In part one of our Cannes coverage, we surveyed the Competition section of the world’s most ballyhooed film-festival. But there’s much more to the event than the headline-grabbing, paparazzi-delighting 20 or so features contending for the Palme d’Or. Parallel sections abound, some official, some semi-official, some flagrantly disreputable – and it’s here that fresh talents are unearthed and a much wider range of creative voices can be heard.
The Cannes selectors attracted no shortage of flak this year, for example, when they included not a single female director in Competition (only one woman, Jane Campion for The Piano, has ever taken the festival’s top prize). And whereas last year two newcomers were in the running for the Palme – Markus Schleinzer for Michael and Julia Leigh for Sleeping Beauty, both of which ended up securing UK distribution – not a single one was adjudged worthwhile in 2012.
This cast particular spotlight on the shakier bloke-directed movies that did make the cut, most mercilessly Yosry Nasrallah’s cardboardy but topical After the Battle from Egypt and Lee Daniels’ much-derired deep-South melodrama The Paperboy (selected primarily, many speculated, to enable star Nicole Kidman to strut the red carpet.)
Cannes bigwigs Thierry Fremaux and Gilles Jacob could conceivably have killed two oiseaux with a single pierre, however, if they had taken a little bit of a gamble and included Alice Winocour’s luminously absorbing ‘period’-piece (in more than ways than one) Augustine. Instead, this gem was tucked away in the smallest of the sidebars, Semaine de la Critique (“Critics’ Week”), devoted to first-time filmmakers – and not even in the competitive section of that.
A kind of cross between A Dangerous Method and The Elephant Man - based, like them, on actual events – but with a quietly persuasive feminist slant, it examines the unusual relationship between pioneering 1890s Parisian neurologist Prof Charcot and his “star” teenage patient. A sometime tutor of Freud, Charcot was especially interested in the (then) widely-diagnosed malady ‘hysteria’ – a physical and mental condition apparently afflicting the shyly beautiful teenage servant-girl Augustine.
The latter is incarnated with compelling complexity by twentyish singer-turned-actress ‘SoKo’ (nee Stéphanie Sokolinski) in what feels very much like a star-making performance. And we can also expect to hear much more about 36-year-old writer-director Winocour, who worked with rising Swiss auteur Ursula Meier (on the script of Home) after attracting attention for her quirky shorts including the Cannes-competing Kitchen (2005).
Like Winocour, Rachid Djaïdani is a thirtysomething from Paris who arrived at Cannes 2012 with a sidebar-premiering debut movie. But there the similarities end: Hold Back(aka Rengaine or Refrain), which showed in the edgy Quinzaine des Réalisateurs (“Directors’ Fortnight”) section, is a sparkily fresh comedy-drama, very rough around the edges, very urban and ‘street’, from a 38-year-old polymath previously best known as a novelist who spent several years travelling the globe with Peter Brook’s groundbreaking theatrical company.
Djaïdani apparently spent nine years filming Hold Back - but it’s no insult to to say that the results look like they were thrown together in nine days or so. Brisk and brash, the latest twist on apparently well-worn Romeo and Juliet / West Side Story themes has an irresistibly youthful zest – deceptively smart in its head-on tackling of hot-button racial and cultural issues that are never far from the headlines in today’s France. Himself of Algerian and Sudanese descent, Djaïdani quizzically examines how a romance between an Arab, Muslim girl and a black, Christian guy impacts on her family – specifically her 40 brothers, most of whom aren’t thrilled at her choice of fiancé.
Yes, in a brood of 41, we’re asked to believe that there was only the one female child. Djaïdani perhaps wisely doesn’t explain or dwell on this highly unlikely family-structure, which endows the Hold Back with a slight fable-like quality. Not that there’s anything fanciful about Djaïdani’s casually gritty approach, which favours small hand-held digital cameras and intense close-ups of scenes that usually consist of two characters exchanging ill-tempered dialogue. The film thus manages to pack an awful lot into its pleasingly economic running-time – its clipped assembly of short scenes and on-the-fly atmosphere of whip-smart improvisation harking back to the nouvelle vague, but endowed with a genially swaggering 21st-century streetwise attitude that’s entirely Djaïdani’s own.
The most accomplished picture in this year’s Quinzaine, however – and for this critic, the clear pick of the 26 caught across various sections of the whole festival – was a delirious delight from much closer to home: Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, his followup to darkly amusing, cult-favourite thrillers Down Terrace and Kill List. Starring and written by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe (both eminently BAFTA-worthy), it’s a very British blend of offbeat character-comedy and homicidal violence in which a caravanning couple semi-inadvertently embark on a killing spree as they visit various beauty spots across the Midlands and the north.
Think Badlands meets Nuts In May – or perhaps a dream union of Alan Bennett and John Waters. A notable audience-pleaser at Cannes, where it nabbed several international distribution deals, Sightseers firmly cements 40-year-old Wheatley’s status reputation among his generation’s smartest and edgiest filmmakers – he was, along with his fellow Brightonian Ben Rivers, one of only two UK talents to make it into respected Canadian magazine Cinema Scope‘s list of the world’s most promising younger filmmakers.
A full review will appear on these pages when Sightseers gets its UK release in the autumn. But suffice it to say that, even though its ‘Palme Dog’ prize for Best Canine Performance was entirely merited (terriers ‘Smurf’ and ‘Ged’ thus emulating The Artist’s ‘Uggie’ from last year), it was somewhat ludicrous that this sparkling example of imaginative, risk-taking genre cinema should have been ‘relegated’ to the sidelines at what’s supposed to be a celebration of world film at its best and boldest.
19th June, 2012
for Tribune magazine