Mon Roi and Saul Fia (Son of Saul) both won prizes at Cannes as the Festival concluded this past Sunday. Son of Saul received a Grand Prix for its visceral and unsentimental portrayal of the destruction of life and morality at Auschwitz. Emmanuelle Bercot shared, with Rooney Mara of Carol, the Best Actress prize, for her role in Mon Roi, a French melodrama that strays little from the conventions of the genre.
In Son of Saul, Saul Auslander (writer and first time actor Geza Rohrig) is a Hungarian Jew working at Auschwitz as one of the Sondercommando, a group of death camp inmates who were forced to help execute other prisoners. In return, Sondercommando were granted privileges (more food and mobility), but after four months, the Nazis sent them to the gas chambers as well. While concentration camps have been portrayed powerfully on film before, László Nemes’ first feature offers an unusual perspective by focusing on the Sondercommando’s particular traumas that resulted from leading inmates into death chambers and cleaning up after victims were gassed and burned.
Saul is less driven by such routine as he is by a singular purpose. He is looking for a rabbi to bury a boy he saw survive the gas chamber, only to be smothered by an SS officer and sent to be cut up by the camp’s doctor (Sandor Zoster). He is constantly on the move, followed by a hand-held 35mm camera. Cinematographer Matyas Erdely’s long takes feature Saul — his face or the back of his head — in close-up, as we cannot see anything beyond the protagonist’s immediate surroundings. The camera keeps him in shallow focus, presenting violence and suffering around him as if seen just out the corner of our eyes. The film unfolds always in Saul’s immediate field of vision, but never directly from his point of view.
In addition to this disorientation, sound, as designed by Tamás Zányi, makes us question our perceptions. In the opening scene, we see just Saul’s face as he leans against the wall outside of the gas chamber, hearing the screams and banging on doors get louder and louder. Throughout the film, we hear an overlapping jumble of voices, most of them using (untranslated) languages including Hungarian, German, Yiddish, and Russian. Rushed through every event, we never have time find out what exactly the relationships are between the people who speak these many languages.
In this, we are aligned with Saul, who negotiates his way through different areas of the camp, manipulating the ruthless SS officers, the corrupt Oberkapos (his superiors), but also the Sondercommando resistance, led by Soviet prisoners, who are preparing an uprising at the camp (the uprising actually took place, in October 1944). When he carelessly loses the gunpowder he agreed to smuggle to the resistance from the women’s camp, a friend reproaches him, “You let down the living for the dead.” Saul’s spiritual withdrawal from the fight becomes a moral alternative to armed resistance, a disenchanted view of World War II that few films about the conflict share.
Mon Roi (dir. Maïwenn)
Unlike Son of Saul, Mon Roi illustrates the politics of selection and award-giving at Cannes more than the advance of cinematic language. Melodramas about failed bourgeois marriages abound in French cinema — La Femme Française and Infidèle are just two examples — and Mon Roi‘s treatment brings little novelty to the subject. We meet Tony (Emmanuelle Bercot), a lawyer, after a ski accident that left her with a knee injury so painful that she can barely move. Her new age therapist suggests that Tony’s pain reflects her inability to reconcile with a difficult event in her past.
Film: Mon Roi
Cast: Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Bercot, Louis Garrel, Isild le Besco, Chrystèle Saint-Louis Augustin Patrick Raynal, Paul Hamy
Studio: StudioCanal and Productions du Trésor
We then follow Tony simultaneously through her recovery and through her ten-year long, on-again, off-again marriage to Giorgio (Vincent Cassel), a happy-go-lucky, womanizing restaurant owner. They live in a luxurious apartment and don’t seem to have much to do except fight. She insists on monogamy of the most traditional kind. He still takes of care his ex-girlfriend, a depressed former model, and wants to live apart.
Bercot plays Tony in only one register: frequently out of control, weeping or screaming, drinking and popping pills. When the couple visits a psychiatrist to deal with Tony’s depression during her pregnancy, Giorgio asks: “Is this what’s called postpartum depression?” “No,” the doctor answers. “That will happen after the birth.” It does. A defense lawyer, Tony only appears in court once, delivering a maudlin speech about love rather than a legal argument. We see her only as the housewife, and an incapable one at that, relying on her brother Solal (Louis Garrel) for support. By the time Tony overcomes her pain, we no longer care.
The quality of film reminds us of the argument made by critics at Cannes that the Festival accepted too many French films in competition, five out of 19, due to domestic political pressure. French films received a disproportionate number of Cannes prizes as well. At the live press screening of the closing ceremony, Vincent Lindon’s Best Actor award for La Loi de Marché received whole-hearted applause, but Emmanuelle Bercot got mostly boos and whistles. It’s not clear whether this was because critics did not appreciate her performance, or the fact that she directed a Cannes opening film, La Tête Haute. Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or for Dheepan received applause mixed with boos. As good as the film may be, as always, critics had other favorites for the top prize, among them, Son of Saul.