This festival review has appeared on the frieze blog:
Film still from Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning ‘La Vie d’Adele – Chapitre 1 & 2’ (Blue is the Warmest Colour), 2013
This year’s Cannes Film Festival got off to a promising start with Clio Barnard’s ‘The Selfish Giant’ (2013), the first film I saw in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, and ended on a high note with ‘La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitre 1 & 2’ (Blue Is the Warmest Colour, 2013), which I managed to catch in rerun on the final day of the festival, as rumour had it that it was the film most likely to win the Palme d’Or. The Tunis-born French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s bold portrayal of lesbian sexuality in ‘La Vie d’Adèle’, which did indeed take the festival’s top prize, went some way to redeem what – as far as I’m concerned – was a poor vintage year for main competition films.
An adaptation of Julie Maroh’s 2010 graphic novel Le Bleu est une couleur chaude (Blue Angel), Kechiche’s film uses the signature blue colour as a persistent motif, in a way that recalls the first instalment, in 1993, of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s trilogy Trois couleurs: Bleu, but this becomes somewhat heavy-handed as La Vie d’Adèle draws to a close. Blue is, of course, anything but a warm hue, yet in the film it is the colour of love in all its different moods. Associated from the outset with the artist Emma (played by Léa Seydoux), who for much of the film sports blue-dyed hair (when she reverts to her natural blonde the relationship between the two women is on the rocks), blue is later appropriated by Adèle (newcomer Adèle Exarchopoulos, who gives her name to the protagonist) as she makes an attempt to win Emma back. An avid reader aspiring to become a school teacher, Adèle professes her admiration for Marivaux’s voluminous unfinished novel La Vie de Marianne (1731–42) at the start of the film; hence the French title.
Still from ‘Behind the Candelabra’ (2013) by Steven Soderburgh
The director elicited remarkably uninhibited performances from his two female leads, not least in the protracted sex scenes, stylized to make them look like paintings or sculptures yet without losing their sexual edge, according to the director. Kechiche’s film feels new partly because of its explicit and aesthetic portrayal of lesbian sexuality – far less frequently depicted on the big screen than gay love between men. In this edition of the Cannes festival alone, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (2013) charted the five-year-long secret relationship between the virtuoso pianist and entertainer Lee Liberace (played with panache by Michael Douglas, who was tipped to win Best Actor for his performance) and his much younger lover Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), while Alain Guiraudie’s considerably more graphic L’Inconnu du Lac (Stranger by the Lake, 2013) was among the critics’ favourites in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Even though the award came a week after same-sex marriage had been legalized in France, Kechiche insisted that he had ‘nothing militant to say about homosexuality’.
By its length alone, Kechiche’s remarkable fifth feature film, in a different league to anything he has made until now, stood out among a fairly predictable lot in this year’s main competition by such (predominantly male) Cannes stalwarts as the Coen brothers, Jim Jarmusch, Roman Polanski, Soderbergh and Paolo Sorrentino. The only film by a female director competing for the Palme d’Or (one up on last year), Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Un château en Italie (A Castle in Italy, 2013), was generally deemed a flop. Kechiche’s nearly three-hour film had surprisingly few longueurs, which is more than can be said for Sorrentino’s two-hours-and-20-minute La Grande Bellezza (2013). The film’s vivid portrait of Roman decadence, lavish parties, upper class socialites, failed writers, indolence and ennui worthy of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Otto e Mezzo (1963), for all its visual appeal, doesn’t throw anything new into the mix.
Still from ‘La Grande Bellezza’ (2013) by Paolo Sorrentino. Photo: Gianni Fiorito
The dreamlike opening sequence of La Grande Bellezza, whose contorted camera movements and swooping zoom-ins are the cinematographic equivalent of Mannerism in painting, ends with an electrifying dance scene at the birthday party the jaded protagonist Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) hosts on his rooftop terrace. Dance scenes of one kind or another featured prominently in a number of the films shown at this year’s festival. Staged in a Parisian theatre, Polanski’s La Vénus à la fourrure (Venus in Fur, 2013), based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella by that title, sees actress Emmanuelle Seigner metamorphosed into a Greek goddess, dancing naked under a fur coat in the film’s jubilatory finale. The choreography and music, composed for the film by Alexandre Desplat, were apparently inspired by ancient Greek dances. Unsurprisingly, it is the one scene that the actress, who had not had to dance for the camera in a while, said she dreaded the most.
In a different vein, the male lead in Tchadian director Mahamat-Saleh’s Grisgris (2013) – a somewhat disappointing follow-up to his award-winning Un Homme qui crie (A Screaming Man, 2010) – is interpreted by the paraplegic dancer Souleymane Deme, whose acting is sadly not on a par with his astonishing dance skills, the more remarkable given his disability
Still from ‘Grisgris’ (2013) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
Outside of the main competition, Sebastián Silva’s haunting portrayal of the onset of schizophrenia in Magic Magic (2013), shows the naturally reserved Alice, an American visiting her cousin in Chile, dancing lasciviously before her bemused and jeering teenage companions, after her cousin’s boyfriend Augustín hypnotizes her. The portrayal of adolescent group dynamics, tinged with a degree of sadism and dark humour, rings true and is as finely observed as in Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle. The Chilean director (painter, illustrator, author and musician, all rolled into one) lists Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant _(1976) among the influences for what styles itself as a horror film. Magic Magic is set on a remote island in Chile and the film’s macabre ending involves an exorcism rite performed by a Mapuche native healer.
Another film by a Chilean director and man of many (some dubious) talents to be included in the Directors’ Fortnight, La danza de la realidad (The Dance of Reality, 2013) is the first feature the legendary underground filmmaker, actor, comic writer and psycho-magician Alejandro Jodorowsky has made in over 20 years. (Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013), about the director’s failed attempt at making Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel into a feature film also premiered that week at the Directors’ Fortnight.) Shot in the coastal town of Tocopilla in Chile, where Jodorowsky was born to parents of Jewish-Ukrainian origin, this magical-realist memoir is centred on the director’s father Jaime Jodorowsky, a flamboyant, if controversial character played by the director’s son Brontis Jodorowsky (to make matters even more confusing). Despite its saturated colours, dreamlike logic and array of freaks, lepers and larger-than-life Felliniesque figures, the film made for painful viewing, at least for this viewer, not just on account of gruesome torture scenes, the worst of which I was spared, having walked out before the end.
Still from ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ (2013) by Ethan & Joel Coen
More realistic by some way, Clio Barnard’s second feature film, The Selfish Giant (2013), a contemporary retelling of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, is set on and around the housing estates in Bradford, which was also the setting of her critically-acclaimed and, from a formal point of view, more experimental debut feature The Arbor (2010). It was while filming The Arbor that Barnard got wind of ‘scrap-dealing’ – the collecting of scrap metal drawn by horse and cart that’s the subject of the new film – from some of the local kids who acted in the (first) film. Arbor, the name of one of the two boys, who ingratiate themselves with the local scrap dealer, a surly bearded man ironically nicknamed Kitten, is a curious (and, as far as I know, formally unprecedented) allusion to the previous feature film. Kitten himself, the ‘selfish giant’ of the story, cuts an ambiguous figure: whether he’s simply exploiting the boys working for him or giving them an opportunity is left unclear. But more than a mere character, as the filmmaker puts it, the film castigates a selfish ideology – a far cry from the world-weariness, the obsession with wealth and status that dominated this year’s offerings only a short walk away down the Croisette.