hope and Glory, is an autobiographical yarn about growing pains and the truant truths learned during home-front national service. (The hero doesn’t fight; the Korean war stays half a globe away.) Boorman’s teenage alter ego is played by Callum Turner. His mischief-making mate is played – quite brilliantly – by the volatile, gifted Caleb Landry Jones, elastic of feature and expression, mannered and motile of voice, surely a star of the future.
Fellow British director Ken Loach is a stripling of 77. Still a Cannes regular, he is the most invited Palm contender in history, winning once with The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006). Jimmy’s Hall is another Irish resistance tale, based on the true story of twice-deported Jimmy Gralton (Barry Ward), who after his first exile brought back New York dance music to restart a family-founded dance and meeting hall. Time: early 1930s. The hall doubled as a schooling centre for deprived locals. Catholic priests and Anglo-Irish landlords quickly got aggressive. The poor getting ideas above their station! And outside their faith! Gralton and his friends fought back . . .
Robbie Wuthering Heights Ryan provides dazzling cinematography. Best in cast is Jim Norton’s waspishly doctrinaire Father Sheridan, delivering writer Paul Laverty’s funny, Church-lampooning lines. Jimmy’s Hall may be another “Ireland for the Irish” fable from a director with umpteen such outings before. (Been there, done that, got the Taoiseach T-shirt.) But it’s still a charmer with a brain in its head. Those are what Loach does best.