Cannes Film Festival 2015: To Gaze, to Glimpse

By Badt, Karin | Film Criticism, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

Cannes Film Festival 2015: To Gaze, to Glimpse


Badt, Karin, Film Criticism


The Palme d'Or at Cannes this year went to Jacques Audiard's Dheepan, an engrossing film with a politically topical plot. Three Tamil refugees (a man, a woman, and a child, disguising themselves as a family unit) escape to France, only to discover that the hardships of immigrant life in a Paris banlieu can be as devastating as the arbitrary bombings they once experienced in northern Sri Lanka. The make-shift family takes up residence in a public housing complex, one that happens to be dominated by North African drug traffickers: soon the three are caught in the crossfire. There are also psychological barriers to overcome: the little girl must integrate into a French school system where she soon realizes that "without friends you are cacca [excrement]"; the woman and man (who do not know each other) must learn to be "husband" and "wife."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Dheepan has the standard Audiard traits: energy, rhythm, and a compassionate gaze. The growth in the love relationship between "husband" and "wife" is psychologically subtle. The nervy tension Audiard creates in each scene--whether it is one of urgently looking for a child in a refugee camp, the scene that opens the film, or in a Paris schoolyard of nasty children--is masterful, as usual. Yet every so often, Audiard seems like he is trying to out-do Audiard, for dramatic effect. The last forty minutes of the film provide a tour-de-force of action, with fire blazing and (for good measure) concrete blocks thunking to the ground. The startle effect sometimes seems forced, yet the film works well overall, up until its moralistic punch-line (a slug against France). Cannes critics were surprised, however, that Dheepan won the highest prize. But given a Competition that boasted a number of strong (yet flawed or controversial) films and a greater number of mediocrities or flops, Dheepan was a safe choice. Explaining the decision, Ethan Coen (head of the jury, along with brother Joel) explained: "It was swift, everybody had an enthusiasm for it. To some degree or another we all thought it was a very beautiful movie."

A far more accomplished film, in terms of storyline and polish, is Todd Haynes' Carol. The story of a love affair between a pretty young shop clerk (Rooney Mara) and a wealthy unhappy housewife (Cate Blanchett), set in 1950s New York City, Carol stuns with its sensuous elegance, reminding one of the Hollywood cinema of old, where the camera takes time with lingering shots on characters, turning them into stars. Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, The Price of Salt (1952), the story begins (after a flash-forward) with the timid petite clerk spotting the commanding lady in a department store as the latter shops for her daughter's Christmas present. We follow the clerk's sensitive eyes as she stares with rapture at the mink coat, the elegant gloves, the sweep of coiffed blonde hair. Desire--glamour--is born from the gaze.

Indeed, the gaze is the cinematic theme of Carol. Acclaimed cameraman Ed Lachman films Therese, the shop clerk, with her eyes peering mournfully out a rainy window or gazing obsessively at Carol's gloved hands on a steering wheel, as the two take their first drive together. In turn, Carol--when the dynamics shift--stares longingly at Therese's fleeting figure through the reflecting glass of a cab window. For the duration of the film, the women alternately "look" at each other: their hands, their mouths, their eyes.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Haynes, who has a semiotics background from Brown University, explained that "the gaze" in this film expresses one of his key concerns: the shift in power relations between two people.

   Carol is the emblem of the privileged class, a perfect
   manifestation of female glamour and elegance that
   disarms Therese and initially furthers her anxiety
   about who she is. Carol is a construct of Therese's
   imagination. In this film, we are always in the
   point of view of the more amorous character: the
   disempowered person. … 

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