There are plenty of big names to come, but the first week of the Cannes Festival was rather less than uplifting. This, after all, is the most prestigious film festival in the world and one expects a lot. But the grand opener, Everyone Knows from the Iranian director of the marvellous The Separation was distinctly underwhelming. Not a bad film but nothing to write home about either. Asghar Farhadi’s second film outside Iran, after the France set The Past, has Javier Bardem as the owner of a local vineyard and Penelope Cruz as his childhood friend arriving in Argentina from Spain to celebrate the marriage of Cruz’s sister in the village where they grew up. The post-ceremony party is in full swing when one of Cruz’s two children is reported missing. It looks like she has been kidnapped, and the rest of the film discusses why and by whom.
We none of us know until the last moment as the entire family is gutted by the awful news, and Farhadi mixes love, class and money into the mix as virtual hysteria pervades. There is a precedent of a similar situation from the past which ended badly which is why no one calls the police. Bardem and Cruz do their best within this melange of family disturbance but Farhadi, in mixing a love story and a thriller takes several false steps. A bit of mystery is a good thing but too much of it wearies. The film lacks the precision and the ambition of Farhadi’s earlier work. It is certainly watchable but not much more than that.
The competition is full of films running at well over two hours length and not really sustaining the minutage. Which is why it was such a relief to see Pawel Pawlikowski 89-minute Cold War, an intimate love story of two people, shot in black and white and set in the ruined Poland of 1946 but progressing to Paris, Yugoslavia and Berlin. He (Tomasz Kot) is a conductor and pianist and she is the singer of the group of musicians trying to make their way through folk song and eventually jazz at a time when everyone is struggling immediately after the war. The love story is impressive enough, thanks largely to the playing of Joanna Kulig as the singer, but it is the post-war mise en scene, elevated by some superb cinematography from Lukasz Zal, that’s the true star of the film. Pawlikowski, UK based since his teens, is clearly a director of unerring taste, as his previous Ida showed us, and also one who understands that what we see is as important as what we hear when conviction really matters. Dedicated to his parents, the film is the present favourite for the Palme D’Or, or at least a major prize from the jury headed by Cate Blanchett.
I would guess that the second favourite is The Ukrainian Donbass, directed by Cannes regular Sergei Loznitsa. A fictionalised version of a true story, it tells the sad and often horrifying tale of the conflict between the Ukrainian authorities and the Russian-backed separatists which has virtually destroyed all sense of decency from either side. The film is really a chain of interconnected scenes illustrating the appalling struggle. There are several extraordinary scenes in which a suspect soldier is tied to a lamp post and reviled physically and mentally by an enraged crowd and another when a grotesque wedding is acted out between two hideously simple locals. The plot takes place largely within the Eastern region of the title, an area bordering Russia that’s the frontline between the Government and the insurgents backed by Putin’s Russia. Loznitsa hardly needs to take sides. He just states what is happening. It makes your average horror-thriller look like a vicarage tea party.