With ‘Standing Tall’, Cannes festival opts for low-glam kick-off

From left to right, Benoït Magimel, Catherine Deneuve, Rod Paradot, Emmanuelle Bercot and Sara Forestier attend the photocall for Bercot's curtain-raiser, "Standing Tall"
From left to right, Benoït Magimel, Catherine Deneuve, Rod Paradot, Emmanuelle Bercot and Sara Forestier attend the photocall for Bercot's curtain-raiser, "Standing Tall" Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The world’s premier film festival got off to a subdued start on Wednesday with Emmanuelle Bercot’s social-realist drama “Standing Tall” serving up unusually weighty themes at Cannes’ curtain-raiser.


Every year, for 12 days in May, the small seaside resort on the French Riviera morphs into a frenzied hub for cinema's players, would-be players, film critics and celebrity groupies. Hours before the festival’s official opening, clusters of bystanders had already formed outside the grand hotels that line the seaside Croisette, hoping to catch a glimpse of a star drifting out of the hotel lobby into a waiting car. Most often, the quest is long and fruitless. Indeed for common mortals, the combination of lengthy queues and crushing disappointments is a staple of the Cannes experience.

Miraval rosé wine, apparently "bottled by Jolie-Pitt".
Miraval rosé wine, apparently "bottled by Jolie-Pitt".

The legions of international reporters that descend upon Cannes are no exception. After much labouring to get hold of a precious invite for a rooftop cocktail party at the legendary Hotel Martinez, we were dutifully informed that photojournalists were welcome, but not the critics. FRANCE 24’s photographer made it onto the terrace and promptly proceeded to taunt the rest with pictures of vintage rosé wine allegedly “bottled by Jolie-Pitt”. There were no reported sightings of Angelina and Brad, who were presumably too busy filling up the bottles in their chateau.

After Grace

The festival’s first screening on Wednesday was just as sobering. It came as a surprise last month when festival director Thierry Frémaux announced that Bercot’s “Standing tall” (“La Tête haute” in French) would open the festival – a rarity for a French movie with weighty themes (in this case, juvenile delinquency). The coveted slot is usually given to glitzy Hollywood movies with star-studded casts, such as last year’s flop, “Grace of Monaco”. This time, Frémaux said he wanted “something different, both bold and moving” – though the presence in the cast of French screen icon Catherine Deneuve gave the curtain-raiser the required touch of glamour.

Deneuve has caused something of a fuss in the run-up to the festival. Embracing this year’s unofficial ban on red carpet selfies, the grand dame of French cinema lamented the end of genuine stardom and blasted “those who are very famous, who have millions of followers ... and who have done absolutely nothing”. She also earned the wrath of the mayor of Dunkerque, where “Standing Tall” is set, for her comments on the city’s bleakness and its denizens' apparent addiction to alcohol. Instead of walking the red carpet “standing tall”, Mayor Patrice Vergriete told reporters, Deneuve should “bow down in shame”.

Ode to France’s social workers

There’s plenty of bleakness and crooked teeth in Bercot’s film, in which Deneuve plays a judge for young offenders who struggles to get a grip on the film’s main character, unruly adolescent Malony (played by the outstanding newcomer, Rod Paradot). The opening scene, in which a fatherless, 5-year-old Malony is abandoned in the judge’s office by his hapless young mother, soon conveys the movie’s plot and purpose: “Standing Tall” is about the state’s endeavour to rescue the drifting progeny of collapsed families.

Fast-tracking to Malony’s adolescence, the film follows the wayward youngster as he is shuffled between social agencies, each referred to by their alienating acronyms but staffed by dedicated, benevolent workers. Disturbingly, a brief stint in jail is the only trial that appears to calm him down. Similarly, the solace he finds in a romance with a tomboy is tainted by sexual violence. But even behind bars, Malony is never abandoned by his tireless counselor and judge. Though deeply ambivalent at times, the film is a powerful defence of France’s social workers and juvenile justice system.

Before Mad Max

Bercot opts for a calm but relentlessly close camera, giving the picture a natural quality and a steady pace punctuated by Malony’s violent bursts of anger. There is less discipline in the writing, which feels at times overscripted and incoherent, as when Malony’s hopelessly immature mother somehow redeems herself in a single, unexpected flash of stern parenting. Sadly, the film is also let down by an unnecessarily optimistic ending that jars with the build-up.


Still, “Standing Tall” makes for stirring viewing, though not exactly the kind of opening spectacle festivalgoers might have expected. Frémaux, the festival director, described it as “a film that could easily have gone in the competition: a socially-concerned film, a political film”. But it wasn’t selected for the Palme d’Or contest, and the suspicion lingers that its choice for the opening slot was largely a consequence of another film opting out. Post-apocalyptic blockbuster “Mad Max: Fury Road” had long been tipped for the curtain-raiser, but the producers wanted a Hollywood premiere instead. Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and the rest of the Mad Max bandwagon will be roaring into Cannes tomorrow for a special screening – and a second, more glitzy kick-off for the 68th Cannes Film Festival.

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