Variety‘s Justin Chang opens with an immortal line: “‘I want this to be a picture of dignity—a true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ So declared the comedy-director hero of Preston Sturges’s classic Sullivan’s Travels, and his fit of self-importance may well enlighten viewers as they ponder why Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius has decided to follow the deft, effervescent charms of The Artist with The Search, a grueling, lumbering, two-and-a-half-hour humanitarian tract that all but collapses under the weight of its own moral indignation.”
“At the risk of being unkind about a filmmaker who delighted me (and many others) so unequivocally with his last feature, it’s probably tempting fate to open any film with the words, ‘What is this piece of shit?'” advises Guy Lodge at In Contention. “That’s not an entirely fair assessment of The Search…, but it does roughly sum up the jaded bafflement with which it was received by journalists in Cannes this morning. A stiff, lumbering humanitarian drama that works obtusely and tirelessly against its director’s spryest skills, it’s proof positive that good intentions pave not only the road to hell, but the one to dreary mediocrity as well.”
The Search is a “desperately well-meaning movie is about an EU human rights observer who rescues a refugee boy during the 1999 Chechen war,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “It has its powerful scenes and heartfelt moments, and all avowedly inspired by Fred Zinneman’s Oscar-winning 1948 film of the same name with Montgomery Clift as the GI in ruined Berlin who chances across a lost Jewish boy and sets out to find the child’s mother…. Hazavicius can’t help turning his boy into a sort of Chaplinesque Kid, and there’s a very disappointing central performance from Bérénice Bejo who goes into full Juliette Binoche mode as the caringly concerned westerner, berating callous officials on the phone about how little care and concern they are showing. The role is dull and complacently conceived, and Annette Bening is frankly even more exasperating, playing Helen, the frowningly troubled Red Cross official.”
Budd Wilkins at the House Next Door: “The film alternates between Carole’s investigation into the Chechen’s plight and the saga of 10-year-old Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev) and his teenage sister, Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili), whose parents are killed by Russian soldiers in the film’s R-rated street-cred-establishing atrocity, and recently conscripted Russian soldier, Kolia (Maksim Emelyamov). As further evidence of The Search‘s general lack of imagination, Kolia’s storyline recalls Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket in some pretty explicit ways, from its caricature of an abusive drill instructor to disorienting combat scenes that play out in front of beautifully burning buildings. Throughout these scenes, Hazanavicius’s straw man conception of the Russians as brutal homophobes is hammered away at with an emphasis that’s questionable at best.”
“As in Paul Haggis’s Crash, the most pressing question is which of these loosely interlinked narratives is the most risible,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the Dissolve. “Hazanavicius, who also wrote the screenplay, is unquestionably sincere, but subtlety is not his forte, to say the least; The Search rolls over its thinly conceived characters like a Russian tank, flattening each one into a didactic position paper. Bening’s orphanage head speaks entirely in platitudes; Bejo gets saddled with two painful speeches about the world’s indifference to Chechnya’s suffering; and little Hadji, for the sake of dramatic convenience, doesn’t speak at all until it’s suddenly convenient for him to do so…. Hazanavicius may think he’s Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg now, but if he’s very lucky, he may one day improve to the point where folks consider him the new Roland Joffé.”
“Coincidentally quite timely in the wake of recent Russian moves on its neighbors, the writer-director’s first full-on drama attempts to present a mosaic portrait of the suffering in a region little-known or understood by the world,” writes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy, “hence the perceived lack of concern. The result is vivid when focusing on those directly involved in the war but laborious when devoted to the fretful hand-wringing of do-gooder outsider characters, which is a lot of the time.”
“Too often are Bejo and Bening’s characters directly stating both their feelings and the film’s all-important message over and over,” writes Peter Labuza at the Film Stage. “Hazanavicius at least shows that he can direct without mugging for the camera and work at a large scale (some of the war footage is impressively shot, even if derived from every film of its stripe made since Saving Private Ryan).”
“The self-importance factor is so high, and the reward so low, that it’s the first film in this year’s Cannes competition to invite a hearty chorus of indignant booing,” notes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey. “Hazanavicius has confused sobriety with impact, and mulched down all the stories you might want to tell about Chechnya into a generic, undermotivated wallow.”
“The plotting is plodding, and the film traffics in such sharp insights as ‘developed nations shouldn’t turn a blind eye to genocide,'” writes the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd. “The Search has no business competing for the Palme; the programmers would have been better off giving its slot to Lost River.”
At the Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton gives The Search a D; Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn gives it a C. More from Fabien Lemercier at Cineuropa, where Domenico La Porta talks with Hazanavicius.
Updates, 5/24: “Hazanavicius says he made the film ‘to oppose the absurd theory according to which all Chechens are terrorists,'” notes Time‘s Richard Corliss. “That is absurd. Not all Chechens, or Afghans or Somalis, are terrorists. But some are, and their actions brought the Russian army into Chechnya. Another discredited theory is that the mediocre, muddled followup to any Oscar-winning film deserves a choice spot in the Cannes competition.”
“History agrees with the movie,” notes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “The world didn’t make the conflict a priority soon enough. But that oversight is the movie’s only reason for being. The scenes among the doltish Russian psychos are something like a passage from The Tin Drum but with only the tin. The scene in which Bejo, who’s very good but misdirected in English, delivers her big report to the Foreign Affairs Council should be a shaming moment. But it’s presented as monotony. Only a handful of members are there. And most of them are nodding off. I took a look around the theater. They weren’t the only ones.”
“If this is a bid from the French writer/director to be considered a Serious Filmmaker,” writes Adam Woodward at Little White Lies, “it’s ultimately telling how indifferent it feels towards its thorny subject matter.”
“Annette Bening offers a bit of spark in her few scenes,” writes Jon Frosch for the Atlantic, “but The Search otherwise plays like a balloon gradually deflating.”
At RogerEbert.com, Barbara Scharres argues that “the film unintentionally puts an appallingly superficial and self-serving face on human rights work.”
And “for all that Hazanavicius clearly means well in an heroic attempt to illustrate the plight of these displaced Muslims,” writes Fionnuala Halligan for Screen Daily, “their cause so often linked to terrorism, The Search is painted with very wide brushstrokes, and, at 149 minutes, is indulgently long. With Hazanavicius taking on so many roles in a more weighty enterprise than before, it can’t help but feel slightly hubristic—and a sad waste of an opportunity for all involved.”
“While there’s a chilling timeliness to this modernized examination considering recent actions the Russian government has taken, what results is an unmanageable tangle of competing narrative strands,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.
“The occasional comic moments are misconceived and The Search as a whole reeks of a suspension of critical thought,” adds John Bleasdale at CineVue.
Ben Croll at Twitch: “If Michel Hazanavicius is going to continue mining Old Hollywood properties to riff on, might I direct his gaze to one director in particular? He too mixed European sophistication and mainstream favor. Winner of many awards, he never grew ashamed of his comedy background, but embraced it, matured with it, pushed it to new ground. Before starting your next project, M. Hazanavicius, could you please look up Billy Wilder?”
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