The race for the Palme d’Or has so far been a tight one, with the frontrunners including a Greek production with international stars, a film based on a crime novel by Patricia Highsmith and a Hungarian cinematic debut.
Critics at the 68th International Film Festival in Cannes seem to be quite smitten by what they've witnessed to date. And some likely contenders for the prestigious Palme d’Or are already beginning to emerge. The two movies that are drawing the most positive speculation are "The Lobster" by Yorgos Lanthimos (Greece) and "Carol" by Todd Haynes (USA).
Greek cinematic renaissance
Yorgos Lanthimos (pictured above, with his cast before the film's premiere in Cannes) has been one of Greece’s more interesting directors in recent years, representing a renaissance of Greek film production. Many internationally-respected actors star in "The Lobster," which was largely shot in Ireland by the London-based director. In this regard, the film contradicts the commonly held notion that directors and their works can be categorized according to their country of origin. The international production of such films, especially those screened at international film festivals like Cannes, have long been globalized affairs.
"The Lobster" tells the story of a very strange, futuristic society that tries to control the mating of men and women. Both sexes meet in a hotel with the sole aim of selecting a partner within 45 days - or else are turned into animals. "Close to its surrealistic models in and outside the cinema world, this grim dystopia unwraps a bizarre sense of tenderness," appraises the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine."
The "Süddeutsche Zeitung" writes: "The director masters the art of lending a clear focus to his intellectual games - toward the end, the film demonstrates more convincingly than any romantic comedy could, that love is always a game with the strongest input." With "The Lobster," the Greeks have churned out "the surprise hit" of the competition - that’s at least according to Germany’s news agency EPD.
Competition from Hollywood
The US competition entry "Carol" by Todd Haynes has received similarly positive assessments in German media. The movie is based on a crime novel by Patricia Highsmith which she had originally published under a pseudonym in 1952. It's about the relationship between two women, which was still very much a taboo in the US during the '50s - even for such a popular author as Highsmith.
A film "endowed with an overwhelming, almost paralyzing beauty: equally elegant and formal designs, settings and costumes, as well as the measured movements and restrained glances of the characters fit perfectly into a genre picture of those times when homosexuality could not yet be lived in public" writes the "Berliner Zeitung" glowingly. The critique is echoed by the leading daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," which writes: "Haynes has produced a film of great feelings beyond kitsch and sentimentality. Its décors, costumes and references are reminiscent of films of the 50s while at the same time recreating them as though they were something new."
Standing in sharp contrast to both the surrealistic fantasies of "The Lobster," and the sumptuous images of "Carol," is the only directorial debut to make it to the contest in Cannes this year: "Saul Fia" (Son of Saul). Directed by László Nemes from Hungary, the film is set in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Nemes focuses almost exclusively on his main character, the concentration camp inmate Saul who is looking for ways to bury his son.
In the view of most critics, it’s a deeply upsetting film about the horrors of life in a concentration camp, where Saul works as a forced laborer clearing away bodies. "Spiegel Online" writes: "'Son of Saul' will undoubtedly trigger endless discussions about whether or not Nemes should have been allowed to show what he has shown: the anonymous corpses; the naked bodies dragged along by Saul and the other members of the special troop from the gas chambers to the crematoria; the ash mountains to then be shovelled into a river by camp survivors."
Good, but not good enough
Todd Haynes’ compatriot Gus van Sant, however, fell flat with his suicide fantasy "Sea of Trees," which quickly came to be known as the contest’s first flop. Much better fared the French contribution "La Loi du Marché" (The Measure of a Man) by Stéphane Brizé, depicting the professional relegation of a man into unskilled work. Unanimously praised was the performance of leading actor Vincent Lindon.
Another shining example of French dramatic art is Isabelle Huppert's portrayal of a war photographer who dies on-duty, in "Louder than Bombs" by Norwegian director Joachim Trier. What does her death mean for her family? How do they deal with the loss of a wife and mother? These are the questions posed by the film - which, while not an extraordinary production, is none-the-less a respectable actor's film tackling a profound topic. However, "Louder than Bombs" is not likely to emerge as a contender for a Palme d’Or.
But, naturally, this contest is far from over. Cannes is always full of surprises.