Cannes Get Enough

Dennis Lim on the 67th Cannes Film Festival

Jean-Luc Godard, Goodbye to Language, 2014, color converted to 3-D, color, sound, 70 minutes.

FORTY-SIX YEARS after he and his comrades stormed the stage at the Cannes Film Festival to shut down the event in solidarity with the workers and students on the barricades, Jean-Luc Godard, now eighty-three, proved that he still has what it takes to stop this circus in its tracks. For those who came here for the films—as opposed to the conspicuous consumption and permanent hangover of this Hollywood-meets-Eurotrash spring break, with its socialite yacht parties, billionaire charity auctions, and luxury-brand pageantry—the single official screening of Godard’s 3-D opus, Goodbye to Language, was easily this year’s defining event. Lines started forming nearly two hours before the film (which runs all of seventy minutes) and the lights in the Grand Théâtre Lumiere went down to a spontaneous yell of “Godard forever!” and rowdy cheers. Less a culmination of the polyphonic mode that is Late Godard than an acceleration, the film is a furiously associative meditation on humanity and history, cinematic and linguistic meaning, the world of nature and the nature of reality—all refracted through fragmentary episodes involving an adulterous couple and dog’s-eye-view roamings through a light-streaked forest. The stereoscopic tricks and compositions are at minimum witty; at their most startling, they renew the reality of the screen image. It’s a bravura display of what a master formalist can do with a technology that cinema, now more than ever, equates simply with spectacle.

If the world premiere of Goodbye to Language was the most thrilling experience of the 2014 festival, the most depressing one followed immediately after, as this literally multidimensional work—with its dense superimpositions of image and sound, its dizzying oscillations between dyspeptic mischief and elegiac serenity—fell into the maw of instant reaction. The signal-to-noise ratio at Cannes worsens every year—audiences tweet in their seats during end credits, TV crews wait in ambush outside press screenings, critics race to crank out their notices in less time than it took to watch a movie—and it hit rock bottom after Goodbye to Language. The first trade review to land included the mind-boggling line “Since winning his honorary Oscar, Godard is obviously on cruise control.” Goodbye to language, goodbye to thought.

The festival’s other signal moment of cognitive dissonance also involved Godard. At the closing ceremony, the jury, chaired by Jane Campion, awarded the third-place Prix du Jury jointly to Godard, the oldest filmmaker in competition, and to the prolific Quebecois director Xavier Dolan, the youngest, at twenty-five, for his fifth feature, Mommy. Dolan’s champions typically regard his youth as a fetish or an excuse, and their ranks are likely to grow with this apparently crowd-pleasing mother-son melodrama, sodden with maudlin theatrics and shot in a perfect-square, Instagram-ready aspect ratio (for no discernible reason other than for the frame to stretch into widescreen at upbeat moments). Campion’s jury made a point of spreading the wealth across generations. To almost no one’s surprise, the Palme d’Or went to Nuri Bilge Ceylan, a respected auteur who has come close to the top prize numerous times, for Winter Sleep, a superbly acted, improbably absorbing three-hour-plus moral tale revolving around an aging actor-turned–landlord and hotelier in remote, rocky Cappadocia. A film with overt high-toned borrowings (Chekhov, Bergman) in which the characters, divided along volatile fault lines of class and gender, reveal themselves in long, winding conversations and the occasional indelible gesture, it was the frontrunner before it screened, and was even more of a sure thing after. The Wonders, the second feature by thirty-three-year-old Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, was perhaps a less expected choice for the runner-up Grand Prix—though many snarked that a woman-led jury was bound to reward a woman director. (Rohrwacher was one of two in competition, along with Naomi Kawase.)

Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Valentine and Maria Enders (Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche).

Rohrwacher’s film, about an unconventional family of beekeepers in rural Umbria, Italy, is a coming-of-age story that benefits greatly from its dreamlike specificity of texture and mood and from the quiet ambiguity that it cultivates around the motives and histories of the characters. Some observers sniped that it was “too small” for the competition—a complaint that speaks volumes about what its attendees have come to expect from Cannes. It’s not just the organizers who run the official selection as a club, granting automatic entry to the same pantheon auteurs year-in year-out; critical tastes have also adapted to establish a fairly narrow view of what makes a movie worthy of the Cannes spotlight. Official support coalesces more easily around the heavyweight ambition of Winter Sleep or the unmissable symbolism and topicality of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (the Best Screenplay winner), which both bashes Putin and updates the Book of Job, than, say, the sly pleasures of Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent and Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria—for my money, the two most exciting films in the competition after Goodbye to Language.

Saint Laurent and Sils Maria divided the critics and were ignored at the awards. Both were easy to dismiss as pop-culture trifles: Cannes may feed on fashion and celebrity, but on screen, the preference is for the self-serious. In a lineup with an abundance of biopics and true-life stories, Saint Laurent was the one that toyed most productively with the genre’s rules and limitations, besides also featuring some of the most electrifying filmmaking of the festival. Focusing on a dark, hedonistic, wildly creative decade in Yves Saint Laurent’s life and career, Bonello considers the couturier (convincingly embodied by Gaspard Ulliel and later by Visconti stalwart Helmut Berger) as a myth, a brand, an avatar of his era. As much as his subject and the gravitational pull he exerts in the hothouse environments of atelier and nightclub, Bonello is interested—as in his previous film, L’apollonide—in cinema’s potential both to capture and to warp the passage of time and our perception of it (especially apt given Saint Laurent’s lifelong identification with Proust: The film opens with him checking into a hotel under the pseudonym M. Swann). Sils Maria pairs Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart as a French movie star and her American assistant in a hall-of-mirrors meta-fiction, with Binoche preparing for the unwelcome role of the older woman in a revival of a play in which she was once the ingenue. The film echoes any number of thespian melodramas, including All About Eve, Persona, Opening Night, and André Téchiné’s Rendez-vous (co-written by Assayas and starring Binoche), and yet emerges as its own, restlessly intelligent, up-to-the-moment reflection on the treacherous uncanny valley between acting and being.

Nadav Lapid, The Kindergarten Teacher, 2014, color, sound, 119 minutes.

Overall the grumblings about the selection were louder than usual, perhaps because the lovely weather left people with nothing to complain about after two rainy years. But at least in the number of good-to-great films, Cannes 2014 seemed to me one of the stronger editions in some time. Its stature ensures that Cannes always has the pick of the crop; the problem, and the mystery, is where the most venturesome films will end up. The refusal to put documentaries center stage means that a work as significant as Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, which replays the recent Ukrainian uprising from festive protests to deadly clashes entirely through long master shots of massing, milling crowds, had to make do with an out-of-competition slot. Sidelined by its length, Bruno Dumont’s four-part, made-for-TV P’tit Quinquin was given a special screening in the Directors’ Fortnight section. An update of Dumont’s L’humanité that prompted inevitable comparisons to Twin Peaks and True Detective, this absurdist metaphysical murder mystery—which begins with the discovery of human body parts stuffed inside a cow—is also a brilliant recasting of this singular director’s moral and theological obsessions in a tender, tragicomic register. And for all the gripes that Cannes doesn’t leave room for discovery, there was at least one film by a young director who counts as a major new voice: The Kindergarten Teacher by Nadav Lapid (Policeman), a wonderfully strange and unpredictable tale of a Tel Aviv preschool instructor’s ambiguous obsession with a poetry-writing five-year-old—although as an out-of-competition entry in Critics’ Week, it didn’t get anywhere near the audience it deserved.

Un Certain Regard, the secondary competition, is the nominal home for more challenging work, but the lineup remains frustratingly unfocused, even arbitrary. You find yourself wondering why some of these films are even in the festival and why some are not in the main competition. Squarely in the latter category, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure—the gifted Swedish filmmaker’s follow-up to Play—is a scalpel-sharp, often squirmingly funny dissection of the flimsy bonds of coupledom and in particular of the fragile male psyche: It begins with a vacationing family’s close encounter with an avalanche and evolves into a full-blown relationship disaster movie. Another unambiguous high point, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, winner of the Fipresci critics’ prize, is the Argentine director’s first film since Liverpool in 2008. This is also Alonso’s first period piece, his first film with professional actors, his first screenplay with a co-writer (the poet Fabian Casas), but as in all his work, the emphasis is on bodies in landscapes. This time the body belongs to Viggo Mortensen, outfitted in a Technicolor-bright nineteenth-century cavalry uniform; the landscapes are a vivid variety of Patagonian shrub, rock, grass, and desert, which the hero traverses on horseback and on foot, in search of a teenage daughter who has eloped with a new love, into the face of certain danger. The sensory attentiveness and sheer physicality of Alonso’s cinema reaches new heights here—one might even say it pushes up against the limits of time and space in the film’s thrilling coda. Alonso, not yet forty, is at the opposite end of his career from Godard, but Jauja was a revelation on par with Goodbye to Language: a work of tremendous beauty and a source of continual surprise, affirming the powers of the medium while expanding, in more ways than one, into new dimensions.

The sixty-seventh Cannes Film Festival ran from May 14th–25th, 2014.