On my third day in Cannes, I was dismayed to settle in for a screening at one of the festival's two main venues, the Debussy, only to notice that the guy to my left had removed his shoes and socks and, file in hand, was happily sawing away at his feet. Ah, the glamour of Cannes! Though I can't quite get the image of this guy — or his feet — out of my head, I'm happy to report that Cannes 2015 was more memorable for other reasons.
Cannes 2015 gave us one subtle and gorgeously shot martial-arts film, a restrained but deeply emotional '50s-set melodrama and a rumination on the perils of looking for love — a task made all the more challenging by the prospect of being turned into an animal if you don't find it. Here's a sampling of what the biggest festival of the year had to offer:
If a person wanted to have sleek, presentable feet for any movie, I guess it would be Todd Haynes' Carol: This is a beautifully modulated piece of filmmaking, as smooth and cool as marble, in which one oft-lauded actress and one who is still not quite on the great-actress radar — Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara — play women who defy the rules of society, and propriety, by falling in love. Blanchett's Carol is a suburban New Jersey housewife and mother, seeking a divorce from husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, superb as always), one of those classic 1950s providers. Carol has had a previous affair with a woman who is now just a friend (Sarah Paulson's Abby), and Harge knows about it: That knowledge hangs between them like a piece of poison fruit in a fairy tale.
And Carol has met someone new, Mara's Therese, a New York department store clerk who's striving to become a photographer. Carol, which is based on Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, gives the appearance of having been constructed without seams or joints; its plot doesn't so much move forward as drift. This is a film you want to reach out and touch, if only you could reach anywhere near the top of the pedestal it's perched on. It is itself an unattainable love object, the goddess Venus herself disguised as a movie.
I'm also still floating on the sumptuous gold-and-lacquer cloud of Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, the Taiwanese director's first foray into the martial-arts genre, and his first film since 2007's The Flight of the Red Balloon. Hou favorite Shu Qi plays Nie Yinniang, a fierce fighter in 9th-century China who was kidnapped at the age of 10 and trained as an assassin by the scheming nun Jiaxin (Sheu Fang-yi). Don't you just love it already? You don't need to be schooled in late–Tang dynasty lore to be dazzled. Hou has always been a gifted visual stylist, favoring languorous takes that beckon you closer rather than hold you at a distance; The Assassin — shot by master cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin — may be his most resplendent film yet, and the action is fleet and distinctive, quiet in a way that keeps you alert. The characters bob and weave and dance, and you can hear and feel their feet hitting the ground. Hou uses very few close-ups here, preferring to tell his story mostly through movement: combat, the act of moving through a landscape of satiny green firs or silvery birch trees and just watching.
I also can't forget Yorgos Lanthimos' competition film The Lobster, an absurdist romantic tragicomedy in which Colin Farrell plays a man nearing middle age who suddenly finds himself single. That wouldn't be so bad if he didn't live in a society where single people are shipped off to a country hotel, where they must find a suitable mate in 45 days — or else be turned into the animal of their choice and released into the Woods, never to return to the City, where the civilized, coupled-off humans live.
Lanthimos has woven some crazily poetic ideas into The Lobster, particularly in terms of what it really means to ally yourself with another person: How much of yourself do you give up? What must you hold onto? And can you ever be sure you're not just making the other person fit, just so you won't have to be alone? Lanthimos' sense of humor is as dry as a wishbone that's been sitting out for too long, and some of his notions are bitterly funny: The singles who manage to find a potential mate at the hotel are rewarded by being allowed to move into a bigger room with a larger bathroom, suggesting that Lanthimos is intimately familiar with the correlation between romance and the ungodly cost of big-city real estate.
Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, in which Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel play old-timers killing some days at a Swiss resort, is one of three Italian competition entries this year, along with Matteo Garrone's Tale of Tales and Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre. Even if it's the most unshaped of the three, Youth may be the most satisfying. Sorrentino is like a master dessert maker who keeps piling sweets on a tray until they reach precarious heights: He just doesn't know when to stop. But the movie has so many lovely moments that coasting along with it is easy. In fact, it contains one of my favorite images of any movie I saw at Cannes 2015: that of Caine, as a crotchety retired composer, perched on a tree stump in a field, conducting a herd of placid cows in a makeshift symphony of ringing bells. It's the kind of fanciful, inventive touch that makes you alive to the movies in the first place. Bellissimo.