Academic journal article Film Criticism

Cannes 2013: Close-Ups and Close Encounters

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Cannes 2013: Close-Ups and Close Encounters

Article excerpt

This was the best Cannes experience of the past decade. While previous festivals hosted memorable films, what made this year exceptional was that the majority of the films were good--and some were outstanding. Three films stood out as being contenders for the Palme d'Or: the French film Blue is The Warmest Color (Kechiche), the Iranian The Past (Farhadi), and the Chinese offering Touch of Sin (Zhangke).

Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color, a lesbian love story, won the Palme d'Or, taking the vote from a jury led by Steven Spielberg. Three hours long, the film consists mostly of close-ups of the lead actresses' faces, stunningly filmed in all their shifts of emotion, from longing to sexual ecstasy. The story: a high school girl falls in love at first sight with an art student with punk blue hair. The purity of storyline is matched by the purity of shots. We see the two girls lying together in the grass; we see them (often) make love with soulful passion; we see them meet each other's parents in their respective homes. They are a typical French couple in love: the two girls speak about Sartre and Impressionism, or about the latest art house film. The only edginess in the film lies not in the fact that they are lesbian but that they are from different social classes. The older girl, Emma (Lea Seydoux), eats oysters in a home decorated with fine art paintings; the younger, Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos), eats spaghetti in a crowded kitchen with her uneducated family. One wishes to be a successful artist, the other a primary school teacher.

Interestingly, we never learn much about the backstory of the characters. We witness them in the present moment, understanding their emotions through their facial expressions. Director Kechiche discussed his choice of focusing on the faces of his characters: "Close-ups permit me to capture the details that we normally do not perceive. Behind these details is an emotion, a sentiment, a state of being. Cinema can do the magic of exposing what is behind facial expressions, like a magnifying glass. The close-up forces you to be as close to the truth as possible. It manages to find the truth. The close-up makes truth obligatory."

The Past was honored with a prize for best actress to Berenice Bejo (the actress who came into the spotlight last year on her husband Michel Hazanavicius's film The Artist). The story of an Iranian man who returns to France to settle a divorce with his estranged wife and finds himself entwined in an unhappy family cobweb, The Past begins with the former couple's stressed encounter at the airport, and the stress just keeps building. The woman (Berenice Bejo) screams at her kids, nervous about revealing her new lover to her ex-husband; one little boy, the son of her new lover, rages in tantrums, tormented by a secret trauma we only discover mid-way through the film; the new lover shows up and spars with the ex-husband about who will fix the plumbing; an older daughter Lucie mysteriously disappears. A conventional psycho-drama, one thinks at first. But this common family drama turns quickly, becomes fascinating. Director Ashgari Farhadi is a supreme storyteller, who began writing as a child, inspired by listening to people in his family tell stories. "My elder brother would tell a simple story and you would get disconnected from the world listening. The same with my grandfather."

The strength of Farhadi's directing lies in how he reveals the complicated psychologies of each character, understood through their anguished faces and gestures: the little boy who grabs onto the subway pole, refusing to go to the hospital to visit his "dead" mother; the older daughter Lucie who stands distressed alone at the train station; the mother Marie who is constantly telling everyone to either "hurry up" or "go upstairs" and frantically puffs at cigarettes in between. Each lingering shot on a character reveals that he or she is in the midst of making a difficult decision, unable to express all that is going on inside. …

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