Todd McCarthy's Cannes Wrap: The Good, the Bad and the French

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Emily Blunt in 'Sicario'

Highlights of a middling edition of the festival included a riveting Holocaust thriller that offended some, a beautiful Italian film that Italians hate and a bold experiment from Pixar.

This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

The Cannes Film Festival put all its chips on its own national cinema this year, as five of the 19 competition titles, plus the opening-night film, were French. It was a bet that paid off — rather inexplicably — on prize night, but not in terms of critical love: The home team led the way with three big awards, despite a listless contribution that reflected the disappointing quality of not only the official selection but the entire 68th edition of the festival.

Jacques Audiard's late-in-the-fest entry, Dheepan, about Sri Lankan immigrants in Paris, hoisted the French flag by snagging the Palme d'Or, but it was a letdown, from the lackluster visuals to the unsatisfactory ending. His previous two films at the festival, A Prophet (2009) and Rust and Bone (2012), were almost indisputably stronger.

Among the French movies in competition, the best received was Stephane Brize's small, Dardenne-like drama, The Measure of a Man, starring Vincent Lindon as an unemployed factory worker. Lindon took home best actor, while French actress-director Emmanuelle Bercot, of Maiwenn's largely disliked Mon Roi, shared best actress with Carol's Rooney Mara.

Strangely, it was widely reckoned that the best new French film in Cannes was one that was explicitly rejected for the competition and instead was scooped up immediately by rival sidebar section Directors' Fortnight: Arnaud Desplechin's My Golden Days.

Overall, it was a festival with few highlights, a number of films "of interest," as they say, but many that simply did not seem worthy of what remains the planet's most august annual film event. The plague was certainly not limited to France, as no part of the world produced a conspicuously high batting average this year.

Despite the uptick in French representation, one conspicuous development was the high number of English-language films in competition — nine out of the 19. Two of Italy's top directors, Paolo Sorrentino and Matteo Garrone, were here with Anglophone productions — Youth and Tale of Tales, respectively — as were Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster), Norway's Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) and Mexican director Michel Franco (Chronic). Gaspar Noe's noncompeting French sex epic, Love, also was in English.

While there was widespread agreement that many of the films were subpar, no meeting of minds could be found when it came to what the standouts were. My two picks for the most exciting and satisfying films in competition had vocal detractors as well. I found first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes' Son of Saul (winner of the second-place Grand Prize) to be one of the most trenchant and aesthetically apt Holocaust films I've ever seen. Everything unfolds from the point of view of a member of a Sonderkommando, a unit of Jewish prisoners who got a temporary lease on life by helping the Nazis. Although it's clear what horrendous events are going on around him, the camera's extremely limited perspective reflects the title character's deliberately blinkered way of acknowledging his circumstances; to stay alive, he doesn't want to "see" it all. But there were others who found Nemes' approach morally suspect, among them those who believe any attempt to dramatically represent life and death in the concentration camps is by definition reprehensible.

My other favorite was Sorrentino's Youth (starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as aging artists), which I found rapturous from its first beautiful frame to its last. It, too, has many champions but also received boos at the first screening. When some of us started asking around about who might feel so strongly disposed against such a ravishingly made film, the answer was … the Italians, many of whom resent the director's success, his use of English and his perceived co-opting of Federico Fellini's style. Among their country's films, festivalgoers from Italy much preferred Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre.

From left: Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel in 'Youth.'

I was taken with Franco's best screenplay winner Chronic, a mysterious, almost-minimalist film about a male nurse in Los Angeles, featuring a fascinating and uncharacteristically contained performance by Tim Roth. Other American competition entries were Todd Haynes' beautifully acted, somewhat-academic 1950s-set lesbian love story Carol; Denis Villeneuve's high-octane drug-cartel thriller Sicario, superbly made but too mainstream for some; and Gus Van Sant's anemic The Sea of Trees, for which I have yet to find a single proponent.

The presence of that film in competition raised the question: What was the selection committee thinking? Three possible answers come to mind: Programmers actually liked it; the festival was desperate for an additional American title; or Van Sant, as a former Palme d'Or winner (Elephant in 2003), is a member of an unofficial inner circle of preapproved auteurs, whose work will be welcomed on the Croisette no matter what.

The festival's most conceptually audacious, as well as all-out entertaining, film was also American, although it was shown out of competition: Pete Docter's Inside Out is set almost entirely within a young girl's brain, with anthropomorphized emotions battling for control. A merging of avant-garde head trip and mainstream diversion, this is one of Pixar's boldest and brightest.

For Asiaphiles and highest- brow art-cinema aficionados, the most anticipated Cannes title was Hou Hsiao-Hsien's long-gestating martial-arts drama, The Assassin, and the reactions were predictable: The Taiwanese filmmaking veteran's devoted worshippers bowed lovingly at the altar, while the rest of us admired the technique but were never shown an open door into the ninth century Chinese story. Hou won the best director prize.

Elsewhere, Chinese director Jia Zhangke's decades-jumping drama, Mountains May Depart, was more or less done in by a frustrating third act, while Our Little Sister, from Japan's Hirokazu Koreeda, seemed an Ozu-like gem to its supporters but a wispy thing to others, myself included.

'Inside Out'

Garrone's fairy-tale-inspired Tale of Tales is arrestingly designed but doesn't really amount to much, while Jury Prize (third-place) winner The Lobster, a dystopian satire starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, has an intriguing first half, only to narrow its narrative focus too much in the second hour.

Meanwhile, Gallic bad boy Gaspar Noe may have achieved personal liberation by going all the way physically with Love, but the overlong film lacks the visceral punch of his previous Irreversible or Enter the Void, falling short in its ambition to tell a poignant tale of youthful romantic loss.

The 2015 crop's thinness was felt throughout the other sections of the festival, from the Un Certain Regard sidebar (commonly seen as a home for films deemed not quite fit for the main competition), which is where former Palme d'Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul's placidly — OK, boringly — uneventful Cemetery of Splendour could be found, to the Critics' Week, which put nothing of note on the radar this year.

In addition to Desplechin's film, the Directors' Fortnight featured a handful of titles that turned heads. One was epic three-parter Arabian Nights from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes, whose 2012 Tabu was an international art house favorite. Hard-core buffs who sat through all six hours of his new opus had good things to say — but, as is often the case with films that screen at Cannes, how the unwieldy, challenging work travels to the rest of the world remains to be seen.