Amid clear sunny skies and swaying palm trees, the competition of the Cannes Film Festival opened on a strong note with British auteur Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” about the great painter J.M.W. Turner. Leigh is one of the six Jewish directors who have films in the official competition section of the festival (others include the Canadian surrealist David Cronenberg and “The Artist”’s Michel Hazanavicius, whom we hope to profile later in the festival).
A beautifully sensitive period piece constructed with substance and subtlety, “Mr. Turner” is Leigh’s fourth venture to make it to the Croisette (his family drama “Secrets and Lies” won the “Palme d’Or,” the festival’s top prize, in 1996). It succeeds where main other biopics of painters have failed, both as an incisive character portrait and an engaging and finely wrought piece of filmmaking.
Thanks to brilliant cinematography and lighting, “Mr. Turner” achieves truly painterly effects. Much credit for the film’s success is due to Timothy Spall — one of Leigh’s regular actors — an absolutely overwhelming presence in the title role. Far from a hagiography, the film delivers a warts-and-all-portrait of the artist as an old man and Spall plays him with both sensitivity and oafishness.
Speaking at the press conference, Leigh said that he has always been interested in exploring conflicting forces, wills and temperaments in his work. It was difficult of me not to think of the director himself, who often comes off as downright curmudgeonly at festivals and in interviews, but makes films of immense psychological and aesthetic perception.
The first full day of the festival also saw the world premiere of Keren Yedaya’s “That Lovely Girl” (Harcheck mi headro), the only Israeli film to make it into the official program this year. Yedaya, who won the Camera d’Or (given for best first film) in 2004 for “My Treasure,” about a prostitute and her daughter, presented her latest in the Un Certain Régard section.
If picked up for distribution, it seems certain that “That Lovely Girl” will become known simply as “the Israeli incest film.” It is a gut-wrenching portrait of Tami, a frightened and submissive young woman (Maayan Turjeman in a painfully committed performance) struggling to break free from a sexual relationship with her domineering, highly manipulative father (Tzahi Grad).
In its frank, unsparing approach to taboo subject matter, the film brings to mind the work of the controversial French director Catherine Breillat. Yet, unlike some of Breillat’s films, the graphic sexual and violent content of “That Lovely Girl” never seems gratuitous; rather, the film’s shocking candor works to expose the tortured nexus of abuse and love (or the need for love) that make up Tami’s emotional world, and the savage power dynamic at the core of this most unnatural of relationships. In that, it’s one of the most morally incisive films I’ve ever seen, as well as one of the most uncomfortable to watch.
Check back with us for further updates from The Cannes Film Festival.