The news that Iranian student activists are calling for the flogging of Cannes jury member, actor Leila Hatami (A Separation), for exchanging public cheek kisses with the festival's president, Gilles Jacob, is unexpectedly fitting for this year's festival.
A pervasive theme is the absurd, cruel abuses of power and ideology, seen in everything from the American wrestling drama Foxcatcher, to the war drama Timbuktu, about religious fundamentalists cracking down on a small North African town.
One of the best critiques of the reactionary mindset is a scathing Russian black comedy called Leviathan, set in an arctic fishing village in northwest Russia. This fourth feature from 50-year-old Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) is a barely disguised state-of-the-nation report on his homeland, with political corruption, rampant alcoholism and an empowered church that colludes with the regime to keep people in their places. Released at a moment when Russian president Vladimir Putin is increasingly being regarded with alarm and abhorrence in international circles, it's also timely.
No surprise the Russian minister of culture (whose department helped pay for Leviathan) declined to attend the Cannes screening on Friday, complaining he did not like the film, especially, "the abundant profanity in the script."
Leviathan is shot in stunning wide-screen on the mountainous Kola Peninsula, where low peaks lead to seaside cliffs and a shore littered with boulders, boat wrecks and whale skeletons. One house, with a particularly spectacular view, belongs to Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov), a middle-aged auto-repair shop owner who lives there with his young wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova), and teenaged son from a previous marriage.
At the film's start, Kolia's facing the first of what becomes a long chain of crises. The mayor, Vadim, an obese, hard-drinking buffoon with criminal links (why does this sound familiar?) wants to appropriate Kolia's property for a development, and uses the courts to get his way. But Kolia has an ace up his sleeve: Dmitriy, a former army buddy who's now a hotshot Moscow lawyer. But with the prosecutor and the police both in the mayor's pocket, Dmitriy pulls out his last weapon and tries to blackmail the mayor with a folder documenting Vadim's checkered history, which he calls, "a horror movie with you in the lead."
Or, perhaps a horror comedy: In one terrifying, funny sequence, a gang of friends, including off-duty cops, go on a vodka-fueled picnic and shooting practice (always a bad combination). They use framed portraits of former Soviet leaders for target practice and debate whether it's yet time to use current politicians as targets.
The title Leviathan has two meanings here. First, the miseries which Kolia experiences echo the Biblical story of Job, where God points out the overwhelming power of the sea monster, Leviathan. A priest in the movie, in a a bit of twisted Biblical interpretation, tells Kolia that he should follow Job's model, submit to God's will, and like Job "live to 140 and be content."
The other reference is to Thomas Hobbes's 1651 essay of the same title, which defines the state as a man-created monster, a compromise of freedom, designed to prevent "the war of all against all." Characters such as Kolia, who try to fight the system, says the director in his press notes, prove that "my homeland isn't yet lost to me."
Leviathan embodies the favourite theme of this year's festival, the collusion of the rich and powerful against the interests of the poor; in Ken Loach's moderately interesting film Jimmy's Hall, about the Depression-era Irish firebrand James Gralton, a case of the "masters and the pastors" ganging up on the little guy.
Though the predations of the powerful is the year's dominant theme, some of the one-per-centers get a free ride, as long as they're creative artists. Among the biographical there was the festival's opener, Grace of Monaco, a portrait of a Hollywood star playing "the role of her life" as a European monarch. In Saint Laurent, the biography of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, the designer's opulent lifestyle is justified by his fervent creativity and unhappy love life.
It's a little harder to figure out why we're supposed to care about Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), the middle-aged actress at the centre of French director Olivier Assayas's Clouds of Sils Maria, except that, you know, she's an actor, and middle-aged, and that's tough.
The story, based on an idea of Binoche's, begins as Maria is heading by train to the Swiss resort of Sils Maria to pay homage to a great theatre director who gave her her start. But while they're en route, her assistant Valentine (Twilight's Kristen Stewart), learns that the director has just died. Following the memorial service, Maria is approached by a young German director who wants to review the play that launched Maria's career, a lesbian melodrama about Sigrid, a young ingenue who's the seductive personal assistant to an older actress, Helena. This time, she's asked to play the older woman, while a hot young Hollywood actress, JoAnne (Chloe Grace Moretz), is asked to play Sigrid.
The various tricks played by the nested play-within-a-play are never more than moderately interesting. Binoche acts appropriately diva-ish, and Stewart, awkward, as they lounge around the chalet or wander through Alpine meadows practising line-readings from the play.
As the Hollywood flavour of the month, the sparkling Moretz (Kick-Ass) briefly lifts the story out of its arty funk, but her screen time is short, while the movie is long for its small insight: Life is lonely at the top, with a frequent chance of clouds.