Cannes Diary, Days 3-5: Coen Bros. Films and Real-Life Jewel Heists

Day 3: Scary With Children

I’m OK, everybody. It’s true that I’m staying in the very hotel where $1,000,000 in House of Chopard jewels was stolen late Thursday night. Except for the sudden appearance of a very tired-looking security gentleman asking to see hotel keys, you’d never know anything had happened. The sun was out the last couple of days, and so, I suppose, are the crazies. Well, this is the Cannes Film Festival — every other person is a little bit nuts. But now the crazies are armed. Yes, it seems an as-yet-unidentified man fired shots during the live evening broadcast of Le Grand Journal, which on Thursday featured Christoph Waltz and the French superstar Daniel Auteuil, both of whom are on the main-competition jury.

The shots were reportedly blanks fired into the air, and the grenade he allegedly brought with him was a prop. You can count on a bit of mild anarchy in France from time to time. You can also count on a pronounced police presence along the Croisette. But whether it’s the fresh memory of the Boston Marathon bombing or the knowledge that the Troma Entertainment Company is in here with a ragtag crew staging Occupy Cannes events (more on that in the days to come), there’s definitely an extra dose of precaution in the air.

But a heightened state of awareness has done little to tame the panic that occurs before every 8:30 a.m. press screening. No matter how desperate North America currently is to see Star Trek Into Darkness, I’m confident that no one is sprinting through their local gigaplex lobby for a front-row seat. Here, however, provides one of the most exhilarating sights in all of moviegoing: that of a tubby, chain-smoking, middle-age entertainment journalist from Spain turning into Usain Bolt. My morning walk to the Palais requires a stroll down a long, narrow street. The buildings on either side perfectly frame what is basically a disaster movie in reverse: people running toward the catastrophe and not away from it. Really, from that vantage it looks as if folks are sailing up the carpeted stairs like extras in House of Flying Daggers. The most amazing thing about the sprinting — and the attendant stumbling, queue cutting, and knocking people over — is that they’re not doing this to confirm with their own eyes who Benedict Cumberbatch is or isn’t playing in Star Trek. They’re doing it to see the new movie by the Iranian fellow who made A Separation.

The Iranian is Asghar Farhadi, and the movie is called The Past, but because, thematically, it picks up where the previous film left off he could have named it A Divorce. A husband, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), returns to Paris after several years in Tehran to grant his pharmacist wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), a divorce. She’s met someone new, Samir (Tahar Rahim), the owner of a dry-cleaning business. He and his 5-year-old son, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), are moving into her house along with her daughters, little Léa (Jeanne Jestin) and teenage Lucie (Pauline Burlet) — Ahmad is not their father.

Suffice it to say that there are complications, and that those complications revolve around Samir’s wife, and what brought on her coma. Farhadi writes the kind of films in which characters’ choice of words always comes back to haunt them. He writes discursive thrillers. This one is somewhat less exhilarating than A Separation, which was ingeniously predicated upon narrative withholding. It was a domestic-dispute drama that played like a moral suspense thriller. The withholding in The Past is a matter of personal strategy. The trouble with Farhadi’s approach here is that, despite making a clever leitmotif out of the wiping clean of hands and surfaces, it’s almost completely dependent upon disclosure, confession, and shakedown. There’s not much for the camera to do, the way there is in the melodramas and tragedies of directors like Yasujirō Ozu, Jane Campion, Fatih Akin, and the Farhadi of A Separation.

Still, you argue with the motivations of these people. You take sides. You’re fully engaged enough to wonder what would possess a couple of these people to behave as they have. This is a director who understands the moral rectitude of children and how the bitter power of that rectitude is beyond their full comprehension. The actors on the jury are likely to respond to all of the performances, which are strong individually and as part of an ensemble (these are some astounding kids). Bejo is especially good. It’s not until the closing credits that I even knew it was her. Her seduction of an empty tuxedo jacket was the best thing in The Artist. Here she combines compassion, narcissism, fury, and stress so that once or twice she’s playing all four at once. I wasn’t at Nicole Kidman’s screening, but I’m sure she took notes.

The other competition film about parents and children is from Japan’s Hirokazu Koreeda, whose movies have become a Cannes fixture. His Like Father, Like Son screened this evening, and like the 1987 Dudley Moore–Kirk Cameron comedy that shares its name, this, too, is a life-swap comedy, only not lousy. The swap here actually occurred at birth, and gave a stuffy white-collar couple the son of a warmer working-class pair.

Koreeda has become a specialist in the dynamic between kids and parents and among children and adolescents. His perceptions have result in great and nearly great movies like After Life, Nobody Knows, and Still Walking, and the mostly superb I Wish, which opened last year in the U.S. and gave happy consideration to the lives of two brothers of divorce who live separately with a respective custodial parent. This time the director focuses on how the birth mixup enhances the well-to-do father’s self-centeredness and eventually his humanity. But once again, the boys are the most compelling part of this movie. The casting of the kids amounts to a true artist’s instinct for certain kids’ camera-readiness and ease with complex emotions. If there’s any suspense here, it stems from hoping the adults arrive at a civilized conclusion before they permanently wreck two families. No worries. They do. It’s not a Farhadi movie or anything. You just aren’t sure why it took two hours for them to work it out.

There was no panic to see Un Voyageur, but the house was packed this afternoon to watch Marcel Ophüls hold forth on such topics as his legendary father (the director Max Ophüls), Marcel’s claim to cinematic greatness (the epic French collaborationist and resistance documentary The Sorrow and the Pity), and his ear-shattering domestic disputes with his wife. The movie — which is showing as part of the festival’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, also known as the Directors’ Fortnight (follow it on Twitter!) and also an entertaining walk down the Croisette — is a lot of brief film clips and Marcel making funny faces and saying funnier things. As a documentary, it’s kind of a mess. But as a dinner-guest screen test, it makes you want to set a place for him at your table.

Days 4 and 5: Toxic Love and the Coens

Loverboy was right. Everybody really is working for the weekend, even at Cannes. So Saturday, as the rain continued to fall and security continued to tighten and festivalgoers, tired of being wet, wanded, and herded through points of entry, started to lose their cool, it was obvious we needed something to take our minds of the unfairness of life on the French Riviera. We needed fun. We needed frivolity. We needed a love triangle set among the workers of a rural nuclear power plant. We truly did.

This might be why so many of us were so happy for the unsparing ludicrousness of Rebecca Zlotowski’s Grand Central, in which Rahim makes a second festival appearance in three days. This time he’s playing a new hire at a nuclear facility in rural France. He starts an affair with a coworker (Léa Seydoux) who lives in the trailer across from his, but she’s engaged to a different plant guy, a sack of tall-dark-and-lumbering played by Denis Ménochet.

There is some care to imply that life in and around one of these plants is not the greatest. The workers are being exploited, some of them willingly for the paycheck. But Zlotowski, whose slender first movie was Belle Épine, might be doing some exploiting of her own. I mean, all these fears of leaks and contamination and toxicity are just metaphors for a sexual attraction that is expressed with trysts in the grass. Many of Zlotowski’s tricks are among the oldest in the book. The final shot is literally and symbolically alarming. But there are a couple of strong performances from Camille Lellouche, who has an electric emotional intensity, and Olivier Gourmet as fellow plant drones, and Zlotowski actually does demonstrate great care in suggesting that a meltdown is beside the point when you’re lusting after somebody.

This movie, which is showing in Un Certain Regard, will be a hit with the right audience. The sexy blonde assassin from Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol has to choose between the sexy budding crime lord of A Prophet and the sexy dairy farmer who hid the Jews from Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. She decides. But when it was over, I let out a big laugh (that last shot really is blissfully bad poetry) and told my male seatmate that I didn’t know which dude I would chose. The baffled look he gave me suggested that he wore a hazmat suit to watch this movie and I didn’t wear a thing.

A couple hours later it was time for Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie. This is the brothers’ eighth competition entry, and you could feel the high hopes for it as people stood beneath umbrellas to be let in. It’s the sort of film they make look very easy. The title character is a frustrated folk singer in 1961 New York who’s played by Oscar Isaac, probably best know as being Carey Mulligan’s baby daddy in Drive. Llewyn uses every person in his life, compromises for no one, and despite some real talent probably doesn’t have what it takes for the music industry to want him. I love the melancholy of this film. The earnestness of the movie’s folk scene (T-Bone Burnett produced the soundtrack; and the actors, including Isaac, Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake) has the tarnish of rue. The bar where Llewyn and his friends perform is practically a cave. There’s nothing hopeful about it.

As usual, the production design is perfect. A friend told me after that the Coens really got the West Village in the 1960s — drab and dour, the opposite of the chic and sheen of something like Mad Men. Llewyn’s quest for money and fame put him on a road trip, with a pursy John Goodman as a gasbag jazzman and Garrett Hedlund as a chain-smoking proto-beat. There’s some funny business with a cat and its academic owners, and a recording session that produces a bopping novelty record, led by Timberlake, about JFK and the space program that brought down the house Saturday night. (If Timberlake wants to bring something back, how about a whole album of peppy nonsense like that?)

Afterward, the consensus was that this was the Coens in a minor key: A Serious Man but without them bringing the Old Testament crashing down on anyone. What people are writing off as minor is actually a moment in which their technical precision achieves a complete emotional corollary. The film is small in precisely the way that statements like No Country for Old Men were philosophically vast. Intimacy and its discontents run throughout the film. The Coens don’t need to make Llewyn decent. He’s a jerk to women, his friends, his manager, himself. The selling point of Isaac’s performance is that he’s not begging for your pity or your applause. This, in fact, is one of the very few of the Coens’ films in which a character’s misfortunes are not the fault of God, the Devil, the universes, or some unexplained, unforgiving nihilistic force. They’re Llewyn’s. For these two filmmakers to stop looking up, down, and all around for blame and to try looking inward is the opposite of minor.

Speaking of blame and introspection, the weekend’s culminating Sunday evening with the unveiling of Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust, his series of 1975 interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, one of the only Jewish “Elders” who wasn’t killed during WWII and who helped oversee operations of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Lanzmann spent several days with Murmelstein. He intended to use the footage as part of his legendary 1985 Holocaust documentary, Shoah. But the subject the two discuss — chiefly, the role of select Jews as the facilitators of exterminations — was only a small part of Lanzmann’s finished film, at least what of it I remember (it runs for almost 10 hours; The Last of the Unjust is a mere 3 hours and 54 minutes).

Murmelstein, who died in 1989, recalls how he met Adolf Eichmann, a chief architect of the Holocaust, and how he and Eichmann fought for years about, among other things, what to do with the hundreds of thousands of people who passed through the camp. He details the day-to-day awfulness he had to orchestrate and oversee, like the maintenance of the crematorium. After a couple of hours, you understand why Lanzmann might have omitted this footage from Shoah. It moves the emphasis of the atrocity from the victims and the Nazis to the Jews who, in their conscription to help the SS, rose to the occasion. Murmelstein appropriates an observation he attributes to Isaac Bashevis Singer about the Holocaust having no saints, only martyrs. He was clearly one of the latter.

The film gathers cinematic force by the second hour, during which Lanzmann’s 21st century cameras rove the camp, Prague, and other locations crucial to Murmelstein’s self-justification. It’s not easy to sit through, particularly if you’re not a German speaker. Much of the evening was spent reading Murmelstein’s subtitled loquacity. That can be grueling. The power of this movie is exactly the opposite of Shoah’s. Lanzmann observes that a complaint about Murmelstein is that he seems detached from what he saw and did, which included the saving of many thousands of lives, as well. The film contains so much grim information that you don’t begin to process and feel devastated by it until you’re alone, hours later, typing away.

Filed Under: Cannes, Cannes Film Festival, Justin Timberlake, Nicole Kidman, Steven Spielberg

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

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