By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 21, 2014 at 6:27AM
Winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars pretty much gives you license to do whatever you want next time around. Looking at the follow-ups of some recent Academy Award winners, so you can see a near-three-hour erotic drama (Ang Lee), a one-man show about a man cutting off his own arm (Danny Boyle), a near-three-hour drama about the search for Osama Bin Laden (Kathryn Bigelow) and a near-three-hour musical sung live on set (Tom Hooper), films that for the most part, would have had a trickier time getting a green light without the ability to put “From Academy Award Winning Director…” on the poster.
And so it is with Michel Hazanavicius: the Gallic helmer who picked up the Oscar in 2011 for silent comedy homage “ The Artist” is back in Cannes with his follow-up “The Search,” and it’s a very different sort of film. Best known for his light-hearted comedy work, including the very broad “OSS-17” series, Hazanavicius takes a serious left turn into dramatic territory with a remake of Fred Zinnemann’s 1948 wartime melodrama, updated to the conflict in Chechnya in 1999. Unfortunately, the results are misjudged and indulgent enough that we’re glad to learn that his next project promises a return to more light-hearted territory .
The film opens with some faux-found-footage of Russian troops brutally executing a Chechen Muslim couple. Their three children survive, but 9-year-old Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev), afraid of the soldiers, takes his baby brother and flees, separated from sister Raissa ( Zukhra Duishvili). Afraid he won’t be able to look after his sibling, he leaves him on the doorstep of a local family and hitches a lift, ending up in a refugee camp.
There, he’s found by Red Cross worker Helen (Annette Bening), but soon runs away at the glimpse of a soldier, ending up in the initially reluctant care of Carole (Berenice Bejo), a European Union employee who’s compiling a human rights report that hopes to inspire a European intervention in the region. Meanwhile, Raissa starts to head off in search of her siblings, while back in Russia, 19-year-old Kolia ( Maksim Emelyanov) is busted with some weed, and opts to join the army rather than face prison.
One can’t fault Hazanavicius’ motivations too much, especially given the lack of attention given to the events in Chechnya over the past fifteen years: he’s certainly setting out to shine a light on the conflict for an international audience. It’s just a shame that he does it such a banal and trite way, ultimately adding up to a film that doesn’t have much to say that hasn’t been said more convincingly and powerfully elsewhere.
By expanding the scope of Zinnemann’s film to take in the Russian side, European politics and the like, Hazanavicius is presumably hoping to paint a more complete picture of the conflict, but the structure of his screenplay works against him: major characters simply drop off the radar for large chunks of the film, and the cutting, particularly in the closing stages, actively works against any sense of tension or even emotion in the film (the emotional climax is somewhat botched, never letting the waterworks come close to flowing).
The screenplay doesn’t really work when it comes to the individual scenes either: plot contrivances or coincidences abound, with more than one character acting like an idiot in order to draw out the inevitable reunion (Bening’s character may be the most negligent NGO employee in history), and the dialogue exchanges are mostly clunky and on-the-nose. There are a few moments where it does spring into life—Bejo has good chemistry with Mamutsiev, and there are some flickers of interest in Kolia’s increasing dehumanization, in a reheated “Full Metal Jacket” sort of way, but the former is tainted by an excruciating, would-be-charming use of a Bee Gees song, and the latter because it only pays off in a half-baked twist stolen from “ Rendition,” of all places.
That’s not the only borrowing going on: Hazanavicius and DoP Guillaume Schiffmann lift the film’s drab, silvery palette from “Saving Private Ryan,” and a late one-take combat sequence from “Children Of Men,” both to lesser effect than in their sources. Indeed, the latter feels somewhat video game-esque, which gets to the heart of the problem with the way the film depicts the horrors of war in general: there’s little sense of threat or danger past the opening scene, a tone that’s safe rather than chaotic, and the director spends more time telling us about off-camera atrocities than showing us any.
If his reasons for making the film were to shine a light on an oft-ignored conflict, the sanitized, extras-sitting-by-a-road-with-blood-on-them take we have here doesn’t do a good job of getting across the vast waste of human life, and even the root causes of the conflict. It’s treacly, middlebrow stuff, intended to comfort rather than challenge.
The shining light of the film is Bejo: she gives by far the best performance, her initial uncomfortable relationship with her charge giving way to an increasing maternal instinct, and ever-growing anger. On the back of “The Past” last year, it’s further evidence that she’s one of the best actresses working right now. The same is normally said of Bening, but her admittedly small supporting role here is puzzlingly awful. It’s unclear whether she’s struggling with the exposition-heavy dialogue and unsellable character decisions, or whether she’s just heavily jet lagged throughout, but either way it’s an uncharacteristic bum note from someone who’s usually such a welcome presence.
Beyond that, the performances are mostly serviceable, with Emelyanov probably the standout among the newcomers. But the film as a whole is tepid and familiar enough that it’s hard to even find much to salvage in the acting. One would struggle to really hate it, the film’s heart being in the right place and all, but Hazanavicius’ approach is misjudged from the ground up, making this one of the more prominent disappointments of the festival, and indeed of the year as a whole. [D]