Cannes 2013 Reviews: Like Father, Like Son, La grande bellezza, Bastards, and Grigris
Following on from his wondrous and charming I Wish, about two small boys caught up in an acrimonious divorce, Hirokazu Koreeda brings a new film about the ways children are affected by the decisions of grown-ups. In this, he shares a theme with the other great frontrunner of the Cannes official selection, Asgar Farhadi's The Past.
Where The Past is an intricate web of lies, deceit and unhappiness, however, Like Father, Like Son proceeds with a comparatively light tone throughout, which imbues its darker dramatic moments with an almight heft as the story reaches its culmination. The sweetness and charm of Koreeda's observation of the children and their families, in the early parts of the film, means that by the end of the film, as the story has unfolded with all of its terrible implications, you will be crying your flipping eyes out.
Like Father, Like Son tells the story of a mix-up at a hospital, where two young babies are swapped at birth. One ends up with two wealthy parents - a sweet, weak-minded mother and a tough, hard-working father - and the other is given to a lower-class family with a slacker Dad and Mum who work in an electrics shop. Discovering the mix-up six years later, the parents are left in a quandary: to keep their own child, or swap, or what? The main character of the film is ostensibly Ryota, the stiff and forbidding father to Keita, a sweet-natured and clumsy child: he feels, because of the mix-up, that his son is nothing like him, and strongly pushes for the families to swap children.
Through this character, Koreeda seems to be making a scathing comment about Japanese patriarchy, and more widely about the mistakes that men make. Ryota is unable to dissociate himself from his authoritarian father, and keeps repeating his noxious patterns of behaviour. His psychological arc, where he realises he has betrayed his son, is deeply emotional and sensitively judged by Koreeda. There is a great visual acuity in the film, a tight and engaging comedy of manners. It reminds me a little of Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room in its observation and psychological exactitude and rawness.
La grande bellezza - dir. Paolo Sorrentino
La grande bellezza, or The Great Beauty, is a phrase used in the new film like a sort of 'Rosebud'. It features significantly in the life of its protagonist, Jep, an ageing Italian intellectual and bon vivant who finds himself cynical and uninspired in his later years. Where he was once a young writer of great standing, he has devoted his life to socialising and parties, to collecting women; he seems to despair about the state of his country. His inability to conceive of a new book, or rather his reasons for not writing a book since his debut, is a sly wink to Fellini's 8½.
Casting a vivacious look at all the wild parties Jep attends, the film also has a more stately, serene elegance in the parts where Jep ponders his life, and in its exploration of Italian art and architecture: in this, it mirrors the contradictions in its protagonist, who has dedicated himself to partying but longs for writing and poetry.
La grande bellezza is by far the largest, most ambitious film I have seen so far at Cannes. It immediately starts out on an operatically large scale, staging a dramatic death in scenes of great beauty, and from there the collossal aspirations of the film never let up. While it sometimes makes mistakes - it seems to have a very sexist attitude to women, for instance - it always strives to do and say important and interesting films. Its look at Italy, its skewed take on religion, sex and death, mark it out as a bold and compelling drama.
Bastards - dir. Claire Denis
Claire Denis has a varied and thrilling body of work, always mixing it up between small, intimate movies (such as 35 Shots of Rum) and more sprawling films like Beau Travail or White Material. This new film lands somewhere in between, being a political chamber-piece that operates on a personal register, showing the ramifications of money and power on the lives of ordinary people. It is a very bleak and raw work, with some disturbing violence and sexual content, which is occasionally muddled and sometimes great. In this, it counts as a minor film for this great director.
Marco is a man returning to his family in Paris after the suicide of his brother-in-law, looking to protect his sister and niece, and - we gather through the course of this film - vowing revenge on Edourd Laporte, the rich man who was responsible for the brother-in-law's death. Marco embarks on a relationship with Laporte's young wife, played by Chiara Mastroianni. En route, Marco discovers that his niece was involved in a terrifying underworld of sex parties and abuse.
Claire Denis is clearly making a feminist statement, in this film, about the political hierarchy of France - the way the elite's corruption always adversely affects women. Her sights obliquely set on such figures as Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for instance, she makes a scathing comment on French corruption. The problem with this film is that her great filmmaking skills - her bold take on character; her great sense of timing and storytelling; her atmospheric film and peculiarity of tone - all get lost once she commits to telling her linear narrative, and the film becomes a little rote. Nevertheless, there are some strengths in this film, including a haunting soundtrack contribution from Tindersticks, and is well worth a watch.
Grigris - dir Mahamat Saleh Haroun
A sweet and lively tale from Mahamat Saleh Haroun made its entry into the competition this year after his career-best A Screaming Man a few years back, and fails to live up to its predecessor both in terms of its formal merit and the potency of its narrative. This is good filmmaking, but it lacks urgency.
Grigris tells the story of Souleymane, a man with a disability who works as a part-time photographer in the day and dances in the town's clubs for money at night. Needing to pay for his stepfather's operation, he resorts to trafficking petrol to earn a few illegal francs on the side - and these things seldom end well in film. On the way, he falls for hooker-with-a-heart Mimi, and the pair have to work out how to save themselves from the threats of a local gang after - of course - the petrol trafficking goes tits-up.
Some of this feels a little contrived: the marginalised character, the love affair with a prostitute, the event that requires a sudden foray into criminality. To Haroun's credit, he doesn't force any of these things too much, and puts naturalistic touch on everything, making the whole film feel fresh and likable. More unfortunately, his main actor is an astonishing dancer, showing some startling leg-prosthesis moves in several scenes, but cannot act for his life; his chemistry with the actor playing Mimi is non-existent, and the film fails to take off somewhat. There are some really good scenes in the nightclubs, and a great feel for the Cameroonian rural lifestyle - and the whole film is worth watching for the unbelievable feminist deus ex machina ending, which fill you with wonder and rapture.