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Cannes 2015: A Flight Over Our Planet - Reflections on the Festival

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The best films of Cannes 2015? Those with a visceral combination of sound and image that document bodies moving through space and that forge a primal kinetic connection with the viewer.

Blinking, dazed, sleep-deprived, exhilarated, the Cannes attendee emerges out of the auditorium and back into the real world (what’s that again?) as the 2015 Festival comes to a close. The “bubble” of the Festival can be an extremely seductive place to inhabit, since, while in it, you can feel completely absolved from any other obligations and responsibilities. Current events and world news, contact with family and friends, daily chores, your regular work life: all of this recedes as the world narrows down to a few essential tasks; namely, the watching, thinking and writing about of movies. And of course, it also pleasantly narrows down to informal discussions with your fellow critics, conversations that usually open with the enquiry “So what have you seen?”, followed by the inevitable: “What did you think of it?”

That question, “What did you think of it?”, is at the centre of the Cannes press experience. Opinion and judgment, whether expressed in the (hopefully) considered critical pieces submitted to our publications, or in the altogether more visceral form of boos (looking at you, The Sea of Trees) or cheers (Carol) at the end of a press screening, run rampant. If you’re like me, then there might be the occasional moment wherein you experience a certain sense of dismay at having turned into an “opinion-machine”, and may start to feel slightly sick of hearing others’ views -- and even sicker of hearing the sound of your own voice. For the most part, though, the opportunity to discuss movies in such an intense and heightened way with knowledgeable fellow scribes and film-lovers remains a true privilege, and something that doubtless inspires people to return here year after year, even as they bitch (with varying degrees of affection) about the queuing, the badge hierarchy and other assorted elements that test the mettle of the Cannes attendee.

I said that Cannes can make the world feel narrowed down but, in truth, the experience of the Festival actually feels anything but narrow. Movie-watching – and all of the intellectual and emotional work that it entails – makes us voyagers of sorts, immersing us in different languages, cultures, places, eras, and human dilemmas in a way that no other art form can rival. Summing up her time as this year’s Un Certain Regard jury president, Isabella Rossellini likened the experience of watching 19 films from 21 countries to “taking a flight over our planet and its inhabitants” that “any anthropologist would be envious of.” For the record, the main prizes in the Un Certain Regard strand this year were awarded to Grímur Hákonarson's Rams, Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure, Dalibor Matanić's The High Sun, and to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore (a movie that struck me as a more sluggish Truly Madly Deeply (1991), with extra winsomeness).

Rossellini’s comparison of viewing the films at Cannes as constituting “a flight over our planet” call to mind the words of the late English poet Elizabeth Jennings, who summed up her love for movies as follows: “In [the] precious dark, I travel round the world and enter hearts and minds.” That comment was nowhere more apt than at this year’s Cannes, as films carried audiences from China to Australia, Thailand to Italy, Romania to Spain, from the abject horror of Auschwitz (Son of Saul) to the warmth of a modest Japanese bakery (An), from an Ibiza nightclub (Amnesia) to the inside of an 11-year-old girl’s head (in Pixar’s delightful high concept latest, Inside Out), reminding us each time of cinema's overwhelming ability to transport us.

That said, it’s fair to note that Cannes offered a solid, rather than absolutely exceptional, line-up this year, with few movies that matched the best of 2014’s offerings (Mr. Turner, Mommy, Winter Sleep). There was a general consensus that many of the Competition films punched below their weight this year, with mostly negative responses for Maïwenn's Mon Roi, Valerie Donzelli’s Marguerite & Julien and Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love (French films fared especially poorly in this regard). In addition, there were also decidedly mixed receptions for Matteo Garrone’s Take of Tales ]and Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, both of which were unexpected Festival highlights for this critic.

The absence of Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days from the Competition mystified many who considered it to be one of the best films of the Festival, though the movie’s “Directors’ Fortnight” prize was perhaps compensation enough. Indeed, it was venturing outside of the Competition selection that could prove most rewarding, and for me the finest film of the Festival was Jonas Carpignano’s humane and visceral portrait of African migration to Italy, Mediterranea, screened in the “Critics’ Week” sidebar.

The Competition jury’s decisions, announced at Sunday’s ceremony, yielded several surprises, and testified to a variable ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. Vincent Lindon’s Best Actor prize for his performance in Stéphane Brizé's La Loi du Marché was warmly welcomed, as was Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s win for his direction of The Assassin. But the sharing of the Best Actress award between Rooney Mara (for Carol) and Emmanuelle Bercot (for Mon Roi) was startling, not only for the perverse snubbing of Cate Blanchett, but also because Mara’s thin and inexpressive performance constitutes one of Carol’s major shortcomings, in my opinion.

The awarding of the Palme d’Or to Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan also surprised many who’d expected the top prize to go to either László Nemes' superb Son of Saul (which won the second-place Gran Prix prize) or to Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (winner of the third-place Prix du Jury). I very much regret that Joachim Trier’s resonant family portrait, Louder Than Bombs and Jia Zhang-Ke’s imperfect but truly touching Mountains May Depart, weren’t honoured in some way.

The diversity of movies presented across the Festival means that the identification of overriding trends or themes would be an impossible task. One link did become apparent, however. Although none of the movies I saw could be classified as a musical, a notable number contained song and dance as an important narrative component, from the wondrously awful duet performance of “Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart” in The Lobster through the techno/classical mash-ups in Barbet Schroeder’s Amnesia, to John Turturro’s impressive shape-throwing in Nanni Moretti’s otherwise tepid Mia Madre, the inclusion of two Rihanna tracks in Meditteranea, and the use of Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Go West” as a bookend to Mountains May Depart, an element as surprising as it was exhilarating.

I’d hesitate to offer any theories about the reasons for this trend, but I would say that these scenes – which were for me among the most memorable, moving or just plain mad of the festival – cut straight to the heart of what cinema can achieve: that is, a visceral combination of sound and image, a document of bodies moving through space, that forges a primal kinetic connection with the viewer. As Xavier Dolan (one of this year’s jury members and no slouch himself when it comes to the creative employment of music in movies) commented in last year’s press kit for Mommy: “music in film achieves an unconscious transaction with each and every individual in an audience, spurring them on to engage.”

Cannes 2015 was all about such transactions, such engagements – conscious or unconscious – between individuals in the audience and the stories, faces and bodies presented on the screen. Before one early morning screening, my pal Michał Oleszczyk (of Gdynia Film Festival and RogerEbert.com) wondered if the voice declaiming the “Please turn of your mobile phones” message (in stern yet strangely seductive tones) might be that of Charlotte Rampling. This has yet to be confirmed. But leaving the Festival a little later, my head buzzing with words, ideas and images, it was impossible not to be reminded of a remark made by Rampling in an interview a few years ago, one that effectively summarises the experience of Cannes 2015: “Film is an extraordinary way for us to know each other.”

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