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Cannes 2014 Reviews: Timbuktu, Mr Turner, The Captive, Saint Laurent

Cannes 2014 Reviews:  Timbuktu, Mr Turner, The Captive, Saint Laurent

Cannes May 20

Sailesh Ram takes a look at the first week’s offering of films in competition for the 2014 Palme d’or, the top prize here…

TIMBUKTU – ISLAMIST fundamentalism is very much back in the news with the abduction of some 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by the Boko Haram group.
Abderrahmane Sissako’s film covers precisely this sort of territory, examining what happened when the Islamists took control over northern Mali for a time and imposed a very strict and uncompromising form of Sharia law.
In some ways this is an easy target – who in the modern world can tolerate stoning and lashings?
The fundamentalists bring a sense of order but their literal interpretation of Sharia is unsparing and brutal.
A couple are stoned for not being married, despite living in harmony and raising two children; a woman and her male friends are lashed for being in the same room and singing; and Sissako’s main focus is on Kidane, and his tightly-knit family, wife Satima, and daughter Toya and Issan.
They live in the country and are mainly spared the harsh hand of justice in the city imposed by the Islamists, but by an unfortunate quirk of fate Kidane is held responsible for the murder of a fisherman. It might simply be a matter of  being in the wrong place at the wrong time and Kidane faces up to the consequences with stoicism and faith. A Muslim too, he accepts the final judgement lays with the Almighty but the court system managed by the Islamists appears arbitrary and disreputable, even if there is some sympathy’s for his family’s predicament.
The cinematography and fine detail are admirable and you do feel for the poor folk of Timbuktu who want to go about their general business and not be harassed or tormented by folks who believe they are executing god’s will on earth.
In several languages: the local one,  Arabic, French and even a little English, it shows the diversity of cultures and practice in this Western African nation.
Sissako, who has a strong track record in the Un Certain Regard section, make his debut in competition.
It is powerful and timely but may be too heavy and tough-going for those not overly engaged with life in such countries as Mali.
ACV rating: 3/5
Palme d’or possibility: International, grand, and about a topical subject, the judges would be making a statement very much in alignment with that of the world in its ‘Bring our Girls Back’ campaign. 3/5

Timothy Spall as JWM Turner

MR TURNER” – Mike Leigh is a very English director and makes films that are in essence very English.
And yes, “Mr Turner” is an incredibly English subject. The 19th century painter remains one of the great icons of our age and as Leigh pointed out in a talk in the UK pavilion a day after its unveiling here in Cannes, Turner was a revolutionary and forward-thinker.
In that respect, he wasn’t very English at all, and his paintings were radical and largely rejected by the establishment. In some ways like his contemporary great English Romantic poet, William Blake, it would take a generation or more for a real (re) reassessment of his artistic worth.
It is a beautiful film and anyone with a feeling for the paintings will recognise the palate and tremendous lengths Dick Pope, as cinematographer, has gone to get it right.
The film focuses on a just a portion of Turner’s life, showing him to be quite uncaring in some regards – abandoning a wife and children for the sake of his art, and exploiting his loyal housekeeper sexually without a seeming care for her.
On the other hand, he could be tender and wise, marrying a kindly widow and showing her love and true companionship, and rejecting a stupendous offer of cash for his paintings, insisting they must be bequeathed to the nation.
Lead actor Timothy Spall gives a fine performance and said in the press conference following the film that, above many things, Turner, as a painter, was concerned with the sublime – in nature and man’s response and desire to harness it. That battle continues and what still makes his paintings as powerful as they when he first created them in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This is a sublime portrait and a film that revels in the beauty of the English language of the time.
There is much to admire but perhaps in its technical brilliance, the gut emotions have been spared, even possibly neglected – some would disagree and it is a matter in the end of personal taste and opinion. It is, though, a wonderful addition to a bank of films about great artists (“Love is the Devil”, anyone?)
ACV rating: 3.5/5
Palme possibility: Low, despite its high art evocations, probably too English and uncontroversial too excite the jury. 2/5

The Captive by Canadian-Egyptian Atom Egoyan

The Captive” – Atom Egoyan’s step into the world of child abduction is a strong one and has elements of a convincing thriller too.
The plot is perhaps a little far-fetched but reality and its components can be overrated in what is always a world of make believe (in the films). It also seems stronger now than it did on immediate reflection. Rosario Dawson as the lead detective is very watchable but you do wonder if a police offer even in the frozen wastelands of Canada could really be that attractive (and understated)? Few films are made about this subject and the issues around paedophilia and yet it is one of the sicknesses of our age. Egoyan may not have much new to offer on that score, his central paedophile character is almost predictably odd and creepy, as it would be in the popular imagination. It’s decent and solid and gives a good account of the father who left his daughter in the car, only for her to be whisked away by these terrible people. There is a woman involved too but she comes late into the story and her motivations are very poorly sketched (if at all) – yes, women are involved in paedophila, especially as conspirators but she seemed something of an afterthought and not an integral character. Egoyan is a clever director and often asks his audiences intelligent and probing questions – there seems to be less of that as he goes for a more slick form of storytelling (albeit with jumbled timelines) and well, he has done better and probed more but this has crowd-pleasing qualities some of his films have probably not possessed.
ACV: 3/5
Palme d’or possibility: Low, too much of a populist TV-like thriller to be truly in the running. 2/5

Yves St Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel)

Saint Laurent” If fashion is your passion, then this is worth a look, but if you’re not so inclined and want to be told why Yves St Laurent was and remains such an icon, this is a bit disappointing.
Another film with mixed up timelines, it only goes to the heart of Yves towards the end and that seems a great shame because in proper context, you could argue here was a man who changed the way women thought about themselves through their clothes.
We got the drink and the drugs and unhealthy relationship with his business partner and mentor, but there was not enough exploration of the “failed painter” as he saw himself. Director Bertrand Bonello’s previous Cannes outing, “House of Tolerance” (2011) was a high art affair controversial for its casual but extremely brutal violence.
Tighter editing with the end of the film at the beginning would have aided its cause. A shame.
ACV: 2/5
Palme possibility: too much at the populist end, and little of the “art”, Laurent himself would have probably desired.

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture