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The Conversation: To Cannes and Back

Unfortunately, this year’s main competition line-up at the Cannes Film Festival ended up being something of an easy target for jaded festival goers. An onslaught of English language debuts and mainstream tastes reigned supreme. Despite evident shortcomings, including the increasingly questionable sidebar siphoning of major auteurs in Festival head Thierry Fremaux’s neglectful hands, there was much to admire. This edition’s legacy won’t be helped by the decision of the Coen Bros. to award the Palme D’or to Jacques Audiard’s serviceable but weakest film to date, Dheepan, though several other accolades seemed more welcome, including a Grand Prix for Laszlo Nemes’ harrowing debut Son of Saul and a Best Screenplay nod for Michel Franco, whose Chronic was generally dismissed by critics. Though Hou Hsiao-hsien returns from an untowardly long absence with The Assassin, it’s great to see he received some recognition for what stands as his most visually beautiful work, though insistently dull.

It was a weak year for male leads in the competition, and so Vincent Lindon’s award for Stephane Brize’s noble The Measure of a Man is hard to argue with (since Son of Saul was honored elsewhere). The more provocative tie for Best Actress leaves a lot to chew on considering the Coens’ awarded the wrong performer for Carol, and, more excitingly, took a chance to give Emmanuel Bercot some recognition for the problematic Mon Roi.

But some of 2015’s line-up best films were amongst those wholly neglected by Thierry Fremaux, the global critical mass and the awards juries. Several sidebar titles (including the works of Miguel Gomes and Arnaud Desplechin in the Directors’ Fortnight) should have taken precedent over weaker non-entities from seasoned auteurs in competition (Moretti, Kore-eda), and it’s an unforgivable slap in the face when you consider Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees took a comp slot over Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s masterful and accessible Cemetery of Splendor.

While Weerasethakul’s film was arguably the best title to play the fest, of my top five favorites, three of these played in Un Certain Regard. Alice Winocour returns with an exciting sophomore feature following her period debut Augustine. Her latest is a sweaty, paranoid home invasion thriller that has an identity crisis (it’s unclear if this will be called Maryland or Disorder, and hopefully not the latter title), featuring a superb soundtrack and great performances (not to mention a wonderful closing moment). Two Romanian auteurs sparkled in UCR, including Radu Muntean’s bizarre One Floor Below. But Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Treasure continues in the director’s vein of overly chatty yet surprisingly funny explorations of cultural identity.

As far as my own personal favorite titles in the main competition, Matteo Garrone’s English language Tale of Tales was a rather innovative exploration of the moral ambiguity of fairy tales. Though it may have left just as many audience members cold, Garrone expertly weaves together a trio of narratives meant to exemplify the superficiality of human beings, each segment literally dealing with our ‘skin deep’ tendencies pertaining to desire, trickery, and obligation. Eventually, this will most likely garner something of a cult following thanks to its bizarre fantasy sequences (including Salma Hayek devouring the bloody heart of a lizard beast killed in one of the film’s most sublime visual moments).

And, as the festival’s most frustratingly maligned title, I hope Guillaume Nicloux’s Valley of Love eventually finds a deserving audience that will appreciate its strange mysteriousness. Of all the main competition titles, this was the only one I felt any kind of emotional response to, and it features a delectable reunion of Isabelle Huppert and Gerard Depardieu (the former could easily have taken her third Best Actress prize of the festival had the film been more accessible). Trotting around Death Valley at the behest of their dead son, these grieving parents are involved in a hellishly hot odyssey in their search for some kind of redemption. The immediate stream on twitter following the initial press screening compared Nicloux’s film unfavorably to the Van Sant title, with complaints about a trite, banal narrative. The third to last title to play for press, I believe the film’s fragility would have been less stomped on had this premiered a bit earlier. For fans of the offbeat (and if you’ve at all enjoyed Nicloux or Huppert), this is the derided title in need of recuperation.

Top Five:

1. Cemetery of Splendor – Dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul

2. Valley of Love – Dir. Guillaume Nicloux

3. The Treasure – Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu

4. Tale of Tales – Dir. Matteo Garrone

5. Maryland (Disorder) – Dir. Alice Winocour

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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