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A Critic Takes On Cannes: Highlights (And Lowlights) Of The 2015 Festival
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A Critic Takes On Cannes: Highlights (And Lowlights) Of The 2015 Festival

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A Critic Takes On Cannes: Highlights (And Lowlights) Of The 2015 Festival

A Critic Takes On Cannes: Highlights (And Lowlights) Of The 2015 Festival
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Critic John Powers returns from the French film festival to talk about this year's new international films. Top among his picks is The Assassin, a martial arts film by director Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Cannes Film Festival, the largest and most important international film festival, wrapped up over the weekend. The festival, which is held in Cannes on the French Riviera, is a tradition that dates back to 1946, the year after World War II ended. Our critic at large John Powers attended the festival, as he usually does, and he's going to tell us about the best films he saw there, including the award winners and some of the worst films he sat through. John also writes about film and TV for Vogue and vogue.com.

John, welcome back to the show. It's always good to talk with you about Cannes. Let's start with a film that won the top prize. It's directed by Jacques Audiard, who did a film I like a lot called "Rust And Bone," and he also did a film called "A Prophet," which I did not see, but tell us about this new one.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: The film is a film called "Dheepan," and it's a film that's a cross between a social drama and a thriller. It's set in Sri Lanka at the beginning, and it shows three Sri Lankans, a guerilla fighter, a woman he meets along the way, and a child they pick up, who pretend to be a refugee family in order to get asylum in France. But when they move to France, they're put in a housing project that turns out to be run by drug people. So in fact they've gone from what seems like Eastern squalor and misery and civil war to the terrors of Western civilization, and the story sort of follows their progress as they try to make their way to survive in an alien landscape. It's a very good film, maybe a little violent at the end, but the strange thing about it, in festival terms, was that I don't think anybody thought it would win. It was a film that people liked and they all thought, oh, that's a nice film and that it might win some prize, but no one thought would win the overall prize.

GROSS: Were you disappointed that it won?

POWERS: Well, I was disappointed only that I had a favorite that I wish had won, but, you know, it's a good film, and Audiard is a film maker who's been around about 20 years, has made lots of good things, and I think he's the kind of person who would appeal in particular to the jury heads who are the brothers Joel and Ethan Coen from the United States because he makes, you know, sends old-school-style movies that are nicely structured, well put-together, have a storyline that you can - that engages you and you can follow and is commercial, and yet at the same time, deals with tricky and complicated things. I think that's more or less, I think, what the Coens think they're doing, which is to use commercial cinema with stories that people can follow to tell stories that a lot of other people wouldn't.

GROSS: What about the runner-up prize, the grand jury prize? Tell us about the film that won that.

POWERS: The grand jury prize winner is a film called "Son of Saul," which is kind of unremittingly grim because it's set in Auschwitz but does something that I think is really rare at this point in history which is to show you something about a death camp in the Nazi era that tells you something new. It's - it figures on a guy who's a Sonderkommando, who is one of the people - in this case, a Jewish guy, who's enlisted by the Nazis to help them run the camp. He's does a lot with rounding people up and cleaning up the mess after they've killed all the people. And what happens along the way is that he finds a boy who seems to be alive and that even though the boy dies, he wants to struggle to give this boy a decent burial. It's clearly his gesture towards humanity and decency, but the film is so close to him all the way through. We watch what it's like to be that guy in a camp in a way that I've never seen done in a camp. There's no exposition really. You're just plunged into this world. You don't know who you can trust.

Unlike many films about the Holocaust, the people who are in the camps aren't all nice people. They're victims that in fact - they're all scheming for advantage. They don't know who to trust. They know they can be killed at any moment. The only reason they have this job is to stay alive, but they know that they're going to be killed soon, so they're just trying to survive until somehow maybe the war changes or they can survive. And it's a remarkably intense film, a very immersive film. The plot kind of drifts a bit at the end, but I think anybody who watches it will think, I've never seen the death camps done in quite this way. I felt as though I saw it and understood it in a slightly different way than I ever had before, and I've seen and read a lot of stuff on this.

GROSS: I - I'll confess I have trouble going to Holocaust movies. I feel like I've read a lot about the Holocaust. I've seen a lot of Holocaust films. At some point, I don't want to put myself through the experience again of reliving it for a movie because it's not going to change the world. It's not going to change what happens, and it's just so painful to sit through that again.

POWERS: Well, I can tell you that I think that, you know, one of the things about Cannes is you go into films, and you don't know what they are, and the person who directed this, Laszlo Nemes, is a first-time Hungarian director, so nobody knew anything about him. So you can imagine that there weren't exactly shrieks of pleasure coming from the audience.

GROSS: Yay, a Holocaust film (laughter).

POWERS: (Laughter) Yes, yay, a Holocaust movie that's shot close to the guy's head with no exposition and you start the movie simply plunged into the middle of the camp trying to figure out where you are. It's a hard movie to recommend in any pleasurable sense. It has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. I think it will probably be an Oscar film. It's an impressive piece of work. Laszlo Nemes really can direct, and it's powerful and strong. I think - you know, I think in terms of calling something a hard-sell, that's about as hard a sell as you'll find.

GROSS: Let's move to the film that won best director.

POWERS: This is a film that I love so extravagantly that I will probably babble to you.

GROSS: Is this the film you referred to before as the film you wish had won the top prize?

POWERS: Oh, this is the film that I wish had won, yes.

GROSS: Uh huh.

POWERS: It's called "The Assassin." It is - was described initially as a martial arts film by the Taiwanese director, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and there is probably less martial arts fighting in it than in any martial arts film in history. What it basically is is set in the 19th century Tang Dynasty, and is the story of a young woman assassin played by the beautiful Taiwanese actress Qi Shu who is sent back to her hometown to kill the prince to whom she was once betrothed. And that's the plot. And the question is, will she do it or not?

The film unfolds very, very slowly in some of the most exquisite shots I've ever seen in my life. I mean, the thing that - perhaps the most striking single thing at Cannes this year was how quiet the audience was watching the film because rather like "Son Of Saul," which plunges you into the middle of the Holocaust, this film plunges you in the middle a Tang Dynasty court, and you don't quite know what's going on, so you have to figure everything out as you go along, and surrounding you is the most beautiful actress at Cannes with the most beautiful cast in the most beautiful costumes in the most beautiful production design lit the most beautifully. The level of artistry was so much higher than anything else in the festival that everyone was, in one way or another, ravished.

The worst that people could say about it was they couldn't follow the plot or that it was too beautiful. It is incredibly un-commercial. It's slow. It's difficult to follow. It's so refined and rarefied that maybe 1 person in 25 would like it, but for that person, they would always think it's the best film. And in this case, I did. It's a masterful film.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our critic at large John Powers, and every year at this time he tells us about the films that he saw and the films that won the big awards at the Cannes Film Festival. This year's festival wrapped up over the weekend.

John, the best actress award actually went to two actresses - to Rooney Mara, who became famous for her performance in the American adaptation of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," and she's in a new movie directed by Todd Haynes called "Carol," and the other actress who won was Emmanuelle Bercot, who was in a film called "Mon Roi," which translates to "My King." So tells about the film that Rooney Mara won for.

POWERS: Well, for a long time the film that Rooney Mara was in, which is called "Carol," was everybody's idea of the front-runner for the whole festival. It was made made by Todd Haynes, who people will know from directing "Far From Heaven" and the HBO series "Mildred Pierce," and it's kind of in that tradition of a period melodrama. In this case, Rooney Mara plays a shop girl working at a department store who meets an older, highly done-up and, to my mind, slightly scary woman named Carol played by Cate Blanchett in full, ferocious Cate Blanchett-ness mode. And the two fall in love. Because this is the 1950s, that's not a good thing, and it's basically about what happens to the two of them.

It's extremely beautiful. The period detail is wonderful. The acting is very impressive. Blanchett is more distant and scary. Rooney Mara looks a bit like Audrey Hepburn, I think deliberately. This is the kind of film were almost everything recalls something else because it's a bit meta as well as being a melodrama. And Mara is very good as the vulnerable young woman who kind of expands her consciousness through the course of the film by meeting this wiser, smarter - but more experienced but maybe less warm woman than she is.

From the opening day it showed, it was the film to beat, and yet it only won for Rooney Mara who basically won I think because she seemed human and warm and open in a film that was often maybe too studied and a little - the universe felt a little hermetic. And she was the most vibrant thing in it, to my mind. That Blanchett was so purely what she was, she almost seemed like a mask in a no-drama. And Rooney Mara was giving a more, I think, American Hollywood-style performance.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is our critic at large, John Powers. He just got back from the Cannes Film Festival, and it's kind of a tradition on FRESH AIR that after the festival is over, John tells us about the films that he saw there and the films that won the top awards. Let's take a short break, then we'll hear about some more movies. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is our critic at large John Powers who's telling us about the Cannes Film Festival, which is the biggest international film festival, and it wrapped up over the weekend.

What was the most divisive film at the festival? You know, can people actually boo at the Cannes Film Festival? People are very demonstrative (laughter) about their opinions. They don't sit silently from all I've been told. So what were people arguing about?

POWERS: Well, strangely enough, the film they argued about the most was I guess what you'd call a women's picture or a melodrama about a lawyer played by a woman named Emmanuelle Bercot, who also won - split the Best Actress prize with Rooney Mara from the film "Carol." And she's a lawyer, divorced, and she falls in love with this very enticing, charming, witty, sexy man played by the French actor Vincent Cassel, who seems born to play enticing, sexy, witty men who, in the end, you realize you shouldn't have trusted. And that's exactly what happens here.

And the film basically follows their relationship, and it's the classic woman's picture nightmare film where you've fallen in love with somebody you think is fabulous, and you realize that you've made a mistake. But you know, he's still a lot of fun to be with. The sex is still good. And weirdly enough, once you get married and have a kid, he's actually a good father. The problem is, he's also irresponsible. You can't trust him. He's bad with money. And the film is that kind of film but shot in a way that's filled with extravagant scenes. And so I know that Americans didn't like it very much. The Brits really hated it. I think that their idea of hell is being caught in a room with emotional French people.

GROSS: (Laughter).

POWERS: And this is a film filled with emotional French people. And yet, the film is really alive in lots of ways. It goes on way too long. But it does capture, better than lots of other things, that feeling of falling for someone you know is bad for you and not being able to resist it. The guy who plays the guy who's bad for you is Vincent Cassel, who's really tremendous. It's the best he's been in years and years and years and years. And then the actress Emmanuel Bercot is giving this extravagant performance where she does laugh, and she cries. And she strips, and she makes love. And she has a baby, and she cries some more. And she laughs, and then she looks for closure. You know, she even hobbles around 'cause she hurts herself while skiing.

You know, and she - it's one of those performances where she does everything, and that's the kind of performance that people used to do in Hollywood movies. And this is like a modern French riff on an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. It made some people crazy, and other people thought, it's a mess but really great. I was in the it's-a-mess-but-really-great school. But you know, most of my friends were in this school of, can't this stop?

GROSS: (Laughter).

POWERS: You know, I would slap these people if I could. Normally, I'm a great slapper myself of fictional characters, but in this case, I was with it.

GROSS: Vincent Cassel, who's the male lead in it - he's great. I saw him in - in "Black Swan," he was the ballet teacher, and in "Eastern Promises," he was a gangster from - was it the Soviet Union, from Russia?

POWERS: And he's really great in "Eastern Promises."

GROSS: Yeah.

POWERS: And I've - and I always love watching him, and usually, you know, he's one of those actors of such incredible force that movies don't do him justice 'cause they're always asking him to place - to play an ordinary person, whereas here, he's playing more than that. I mean, I guess it would be like in the way that in the old days, if you asked Jack Nicholson to play an accountant, you'd be wasting Jack Nicholson's Jack-Nicholsonness.

In Vincent Cassel's case, he's often asked to play things that don't call on everything he can do. This film really does. So you - this is one of those rare movies where the guy who's bad for you is supposed to be so sexy and charming that you like him anyway, and in this film, he's so sexy and charming, you like him anyway.

GROSS: (Laughter).

POWERS: And she really seems to like him. She's terrific too.

GROSS: So what got the most boos this year at the Cannes Film Festival?

POWERS: Yes, well, the most booed and most happily booed was a film by Gus Van Sant, who's actually won the festival in years gone by, in a film starring Matthew McConaughey as a guy who flies to a famous forest in Japan in order to commit suicide. The film is called 'The Sea Of Trees," and he's surrounded by a sea of trees and is about to kill himself when he meets a Japanese guy who's wounded and lost in the forest. He's played by the wonderful Japanese actor Ken Watanabe. And then...

GROSS: Who's now on Broadway in "The King And I."

POWERS: Who's now on Broadway, yes. And what happens is, they start talking, and McConaughey begins explaining why his life - why he wanted to take his own life, and you flashback to his life that caused this. He was married unhappily to Naomi Watts, and you see scenes of that. And then gradually, as the film unfolds, there are tricks and surprises and sentimental bits of hooey that were so flabbergasting. The film was a bit like a cross between "The Sixth Sense" and - what else? - a Hallmark card with a little bit of New-Age rubbish thrown in.

And the audience sat in disbelief because Van Sant is normally - is often a very rigorous and refined director. And this was the kind of stuff that most Hollywood people would think, oh, we can't do that; it's too shameless. And nobody walked out because it was so shockingly bad, everyone thought, there must be something that's going to happen, you know, that we're going to wake up and think it was all a dream because it can't be this bad. The person sitting next to me said, I wanted to walk out, but I wanted to stay to hear the boos. And in fact, at the end, the place roared with boos. It got the lowest ranking of critics' rankings that I've ever seen a film get in the history of Cannes.

GROSS: I know one of the films that was well-received at Cannes is already playing in the U.S., and that's "Mad Max," which was directed by George Miller, who also did "Road Warrior." And I'm curious why that film was playing at Cannes when it's already opened here and it's a big Multiplex kind of film.

POWERS: It is. Well, over the last few years, Cannes has liked to have a big Hollywood movie somewhere near the beginning. I think maybe they're partly trying to lure Hollywood back to Cannes 'cause a lot of films don't play there. But I think it's also - they like the stars on the red carpet. They like the jolt of excitement that a Hollywood film can bring. So they tend to put one at the very beginning in - sometimes they're very bad ones, like "The Da Vinci Code."

In this particular case, "Mad Max" is, in a way, almost like an art movie because it's so pared-down in its storytelling that it bears no real resemblance to something like the Marvel's "Avenger" movies or "Thor" or - you know, or a Batman movie, all of which are about stories and snappy dialogue and people bantering back and forth while saving the world.

"Mad Max" is basically Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron driving along really fast with people trying to kill them. And it's such a pure piece of filmmaking that, oddly enough, the film that was closest to it, in my mind, was the incredibly austere Taiwanese film "The Assassin" because both films create this world. They throw you into it, and basically, they're only concerned, almost, with cinematic values rather than with drama, emotional engagement. They're simply trying to use the resources of light, color, movement, music and so forth to create a world that you can inhabit.

And that's what happened with "Mad Max." I think - you know, I think it might well have won something if it had been in competition - it wasn't in competition; it was being shown outside - because I think the Cohen brothers, who headed the jury, would realize how hard it is to make an action film that way.

GROSS: Well, I feel it's my duty to ask you if you saw the 3-D porn movie that played at Cannes.

POWERS: I did see it, or I - actually, I didn't see all of it because I did walk out of it. It is a 3-D porn film that does what you might expect a 3-D porn film does. And I won't explain that, but you can perhaps imagine it. And it is made by a filmmaker named Gaspar Noe, who's made some interesting films in the past. In this case, it's a film - a very boring film, based on his own life, about a guy torn between being stuck with his wife and kid, which he doesn't like, and remembering the hot, sexy babe he had great sex with. And essentially, the film is about that, very - played by actors who aren't very good. And the reason they're not very good is because they're doing hardcore sex sequences. It's one of those films that you would be called controversial, I guess, if anyone had liked it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

POWERS: But the truth is, no one liked it. It's a bad film. It doesn't add anything interesting to either 3-D or pornography or to our understanding of love. You know, he's made some films in the past that I've liked very much and that were controversial, you know, because they would be saying things about politics, or they would be showing family relationships in a way that people found disturbing. In this particular case, the only controversy, I guess, is the one they're trying to trump up because it's so audacious to shoot a 3-D art movie that's filled with pornography.

GROSS: My guest is our critic at large John Powers. After we take a short break, we'll talk about the red carpet high-heels dress-code controversy and the new Amy Winehouse documentary. And we'll hear from actress Maria Bello, whose new memoir is, in part, about falling in love with the woman who was her best friend. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with our critic at large, John Powers. He's telling us about the films he saw at the Cannes Film Festival, the most important international film festival, which is held on the French Riviera. This year's festival wrapped up over the weekend.

There's a documentary about the singer Amy Winehouse - the late Amy Winehouse - that's opening in the states in July. It showed at Cannes, so you just got to see it. What did you think of it?

POWERS: The film about with Amy Winehouse is a very good film. I didn't know all that much about her. I mean, I knew she could sing. I knew her basic sad story. I knew that she'd died, but I didn't know the story nearly as well as the British people there did 'cause I think they'd been following it for years. It's made by a guy named Asif Kapaida...

GROSS: And I just want to interject here. Like, her really big hit was "Rehab."

POWERS: "Rehab."

GROSS: And she was in and out of rehab a lot and then died of drug related causes.

POWERS: Yes, and alcohol related...

GROSS: And alcohol - yeah.

POWERS: ...At age 27. And what's striking about the film is that usually when you get stories of doomed pop stars, they seem exploited, even crummy. And they don't show you the stuff, but they - it's - you spend a lot of time talking to people saying vaguely portentous things with a little bit of music in the background. But you don't really have a sense that you understood what went on. In this particular case, there's an incredible amount of footage of Amy Winehouse from the time she was 14 years old. So we meet her on screen before she is a professional singer just singing at a friend's party. And she's so fresh and young and cheeky and alive that you're drawn to her right away. And as you watch the whole film, you never see a talking head. It's all footage of her either performing or behaving and the director talked to a hundred people about her. Their testimony - you hear it with a little label saying who's talking, but you gradually watch her story unfold as they tell you the story. And it's a terrible story because she is this wonderful, talented young woman who destroys herself in about 10 years. And very few of the people around her do enough to try to help her. This is partly because she could be difficult. It's partly because she had a taste for lousy men. It's partly because her parents weren't as protective of her as they should be. It's partly because she was under contract to give concerts that she shouldn't have given and people made her - had her go ahead and do those concerts even when she should've gone to rehab. And it's partly because there's a huge self-destructive part of her that couldn't stop doing the things that would destroy her. This film is one of those rarest of tabloid-sounding things, which is a compassionate film.

GROSS: That's great to hear that it's so good because as she got sicker, the tabloids really claimed her. So I'm glad she was rescued from a tabloid life in death.

POWERS: It was. Well, I mean, in fact, in one of the great things in watching the film is you realize what it's like to be a wounded animal in a tabloid world. You know, when she steps outside, there are so many flashbulbs popping. Actually, it's like the white out of a nuclear blast almost; that she couldn't do anything without every single thing she did being photographed. So she was trapped inside a house, which is not - probably not the best way to be if you have problems with drugs and alcohol. And then when you step outside you're hounded, which is even worse than being inside. And you really do have a feeling for the scumminess of people. You know, one of the things in the film is they just show clips of all the mean jokes on TV that people made about her. And that's juxtaposed to you seeing what she's actually like because you like her but also how she's this sad figure who's trying to survive and everybody's just saying mean things and, when she steps outside, photographing her and trying to make her look foolish or to get something in order to sell a newspaper.

GROSS: So some of the films at Cannes were controversial. Some of them were booed. But one of the most controversial things that happened at Cannes happened on the red carpet where women were banned unless they wore high heels. Can you explain what that rule is?

POWERS: You know, the red carpet is designed to be this glamorous thing. So that for the evening screenings, when people walk the red carpet, they're supposed to be dressed in formal wear. What that means is men are supposed to be wearing black tie and women are supposed to be in gowns and high heels. Some women got turned away for wearing flats, sometimes in preposterous circumstances. Women who were quite old and for whom it'd be quite dangerous to walk the red carpet in high heels were turned away. A couple of people with medical conditions that didn't allow them to wear high heels were turned away. And some other women were just turned away for wearing flats. The festival tried to argue that this wasn't a real policy. And, in fact, I'm inclined to believe that it wasn't a real policy, which is to say I don't think they had a hard and fast rule that you can't be allowed without high heels. What I'm sure is probably the case is that the ushers were told don't let anyone in who's not dressed in formal wear. And that was then interpreted by people who would feel that they were going to be held responsible if they let people in who weren't properly dressed.

GROSS: And in meaning on the red carpet.

POWERS: On the red carpet and into the theater 'cause on the red carpet you're walking up into the palais to see a screening. So the people who were being turned away, you know, were sometimes the wives of filmmakers trying to go in to see the film. This prompted one of those great Cannes controversies 'cause you have so many media people there that if something goes awry there are so many people that covered and they won't let the story drop. It's because there's a level of frenzy that's always going on there. In this case, it was all the funnier, I guess, because at the beginning it was clear that Cannes was really wanting to make this the year of the woman. In 2014, the festival had gotten pilloried for seeming to have no women in the competition and paying no attention to female filmmakers. So this year, they opened with a film by a French woman. A great number of the films were about female characters. There were special panels, you know, outside the festival but the festival is supporting about the role of women in film. They were doing all this stuff to show that despite what you might think, Cannes really loves women. And the one story that broke out of Cannes is how you have to wear high heels on the red carpet, so the whole thing backfired completely.

GROSS: So when you're at Cannes, you're watching movies with a lot of other critics. How does that affect your moviegoing experience?

POWERS: To be with other critics is strange because you're surrounded by people who are not at all normal in their viewing habits. When I go to an all-media screening in LA, for instance, I'm surrounded by regular people and a handful of critics. Here is a room of people who are experts and they have weird expert responses. You know, they laugh at certain things - jokes that are in-jokes that nobody else would get. And they also are busy positioning themselves the whole time. When people come out, everybody has to have their tweet ready or their witty comment ready or in a case of something controversial, they've already girded their loins in order to argue some position.

GROSS: Do you think that social media and blogs - do you think that they're changing the way criticism is practiced?

POWERS: I think what social media has done is push people to more extreme responses, and I think that it used to be easier to say something's OK and get away with it. But if you're tweeting, it's really hard to say something's OK because that's not a fun tweet. And if you are responding very quickly on a blog, the way your blog gets attention is by taking a position that is somehow an extreme position. The winning position is oh, this is the greatest film ever; oh, this is the worst film ever. So-and-so gives a disastrous performance. Oh, I've never seen anything so beautiful. I wrote one of those myself about the Taiwanese film "The Assassin." There is a pressure, I think, to have your responses pop and so in a way that critics become a bit like Hollywood filmmakers who now need to start the film with a big action sequence to excite the audience. You know, you can't kind of ease your way in anymore because there's the sense that nobody has the patience for a slow - a slow critical response.

GROSS: That's a great analogy. Well, John, thank you so much for talking with us about the Cannes Film Festival.

POWERS: Well, thank you. I always love doing it.

GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic at large and writes about film and TV for VOGUE and vogue.com. Coming up, actress Maria Bello talks about falling in love with a woman who was her best friend. This is FRESH AIR.

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