In Cannes

Jonathan Romney

The young French journalist at the next café table was moaning disconsolately into his iPhone. ‘C’est idiot! C’est superficiel! I came here for serious cinema – but there’s nothing here but le showbusiness!’ It was his first visit to the Cannes Film Festival, and two days in, he was shocked at the preponderance of glitter. I don’t normally make a big thing of playing the seasoned old hand on the Croisette – although this year was my 21st visit to the festival – but I couldn’t help leaning over and reassuring him that there was plenty of seriousness to be found in Cannes, despite the opening days’ obsession with glamour. In fact, there could hardly have been a more misleading opening film than Baz Luhrmann’s bling-laden 3D version of The Great Gatsby.

True, much of the press in Cannes was there to report on whether Carey Mulligan wore sufficiently different dresses for her two red carpet appearances. But this year’s 66th Festival was one of the least showbizzy I can remember. For once, the Out of Competition section wasn’t cluttered with DreamWorks funny-animal cartoons or Pirates of the Caribbean episodes. The official selection included Claude Lanzmann’s latest meticulous chronicle of Holocaust history, The Last of the Unjust, a 220-minute film built around his extensive interviews in 1975 with Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein, the last of the so-called Jewish Elders in Theresienstadt. The Prix un certain regard was won by the Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture, which used marionettes to represent life under the Khmer Rouge. ‘It’s the sort of thing Christopher Guest would invent in a comedy about Cannes,’ my colleague Guy Lodge joked, ‘a Khmer Rouge film with puppets.’

Jai Zhangke, a leading underground voice in Chinese cinema, provided a competition highlight (winner of Best Screenplay) with A Touch of Sin, a multi-strand drama about four people driven to violence by corruption and venality in the new China. And the proscribed Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof – he was jailed along with Jafar Panahi in 2010 – surprisingly turned up in person to present Manuscripts Don’t Burn, a drama he made secretly to expose the Iranian government’s repression of artists and intellectuals (a policy pursued, the film suggests, to the point of faking dissidents’ suicides). There were no end credits: apart from Rasoulof, the cast and crew remained anonymous for their safety.

The Palme d’Or went last night to Blue is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle, Chapitres 1 et 2), by the Tunisian-born director Abdellatif Kechiche. Kechiche’s three-hour film is in the tradition of French socio-psychological realism represented by names such as Maurice Pialat, Jean Eustache and more recently Laurent Cantet. Based on a graphic novel by Julie Maroh, it covers several years in the life of a young woman, Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos), from her first mid-teens fumblings with boys, through a passionate romance with an older woman, Emma (Léa Seydoux), up to the affair’s collapse and an open ending suggesting that we might yet see Adèle, Chapitres 3 et 4. The film is remarkable for the full-bloodedness of its lead performances, which hit a pitch of emotional and physical intensity rarely seen since Ingmar Bergman’s heyday.

The film instantly became the festival’s hottest talking point for its extended and highly explicit sex scenes between the two women, which will bring fresh fuel to cinematic debates about voyeurism, simulation of sex, and the factors that do or don’t make screen sex pornographic. More important, this is a mainstream film that unproblematically depicts sexual pleasure shared by two women as a part of everyday life – the bedroom scenes are no more or less important than the women’s social lives or Adèle’s work as a primary school teacher.

A few days after the screening, I took part in a critics’ round table for Film Comment. One participant suggested that the sex was filmed from a male point of view. How, asked another, could you possibly tell? Could you look at those scenes out of context and know they were shot by a male director? Was it a question of editing, or of camera position? For a moment, we were back in the times when such questions started arguments – we could have been sitting at the editorial tables of Cahiers du cinéma or Screen in the 1970s. It was a bracing moment, and proof that there is still more to Cannes than the question of how Gatsby’s pink suit looked in 3D.