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Cannes awards signal tectonic shift

 

A rising crop of fringe auteurs took centre-stage when the Steven Spielberg-led jury revealed the names of the year's award winners on Sunday: a lesbian romance directed by an Arab, a trip into a Mexican hellhole, and a scalding critique of capitalist-communist China by a state-supported film Saibal Chatterjee
SAIBAL CHATTERJEE | Issue Dated: June 9, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Cannes Film Festival | Pedro Almodovar | Michael Haneke | Lars von Trier | the Dardenne Brothers | Mike Leigh | Ken Loach | Gus Van Sant | jury |
 

The 66th Cannes Film Festival was unusual in at least one crucial respect. Many top-flight Competition regulars were conspicuous by their absence from the world’s glitziest celebration of cinema. Missing from the line-up of 20 films vying for the Palme d’Or were the likes of Pedro Almodovar, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, the Dardenne Brothers, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, Gus Van Sant and Quentin Tarantino – storied names that have in recent years added tremendous traction to the event.

But that is not to say that the festival’s main Competition was all tepid and devoid of excitement. For one, the selection did have films by previous Cannes winners like Steven Soderbergh, Roman Polanski and the Coen Brothers. It also brought together the works of some of the most gifted directors working in the medium today. And significantly, barring Polanski (79) and Jim Jarmusch (60), all the Palme d’Or contenders this year were either in their 50s or even younger.

At the end of the day, the directors that came up trumps – Abdellatif Kechiche (Blue is the Warmest Colour – The Life of Adele), Amal Escalante (Heli), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Like Father, Like Son) and Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin) – represented an exciting new generation in world cinema. Yes, the Coen Brothers, with the widely applauded Inside Llewyn Davis, were inevitably among the prizes (they won the runners-up Grand Prix), but it seemed that the baton had well and truly been passed to a bunch of rising stars ready to take world cinema forward.

The fact that these awards were given by a formidable jury of nine members that had as many as five globally feted directors made the citations doubly significant. Two of these director-jurors, jury head Steven Spielberg and fellow Oscar-winner Ang Lee, belonged to the established showbiz order; the other three – Romania’s Cristian Mungiu, United Kingdom’s Lynne Ramsay and Japan’s Naomi Kawase – represented more radical forms of cinematic expression. What eventually mattered was that the choices that they made in unison had the unmistakable stamp of intelligence, foresight and courage.

The Palme d’Or for the sexually explicit but tender lesbian love story, Blue is the Warmest Colour – The Life of Adele, summed it up to perfection. This jury was clearly out to tell the world that filmmaking is nothing without a bold dash of creative adventurism. Yes, the latest edition of the Cannes Film Festival did not have its outright ‘wow moments’; it did not deliver anything quite like Volver, Antichrist, Holy Motors or Uncle Boonmee. The jury, to its credit, culled out the real path-breakers from a field of competently made but somewhat risk-free films.     

Oodles of daring are on show in the no-holds-barred winner from 52-year-old French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche. In a break from tradition, the jury gave Palme d’Or citations to the film’s two lead actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, along with the award for the writer-director.

Significantly, the best actress prize was scooped up by another French actress – Berenice Bejo – for her measured performance as a besieged woman caught between her visiting estranged Iranian husband and a younger married boyfriend in Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's French-language Le Passe (The Past).

The assembly line of French actresses is obviously working as well as ever – Argentine-born Bejo is 36, Seydoux is 27 and half-Greek Exarchopoulos is 19. Add to that the other breakout performance in this year’s Cannes fest – 23-year-old Marine Vacth playing a 17-year-old pushed by the first burst of sexual energy into prostitution in Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie (Young and Beautiful) – and the rosy melting pot brims over with possibilities. 

Returning to Blue is the Warmest Colour, it is a film that runs for nearly three hours and tells the coming of age story of a 15-year-old French girl (played incandescently well by 19-year-old Adele Exarchopoulos) and the fate of her passionate love affair with an older woman (Lea Seydoux).

The exquisitely crafted and outstandingly well acted film demolishes taboos and tackles a difficult theme with remarkable poise. It is certainly not meant for those that are easy to offend, but, as cinema that dares, the film is a major breakthrough. The performances by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are reminiscent of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s similarly gutsy star turn in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, which fetched the best actress prize in Cannes in 2009.

The best actor prize went to veteran American Bruce Dern for his role in Alexander Payne's black and white Nebraska.
 
Kechiche, winner of a Jury Prize in Venice for his 2007 film Secret of the Grain, has, on his part, been instrumental in putting new Arab cinema on the world map. There is of course nothing directly Arab in Blue is the Warmest Colour but the Cannes recognition for his controversial new film is bound to fuel renewed international interest in the career of the Paris-based screenwriter and director.         

Pushing thematic boundaries comes easy to Jia Zhangke as well. A director and screenwriter who, along with Wang Xiaoshuai, is regarded as a leading light of the sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers, he is only 43.

Zhangke has been in the international spotlight for several years now. Beginning as an ‘underground’ filmmaker working outside the state-run cinema bureaucracy in his country, he received official support only about ten years ago, when he made The World. The world sat up and took notice of his talent.

Zhangke, who won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 for Still Life, is known for his fiercely personal vision. He was in competition in Cannes before (notably with 24 City in 2008). This year’s best screenplay prize for A Touch of Sin is vindication of his growing importance as a globally influential filmmaker.

Always an unflinching chronicler of the lives of dispossessed men and women – petty criminals, thugs, pimps, prostitutes and such like – struggling to make ends meet in a sprawling nation that is rapidly globalizing and embracing capitalistic development, Zhangke pulls no punches in A Touch of Sin.

The film, which tells four stories about characters driven by circumstances to acts of unspeakable violence, is his most searing critique yet of contemporary Chinese life. Receiving his award at Grand Theatre Lumiere, Zhangke said: “Cinema makes me live. China is now changing so fast. I think cinema is the best way for me to look for freedom.”

Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose film Like Father, Like Son, the story of two families who discover that their six-year-old boys were swapped at birth, was an early favourite for the Palme d’Or, won the third most important award of the festival – the Jury Prize.

The 50-year-old director invests the emotional family drama with a contemplative tone ias he explores what it truly means to be a parent in a society that pulls an individual in different directions. If Blue is the Warmest Colour and A Touch of Sin are films that thrive on delivering severe jolts, Like Father, Like Son is a masterfully modulated and subtle studyof human bonding that goes beyond mere bloodlines.


Barcelona-born Mexican director Amat Escalante, only 34, was given the best director prize by Spielberg’s jury and controversial as the award was, it proved that this panel of jurors wasn’t interested in propping up films that played safe.

The film in question, Heli, about a young family that is torn apart by the uncontrollable force of underworld violence, has graphic scenes of torture. Escalante, who was an assistant to Carlos Reygadas during the making of the latter’s critically acclaimed Battle in Heaven (Cannes Competition, 2005), goes the whole hog in capturing the horrors of the ‘hellhole’ that crime and corruption are pushing his embattled nation into.

Understandably described as “unrelentingly depressing” by a Hollywood trade publication, Heli is just the kind of film that the director’s mentor, Reygadas, would be proud of. For Escalante and his ilk, filmmaking isn’t clearly about just box office collections and international deals; it is more about telling the stories that nobody else is willing to touch.

In recognizing a slew of films that make for anything but comfortable viewing, the awards of the 66th Cannes Film Festival may have signalled the begining of a tectonic shift in world cinema’s balance of power. Tomorrow is probably here.  

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017