“It wasn’t fun at all. The movie and everyone in it just swallows energy.”
That was actor Channing Tatum chatting over lunch with reporters at a beachside hotel restaurant last week, just hours after the triumphant Cannes premiere of “Foxcatcher,” a dark psychological drama directed by Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”). The night before, Tatum and his co-stars, Mark Ruffalo and Steve Carell, had waved to the cheap seats at the Grand Theatre Lumiere here, basking in the reflected glow of a movie that, with its virtuoso performances, riveting story and potent atmospherics, seems assured to be a strong contender on this year’s awards circuit.
As warmly as “Foxcatcher” was received here however, the movie is, as Tatum says, not exactly fun. Based on the story of former Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Tatum), who in 1987 came under the tutelage of John E. duPont (Carell) and whose brother Dave (Ruffalo) was later shot and killed by duPont, “Foxcatcher” is suffused in thorny family dynamics, latent desires and, most poignantly, deep, unresolved grief. “You know [how] sometimes in awkward situations, you can crack jokes to try to take the weight out of it?” Tatum offered. “This wasn’t one of those moments. Bennett likes to sit in the pain and the uncomfortable-ness of it all. He just revels in that.”
The result, with “Foxcatcher,” is an extraordinary film that never spells out the bizarre goings-on at duPont’s Foxcatcher Farm, the Pennsylvania estate where he trained championship wrestlers during the 1990s, but instead provides a view of male bonding and masculine posturing as vivid as it is subtle and allusive. At Cannes, which ends Sunday, “Foxcatcher” joined a program of films that, as with so many editions in recent years, was heavily dominated by the male gaze. (Only two of the 18 films competing for the Palme d’Or this year were directed by women.)
The difference is that this year, a number of movies directed by men were about the ideal of manhood itself, either in the form of critique, meditation or (occasionally unintended) burlesque. Two of the strongest films here, Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” about the British painter J.M.W. Turner, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing domestic drama “Winter Sleep,” revolved around men grappling with a disconnect between their private and public selves: in Turner’s case, a withdrawn, socially inept introvert who made marine paintings of ravishing energy and beauty, in “Winter Sleep,” a sensitive hotelier-cum-artist whose most morally inflated images of himself are continually contradicted by those closest to him.
Some critics here called “The Homesman,” Tommy Lee Jones’s handsomely crafted sophomore directorial effort, a feminist Western, but that’s a curious reading of a film in which the women are either crazy or lonely and self-destructive. The admittedly unconventional story — about a single plainswoman (Hilary Swank) who enlists the help of a loner (Jones) in transporting three mentally ill women to a church in Iowa — could be applauded for introducing a genuinely independent and inspiring heroine to the Western vernacular. But it undoes that progress with one punitive whopper of a plot twist and a wholly unsatisfying, even cruel conclusion.
Far more sophisticated, both aesthetically and politically, was the Swedish drama “Force Majeure,” a stingingly clever and well-executed battle of the sexes staged over a family's ski weekend and the aftermath of a terrifying avalanche. Filmed with crystalline clarity and observant humor by director Ruben Ostlund, “Force Majeure” was part of the Un Certain Regard section rather than the main competition, a head-scratcher given the fact that sub-par offerings such as Atom Egoyan’s “The Captive” made the cut.
Egoyan was one of many Cannes alums whose reflexive inclusion in elite competition can give Cannes a dispiriting air of cronyism. One of the most divisive films on hand was by another Cannes darling, David Cronenberg, whose “Maps to the Stars” — a facile, glibly toxic Hollywood satire — was considered by some observers to be his finest in decades. (Ryan Gosling’s alternately lyrical and lurid directorial debut, “Lost River,” earned points even from its many detractors for at least stealing from the best, including David Lynch, Terrence Malick and Nicolas Winding Refn, who was on hand when Gosling introduced the film in front of a shutter-happy audience here Tuesday night.) There was more consensus around the modest but engaging “Two Days, One Night,” by Belgian filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, in which Marion Cotillard delivered a transfixing performance as a laborer about to be laid off at a small solar panel factory.
By the time “Two Days, One Night” screened on Tuesday, Cannes had largely righted itself after a wobbly start, not only with “The Captive” but with the opening-night film “Grace of Monaco,” a trite, trifling misfire starring Nicole Kidman. Soon enough, films such as “Wild Tales,” a playfully scathing social satire from Argentina; “The Blue Room," an erotic thriller directed by and starring Mathieu Amalric; and “Timbuktu,” an agonizingly beautiful family drama from Mali, had emerged as early audience favorites, and Cannes once again seemed to augur well for audiences who prefer thoughtful, even challenging films to spoon-fed spectacles and comic-book sequels. (Most of the films seen here this week will make their way to American theaters throughout this year and next.)
And, as happens most years, the real world managed to make itself felt even amid the yacht parties, Croisette publicity stunts and free-flowing rosé. Early in the festival, the documentary “Silvered Water,” an impressionistic essay film about Syria, helped make that conflict more wrenchingly palpable. On Wednesday, the festival screened “Maidan,” Serge Loznitsa’s stunning, elegantly framed verité portrait of the popular uprising in Kiev, Ukraine, last winter.
At a news conference after “Maidan” was screened, Loznitsa explained that his visual design for the film — which eschews main characters and jumbled hand-held camera work for stately, static shots of the action as it unfolds — was inspired by Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, especially his 1925 documentary “Strike.” He also urged reporters to spread the word about Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested and jailed in Moscow two weeks ago on charges of terrorism. “I would like to call upon you to join our campaign . . . to demand his immediate release,” Loznitsa said.
“Maidan” will be shown at this year’s Odessa International Film Festival in Ukraine, which organizers vowed would go on despite losing its state funding earlier this year.
At a low-key party thrown by the Odessa festival, executive producer Julia Sinkevych said she’s determined that this year’s edition will go on as planned in mid-July. Sinkevych started a fundraising campaign at IndieGoGo.com and hopes to reach her $25,000 goal in two weeks. Not only is it crucial for Ukrainian filmmakers in terms of funding and distribution, she said, but it’s essential for audiences who have been living with turmoil and uncertainty for months.
“It’s important for them to have something more than the news,” she said. “And to give them an opportunity to celebrate great films of great directors.” One of the festival’s centerpiece events is an outdoor screening at the Odessa Steps, where Eisenstein filmed one of the most famous sequences in cinema history for his film “Battleship Potemkin,” a scene that depicted the massacre of civilians during a 1905 populist uprising.