If the opening salvo of Cannes 2014 produced a ho-hum reaction from most critical camps, the final week has been alive with buzzing frenzy. Nothing gets film writers more riled up than the world premiere of a major auteur’s newest work, and we’ve been flushed with them.
No film had more anticipation coming in to the festival’s final leg than Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au language, presented in glorious 3-D at the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The reclusive and thorny director unveiled some of the film’s footage last year in his short Les trois désastres for the omnibus 3 x 3D, but his feature length foray into the wild void of multiple dimensions shattered my expectations.
It seems impossible to fully grasp Adieu au language’s political and ideological depths after only one viewing. There are too many essential details in the prose and compositions that will take time and energy to digest. Images (both created and co-opted) referencing fascism, nature, repression, capitalism, religion, sex and cinema history cascade like shuffling playing cards, each juxtaposed with cryptic text and narration. When ideas are unloaded at such a fleet and hilarious speed one can get lost in a flurry of mental stimulation. A mind-bending shot even stretches the screen in a new way, moving from a flat image to a superimposed one and back again through a motivated pan.
Adieu au language’s heady endgame is being constantly subverted, yet its style remains lovingly accessible and alive. Unlike 2010’s Film socialisme, it is infused with a playful urgency and comedic sensibility (poop jokes abound) that despite Godard’s trademark cynicism suggest something bordering on hope. The film is aglow in neon-hued splinters of light and audible pops, mise-en-scene that challenges the eye to explore the frame in new ways. We’ve never seen 3-D like this before, and might not again.
Natural cycles and simple wonders are a constant focus, as is classical music and literature. But Godard questions whether humans are even capable of appreciating the essence and texture of such complex beauty in our post-post modern age. One image of leaves floating on the surface of a lake, each holding small puddles themselves, represents a thesis statement for our visual salvation. But the constant presence of Godard’s own dog, Roxy, makes for a striking counterpoint. Speaking of canines, the narrator reminds us that “they are the only animal that loves you more than itself,” and such humility and unselfishness allows these creatures to see nature and humanity without the filters of greed, judgment and ego. We may well be damned to never fully understanding the greatness that surrounds us.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes Two Days, One Night attributes much of its breakneck momentum to these same human fallacies. Using a very linear and time-sensitive structure that involves a woman’s desperate trek to save her job (and thus her sanity), the film feels like a hot-blooded 1930s Hollywood melodrama grafted in a French working class tableau. Every interaction carries the weight of the world, every setback a tragic intensity.
Like all of the Belgian filmmakers’ work, the viewer is dropped into a conflict already in motion. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) sits idly at home after being fired from her job at a solar panel factory. While on sick leave after suffering an extreme bout of depression, her co-workers voted to receive a raise rather than keep her on staff, subterfuge instigated by Sandra’s conniving foreman (Oliver Gaumont). Two Days, One Night is about her quest to change their minds, one person at a time.
Sandra battles her demons while confronting her colleagues on their home turf. In each micro-drama that unfolds, the Dardennes make a profound statement about human strength in the corporate age. So often we know very little of our co-workers’ lives beyond the cubicle, but Two Days, One Night explores the sudden erasure of the wall separating professional and private. In turn, each worker is forced to address the consequences of their vote with Sandra facing them down. The results are diverse and powerful.
Far more thunderous but no less cutting in its rage toward institutional contradictions, Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Leviathan adapts the Book of Job in modern day Russia. It’s set in a rural community where a land dispute between the shady mayor and a hotheaded homeowner sparks a serpentine narrative meshing dark comedy and crushing tragedy. No character is left unscathed as the various plotlines splinter and overlap in overtly brutal ways.
To gain a better grasp of Leviathan’s staggering scope, imagine Thor’s hammer crashing down and producing a striking cinematic combustion of noir, procedural, satire, and political critique. Oppression and corruption invade every gorgeous frame littered with broken down churches, gutted homes, and entrenched whalebones resting on the frigid coastline. The ocean itself often seems enraged at the folly unfolding onshore. Zvyaginstev scans these desolate vistas with slow camera moves that feel like departed souls transitioning to new otherworldly elsewhere.
Residing on the opposite side of the tonal spectrum is Olivier Assayas’ breezy and sunny Clouds of Sils Maria, a cagey look at generational perspectives warring in quiet verbal combat. Starring Juliette Binoche as a famous actress prepping for a new play and Kristen Stewart as her stalwart personal assistant, the film is a measured meta-text that clashes old against new, Hollywood against art cinema.
Set mostly in a majestic section of Switzerland where snowy peaks offer refuge for low hanging cloud systems that sweep through valleys like a white snake, Sils Maria connects its character’s many internal conflicts with the vast environment around them. Sunshine streams through cabin windows and tree lines, offering each frame necessary lifeblood. Yet its unclear if the characters themselves realize the staggering scope of their surroundings. Instead, they are too busy contemplating the mountains and molehills of artistic interpretation, discussed during lengthy conversations that touch on anger, desire, guilt, and regret.
Sils Maria’s sly virtues will grow with time; the parallels between competing texts and characters are deceptively dense, pressed into a woozy atmosphere that calls to mind Assayas’ Summer Hours. Still, there’s a feeling of malaise that is uniquely attuned to our current state of social (media) affairs.
Going into Cannes I didn’t even plan on seeing Ken Loach’s Jimmy’s Hall, but an open slot in the schedule forced my hand. Based on the life of 1930s Irish political activist Jimmy Gralton, who operated a community space that the church and local police deemed communist in nature, the film plays like a semi-endearing sequel to The Wind that Swept the Barley. It’s Inoffensive completely forgettable, sweet in demeanor but rarely ambitious.
In the opening moments, Gralton returns to Ireland after being exiled in the U.S. for ten years. After growing bored with his new country lifestyle, he gets inspired by the younger townsfolk to re-open the shared space so that community members can learn how to dance and box, amongst other skills. Of course, all the same detractors come out of the woodwork to repress ole Jimmy’s fun, and the narrative as a whole is rather inert.
Comparisons to Footloose are apt (church vs. music etc.), but there’s also a little of the Step Up series here. When a large group begins dancing to a scandalous jazz tune, something about their collective movements feels dangerous and wild, especially considering the formally conservative nature of Loach’s later films.
As Cannes 2014 takes its last gasp, here are few more standouts: Abel Ferrara’s insane Welcome to New York, Ruben Östlund’s icy Force Majeure, Lisandro Alonso’s mossy Jaula, Frederick Wiseman’s astute National Gallery, Tommy Lee Jones’ shaggy The Homesman, David Robert Mitchel’s frightening It Follows, Stéphane Lafleur’s sublime Tu Dors Nicole, Karen Yadaya’s punishing That Lovely Girl and Jean Charles Hue’s singular Eat Your Bones.
Finally, the Jury led by Jane Campion announced their choices for the prestigious awards. The only film I was actively voting against was Naomi Kawase’s dreadfully self-righteous Still the Water. In the end, Nuri Bilge Ceylan finally took home the Palme d’Or for his titanic Winter Sleep, while Alice Rohrwacher’s tepid The Wonders took up the Grand Prix. In a surprising move, the Jury Prize was announced as a tie between the films by Jean-Luc Godard and Xavier Dolan. Bennett Miller took home the Best Director prize for Foxcatcher, Leviathan won Best Screenplay, and Timothy Spall and Julianne Moore won acting prizes for Mr. Turner and Maps to the Stars respectively.
All in all it was a great (and exhausting) Cannes. I’ll miss the Palais, the delightful Press Lounge staff, the cheap Rosé, and the unmatched ambiance of the Croisette. But most of all I’ll miss my friends both new and old, the people who always give the Cannes experience its heart and soul. Adieu everybody.