Politics came to the Cannes Film Festival (as it often does) in the form of two major movie debuts in the course of 24 hours.
This morning one of the most-awaited films in the Official Competition unspooled for critics at 8:30 AM, and 2 1/2 hours after its start the verdict appeared to be critically mixed for Oscar winner Michel Hazanavicious’ The Search, first feature film since he won Best Director for his 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist. From my vantage point, his new film works on many levels — most importantly, a human one. There was applause at the end but some noticeable boos and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they came from the Russians. They don’t come off well in this story set in the second Chechen War in 1999 as Russians invade, and a young boy and his new baby brother are separated from their family after his parents are killed. Thus begins an incredible journey — and this film hooked me right in — in this contemporary remake of the post-World War II Fred Zinnemann film The Search (1948), in which a young boy is separated from his parents in a concentration camp and taken in by a caring soldier played by Montgomery Clift (Berenice Bejo has the Clift role this time, a gender change in which she plays a European Union delegation head).
The original Search won a Motion Picture Story Oscar and a special juvenile statuette for its young star, Ivan Jandl. It was also nominated for lead actor, director and screenplay. And deservedly so. Perhaps it is never a good idea to tackle a remake of such an honored film, but in this case using the basic premise to shine a larger light on a forgotten cause seems smart. And the boy’s plight is just one strand here, as there’s also the corresponding story focusing on a tough Russian street kid who is slowly turned into a killing machine when drafted into the army. It’s harrowing stuff to watch, but all of a sudden relevant again, coinciding with another Russian invasion of sorts currently happening in Ukraine.
For me, making a political film that at its heart puts a face on humanity, showing the consequences of war from the POV of those most affected, is a movie worth talking about. And Hazanavicious did this morning at the press conference following the first screening. “This film is indeed a political one but I tried to focus on the human side, the emotional side of war,” he said, but added that even though he wasn’t intentionally making a statement for one side or another, he did say he wasn’t sugar-coating the fact that a very violent Russian Army massacred many people in Chechnya. But it is not the big picture The Search is after, rather the smaller-scaled view through its compelling characters. Bejo agreed that it was the small steps her character Carole takes in becoming a heroic one in her own right. As usual, Bejo, who won Best Actress here last year for The Past, is perfect. Annette Bening is also fine as a Red Cross worker helping refugees, but it is young Abdul-Khalim Mamatsuiev who steals hearts in a role that is relatively silent for at least half the picture. Hazanavicius clearly knows how to get the best out of actors without having them say a lot of dialogue as proven in The Artist, and particularly Jean Dujardin’s Oscar- and Cannes-winning performance. This is indeed the director’s second film in competition here. And like Artist, it is also produced by Thomas Langmann (joined by the director this time). Warner Bros is handling it in France but it is up for U.S. distribution. It is one of Worldview’s major projects.
Hazanavicius could virtually write his own ticket after the Oscars and he has never before tackled something as serious as this picture set in a war-ravaged country. It’s surprising, risky and admirable. But as he said, a black-and-white silent movie in 2011 wasn’t an obvious hit either.
On Tuesday night came the debut of another film with a triumphant performance from another Oscar winner, Marion Cotillard. Two Days, One Night, the latest from two-time Palme d’Or winners the Dardenne brothers, won glowing notices and immediate talk of an acting award here for Cotillard, who has never won at Cannes. The film also treads political territory as it revolves around a factory worker who loses her job at a company intent on downsizing. They offer $1000 bonuses as an incentive to the other union workers in order to get a vote to let her go. She then spends a weekend visiting each of her colleagues to get them to change their mind in a new vote and forgo their bonus so she can keep her job. It deals with a lot of issues the average Joe is facing these days around the world, but like The Search, this film puts a human face on it and transports the issues raised to a whole new level. That’s largely thanks to Cotillard, who is luminous as someone on the edge, physically and mentally, and desperately trying to hang on. It’s another contender, and with IFC distribution, Cotillard could also find herself back in the Oscar race too.