Postcards from Cannes, Part 3: The Past, Miele, Like Father, Like Son

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
More observations at the Festival de Cannes; plus, new films by Asghar Farhadi and Hirokazu Kore-eda.

One of the most anticipated films at Cannes this year was Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passé (The Past). On account of the success of A Separation, and the sudden interest in Farhadi’s oeuvre, the full signs were up in the Grand Lumière theatre well before the kickoff. In the film, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returns to France from Iran to finalise his divorce with Marie (Bérénice Bejo). He agitates the various tensions in Marie’s new life. He essentially plays the role of the reoccurring God figure in Kieslowski’s films—Kieslowski being an obvious reference point for Farhadi’s work. The opening scene sets the tone: Marie reverses the car in pouring rain after picking Ahmad up from the airport. She almost has a crash. From this—and the opening credit’s windscreen wiping motif—Farhadi explores guilt, obfuscation or suppression of the past, and the difficulty of moving forward. He also offers a subtle view of being an expat in another country—Ahmad doesn’t belong in France, but it’s also not clear if he belongs in Iran.

The stratospheric expectations heaped on Le Passé meant that more than a few walked away disappointed, and with that mind, its scripting certainly isn’t as tight or emotionally taut as A Separation. At times, the bubbling melodrama threatens to cross over into unconvincing territory, and Farhadi could have put more trust in ellipsis rather than trying to explain every single detail. His control of actors, though, maintains an emotionally engaging throughline. Boy, does Farhadi know how to direct actors. The cast is uniformly brilliant: Bejo, Tahar Rahim (as Marie’s boyfriend Samir), and in particular, Elyes Aguid as Samir’s son, are exceptional. The space Farhadi gives the actors—he’s not afraid of silence, for instance—results in some bravura scenes (both the subway scene and the children present scene really stand out). I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the cast receiving an acting award or two. Farhadi also utilises understated but compelling imagery. Like A Separation, he looks at people who are unable to confront their own failings, and instead find easy/other targets to blame. Frequently it’s also the children who pierce into the adults’ suppressed emotions. Farhadi’s strengths, his empathy for his characters and his insistence on shining light on the grey areas of life, suggest that he is fast becoming one of contemporary cinema’s most perceptive portrayers of everyday life.

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Cannes is not just about the films—it’s about different countries marketing and networking their products. Presumably it works. I wandered into the New Zealand apartment, partly hidden above a Fendi store on the Croisette and up some slightly mysterious stairs. One of the Film Commission workers immediately demanded my ID before I could introduce myself, then directed me to another apartment I wasn’t sure existed after I simply said that I was a New Zealander seeing what we had on offer. Advertisements for films that barely appeared in New Zealand cinema dominated. Or films that weren’t New Zealand funded. Two other New Zealanders walked in to see what was happening as I left. It reminded me of Murray from Flight of the Conchords. I don’t blame the worker for her brusqueness; she was there to do a job, and in all honesty, I was probably there to write something snarky. But it does make me wonder what a small film industry like New Zealand’s could possibly achieve in Cannes. Networking, perhaps; studio financing, perhaps; co-productions with other national film industries, perhaps—maybe I’m just naïve to how the film industry really works. However, I would have thought the best advertisement for New Zealand film would be to have a New Zealand film considered good enough to participate in at Cannes. People don’t want Romanian films at the moment because Romania has the best networking skills. But given Cannes is an auteur driven festival, and our film financing is not auteur driven, I’d be surprised if our industry tent wasn’t simply a place for curious expat Kiwis to visit.

Italian actor Valeria Golino steps behind the camera for the first time in Miele, a Un Certain Regard contender. It tells the tale of Miele/Irene, who assists terminally ill patients with their suicide. It is steady and functioning job, up until she realises that one of her latest patients isn’t terminally ill after all. The ensuing moral dilemma then becomes the thrust of the narrative.

The film is grounded by Jasmine Trinka’s fine performance, all sinewy and explosive. Golino’s camera focuses on her body—strength versus decay becomes an interesting contrast within the film. While Golino’s formalism isn’t particularly memorable (and there’s a slight overuse of music functioning in an external/internal sense), the film manages to maintain a compelling energy. It also forms an interesting companion piece to last year’s Bella addormentata. While much narrower in focus to Marco Bellocchio’s more ambitious film, in terms of its dialogue about our relationship to death, it has a similarly potent effect. Whether it courts the same controversy in Italy as Bellocchio’s film remains to be seen.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest miniature family drama, Like Father, Like Son, is further proof that he’s heir to the contemplative if pointed tradition of Yasujiro Ozu. Although an oft-used and all-too-easy comparison to make, this new film is analogous in its empathy, emphasis on small moments (or tragedies) within families, and focus on the resignation of life. Much like Ozu, there’s also gentle social commentary, with issues of class, work, gender roles, and parenting subtly woven in.

Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a workaholic with a swanky apartment and a six-year-old son. Inexplicably, he and his wife discover that their son was accidentally switched at birth. They then have to decide whether to keep their “son” or reclaim their “blood line”. Typical for Kore-eda is the old-fashioned, low-key approach through which their story is told, only one that comes with a decent emotional wallop.

The protagonists are initially setup one-dimensionally. It is only as the film progresses that Kore-eda (as usual) reveals depth to his characters. The matriarchs of the two families form the real conscience throughout, even though the character journey is that of Ryota. There is also humour, recurring symbolism (trains, of course!), and subtle character observations; little asides that cumulate into something quite powerful. The rhythm is exquisite, and Kore-eda’s real skill in subtext and suppressed emotions is once again to the fore. And while the film is perhaps a tad overlong, it is beautifully observed and played out.

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During the day, I took a walk down the road to escape the Palais for a while. I saw a group of old people playing pétanque. In that view, it could have been any old small town on the French coast. People with everyday jeans and everyday hair. Wrists ruined by arthritis, or simply old age, no longer being able to flick the boules, only roll them along the sand. Other older folk sat in the sun with canes and fresh gossip. It was a brief welcome change from the incessant parade of men and women walking up and down with a price tag on view. But then again, this festival makes Cannes. Without it, it would be just another Riviera town. It also seems dangerous to romanticise the view in front of me. Near to the players, posters of Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front National, beamed at the passersby. François Hollande’s picture had been half ripped off, leaving behind just a bald head and a Socialist logo. The South is the Front National’s heartland, where they take advantage of the older population down this way (a Parisian described the south to me as “God’s waiting room”), and the tough economic climate that prevails in the South. The implication of the posters being that the foreigners here are to be tolerated, but only for a short while. While I sat in the sun, a young man, dressed in the complete opposite attire to those on the Croisette, smacked my seat, seeking a reaction from me. He was also emphasising the point that the festival wasn’t for him. The big news in Cannes recently has been the one million dollars’ worth of jewelry that was stolen from a hotel room. Whether the pétanque players or the young man felt any sympathy, I don’t know.

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.