Postcards from Cannes, Part 8: The Immigrant, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Blue is the Warmest Color

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Final thoughts on the Festival de Cannes; James Gray and Mohammad Rasoulof; plus, Abdellatif Kechiche’s eventual Palme d’Or winner.

American director James Gray has a decent reputation in France and is very much a Cannes favourite—and yet barely registers elsewhere. His latest film, The Immigrant (Competition), tells the tale of Ewa, a new Polish immigrant (Marion Cotillard) to the U.S. in the 1920s. She finds herself alone in New York after her sister is put into quarantine, and is about to be turned back herself, only is “saved” by the presence of a part-time pimp (Joaquin Phoenix). Her fortunes then take a dip.

It’s the type of film that does everything well and is hard to critique, but has zero resonance. Even though the acting is good in spite of the thin characterisation, the period detail interesting, the depiction of a moralistic but depraved society convincing, and the narrative adequate, it’s tepid as an overall experience—Academy Awards bait, not Cannes bait—and surprising as a selection for the Competition.

Far from tepid was icy Iranian thriller Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Un Certain Regard). If there were fears A Touch of Sin could get its director in trouble with government, then concerns for Mohammad Rasoulof’s safety were even more pronounced, especially considering that he has spent time in prison for his filmmaking activities before. The plot centres on the true story of the murder of two writers by the secret police in Tehran, told through the eyes of two hit men, and through the eyes of the writers themselves. It shows an intellectual and artistic class paralysed by fear of reprisals and repression; it also shows murderers convincing themselves that they are doing God’s work, when all really they’re doing is creating a hell.

The narrative is constructed in a way reminiscent of 2005 Un Certain Regard winner Crimson Gold, in that the ending is the opening scene, and the remainder of the film explains how it came to be. (Regarding persecuted artists, there’s a further link to Crimson Gold’s director and Rasoulof’s friend Jafar Panahi, who is reportedly still languishing.) Rasoulof shoots proceedings in a grungy noir style. Tehran is portrayed via seedy basements, secret bunkers, and stonewalls, and the escape out of the city is similarly bleak.

The credits reveal nothing about the participants, for fear of reprisals. The film depicts a haunted society in the most banal way—killers make sandwiches immediately after an assassination. Emotions are suppressed for fear of causing trouble. Ideas and ideals are compromised. Manuscripts Don’t Burn is a truly impressive film considering the circumstances and the risks involved, but it’s more than simply political in nature; it’s a potent existential thriller and statement of intent outside of its immediate historical context.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie D’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Color, Competition) was the last film to create a strong buzz at Cannes. Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a typical teenager who finds herself falling in love with arty Emma (Léa Seydoux). The film is a very standard first love/Bildungsroman. It is also another mainstream depiction of a homosexual relationship that comes unstuck. However, as a character study, and as an account of a relationship and the way people fall in and out of love, it is more than a little impressive.

These concerns aside, it’s a formally brilliant and immersive piece of filmmaking. Kechiche’s style is extremely rigorous in its concentration on faces and bodies. The sex is frank, and while it is extended, it doesn’t feel gratuitous due to the full picture we get of Adèle’s relationship. The sex simply feels normal. Exarchopoulos is truly remarkable—you mostly forget that she is acting, and she gives everything she can to the role, from snot to crossed-eyed confusion, even for split seconds. The camera is on her for almost the entire film, and she rewards the audience’s attention. In fact, you feel like you’re inside her world, so much so that when she says she has been sleeping with someone else, you almost can’t believe her. She’s a character who is happy giving, but has no sense of what she wants for herself. Unlike the confident and ambitious Emma, she is unable to acknowledge her desires, unable to put her passion for language into writing (though whether she wants to is another question), and frequently unable to express her frustrations. The drifting apart of the two characters is painful to watch because we can sense it happening before Adèle at least is able to.

Kechiche loves the interplay of language and play in everyday life, and the way people go around and around, rather than necessarily knowing what they want. He matches this with an urgent, cinéma-vérité style, creating an almost invisible sense of rhythm that means the three hours simply fly past. Like much of his previous work (i.e. The Secret of the Grain), it’s a banal narrative in terms of its “everydayness”—there are no real fireworks, the turning points are accidental and unnoticed, characters explode and recede without warning, and we get the sense that we are witnessing a fairly unremarkable life play out. And yet, Kechiche (in the great tradition of the likes of Cassavetes, Eustache etc.) makes this very compelling. In this way, it’s impossible not to view this film as part of the zeitgeist. France has just had an extremely divisive and angry (by the opponents) marriage equality debate, and the bill only passed last week amid public suicides, hate crimes, and threats of insurrection. What the opponents might see, if they see this film, is simply that love, sex, conflict, and so on, play out in very normal but emotionally understandable ways, no matter what your sexuality.

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I didn’t want to end the festival by watching the new Roman Polanski film. The thought of seeing that child rapist walk up the red carpet smiling amid camera flashes makes me want to vomit. His sheltering for the last few decades from facing trial by the artistic community because he has been deemed an “important” artist is a continuing scandal; if Jimmy Saville or Gary Glitter had been invited to walk the red carpet, there would justifiably be howls of outrage. There’s little difference.

So that was it. Am involving festival that flew past. Cannes has been a unique experience. It’s maddening, intoxicating, sickening, and addictive all at the same time. It’s much bigger than anything I’ve been a part of; I’m simply playing a small role in what is a gigantic press and economic machine. It can be hard to justify too. Many of the films programmed decry the excesses, the capitalist structures, the emptiness—essentially what the festival is about. And yet these films rely totally on these structures in order to reach an audience.

Every time I felt alienated from the surroundings, I was brought back to life by the quality of cinema. The films have been a very big step up from the other big European festivals I’ve been to, and for the most part, the queuing, the aggravation, and the general loneliness that comes from a big event disappeared as soon as the Cannes logo appeared in the dark. For me, the highlights have been: Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan, La Grande Bellezza, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Touch of Sin, La Vie d’Adèle, and Like Father, Like Son. As always, there were a number of films I missed that created a buzz that I will have to hunt out or hope are picked up by the New Zealand International Film Festival: namely, Strangers on a Lake (Alain Guiraudie), Tip Top (Serge Bozon), The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh), and Blind Detective (Johnny To). But as for my awards from the ones I’ve seen, they are as follows (written before the official awards were announced):[1]

  • Palme d’Or: La Grande Bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino)
  • Grand Prix: A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
  • Best Director: Abdellatif Kechiche (La Vie D’Adèle), just beating off the Coens (Inside Llewyn Davis)
  • Best Actor: Tony Servillo (La Grande Bellezza), beating off strong competition from Michael Douglas (Behind the Candelabra), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), and Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
  • Best Actress: Adèle Exarchopoulos (La Vie D’Adèle), though at a pinch she could share it with Léa Seydoux.
  • Un Certain Regard: Norte, Hangganan Ng Kasaysayan (Lav Diaz)
  • Un Certain Regard runner up: Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof)
The 66th Festival de Cannes is Brannavan Gnanalingam’s last assignment as The Lumière Reader’s Europe correspondent. He has also covered international film festivals in Venice, Rotterdam, and Berlin. Previously based in Paris, he returns to New Zealand in the Winter.


[1] The official prize winners were:

Palme d’Or: La Vie D’Adèle (Abdellatif Kechiche)
Grand Prix: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Best Director: Amat Escalante (Heli)
Jury Prize: Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
Best Screenplay: Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin)
Best Actress: Bérénice Bejo (La Passè)
Best Actor: Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Camera d’Or: Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen)

Un Certain Regard: The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)
Jury Prize: Omar (Hany Abu-Assad)
Best Director: Alain Guiraudie (Stranger by the Lake)
A Certain Talent: The cast of La jaula de oro (Diego Quemada-Diez)
Avenir Prize: Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler)