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Cannes: a film festival from hell

The prevailing theme at this year’s festival

Nicholas Barber | May 22nd 2015

The Cannes film festival can be paradise. For all of its queues and its silly rules about wearing high heels on the red carpet, it also offers top-quality croissants, strolls on the beach in the sunshine, and the opportunity to stand within six feet of Salma Hayek. And then there are the films. This year’s selection has been hugely enjoyable, although a grim thread has run through it. Film after film has mapped out a harsh dystopia where people endure the cruellest imaginable ordeals. In other words, the festival’s predominant setting has been hell itself.

The theme emerged at the start of the festival in “Mad Max: Fury Road”, a punishing journey through a post-apocalyptic desert. And it continued right up to the competition’s final film, “Macbeth”, which conjured up an infernal vision of Scotland drawn straight from the Conservative Party’s ghastliest nightmares. In between, there was Matteo Garrone’s sumptuously grotesque fairy-tale triptych, “Tale of Tales”, in which the aforementioned Hayek feasts on the football-sized heart of the sea monster that killed her husband. There was Denis Villeneuve’s brutal drug-cartel thriller, “Sicario”, in which Emily Blunt’s FBI agent visits a Mexican border town where mutilated corpses are strung up from road bridges. Gus Van Sant’s deservedly booed “Sea of Trees” has a battered and bloody Matthew McConaughey stumbling through a Japanese forest which is a notorious suicide spot. And the tabloid phrase “My Drugs Hell” has never been more accurate than it is in Asif Kapadia’s documentary, “Amy”, the crushing story of Amy Winehouse’s long, tortured slide into the grave. Even Pixar’s latest cartoon, “Inside Out”, visualises an 11-year-old girl’s emotional collapse: in her Bosch-like mental landscape, her “personality islands”—honesty, family, hockey—crumble into the abyss.

Two examples stand out. One is “Son of Saul”, a blistering Hungarian drama from a first-time director, László Nemes. Set in a Nazi concentration camp, its hero is a Jewish prisoner who has the job of shoving cadavers into a furnace, and scrubbing the blood off the abattoir-like floor. Nothing could be more hellish, and yet “Son of Saul” has a jittery energy that separates it from every previous Holocaust film. It’s like “Schindler’s List” crossed with “Birdman”.

Almost as remarkable is “The Lobster”, the first English-language film from Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director of “Dogtooth”. His surreal black comedy, starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, envisages a bleak alternate reality where any adult who isn’t in a relationship has to pair off within 45 days, or be transformed into an animal. It’s very funny, but it’s also unbelievably dark.

As ever in Cannes, what’s exhilarating is the extraordinary variety of films. They showcase different cultures, different genres, radically different approaches to cinema. Some are naturalistic, others exuberantly fantastical. Yet, at the moment, the red carpet always seems to be a road to hell. Time for another croissant, I think. 

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