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Todd McCarthy's Cannes Wrap

Blue is the Warmest Color Still - H 2013
"Blue is the Warmest Color"

The differences between American classicism and and the artsy, sexually explicit Europeans was never more stark.

CANNES--In more ways than one, differences in style and content between high-end American and European films were manifest in the competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.

It’s been true for years that French filmmakers, and sometimes other Europeans, have been more upfront with the way they show sex than have Hollywood directors. Still, no one on either side of the Atlantic could remember scenes of such duration and explicitness, and certainly not between two women, in a so-called mainstream film as Tunisian-born, French-based Abdellatif Kechiche serves up repeatedly in the year’s most talked-about film, Blue Is the Warmest Color  (La Vie d’Adele—Chapitre 1 & 2).

Equally bold gay male sex was prominent in Alain Guiraudie’s Un Certain Regard drama Stranger By the Lake, so the ones left to their own devices this year were straights, about whom there was nothing comparable except for Francois Ozon’s non-explicit look at a 17-year-old who prostitutes herself by choice, Young & Beautiful.

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These unusual sexual elements were the attention getters, but what was more noticeable throughout the official selection was a different stylistic approach: Most of the Americans tended to adhere to classical storytelling models and a precise visual approach, while some of the Europeans, and most noticeably Kechiche, went for a looser structure and more random images favoring intimacy over formalism.

It should be stressed that the Americans made a very impressive showing this year. The four main U.S. competition entries—the Coen BrothersInside Llewyn Davis, Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and James Gray’s The Immigrant—were all strong, and it was gratifying to see these fine directors all step up so well with such diverse, intimate and superbly made work.

In a very different vein (with what is technically a U.K.-German production), Jim Jarmusch delivered his best film in years in Only Lovers Left Alive; James Franco startled many observers with how well he adapted a difficult William Faulkner novel in As I Lay Dying, which was in Un Certain Regard; J.C. Chandor’s one-man sea survival drama All Is Lost was regarded as good enough to have been in the competition, where Robert Redford would have vied strongly for an acting prize, and Jeremy Saulnier’s low-budget suspense drama Blue Ruin was one of the hits of the Directors’ Fortnight. Only Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring came up short on the American side. And, oh yes, The Great Gatsby opened the festival, but that already seems like ancient history.

All these American films were beautifully made, and the four competition titles featured well-drawn screenplays served by confident, exacting visual styles that made you feel you were in excellent hands. Few directors in the world can match the Coens when it comes to creating bold compositions and knowing how to cut and pace a scene—the entire trip-to-Chicago interlude in Inside Llewyn Davis is the most bracing and hypnotic stretch of film I saw in Cannes this year—and the sheer craft of the film was a thrill all by itself.

Similarly, the camera is always in just the right place and shots are held not a beat too long or too short in Nebraska, Payne’s black-and-white road trip that reveals added depth on a second viewing. Soderbergh makes orchestrating comedy, emotion, gaudy spectacle and the acceptance of two big movie stars as gay lovers look easy in Behind the Candelabra, while Gray creates a moving character study against a superbly drawn period setting on a tiny budget in The Immigrant.

Some of us call this approach, which honors the styles developed over decades by the greatest Hollywood directors, classical. Those wishing to disdain it term it old-fashioned or conservative. Most directors would say that one should use an approach that best serves the material, which, in the case of Jarmusch’s dreamy, mood-drenched vampire love story, is something rather looser and more atmospheric than the tack taken by the other Americans.

But Kechiche ignores all of this, thrusting the camera as close as he can to his performers, cutting anytime he feels a part of a different take might be better and, in general, caring as much about formal aspects and visual niceties as the Scandinavian Dogme movement did a couple of decades back. What Kechiche is aiming for is intimacy through sustained physical proximity, which he indisputably achieves, both in the sex scenes and the more conventional dialogue exchanges; you’re really close to these women and their characters come vibrantly alive.

To do this is an accomplishment, but that’s all he achieves. His storytelling in all of his films is undisciplined, choppy and sometimes arbitrary. There’s little discernable shape to his narratives, to the point where you don’t have a sense if you’re five minutes or an hour away from the ending (I’d really had enough of Blue after about two hours, when there was still an hour to go). Kechiche justifies himself in advance by having characters talk about great novels that are many hundreds of pages long and, of course, some of the greatest films are extremely lengthy. But they are also paced and modulated accordingly. Virtually all of Kechiche’s scenes are shot with just one thing in mind, getting in there tight with the actors to observe their skin and, in this case, their bodily fluids, particularly snot and tears. It pays dividends at times, but if you begin looking at your watch during explicit sex scenes, something’s amiss. I’d never done that before.

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which was one of the four or five films I liked best at Cannes, is similarly marked by a lack of discipline, but more in the realm of traditional dramaturgy. The camera swoops and darts and glides through Rome in very exciting ways that, during the film’s best sequences, make the pulse race and the head swoon. The film is an immersion in Rome and the dissolute life style of a talented writer who has abandoned serious work and devoted himself to fashionable journalism and the social swirl.

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Sorrentino’s narrative sin, in my view, lies not in structural deficiencies but in setting up ideas and expectations in the first two-thirds that he then ignores and doesn’t follow through on. When the 65-year-old journalist announces that he no longer intends to waste any time and will only devote himself to things important to him, it seems to suggest a turning point. But the film then swings off in other directions, never to take up the writer’s promise again, which might be the point but doesn’t really feel like it, especially since what’s onscreen instead seems more aimless and esoteric than what’s come before.

Films like those by Kechiche, Sorrentino and several others generate their own qualities, magic and excitement that have little to do with what many of us value in the American films; both schools of filmmaking can be great in their own ways and one is not by definition better or worse than the other. But it seemed to me that most of the Americans at Cannes this year benefitted from their observance of certain time-tested cinematic rules and principles, while the Europeans, while creating some excitement, could have been even better with a bit more narrative discipline and rigor.