Text by Benjamin Dodman, France 24
Xavier Dolan devotees lament his first Cannes slip-up in the star-studded “It’s Only the End of the World”, while Cristian Mungiu continues Romania’s strong showing with a shrewd study of moral compromise in “Graduation”.
I thought Cristi Puiu’s absorbing “Sieranevada” was the ultimate family gathering from hell. But then came Xavier Dolan’s “It’s Only the End of the World” (“Juste la fin du monde“), a shouting match so fiercely oppressive it made his 2014 hit “Mommy” sound like soft-spoken chitchat. A slickly shot ensemble piece on the most dysfunctional of families, “It’s Only…” proved too shrill – or insubstantial – even for many of his most ardent fans, who joined his detractors in lamenting the Canadian prodigy’s first major faux pas.
Still only 27, Dolan has seen all but one of his six features selected at Cannes (he took his thriller “Tom at the Farm” to Venice for a change). In fact, the only way to keep the prolific Québécois out of a Cannes line-up may be to give him a seat on the jury, which is what happened last year. His latest work, which premiered in the main competition on Thursday, is based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce and features a dream cast of French stars including Gaspard Ulliel, Nathalie Baye, Léa Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard.
The film centres on Louis (Ulliel), a French playwright who returns home after a 12-year absence to confront his estranged relatives about his terminal illness. Baye plays Martine, his hysterical, overbearing mother plastered in make-up. Seydoux is Louis’s introverted, pot-smoking younger sister Suzanne. Cassel plays his sulking, choleric, manual-working older brother Antoine, who has a permanent scowl on his face and routinely shouts down his sweet and submissive wife Catherine, played by Cotillard. Each greet Louis differently, but harbor some form of resentment over his long absence. And within seconds of his arrival, they all start going nuts.
The film’s one-dimensional characters will prove a disappointment to admirers of the complex, full-blooded parts created in Dolan’s previous works. Nor do their rambling tantrums carry the same meaning and passion – let alone the kick of lyrical badmouth provided by Québécois French (this is Dolan’s first film with only French actors). But I found myself captivated by the intensely claustrophobic atmosphere conjured by the extreme close-ups, harsh lighting and clamorous orchestral and pop scores. This is a stylistically ambitious, hallucinatory venture, with no real pretence at realism; a visually and sensually engrossing experience that ripples with pent-up frustration but only partly makes up for a feeble script.
There was more family drama in Thursday’s second competition entry, Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” (“Bacalaureat”), though the kinship with Dolan’s overripe, tempestuous movie ends there. With two helmers in the main competition (Mungiu and the abovementioned Puiu), Romanian cinema is having a field day at Cannes. Early on in the festival, the gruelling, 173-minute “Sieranevada” provided a copious serving of the austere aesthetics and bleak humour associated with the Romanian New Wave. By Thursday, his compatriot had joined him among the more credible postulants for the top prize.
Mungiu is already a Palme d’Or laureate for his 2007 clandestine abortion drama “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days”. His new work is a morally complex and challenging film about an overbearing and self-righteous father who is ready to partake in the corruption he publically deprecates in order to get his daughter out of Romania. It stars Adrian Titieni as surgeon Romeo Aldea and Maria-Victoria Dragus as his 18-year-old daughter Eliza, whom he pressures into sitting crucial final-year exams barely a day after she is sexually assaulted. Somewhat puzzlingly for a surgeon, Romeo seems to have an awful lot of free time, which he spends visiting his mistress, meddling with his daughter’s life, and hunting for the man who attacks her at the start of the film.
Both Puiu and Mungiu have been accused by some Romanians of spreading a negative image of their country, and “Graduation” is likely to prompt more recrimination. It is a shrewd examination of how corruption spreads across society through a complex web of ricocheting deals, loyalties and obligations, often stemming from good intentions. There is also a measure of intergenerational conflict between cynical parents who blast their country while claiming they tried their best to fix it, and offspring who don’t believe in greasing a dysfunctional system.