This post focuses on two films that struck me at the Cannes Film Festival: Dheepan, which won the Palme d'or, and Son of Saul, which won the runner-up award, the Grand Prix.
The jury led by the Coen brothers gave its top two awards to films that speak of Europe's present and past.
Actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan, director Jacques Audiard and actress Kalieaswari Srinivasan at a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival
Palme d’or: Dheepan
The Festival's top prize, the Palme d'or, was awarded to Dheepan by French director Jacques Audiard, with cinematography by Eponine Momenceau -- who does a great job on her first feature. Many of my fellow journalists expressed surprise about the jury's choice of Dheepan for the Festival's highest honor.
Dheepan's subject and filmmaking process posed a unique challenge. The story follows a man, woman and girl from Sri Lanka who pretend to be a family in order to meet immigration restrictions. This trio of refugees quickly make it to France, and move into a poor, suburban housing project. The film recounts the subtle and fragile creation of a family composed of three strangers, as they try to adapt to a strange culture. Their new lives are also increasingly threatened by the presence of armed gang members in neighboring buildings, leading to a final, violent showdown.
During his first press conference, Audiard said that the project began as a remake of Straw Dogs by Sam Peckinpah. And indeed although Dheepan starts as an immigrant family drama, it turns into a violent action movie in the third act. Audiard commmented that he wanted to use a film genre as a "Trojan Horse" to deliver "other stuff".
Audiard cast non-actors to play the immigrants in the film, with very convincing results. The film's dialogues are mostly spoken in Tamil, and sometimes the young girl, Claudine Vinasithamby, acted as an interpreter on set, to help the director speak with her adult co-stars, Antonythasan Jesuthasan and Kalieaswari Srinivasan.
Claudine Vinasithamby and Antonythasan Jesuthasan in Dheepan
While I found the final genre shift from naturalism to urban western too sudden and unexpected, Dheepan remains an admirable, moving film by one the best directors working today. Dheepan also addresses a subject that is essential to contemporary Europe: the integration of immigrants into mainstream society.
Dheepan is the fruit of Audiard's courageous endeavor to make a movie about something he doesn't know. During his final press conference, the director explained his motivation:
"What interested me in this was the Other. How do we see him and perceive him, how does he perceive us? How do we perceive the people who sell us roses at a café terrace, and who we send away without looking at them? They come from some place. That was what interested me."
Audiard's funny, moving, human film succeeds in sharing the point of view of immigrants trying to adapt to a foreign culture, and reveals their humanity -- an achievement that fully merits the Palme d'or granted by the Coen brothers' jury.
Director Jacques Audiard at a press conference
The Cannes Festival has some of the world's best projection, and the quality is ensured by the painstaking efforts of the French CST technical organization. The Festival lets each filmmaker decide whether to project digitally or in 35mm. This year only one movie in the Official Selection chose 35mm projection: Saul Fia (Son of Saul), which was shot in 1.33 by Matyas Erdely.
In an email exchange, Matyas explained that the Cannes print was from the original negative, adding: "we felt that the film needs to be raw and 'unprocessed'. We wanted to stay away from everything digital and when we watched our printed dailies they looked perfect for what we wanted to achieve so there was no need for a DI. Another factor is that cutting negative and printing is way cheaper than scanning and DI."
Grand Prix: Son of Saul
Géza Röhrig as Saul
Saul Fia (Son of Saul) was without doubt the most powerful film of the Festival, an incredible first feature about the Holocaust by Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes, that takes us right into Auschwitz, as we follow a Sonderkommando named Saul. Sonderkommandos were concentration camp inmates who were assigned to dispose of bodies, among other grisly tasks. Right from the start, we follow Saul in the anteroom to the gas showers, and then to the horror inside afterwards...
The handheld camera closely follows Saul for most of the movie, leading us on a harrowing journey with the background often out of focus, in a multi-lingual cacophony of terrifying sounds.
Saul Fia does not show what cannot be shown, but it does not completely obscure it either. During his final press conference, Laszlo Nemes explained his approach:
"We did not want to do a historical drama. We wanted to immerse the spectator in an experience, to put him in the heart of this thing, which has often been shown in cinema, a concentration camp, an extermination camp. We wanted it to be about a man, a human being, and not go beyond this individual human dimension...
The viewpoint of directing from the start was to leave room for the viewer's imagination to construct something that cannot be shown."
The brilliant 38-year-old director also offered a historical context for his film:
"Europe is still haunted by the destruction of the European Jews. That’s something that lives with us… You can feel it... I can feel it haunts us... I wanted to approach this issue in a different way... It was important to talk to this generation."
Director Laszlo Nemes at a press conference
festival-cannes-com: Press Conference of Award Winners
wikipedia: Jacques Audiard
Eponine Momenceau's web page in French
wikipedia: Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora
wikipedia: Straw Dogs
YouTube: trailers & teasers for Dheepan (Festival de Cannes YouTube channel)
wikipedia: Son of Saul
wikipedia: Laszlo Nemes
Matyas Erdely's website
YouTube: video teasers for Son of Saul (Festival de Cannes YouTube channel)