One IC Student’s Report on the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
by Eli Hayes
From the October 2015 IssueThe Cannes International Film Festival, one of the biggest film festivals in the world and arguably the most prestigious, is in constant, gorgeous chaos. It’s a goliath of an event set along the Mediterranean sea in the city of Cannes, France. Rest assured, the location and the atmosphere are a sight and feeling to behold, the scope and grandiosity of which cannot be properly described in words. But it’s also an exhausting experience, both physically and mentally—and understandably so. Cannes is a two week fusion of market and festival, despite only the latter aspect receiving mention in the event’s title. Thus, it’s open to industry professionals of all kinds, but beyond residents of the city of Cannes, it isn’t open to the public; one must receive accreditation (e.g. by being a member of the press or a participating filmmaker) in order to attend. The grounds themselves are a spectacle: from the array of vendors spreading the fresh aroma of baked dough through the air; to the beach drinkers, the collage of tuxedos and gowns; the famed Lumière Theatre’s seemingly endless red carpet and an abundance of white, flag-marked “pavilions,” always filled to the brim with attendees, each tent representative of a country with films included in the festival lineup.
It’s never an environment that one gets used to. For the past two years I’ve attended with a film in the Short Film Corner (one of the variety of ways in which a festival-goer can receive accreditation) and essentially stood there like a fool for the entirety of the two weeks with my jaw pressed hard into the sand. There were accomplished actresses like Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain to my left; brilliant cinematographers like Roger Deakins and Benoît Debie to my right; and I wasn’t supposed to be there—no way was I supposed to be there with all of them. Yet I was. Maybe not in my most sound-of-mind state, but there, amongst a sea of faces which had minutes prior merely been names. And beyond the I’m in Europe factor, the celebrity sightings, the flashing lights, the escargot and the free cocktails, the true spirit of the event is in the films. Though I didn’t have the opportunity to see them all, or even a minuscule fraction of the thousands that debut at Cannes, the following six were, at least for me, some of the most memorable.
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
If you were forced to be transformed into an animal, but could choose the type of animal you’d be turned into, what sort of creature would you select? Based on the title of Yorgos Lanthimos’ Jury Prize winning film alone, it shouldn’t be difficult to tell what its protagonist’s answer to that question would be. The Lobster tells the story of David (Colin Farrell), a man who has recently been left by his partner and decides to check into “The Hotel,” where he has 45 days to meet a new, satisfactory life companion or face the consequence of being changed into a small, marine crustacean. Lanthimos’ film is primarily a comedy, albeit an extraordinarily absurdist one—and that’s not to say it doesn’t contain its fair share of drama and conflict. One particular event about halfway through the film acts as a catalyst for a change in both tone and setting, in effect dividing all of the characters into distinct, opposing sides and the film itself into two remarkably dissimilar halves.
Dheepan (Jacques Audiard)
At the 2015 Cannes International Film Festival, the Palme d’Or—the festival’s top prize—was awarded to Jacques Audiard’s social-realist drama turned hyper-violent thriller, Dheepan. The film tells the story of its titular character’s attempt to reconstruct a life for himself after his wife and children are killed in Sri Lanka. In the aftermath of tragedy, Dheepan forms a pseudo-family with a woman he meets at random and an abandoned nine-year-old girl in an attempt to escape the Sri Lankan civil war for a better life in France. Unfortunately, the area of France that they move into is infested with criminals who use the territory for narcotics distribution and other illegal activities. Dheepan is forced to sit back and watch as the environment he has brought his makeshift family into becomes higher and higher risk; that is, until he reaches his breaking point. Ultimately, Audiard’s film is most notable for its focus on ideas such as how the family unit can both disintegrate and unify in the face of traumatic circumstances, the notion of essentially escaping one war-zone for another and also the way in which post-traumatic stress can be potentiated by a lifestyle of poverty. The third act presents a drastic tonal shift that will undoubtedly polarize viewers—leaving some exiting the theater shaking, while others shrug their shoulders in bafflement—but the overall experience is worth having no matter what your reaction to the ending is.
Son of Saul (László Nemes)
László Nemes’ Grand Prix winning directorial debut, Son of Saul, was one of the most critically well received films of those in competition at the 2015 Cannes International Film Festival. It’s understandable why, for its one of the most respectful and harrowing depictions of the Holocaust that has been committed to celluloid in decades. It follows Saul (portrayed with great subtlety and facial acting skill from first time actor Géza Röhrig), over the course of two chaotic days in Auschwitz as the camp nears its liberation. He is a “Sonderkommando,” a prisoner marked with a red X on their back to signify that they’re responsible for assisting in the disposal of Jewish bodies—those who have been murdered in the gas chambers. Saul’s true motivation in the film comes into play when he spots the body of a young boy who he takes to be his son and spends the remainder of the film in search of a rabbi that can help him, via prayer and blessing, in providing the boy with a proper burial. Stunningly shot in no more than two dozens long takes and designed, both visually and aurally, to capture its audience in the claustrophobic environment of its desperate protagonist, Son of Saul is without question one of the strongest works screened at this year’s festival.
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room is a hideous, frightening beast of genre cinema. It follows a punk band’s descent into a dark chasm of madness and brutality after they accidentally witness a homicide committed at a remote concert venue. Their neo-nazi hosts, however, don’t want to leave any witnesses and after the punks lock themselves in the titular green-colored room, all hell breaks loose. Unbearable tension—which there were certainly several moments of in Saulnier’s previous feature, Blue Ruin—spreads across the entirety of his newest output’s runtime. There was no other film at the 2015 Cannes International Film Festival, in competition or otherwise, that provoked such visceral, audible reactions from crowds. Green Room is a perfect exemplification of practical effects done well, albeit disgustingly, in the realm of contemporary independent cinema. The horror is complemented by a darkly funny script containing several intelligent and genuinely likable characters; stark realism (which makes the imminent violence all the more unendurable); enormous blades; vicious canines; and very, very little hope.
Love (Gaspar Noé)
Cinematic madman Gaspar Noé’s most recent exercise in transgression, Love, is without a doubt a visual wonder, as well as one of the most sexually explicit films ever made. Of its lengthy 135-minute runtime, at least seventy minutes are devoted to extended displays of graphic sex. The opening scene of the film, for instance, is a long-lasting static shot of the film’s protagonist, Murphy, and his girlfriend-at-the-time, Electra, engaged in an unsimulated sexual act. This directorial decision, which paves the way for the remainder of the film’s imagery, was met with immense excitement and anxiety from the audience of its midnight Cannes premiere. Love is sparse in plot, but its chief concentration is Murphy’s state of mind as the now married father reflects on the most passionate love affair of his life with his French ex. It’s apparent that Noé’s goal here was to expose his audience to such an enormous degree of sexual imagery that it would begin to feel like a common and acceptable thing to view in a non-pornographic film. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect, eventually desensitizing viewers to the sex being presented, exhausting them beyond the point of enjoyment and disallowing them from becoming fully absorbed in the more dramatic and human moments it has to offer.
Youth (Paolo Sorrentino)
Academy Award winning director, Paolo Sorrentino, returns with a poignant and melancholic symphony of cinematic emotion. As a master of tonal shifts, he pulls the rug out from under his audience on several occasions throughout the duration of the film, dragging them down into states of heartache only to just as suddenly raise them back up into the heights of pure laughter and joy. Watching Youth is like being trapped in a game of pinball, with Sorrentino playing and his audience the ball he’s whacking in every which direction without the slightest bit of delicacy. And nonetheless, though his directorial style means to manipulate greatly, it also means well. The narrative, though there hardly is one, centers in on retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine), during his stay at a spa resort in the Alps with his daughter, Lena (Rachel Weisz), as well as his longtime friend and confidant, eminent film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel). Much like in The Great Beauty (the movie which earned Sorrentino his Oscar), cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s camera rarely stops moving, gliding throughout the world that has been crafted and plastering images in viewers minds that won’t be easily forgotten. Its minor flaws, such as a slightly overlong runtime, can be easily forgiven by the intricately crafted visual aesthetic of each and every scene.