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Cannes gets creepy with tales of bourgeois malaise horror

© Les Films du Losange | The wealthy and indifferent Laurent family... a stone's throw away from the Calais migrant "Jungle".

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2017-05-23

The Cannes Film Festival continues its exploration of bourgeois guilt and dysfunctional families with deeply disturbing films by Greece’s Yorgos Lanthimos and two-time Palme d’Or winner Michael Haneke.

Watch out Cannes, the fascists are in town. With their patriarchs and matriarchs and that most reactionary of institutions: the family. Yesterday we had the insufferable Jean-Luc Godard, in his Maoist-nihilist phase, proclaiming everything and everyone reactionary. Today we got another helping of bizarre, autocratic, dysfunctional bourgeois families, racked with guilt and corrupted by power and money. It wasn’t to everyone’s liking. One man jumped up after the morning press screening, booing and shouting “Fascist!”

The slur was aimed at Yorgos Lanthimos and his latest dark satire, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”, which elicited cheers and jeers in equal measure. A deeply unsettling allegorical thriller, it follows up on the Greek director’s acclaimed “The Lobster”, which won the jury prize in Cannes two years ago. Like “The Lobster”, it’s in English, stars Colin Farrell, and has an animal in the title that never shows up. The sacred deer is inspired by Greek mythology, but to say more would mean spoiling the plot.

Nicole Kidman (left) poses with Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos at the Cannes photocall for "The Killing of a Sacred Deer". © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The film revolves around a seemingly successful and beautiful family of four, and their ultimately devastating encounter with a sinister teenage boy (played by an outstanding Barry Keoghan). Farrell is once again a treat to watch as a quaint, unheroic surgeon with a dad bod, while Nicole Kidman puts in a sterling performance as his ophthalmologist wife – one of four parts she has brought to Cannes this year. Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic play their suitably sweet daughter and son, aged 14 and 12.

They’re the illusion of the perfect American nuclear family. But it’s clear from the get go that everything is weird about them, starting with the way they walk and talk. In fact they’re so impossibly weird it is hard to empathise. And while “The Lobster” was instantly gripping, this one starts off as a slow-burner – perhaps too slow, until a sudden twist plunges the audience into a nightmarish thriller (though by then I was beginning to switch off).

Lanthimos covers familiar territory, observing the ritualised behaviour of everyday family life in claustrophobic environments, and poking fun at controlling patriarchal figures who end up being somewhat spineless. A slickly choreographed operetta of repressed guilt and self-harm, the Greek director’s latest work is full of his trademark dark, absurdist humour. But its hideous moral conundrum and deadpan stabs of violence push it further into horror. It made for creepy viewing, and not only because of the guy next to me who snored his way through the movie with his eyes wide-open.

Tales of moral consequence and the untellable secrets of family life were also at the heart of Monday’s other competition entry, Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” – which proved to be just as disquieting as the “Sacred Deer”. It marked the Austrian maestro’s return to the Cannes competition five years after he won his second Palme d’Or for “Amour”.

“Happy End” reunites Haneke with the duo of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert, who star as the ageing, dementia-afflicted patriarch of a wealthy Calais household and the steely daughter who has taken over the family’s construction business. There are intriguing roles for Mathieu Kassovitz as a doctor who leads a double life, and for Fantine Harduin as a 12-year-old girl who is introduced into the household’s suffocating, manorial life after her mother has overdosed in a suspected suicide attempt.

From left to right: Mathieu Kassovitz, Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Michael Haneke attend the Cannes photocall for "Happy End". © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The loveless Laurents are waited on by Moroccan servants, who are regularly subjected to subtly portrayed condescension. The family’s callous nature is more glaringly on display after a catastrophic accident at one of their construction sites, in which one eccentric member of the household appears to be at fault. And in the background are the migrants stranded on the streets of Calais, a reminder that this family drama of privilege and indifference is taking place in one of the flashpoints of Europe’s migrant crisis.

An uncompromising satire on Europe’s upper class, “Happy End” is a challenging film that melds family drama, social critique and glacial comedy. It is a scathing portrayal of an upper class devoid of empathy, its indifference and detachment visually amplified by remote, long-shot takes and the use of surveillance cameras and social media. Like “Amour”, it also touches on the issue of euthanasia and the deliverance of death (Haneke’s idea of a happy end).

Haneke's movie is a disturbing indictment of the voyeurism fostered by social media (and cinema), and a suggestion that this may lead to cruel, sociopathic behaviour. It raises interesting questions about what video footage reveals of us, the awful things we do, and how we gloss over them. But it makes for difficult, austere viewing. True to form, the two-time Palme d’Or winner tortures his audience by dispensing few clues as to what is going on, who is who, and what he’s trying to say. I’m not sure I understood even half of it.

Date created : 2017-05-22

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