Similarly, otherwise rich and politically charged stories were often couched in regrettably obvious, simplistic stories, from Hany Abu-Assad’s“Omar,” a Romeo-and-Juliet story set on Israel’s West Bank, to “Grisgris,” Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s earnest drama about a Chadian dancer that, like “Omar,” ends on a blunt, dispiriting note of vengeful violence.
To Haroun’s credit, “Grisgris” represented a gratifying — if literally heavy-handed — attempt at feminism with a festival that more than ever evinced an overpoweringly male sensibility. (Only one female filmmaker was represented in the main competition.) It was rare to behold a movie in which a woman wasn’t depicted as a prostitute (“Jeune et Jolie,” “Bastards,” “Blood Ties,” “The Immigrant” and, yes, “Grisgris”), a stripper (“La Grande Bellezza”), a monstrous mother (“Only God Forgives”) or simply an obscured object of desire (“Gatsby,” “Omar,” Critics Week award winner “Salvo”). Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue Is the Warmest Color” represented something of a half-full glass within a program dominated by the male gaze: The film presents a raw, honest portrayal of a young woman’s sexual awakening and her first love affair, but it’s also fair to wonder whether a female director would have lingered quite so lubriciously on the film’s protracted lesbian sex scenes.
Those frank sequences notwithstanding, the net effect at Cannes has been one of filmmakers playing it safe and reverting to tired, troublesome form rather than taking genuinely risky and thoughtful leaps into the future. (In shorthand referencing last year’s similarly dull outing, this edition had yet on Friday to yield its “Holy Motors” moment.)
In this context, some films stood out, if not for their formal daring, then for their lyricism, compassion and technical ambition. Two of the best films of the festival actually premiered at Sundance earlier this year: the urban drama “Fruitvale Station” and the Texas noir “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” both in competition in Un Certain Regard, took their respective genres into humanistic, heartfelt territory. Of the films in main competition, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” featuring a breakout turn from Oscar Isaac as a luckless folk singer in 1961 New York, found the filmmakers at the top of their game, blessedly free of the glib humor and caustic irony that have a habit of leaving viewers feeling as alienated as entertained.
Like so many films at Cannes this year, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is about transition – in this case the point at which American folk music went from being a hermetic subculture to a commodity. Another of the festival’s strongest offerings — J.C. Chandor’s astonishing “All Is Lost” — addresses time’s passing more obliquely, with 76-year-old Robert Redford delivering a bravura performance as a man alone at sea on a sinking sailboat. A magnificent if harrowing example of cinema at its purest, “All Is Lost” contains almost no dialogue; instead, Redford communicates his character through action as he methodically battles the elements.
The movie might be about one man against a world he can’t control but, as Chandor noted at a press conference, it’s also about a cinematic icon embodying his own generation’s turbulent passage into a treacherous next phase. “All Is Lost” is an exceptional achievement in every emotional, artistic and technical sense, and it represents a career-redefining moment for Redford. For some reason, it was passed over for competition in favor of far less impressive fare. Real-life Cannes robberies aside, that’s a crime in its own right.
The Cannes Film Festival concludes on Sunday, May 26.