Film criticism is not a walk in the park, I tell you. Eight days into the festival with nearly twenty films crossed out and I’m still catching up with reviews. For some reason, my mind and body have slowed down and getting both to properly function and stay awake to digest three to four films per day somehow begin to feel like an epic undertaking. Right after a screening, I scrawl my thoughts into my notepad whilst queuing up for another one. The most veteran of critics can breeze through about four films per day and still manage to publish reviews with startling speed. Those Variety and Hollywood Reporter journos must be injecting espresso shots directly into their veins with the amount of articles they publish every day.
Snoozing my way into the Palais, I’ve seated myself for Michel Hazanavicius’ follow-up to his sublime The Artist, a war drama about the Chechnyan conflict The Search. The film hasn’t even started and there’s already an actual conflict mushrooming right in front of me – two journalists were squabbling for an seat in a packed house. Only in Cannes! I expected this to grow old fast and leave me in peace while I catch a quick nap prior to the screening, but this scene escalated quickly as the two bickering women began arguing about ideologies, liberté and égalité between countries France and Iran. Not a scene you’d like to witness at 8 in the morning, believe me. But they were forced to dissipate as everyone around tried to quell the fools as the film was about to start.
It set, however, the perfect mood to The Search. Vastly different film from his delightful previous, The Search is an intermittently compelling war drama that tries to find humanity in the bleakest of circumstances. But as you can anticipate with war dramas, it splits the critics down in the middle. But ever the contrarian, I disagree with those that condemn this as melodramatic and unsubtle. It’s anything but. There is no subtlety in war, fools. Hazanavicius has depicted the largely ignored Chechnyan crisis often with an eye of a documentarian, placing the human faces devastated by the military conflict in front of the picture. One critic has pointed out that it largely ignores the horrors of war, as though orphaned children, murdered civilians, tortured soldiers and torn families portrayed in The Search don’t accumulate enough ‘horror’ to justify it as legitimate anti-war movie. Cynicism is admirable in my books – but whenever a film genuinely tries to raise awareness about the issues that plague the other corners of the Earth and gets the gruff response from prissy, pampered critics, whose sole contribution is to sit down to watch a goddamn movie whereas an entire crew of people poured blood, sweat and tears to make a film that could potentially make a difference – consider me fucking incensed.
RANT ASIDE – I don’t give a damn what others say, The Search is moving and powerful, exposing the brutality of war and yet manages to find levity and hope amid the bleakness. While it’s nowhere near as devastating as the great anti-war films with children (e.g. Ivan’s Childhood, Come and See, Au-revoir les enfants), it features a heartbreaking child performance in the form of Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev, whose pair of mournful eyes are enough to convey the trauma he’s suffering and fatalities he has witnessed. The more established actors Bérénice Bejo and Annette Bening both give competent turns, but Bejo has the meatier role, alternating between compassion and ferocity, battling the indifference of the bureaucratic politics above her.
Right after The Search, I rushed right into the press room to
quickly nap write reviews as I chug down those Lungo Leggeros that flood freely in the Palais (and yes, I’ve surrendered to caffeine as there’s no way surviving this festival without the blasted thing), brain buzzing as I prepare for Jean-Luc Godard’s comeback to the Croisette. A few hours later, I walked the red carpet to witness Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language) with excitement up to the neck only to discover that Godard, ever the absentee, hasn’t turned up in his premiere. I suppose this is what you do when you’re the doyen of the French New Wave cinema, you regard Cannes Film Festival as some frivolous party in Riviera you can just skip.
Adieu au langage is a dazzling, irreverent yet enormously bewildering 70-minute cinematic essay on the death of communication, intellectualism and narrative in the digital era. It posits Godard as a prankster of the medium, lobbing image, sound, vision and ideas like a collage and attack your senses, deliberately calibrated to pierce your eyeball, eardrums and brain. There are moments of breathtaking invention – Godard uses 3D as if it were a playground, pushing the possibilities of the 3D image in a few repeated coups that made the crowd burst into applause – but to whittle down his core elements, this is about a man, a woman and a dog. The man and woman have sex, talk about life and love while they lounge around in nude. But the film really belongs to the dog, and that’s saying something. This is an anarchic piece of intellectual cinema that doesn’t fully enlighten but rather designed to exasperate, occasionally thrill and assault the senses.
And speaking of cinematic coups, my last film of the day is Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, the Québécois prodigy’s fifth feature. With only two minutes to spare, I manage to inveigle myself into the screening with my lowest-priority press badge. And I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this immense sense of relief, as I got to witness all of Mommy‘s exhilarating cinematic audacity. Only 25-year old and Dolan has already stuck a middle-finger to conventions, and that’s not more apparent in this one where he employs a 1:1 aspect ratio (practically the perfect Instagram square) to a beautiful purpose. He compresses the faces of the characters into the limited frame, as though they’re trapped in this constricted life. Happiness lies beyond the frame – so when Dolan magnificently widens the scope in two breathtaking scenes, all the hearts in Claude Debussy burst into spectacular applause. Rarely has a cinematic technique achieve such devastating meaning and purpose, and no aspect-ratio change has made me tear up before. Dolan has used this to precise dexterity in his previous, the queer thriller Tom at the Farm, but what he’s achieved in Mommy may be his best yet. Consider his name being talked and discussed in film schools in years to come.
I loved Mommy unreservedly. It’s practically I Killed My Mother 2.0, but more ebullient, vibrant, hard-hitting and ten times more heartbreaking. Where a few would argue that Dolan’s not stretching himself much, as Mommy returns to the Dolan-book of filmmaking replete with characters walking in slow-motion, music-video moments with a killer soundtrack (from Dido to Oasis and Lana del Rey), I contend that Dolan has now settled into his own groove without caring much about critical response. This is the guy whose response to his detractors is to “kiss his narcissistic ass”. Well, those critics can kneel down as Mommy is very much a knockout, up there with the greatness of Laurence Anyways. And come Sunday, Marion Cotillard will have a strong competitor for the Best Actress prize in Anne Dorval, whose titular mother in Mommy is one of Dolan’s fiercest creations.
That night, I went home on an ecstatic high, with Lana del Rey’s Born To Die blasting in my ears.