The essence of the Cannes Film Festival dictates a certain diversity of progression combined with a bit of glitter and self promotion. Whether in the secluded confines of Biondi Beach for a premiere party, a moored yacht in the basin for a new corporate launch or late night at Sandra’s overlooking the Croisette with champagne and loud music at 5am, there is a balance between art and commerce. Ultimately, unless the deals are being made, nothing else matters. This is the balance between the light and the dark, the lonely room of the screenwriter and the loud back rooms of the producer. And ultimately, all that matters, is what is on the screen.
Youth This quiet moderation on the end of life has soul but seems little more than a reflective exercise that finds its balance only in the final minutes with a gesture of magical realism that balances a tragedy. Compared with his recent work in Wes Anderson’s films, this is a much more understated performance for Harvey Keitel playing an aging director looking for that next inspiration when most of it is behind him. Michael Caine, by comparison, plays a retired composer who again is reflecting in the past and in many ways unable to move forward or back. The hotel they find themselves in is sort of a solace oriented retreat for artistic souls but a bit passive by nature in its contrivance. Paul Dano plays a young actor looking for inspiration but mostly seems to be just chilling out. Rachel Weisz plays the daughter of Caine trying to find her way after a betrayal but she too is wrapped in a sense of forgetfulness. This is part of the structure as if the characters are almost floating along in a dream state but it never seems particularly pro-active. There is a soothing visual style that permeates the proceedings especially within the opening music motifs which more dictates the mood than anything else. However the proceedings never gain momentum. Maybe that is part of the point but it still feels awfully passé.
Sicario Tackling the idea of the drug war is a tricky subject. However Denis Villanueve’s picture is a tour de force from all angles. From the opening aerials with foreboding and original music, you get the sense that this could be a dense movie or it could hit you over the head repeatedly with its mantra. It manages to avoid both and rather effectively assembles a motley crew where morals stride the edge and where no one’s agenda is quite clear. Emily Blunt plays an FBI officer who is drawn into a special task force as she is tracking down one of the most wanted drug cartel leaders. The opening segment betrays a brutality while still affecting a very tense sequence. From there, the idea of Blunt as the heart and ears of the movie takes shape because she feels everything and, like the audience, is a little bit in the dark. A daring and exquisitely handled border sequence on wheels is harrowing and unlike any action sequence in recent memory because it plays very real. Josh Brolin is the lead point on the case for these operations plays the proceedings with a grin like it’s a big game. This angle makes the stakes even more dark because he plays it with such a light touch despite knowing what is coming. But ultimately what sells the movie as its pit dark soul is Benecio Del Toro. This is better than his turn in “Traffic” and one of his best performances bar none. There is no necessity to spoil it but the essence takes on an anti-“Scarface” tendency which is revelatory in the final minutes of the film as well as the epilogue. “Sicario” is the best film I saw at Cannes this year because it is edgy, fearless, timely and interestingly enough, viably commercial even considering the subject matter it has.
Inside Out Pixar’s latest was always a tricky sell. When I first heard the pitch at CinemaCon in Vegas some years ago, I wasn’t sure how they were going to creative a narrative about the inner workings of a young girl’s mind. It seemed too esoteric. However now seeing the execution I totally get it. That is not to say I can imagine what the development process was like trying to visually realize it. The idea of representing emotions as characters literally and placing them against a vast world amidst a library of memories and islands of thought is simple but complex at the same time. The outward congruence simply of a young girl missing her friends when her family moves away for her dad’s work is again, a simple construct. However making it work to change her mood by her memories getting jumbled and moved around in her head (and, by extension, getting lost) is genius. The ultimate vortex it creates is a quest for her emotions inside her mind. Brilliant. It is fun and has its jump points. But what really begins to sell it above the fold much like the first half of “Wall-E” did is when the little girl’s imaginary friend she hadn’t thought of for years intercepts our heroes in Joy and Sadness. In a sequence right out of psychoanalysis, there is a chasm of lost and forgotten memories in which they get trapped inside. One sacrifice in particular is so wrenching that it rivals the opening of “Up” and finds its moment among Pixar’s best. A whole row of French girls behind me at the premiere were sniffling uncontrollablly. If a film can cross nationalities and do that, that is exceptional.
Macbeth The closing night film had such possibilities but again shows that even though a cast might be stellar, the right director is key. And while this director may be attached to “Assassin’s Creed” there is never a sense of transcendental wonder here that a film like Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet did. Here the slow motion gore and strife that marks the first act of the film where Lord Macbeth achieves the throne is effective but unremarkable. Michael Fassbender is inherently likable but for the most part his Macbeth comes off as a brat that may be losing his mind. You don’t feel for his strife even if it was motivated by his wife Lady Macbeth as played by Marion Cotillard. His lady is evil and yet in one of the best scenes of the movie, Cotillard weeps in white giving a monologue. The fectuve she gives as the camera rests on her is stunning but that scene is a fleeting moment set back because of the language but also because of presentation. The problem with adapting Shakespeare to the screen is the reflective nature of the words especially if much of it is done verbatim. The right cadence and efficiency of editing is required to make it feel just and motivated and true. That is never the case here. Even in the final moments of the film after all the bad decisions Macbeth has made, his final gesture feels empty because there is not a balance between his cowardice, his ambition and his power, to say nothing of empathy. This is not necessary Fassbender’s fault but the presentation seems oddly lopsided despite perhaps best intentions.
As the years continue, Cannes always promises and shows a diversity of structure. While many other films were viewed, interviews dictated a balance of analysis and focus. But of the films seen, “Sicario” of all is truly the standout of this year’s fest.
By Tim Wassberg