"It was the film of the festival," critic John Powers tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about Blue Is the Warmest Color, this year's Palme d'Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival. When Powers says "film of the festival" he means "it was the film that people loved the most, some hated the most, and everyone talked about the most."
The movie, directed by French director Abdellatif Kechiche, tells the story of two young women who fall in love with each other. It has been lauded for its acting and drawn attention — both negative and positive — for its controversial sex scene, which Powers calls the film's "centerpiece."
"[It's] the longest, most explicit sex scene I've ever seen in a film that wasn't a film designed for a porn theater," he says, "and partly because the film is very emotional, very natural in its acting."
While Powers found the acting in Blue Is the Warmest Color superior to the acting he saw elsewhere at the festival, it was not his favorite film. That honor belongs to the Coen brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, about a Greenwich Village folk singer during the early 1960s on the verge of a creative breakthrough that never happens.
"I have not been a great Coen champion or detractor," Powers says. "I've been kind of up and down on them. I think this may be their best film. ... It's really, really funny. It's funny in a way that the Coen brothers often aren't funny, which is it's not snide funny, it's kind of warm, sly funny. ... It's the most muted, quiet, sweet film they've ever made, I think, in part, because they actually love the folk songs."
And then there's the film Powers loved, but that didn't win any awards: The Great Beauty from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. "I don't know why it didn't win anything," he says, "but things you like don't always win."
On Abdellatif Kechiche, the director of Blue Is the Warmest Color
"He now is probably the most acclaimed French director and, curiously, in some ways, the most French French director if you actually looked at the fantasies of Frenchness, of the things they like films to be about — crazy love, big emotions, natural acting, freedom of the body with nudity and all the rest. So he's like Tunisian-born, being condemned by Muslims, yet is somehow quintessentially French in a way that is very interesting.
"So you have that going on with the controversy surrounding it, plus the fact that the acting is really, really great in the film because he's one of the best directors of actors in the world. I kept saying to people in the days after I saw the film that all the acting in the films afterwards didn't look as good as it should, because he's so good at getting people behaving the way people behave that when you see the films afterwards everyone seems kind of actory, like they're working too hard."
On the graphic and buzzed-about sex scene in Blue Is the Warmest Colour
"Somehow you're detached from it, so it's not trying to turn you on — which, I think, is actually a virtue of the way that the filmmaker did it because, in fact, one thing that's undeniable is that the actresses seem excited; the characters are having good sex for them, but at the same time, it's not really intended to or achieving titillation for the audience."
On the movie that got the most 'boos'
"This year's 'boo' winner was a film called Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn. He's a Danish director who makes tough-guy, stylized, more or less action movies for art house audiences. ... In this one he's made a film set in Thailand where Ryan Gosling is a mama's boy who runs a kick-fighting academy and gets involved in a plot with murder and all the rest. This is the film that — I guess what I would call — the fanboys of Cannes ... were dying to see. ... It was the hardest tickets to get in and the movie started and they were so revved up you could actually feel the palpable excitement of the nerdy guys in the room and then gradually you could feel the air sink out, as if somehow it wasn't the movie they wanted it to be."
On the best party he attended
"My favorite party was a party for the AIDS research organization amFAR. ... Every year they hold a sumptuous party somewhere. This year it was at the hotel Cap d'Antibes and you turn up where hundreds of people are dressed in black tie, including me — I was very James Bond, I must tell everyone. ... You turn up and two things happen: There's entertainment and there's an auction of various things. The entertainment of the night was you got to hear Shirley Bassey sing 'Goldfinger,' so she came out and belted out 'Goldfinger' and did it better than she did at the Oscars. ... You also got to see one of the rare appearances by Duran Duran singing 'Hungry Like the Wolf.' Really, in terms of The Great Gatsby with those crazy parties, at some level you haven't lived until you've been in this huge building filled with black-tie rich people leaping from their dinner table to boogie to 'Hungry Like the Wolf.' "
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The Cannes Film Festival, held annually on the French Riviera, is the world's most important film festival. This year's festival wrapped up on Sunday. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, attends it most years and when he does, we like to talk with him about the best and worst films he saw there.
John, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Welcome back from France.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Hello.
GROSS: So let's start with the film that won the grand prize at Cannes.
POWERS: Well, the Palme d'Or winner is a French film called in French, "La Vie d'Adele," but in English it's called "Blue Is the Warmest Color." And it was the film of the festival, by which I mean, it was the film that people loved the most, some hated the most and everyone talked about the most.
The quick version of it is that it's a film about basically centered on two young women who fall in love. And it is a - so it's a lesbian love story but of a very special kind, partly because the film is three hours long, partly because the centerpiece of the film at some level is the longest, most explicit sex scene I've ever seen in a film that wasn't a film designed for a porn theater, and partly because the film is very emotional, very natural in it's acting. So it's an incredibly expressive movie that is also kind of exasperating, especially for English-speaking people, I think.
GROSS: Well, part of it too is that the filmmaker is French-Tunisian and I think this film is going to be very - or is already very controversial in part of the Muslim world and I think it's - correct me if I'm wrong - I think it's already been condemned by Islamic extremists.
POWERS: Oh yes, you know, the interesting thing is the film director's name is Abdellatif Kechiche who is perhaps the most acclaimed film director in France. He's already made two films, one called "The Skive," the other called "The Secret of the Grain," that completely swept the Caesar Awards - which are the French equivalent of the Oscars and were huge hits. And with this, by winning Cannes, he now is probably the most acclaimed French director - and curiously in some ways, the most French French director. But if you actually looked at the fantasies of Frenchness, of the things they liked films to be about - crazy love, big emotions, natural acting, freedom of the body with nudity and all the rest - he gives them all. So he's like Tunisian born, being condemned by Muslims, yet is somehow quintessentially French in a way, that's very interesting.
So you have that going on with the controversy surrounding it, plus the fact that the acting is really, really great in the film because he's one of the best directors of actors in the world. And I kept saying to people in the days after I saw the film that all the acting in the films afterwards didn't look as good as it should because he's so good at getting people behaving the way people behave that when you see the films afterwards everybody seems kind of actory, like they're working too hard.
GROSS: So do you think is very, very long sex scene in the movie is meant to be arousing for people in the audience?
POWERS: I don't think it is. Interestingly, a lot of people complained that it wasn't arousing enough, which I think is that they felt that it was clinical. And I don't think it's actually clinical, but that somehow you're detached from it so it's not trying to turn you on, which I think is actually a virtue of the way that the filmmaker did it. Because, in fact, one thing is undeniable is that the actresses seem excited. The characters are having good sex for them. But at the same time, it's not really intended to or achieving titillation for the audience. It goes on too long and maybe it ogles the women's bodies a little bit, but having said that, it's not some sort of cheap HBO, Showtime, ghastly sex scene of the kind that makes me want to turn off the TV. It's a completely different thing.
GROSS: So John, I am very selfishly now going to ask you about the film that that played at Cannes that's the film that I most want to see that I'm most curious about, and it's the new Coen Brothers movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," which is set in 1961 in the Greenwich Village folk scene. What did you think?
POWERS: Oh, it was my favorite film at Cannes.
GROSS: Oh, good.
POWERS: I, you know, I have not been a great Coen champion or detractor, I'm kind of up and down with them. I think this may be their best film. And what it is it's in a way it's a very simple story. An actor named Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, who is a sort of a folk singer in the early '60s based kind of loosely on the singer Dave Van Ronk. And what he is is he's a guy who sings traditional folk songs and has a beautiful voice and somehow he's just not making it, you know, that he struggling in his career and then you watch a more or less go through a day or two or three as he struggles, and he travels around more or less trying to make his career go. And he has a kind of odyssey, accompanied in a huge part by a cat that he somehow finds himself stuck with.
So you have a kind of selfish, grumpy, artistic folk singer caught with a cat, traveling around trying to get his life together. And at that level basically, that's the plot. It's in some way it's kind of the shaggy dog story, but in fact, what it's all about is about this guy who was at this moment of history who has talent and his perceptions are the perceptions of a person who is living in the Bob Dylan era. He actually will remind you in some of the things he says of something that Bob Dylan might have said but he hasn't yet adjusted his music to the world that Bob Dylan will create. He's not Bob Dylan. He's a really good folk singer on the verge of a breakthrough of consciousness who isn't making the breakthrough himself.
The film is also - may I just because maybe this makes it sound serious - it's really, really funny; that it's funny in a way that the Coen Brothers often aren't funny, which is it's not snide funny. It's kind of warm, sly funny. They are no big caricatured characters. There's no nasty violence played for laughs. It's the most muted, quiet, sweet film they've ever made, I think in part because they actually love the folk songs. And there's a lot of folk singing in the film.
GROSS: Are they original songs or old folk songs?
POWERS: They're all - there's one new song, a hilarious kind of gimmick song that people sing in the thing. But all the rest are all old folk songs played absolutely straight. And part of the interest of the film and the achievement of it this actor Oscar Isaac who people know if they, if they see the film they'll know him from other things, is that he actually sings live these songs very beautifully while playing the guitar. And, you know, the music producer, T-Bone Burnett, in talking about it, he thought this might be unprecedented in movie history, that somebody came in, learned 30 minutes of music and then performed it live. So he's giving a really, really great performance.
GROSS: Tell us about another film that was a favorite of yours at Cannes.
POWERS: Oh, I think the film that didn't win anything that I really loved was a film called "Le Grande Bellezza," "The Great Beauty." It's by a guy named Paolo Sorrentino, who has been struggling for years to make the great film that you always think he's going to make.
This one is essentially his version of "La Dolce Vita" meets Fellini's "Roma." It's set in Rome and it's about a guy who is a writer, whose kind of - if you remember "La Dolce Vita," Marcelo Mastroianni played a kind of observer of the rich person's scene, and this guy is the older version of that. And he essentially just looks at the rich people in Rome behaving decadently and stupidly.
You see all the phony art. You see all the crazy dancing. You see all the meaningless sex. But as the movie progresses, you get this vision of the world in which there's all this craziness and selfishness. Yet if you look properly, there are all these little glimpses of beauty underneath.
Part of that beauty is simply Rome, so that this is the most beautifully shot film about Rome I've ever seen. I mean I think almost everybody I know thought: I've got to go to Rome...
POWERS: ...when they watch this movie, 'cause somehow the filmmaker, Sorrentino, got them to just let him like empty out entire streets so that the hero can walk at night. And it's just ravishingly beautiful. But what the film is about is about finding the beauty in the ridiculous and the absurd. And it's really very moving. It starts off so aggressive 'cause it's loud music and Italian people going crazy. And it ends quiet and soft and beautiful.
I mean it was my favorite thing. I don't know why didn't win anything, but you know, things you like don't always win - that's the story of the world.
GROSS: Usually at Cannes there's at least one film that gets a lot of boos.
People are very - are not reluctant to let their emotions be known. So what got the most boos this year Cannes?
POWERS: This year's boo winner was a film called "Only God Forgives," by Nicolas Winding Refn. He's a Danish director who makes tough guy, stylized, more or less action movies for art house audiences. His last film was a film called "Drive," with Ryan Gosling. In this one he's made a film set in Thailand where Ryan Gosling plays a mama's boy who runs a kick-fighting academy and gets involved in a plot with murder and all the rest. This was the film that I guess what I'd call the fanboys of Cannes - and there are a lot of them, the ones who just really love cool action movies - were dying to see. It was the film that people came the earliest to see. It was the hardest ticket to get in. And the movie started and they were so revved up, you could actually feel the palpable excitement of the nerdy guys in the room.
And then gradually you could feel the air sink out, as somehow it wasn't the movie they wanted it to be. And you know, they felt it was a disaster in part because the guy they think of as the hero - the Ryan Gosling figure - turns out to not be the fantasy figure they want in a movie. He can't fight. He's a mama's boy with an overbearing mother, played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
But he is a mama's boy who can't deal with his mom. It order to escape her, somebody else has to kill her for him. So this is like almost the nightmare of a fantasy for someone who goes in loving the tough guy fantasy of tough guy drivers and tough guy outlaws.
The hero here is a guy who can't do any of this stuff and needs a real man to do it for him; which is like the most paranoid nightmare, I think, of the kind of fanboy who loves Refn's work.
GROSS: You're making it sound interesting.
POWERS: Well, it's only 90 minutes. I mean I thought it was kind of interesting because I felt as though he, Refn, was unconsciously making a movie about his fan base, which is something you don't see very often. The audience that loves him tried to say they liked it but they thought it was a - they didn't like it really. And the rest of the world never liked this guy's films anyway, so they gleefully booed.
And it must be said that at Cannes, people don't just boo, they like booing. You know, it's a great release, partly 'cause, you know, in this case people stood outside at 7:30 in the morning to see the film. So when it wasn't good, they were ready to boo. And boy, did they.
GROSS: My guess is our critic-at-large John Powers. We'll talk more about the Cannes Film Festival after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to our conversation with our critic-at-large, John Powers, about the films he saw at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday with the awards ceremony.
So Best Actor and Best Actress, Best Actor went to Bruce Dern, who is in Alexander Payne's new film, and Best Actress went to the woman who was the lead in...
POWERS: Berenice Bejo.
GROSS: Yes, I don't know how to pronounce it. She was the lead in the French film "The Artist," which won all the awards at the Oscars, what, two or three years ago. So thoughts about their wins?
POWERS: Well, I think, you know, Bruce Dern is very, very good in the Alexander Payne movie. He plays an old guy who has gotten one of those Publishers Clearinghouse things and thinks he's won a million dollars and is going off to claim it in Lincoln, Nebraska, accompanied by his son, played by Will Forte from "Saturday Night Live." And he more or less plays a kind of crabbed, difficult guy who's a cussed(ph) figure.
In fact, I don't think he was the best actor in the festival. I think Michael Douglas did a better job in "Behind the Candelabra," which just showed on HBO. But Bruce Dern is really, really good. It was actually a good festival for him because when they showed "The Great Gatsby" on opening night, you got to see that Joel Edgerton's performance as Tom Buchanan wasn't as good as Bruce Dern's in the earlier film version.
So, Bruce Dern not only won Best Actor, he got to be the best Tom Buchanan in "Great Gatsby" at Cannes.
POWERS: So the Best Actress went to Berenice Bejo who everyone remembers from "The Artist." She was in the new film by the guy who made the "A Separation." And it's a kind of, once again a domestic family mystery. She's very, very good in the film, but she's not as good as Adele Exarchopulos and Lea Seydoux, who are the two stars of the film that won, "Blue is the Warmest Color." Their performances were off the charts great, whereas she's merely really good.
GROSS: Well, Cannes isn't just about movies. It's about parties.
GROSS: What's the best party you went to?
POWERS: Oh, my favorite party was a party for the AIDS research organization amfAR. And every year they hold a sumptuous party somewhere. This year was at the Hotel Cap d'Antibes. And you turn up where hundreds of people are dressed in black tie, including me - I was very James Bond, I must tell everyone.
POWERS: And I...
GROSS: No, you weren't.
POWERS: Oh, OK...
POWERS: OK, I was a short James Bond. Can we go that far?
POWERS: And you turn up and two things happened. There's entertainment and there's an auction of various things. The entertainment on the night was you got to hear Shirley Bassey sing "Goldfinger." So she came out and belted out "Goldfinger" and did it better than she did at the Oscars.
GROSS: That's why you felt James Bondish.
POWERS: I think that is why I feel - I think that probably is the connection. You know, and she was really, really good, and it was fun to hear her. You know, you also got to see one of the rare appearances by Duran Duran, singing "Hungry Like the Wolf."
And really it's - you know, in terms of "The Great Gatsby" with those crazy parties, I mean at some level you haven't lived until you've been in this huge building filled with black tie rich people leaping from their dinner table to boogie to "Hungry Like the Wolf."
It's out of this world. But the amazing thing is not that. It's the actual auction, where they auction off for a million and a half euros, in this case, the right to attend all the Oscar parties, including the behind-the-scenes Oscar parties on Oscar night. That went for a million and a half euros.
My favorite, and the best, of course, was the bidding for the right to sit next to Leonardo DiCaprio as you got blasted into outer space on Virgin Galactic Airlines. That went for a million and a half euros, which is basically $2 million.
So you have that going on. You have rich people swirling. I got to step on the back of Paris Hilton's dress, even though I didn't want to - I got bumped into it. And you know, got to see also lots of beautiful people. There were lots of famous stars there. Leonardo DiCaprio was there. Nicole Kidman was there. I hadn't seen Goldie Hawn in a long time; there was Goldie Hawn.
You know, as I say, Shirley Bassey who, I think, looked younger than some of the members of Duran Duran...
POWERS: And she must be, you know, 100, whereas the Duran Duran guys looked a bit like they'd lived the rock star life. So at 50 they were in worse shape than Shirley was.
GROSS: Is Leonardo DiCaprio planning on going into outer space?
POWERS: Yes, he is. I think, you know, he - I think it's not deep outer space. I mean I think it's one of these things where you get out of the stratosphere and then just come back down. So it's more like a shuttle flight. But yes, he is. No, I mean I think he'd already bought his ticket. And the question was: Who would get the ticket next to him? So I mean he is a great supporter of amfAR and so he was a good sport the entire night.
You know, all the stars are actually very, very happy to be there and it's an exciting thing. I mean it's real spectacular "La Dolce Vita" stuff.
GROSS: Some of the films that you've mentioned will probably get a lot of attention when they open in America. Would you just tell us, I mean briefly, about a film you think we should see that won't have all that ballyhoo when it opens?
POWERS: There's a lovely little film called "The Lunchbox." It's an Indian film which is set in Mumbai. And it basically involves the way they use lunchboxes in Mumbai, which is that people send them to the office from their home. This one has to do when a lunchbox gets sent to the wrong person. The guy who gets it sends it back to the person with a note and gradually they develop a relationship between a lonely business guy and a lonely wife.
It sounds simple but it's nicely turned, beautifully acted and very moving and has a really, really great performance by Irrfan Khan, the great Indian actor who people will remember as the older guy in the "Life of Pi." It's a very, very good film, very touching. I think people are really going to like it.
GROSS: Well, John, thank you for telling us about Cannes. It's always great to talk with you.
POWERS: Oh thank you, Terry.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic-at-large and is the film and TV critic for Vogue and vogue.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.