Cannes Day 2: Four family portraits

Familiar names and faces today at Cannes made me think how the Festival not only represents the mystique of cinema, but also has its favourite sons and trends. There are Cannes-worthy filmmakers and then there’s all the rest.

Yorgos Lanthimos, who won the Un certain regard prize for Dogtooth in 2009 and who won the Jury Prize two years ago with The Lobster, returns to the Festival in the Official Selection.  The Killing of a Sacred Deer starts with the image of a beating heart during an operation. Hold on to that, as it’s the most human it will make you feel in the next two hours. With characters deadpaning along and cheeky references to metaphors, tragedy and Groundhog Day (a film about getting things right), we find ourselves in a strange territory with no compass and encouraged not to read too literally but without clear clues about the alternative. This is clearly a concoction that only tangentially refers to life as we know it. Although, just as tangentially, it might be offering a diagnostic on the need for myth and ritual.

There is this surgeon (Colin Farrell), an Agamennon-like figure, patriarchally bearded and somehow flawed (he has a history of alcoholism and tends to lie all the time), having some kind of relationship with an mess of a teenager (Barry Keoghan). The boy seems somewhat looking up to him but also slightly threatening; hints of homoeroticism are neither suggested nor denied, and this applies to the sexual undercurrents throughout the film. And the surgeon has one of those perfect families (Nicole Kidman is his wife and nobody could ask for more) that belong more to myth than to anybody’s real experience. This being the director of Dogtooth we guess that the apparent stability won’t last, and it does not take that long before we get to the dramatic core of the film, which has to do with retribution and sacrifice.

As many good films, it is difficult to judge on first viewing how well this mix of horror and myth works. The protagonist is both guilty and non guilty of a vague, unspecified transgession, but the incident that unleashes the kid’s “revenge” is his refusal to sleep with his mother.

I get the point about the cruelty of mythology underlying the most mundane existence, and I like the way this notion is eerily conveyed through a Ligeti-like score intersped with classical references and teenage pop. I am less sure about the way the plot develops, with one strange climax that probably works better in symbolic terms than narratively. After teasing us with a certain sense of linearity, the plot disintegrates and becomes repetitve, jumpy, illogical.

However, booing this film (as reporters did) is so easy, so awkward, so puzzling, that I have decided to be seduced by this very particular horror story. Of course if what you look is human content, you’ll have to look elsewhere and remember that (very literal) beating heart.

My second film today was Happy End, also in the Official Selection, and one can appreciate the joke when we attach to such cheery titlethe name of its director Michael Haneke. I was beginning to think after Amour that he had entered a milder phase in his career and he had stopped looking at the world and advance reactions mentioned some connections with the previous film. Boy was I wrong. This is pure misanthropic Haneke, which is good in my book, closer to Code inconnu or Caché than Amour.

It’s about a wealthy family surrounded by a world they largely ignore. Isabelle Huppert does her stiff uppity bitch to a t, and everybody else in the cast contributes to create something of a white gothic family portrait. All the characters are unlikeable and even the script feels it is unnecessary to belabor that point. But where Lanthimos presented unrecognizable characters, the chill here is caused by these people being so recognizable.

Like with Code inconnu and Caché, one needs to look at the film’s margins to really work out the implications. In his masterly handling of  mood, Haneke sacrifices storytelling, so lots of things are either undeveloped or unexplained. It’s part of it’s mystery and it works. We need to keep on remembering this is France, that we are actually in Calais, so the refugees glimpsed occasionally are part of the bigger picture, we need to be aware the old patriarch is played by Jean Louis Trintignant, that Haneke has engaged with VHS and the recorded image before, that he is actually Austrian and that so was Thomas Bernhard.

And finally, Dopo la guerra (Un certain regard) by first time director Annarita Zambrano. When a professor in Bologna is shot by left wing terrorists in 2002, members of a version of an armed revolutionary group of the early eighties, who had sought refuge in France are threatened with extradition to Rome. One of them, Marco, opts for hiding and running away with his daughter. The film is very much on the impact political threats have on their relationship, and about coming to terms with the past. It is very topical in the way it engages with concepts of terrorism and comes close to justifying morally some strands of left wing armed activism. Clearly the State is the bigger threat here, with its power to stifle dissent.

In the end the film focuses more on the impact political threats have on the father-daughter relationship, and as in other cases it attempts to discuss history through family. It is particularly interested in thinking historically, about legacies of social revolt and about how future generations will have to deal with our blunders. Zambrano has chosen an intimate approach, with close ups and observation, which gives a vivid shape to very abstract debates.

Somehow, all three films dealt very specifically with family. And there was an extra layer about family in today’s programme. One of the highlights of the day was a wonderful photocall I almost gatecrashed before being sent away by a no-nonsense burly guy in a tuxedo. So many familiar faces, so many reminders that cinema may not be very alive, but it does have a history. Among the faces I recognized were Deneuve, Cardinale, Kassovitz, Binoche, Huppert, Trintignant, Lynch, Agnés Varda, Almodóvar, Michael Haneke, Jane Campion, Antonio Banderas, Nicole Kidman, Adrien Brody, Mads Mikkelsen, Andrea Arnold, Pamela Anderson (!), Guillermo del Toro, Emmanuele Beart, Berenice Bejo, Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Gael García Bernal, Will Smith, Benicio del Toro, Colin Farrell, Sofia Coppola, Costa Gavras, Todd Haynes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ken Loach, Tilda Swinton, Laurent Cantet and so on until 115 people who represented not just the greatness of cinema, but more specifically the greatness of Cannes. Cannes is celebrating its 70 years by looking at itself in the mirror and try to see something they can be proud of (a point also made by the names in the official selection). This was a veritable family portrait of the Cannes family. As for the stars, some looked tired, others eager, few relaxed, as in any proper group portrait, and the tension says something interesting about what’s going on. Yet having so many legends just meters away did help to charge my batteries in the morning.

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