Reporter's notebook

Was Cannes 2014 ‘good for the Jews’?

After watching 31 movies during the whirlwind festival, our film critic was blown away by Israeli Shira Geffen’s ‘Self-Made’

The 2014 Cannes International Film Festival's official poster (courtesy)
The 2014 Cannes International Film Festival's official poster (courtesy)

CANNES — Amid the screenings in the lush Palais de Festival, lavish parties on the beach, press conferences in exclusive hotels, late night quaffing of rosé and Kirs Royale, there’s only one film critic/reporter who is going to answer your burning question: Was Cannes 2014 Good For The Jews?

I give us a three out of four stars.

I caught 31 films at the 67th annual celebration of world cinema in the south of France. Three of them were from Israel. One was great, one was, frankly, not-so-great, and the third, if you give me a moment to explain, I need to score incomplete.

I was absolutely blown away by Shira Geffen’s “Self-Made.” The co-director of “Jellyfish” has made a darkly funny drama that mixes dead-pan humor and existential dread that makes nuanced commentary on Israel’s security crisis.

Sarah Adler and Samira Saraya star as a Jewish conceptual artist and Palestinian laborer both of whom are prone to breaks with reality. After a series of coincidences connect them, they undergo a kind of cosmic switch. It isn’t quite “Freaky Friday,” but it is a clever and arresting series of scenes that concludes in a climax both unpredictable and perfect.

A scene from Shira Geffen's 'Self-Made' (courtesy)
A scene from Shira Geffen’s ‘Self-Made’ (courtesy)

Alas, I don’t have the same amount of enthusiasm for Keren Yedeya’s “That Lovely Girl.” This dark, angry picture detailing a sexually and psychologically abusive relationship between a deranged father and his confused daughter is uncomfortable to the point of losing its purpose. The performances are good and one sequence (involving an ambiguous gang-rape on the beach) is shot in a smart manner, but when the film fades to black one is left with two thoughts: “what the heck was the point of that?” and “excuse me, I’d like to take a shower.”

Nadav Lapid, whose previous film “Policeman” was a crafty look at idealism vs. reality, was at the festival with his new one “The Kindergarten Teacher.” This stylized drama tells the story of a woman who becomes obsessed with a toddler who enters reveries and starts blurting out beautiful poems, as if possessed by some higher power. It is an odd and uniquely shot movie – but it also gives me an opportunity to discuss an important fact of life about Cannes.

Nadav Lapid's 'The Kindergarten Teacher' (courtesy)
Nadav Lapid’s ‘The Kindergarten Teacher’ (courtesy)

I had to walk out of the movie. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it – what I saw was quite good – but because I was so exhausted I kept falling asleep and I didn’t want to disturb my neighbors with snores.

Usually falling asleep during a movie is the lowest possible insult, but that isn’t the case at Cannes. You rise for the 8:30 competition screening each day and, if you are a journalist, stay tapping away at your keyboard until to 2 am each night. In between you are racing around in the sun, not eating properly. Everybody – (even the really well known critics) — nods off during one movie per fest and Mr. Lapid, unfortunately, got the short end of my stick. I swear to you, dear readers, and to Mr. Lapid if you are out there, I will see this movie in full some day soon and get back to you.

These three titles were all part of various sidebars which have wonderful French names like “Un Certain Regard” or “Quinzaine des Réalisateurs” or “Semaine de la Critique,” but the big guns, of course, are the films in competition for the Palme D’Or. Though won this year by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan for “Winter Sleep,” many Jewish filmmakers represented themselves nicely, and I was able to catch a few.

Anglo-Jewish auteur Mike Leigh's 'Mr. Turner' was entered in the big guns competition. (courtesy)
Anglo-Jewish auteur Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr. Turner’ was entered in the big guns competition. (courtesy)

My favorite was Anglo-Jewish auteur Mike Leigh, blending his trademark realistic style with the costume biopic in “Mr. Turner.” The lengthy film stars Timothy Spall (who won best actor) as pre-impressionist painter JMW Turner, and the movie dismisses all the typical constraints you normally get with a movie based on a famous person’s life. It is gorgeously shot with natural light, fascinating in its portrayal of an artist at work and a little bit filthy (both in its prurience but also in its depiction of an unclean 19th century London.)

Jewish-American Bennett Miller, the director of “Moneyball” and “Capote,” wowed audiences with “Foxcatcher” (for which he won best director), his reserved presentation of a weird true crime story that, against all logic, stars comedian Steve Carell in a dramatic (and heartbreaking) role. He plays John DuPont, heir to the DuPont industrial fortune, an emotionally stunted man who ends up as benefactor to the American Olympic wrestling team. A “love triangle” of sorts between him and two brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum, both great) leads to a shocking conclusion. I didn’t know about the story beforehand, and if it doesn’t ring any bells, don’t Google it before you see this movie later in the year. (It is a shoo-in for a number of Oscar awards.)

'Foxcatcher' -- one to watch for Oscar season. (courtesy)
‘Foxcatcher’ — one to watch for Oscar season. (courtesy)

David Cronenberg, the legendary Canadian-Jewish upstart, envelope-pusher returned to Cannes with something of a mild disappointment. “Maps to the Stars” doesn’t hold back in the strangeness, but making a movie about the depravity of Hollywood feels like shooting fish in a barrel. “Maps to the Stars” is mannered and jarring, but unlike his limo-through-Manhattan takedown of high finance (his last film, “Cosmopolis”), this new one is too reminiscent of Los Angeles’ worst characteristic: sprawl. Julianne Moore won best actress. It’s a decent movie, but I was hoping for more.

Olivier Assayas, a French director with a soupçon of Jewish heritage, brought a far more nuanced and interesting look at the movie biz with “Clouds of Sils Maria.” Juliette Binoche stars as an aging actress newly cast in a revival of the play that made her a star, but in the older role. Chloe G. Moretz plays the younger role (and is something of a tabloid-magnet) but the real breakout in this film is (and you better sit down for this) Kristen Stewart. The oft-mocked Bella Swan of the insufferable “Twilight” films is remarkable as the tough, crafty and perceptive personal assistant that keeps the engine of the film moving.

The oft-mocked Kristen Stewart is the fire behind 'Clouds of Sils Maria.' (courtesy)
The oft-mocked Kristen Stewart is the fire behind ‘Clouds of Sils Maria.’ (courtesy)

Two other Jewish directors who had films out of competition were Melanie Laurent (still best known as an actress) and Gabe Polsky. Laurent’s “Breathe” is a heartfelt look at the strongly hot-and-cold relationships of teenage girls. It’s a bit of a roller coaster, but very engrossing and sympathetically portrayed. The audience gave it a lengthy standing ovation that only concluded when a visibly embarrassed Laurent left the room in joyful tears.

Polsky’s documentary “Red Army” is an interesting but somewhat bland look at the Soviet Union’s hockey program. Everybody loved this but me, so maybe I’m not to be trusted here. I came away thinking I’d have just rather read a detailed article, as the film’s form felt like watching a typical TV news program.

The sprawling red carpet at Cannes. (courtesy)
The sprawling red carpet at Cannes. (courtesy)

There were a few other Israeli films I wasn’t able to catch, such as divorce drama “Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem” from directors Ronit and and Shlomi Elkabetz. Variety called it a “scathing drama and bitter comedy” and predicted a nice future for it on the international circuit. It has been picked up by Music Box Films for distribution in the US.

I also missed Asaf Korman’s “Next to Her,” the story of a woman caring for her mentally handicapped sister than the Hollywood Reporter said “blurred the lines between nurture, domination and delirium.” Its economic forecast called for “a decent offshore boost.”

Lastly, there was “The Go-Go Boys,” Hilla Medalia’s documentary about legendary Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yorus Globus who conquered Hollywood in the 1980s. Alas, Indiewire called the film “nothing particularly special” and “straightforward” and “unagressive.” I still wanna see it anyway for the old footage of their schlocky hits.

All told, a good run. I’m fairly exhausted by the nonstop pace, but with all the great food and conversation I know I’ll return. Next year on the Croisette!

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