Cannes 2015: ‘An’ and ‘One Floor Below’ (Un Etaj Mai Jos)

Amid the hype and the hustle, Cannes 2015 yields two small scale but accomplished new features from Naomi Kawase and Radu Muntean.

If it’s mid-May, in the movie world at least, then it must be Cannes: the exhausting, exhilarating 12 days during which assorted actors, directors, producers, distributors, deal–makers and journos (over 4,000 of the latter) descend upon the beautiful Cote d’Azur town for another round of world premieres, press conferences, parties and heavy duty schmoozing. This Olympics of Film Festivals, once memorably described by Roger Ebert as “a glorious ceremony of avarice, lust, ego, and occasional inspiration and genius,” is now 68 years old, but its prestige, allure and all round cachet seem undiminished.

Derek Malcolm’s recent assertion (“C for Cannes”) that the reasons for the festival’s reputation is that “it simply has the best films” sounds simplistic in itself. (Remember last year’s Grace of Monaco?) Still, there’s no denying that a spot at Cannes confers upon a film an immediate prestige unmatched by other festivals — even if that prestige is not always sustained once critics actually lay their eyes on a particular movie.

For a first time attendee, such as yours truly, the experience can feel overwhelming: sometimes irritatingly but mostly gloriously so. I’ve covered TIFF, London and Gdynia in the past few years, but none of those festivals can quite match Cannes for hysteria, hype and hustle. Nor can they match it for hierarchy: the oft-criticised badge system – by which journalists are ranked according to the importance that the festival places on their coverage, making it difficult for those lower down the chain to get into Main Competition screenings — is still firmly in place, and likely to foster more competition than camaraderie amongst those attending.

The amount of stamina, preparation and perseverance required to cover the average festival is doubled here then, which may explain why some critics seem to end up writing more about their daily routines – travel and food consumed – than about the movies. Still, it’s a great gig to get, no doubt about that. And so with the sun shining, the juries in place (the Main one presided over by the Coen Brothers this year, including Xavier Dolan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Sienna Miller among its members), there’s nothing else to do but dive right in.

Since the Opening Night film, Emmanuelle Bercot’s La Tête Haute (Standing Tall), had received a lukewarm reception from trustworthy colleagues on the day I arrived, I opted instead to start with two films screening in the Un Certain Regard strand: Naomi Kawase’s An and Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below.

Kawase is a firm favourite here at Cannes already, having previously won the Carosse d’or in 2009 and then serving on the Main Competition Jury in 2013. Her latest film takes its tiny title from an ingredient. “An”, it turns out, is the name of the sweet red bean paste that fills the delectable dorayakis served up by Tokue (Kiki Kirin), a 76-year-old woman who gets a job at the bakery run by Sentaro (Nagasi Masatoshi). Sentaro is initially reluctant to take Tokue on, citing her age and the condition of her hands (Sentaro initially thinks that Tokue is suffering from arthritis, and Tokue doesn’t correct him. He finds out the truth later from another character). But when he tastes Tokue’s an, he succumbs to her cooking talents and immediately hires her. Business is soon booming, but that aforementioned revelation about Tokue throws a spanner in the works.

Although seeming to slot a tad too neatly into the recent vogue for “inspirational cooking” movies, such as Lasse Hallström’s terrible The Hundred Foot Journey, An proves much more appetising than most. (And with the UK currently in the middle of some kind of bizarre baking craze, an English language remake starring Judi Dench seems inevitable.) As modest as its moniker, the movie is delightful, unfashionably earnest and, at its best, very moving.

Much of the film’s charm lies in its open-heartedness, and in the performances of its leads. Kirin delivers a heartbreaker of a turn (the character’s unabashed glee when she finally wins the humble job, after bartering to get her salary lowered, prompted the first of several weeping fits for this viewer) and Masatoshi (of Jarmusch’s Mystery Train) is deeply sympathetic, too. There’s also an effective, understated performance from Uchida Kyara, who brings a lovely shyness to her role as a teenage girl who’s intrigued by the new arrival. Kawase doesn’t overplay cross-generational bonding as a theme; rather, we just observe three characters discovering points of connection with one another.

There were complaints from some that the movie was too “sweet”. But that’s to overlook the fact that at its core this is a story about prejudice and one that shows how Tokue’s faith in nature and in things inanimate (she chats to the beans as she cooks them and advocates the kind of patience and attentiveness that Sentaro’s all but given up on) come out of the deep hurts and losses of her past. Admittedly, the final scenes do slide into mush, not matching the genuine poignancy of the rest of the picture. But An remains a disarmingly tender and restorative movie, and as gentle and hospitable an entrée into Cannes as one could wish for.

One Floor Below (Un Etaj Mai Jos)

A more troubling offering came courtesy of Radu Muntean’s One Floor Below, a gripping, enigmatic drama about responsibility and moral choice. In it, Teodor Corban plays Sandru Patrascu, a middle-aged man who overhears a neighbours’ quarrel that ends, a few days later, with one of the participants dead. Sandru, though, elects to keep quiet about the fight he overheard, instead entering into a weirdly complicit relationship with the culprit (Iulian Postelnicu), who begins ingratiating himself into Sandru’s family life.

Like much of the work of his counterparts in the so-called Romanian New Wave, Muntean’s measured, minimalist movies make most others seem fussy, pushy, and over-stressed by comparison. The filmmaking approach here is exceptionally intelligent, with shrewd writing (Muntean co-scripted the film with Razvan Radulescu and Alexandru Baciu as usual) and terrific framing and editing working to keep the viewer in a state of absolute alertness even when nothing ostensibly “dramatic” is happening.

The director favours long takes, trusting the viewer to pick up the resonances. Memorable moments include Sandru straining to hear the exchange between his wife and a visiting police officer as his son (Ionut Bora) chatters away; his challenge to the misogynistic rhetoric of some friends; a brief encounter with the dead woman’s sister; and of course, the uneasy meetings between him and the insidious culprit (or is he?) which punctuate the picture. Muntean is great at domestic ambience, too, and at times One Floor Below suggests a variant on sundry “home invasion” thrillers (including, of course, Rear Window), with the characteristics and tropes of such movies toyed with and subverted.

The ambiguity of character motivation makes the film a challenge: emerging from the screening a fellow critic remarked to me that Muntean had ended up making “a film about car registration”, a reference to the protagonists’ profession, about which we do hear a lot. But I’d suggest that an apparent throwaway remark made late in the film (“Let’s mind our own business…”) might just hold a key not only to the dynamics between these particular characters but also to the wider societal portrait of post-Ceaușescu Romania that Muntean and his collaborators are creating here.

One Floor Below may ultimately be a little too hermetic for its own good, and it looks unlikely to garner the universal acclaim of the director’s Tuesday, After Christmas. But it’s a gripping, haunting movie, and one that I look forward to revisiting at the earliest opportunity.