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Defiant Russian, ‘grande dame’ cap race ‘Leviathan’, ‘Clouds’ go down well

CANNES, France, May 23, (Agencies): A Russian blast at state corruption and a French drama about the perils of fame starring Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart wrapped up the competition at the Cannes Film Festival Friday. “Leviathan” by Russian art-house veteran Andrey Zvyagintsev and “Clouds of Sils Maria” from France’s Olivier Assayas went down well, capping a race with several strong contenders for the Palme d’Or top prize to be awarded Saturday. The Russian picture tells the story of Kolia, a car mechanic living with his pretty young wife and son from a previous marriage near the Barents Sea in a house on an attractive sliver of waterfront property coveted by the small town’s corrupt mayor. Kolia enlists the help of his old army buddy Dmitri, now a slick lawyer living in Moscow, who collects damning evidence of sleaze against the mayor to thwart his bid to steal the land and build a luxury villa for himself on it.

Kolia initially enjoys his reunion with Dmitri and the film shows vodka-soaked nights where the two men seem to renew their bond. They go on an uproarious shooting excursion where they and other friends use portraits of former Soviet leaders from Brezhnev to Gorbachev for target practice. One marksman asks if they have anything “more recent” but is told that would lack “historical perspective”. A brooding portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, hangs above the mayor’s desk in his plush office. Dmitri’s motives are also soon revealed to be murkier than first thought, and Kolia comes up against forces even more powerful than Russia’s crooked officials. “I think that in all countries all around the earth, the idea of liberty is important,” Zvyagintsev told reporters.

“It’s the duty of everyone to question the state and uphold liberty. Either you don’t talk about the problem at all or you address the problem in a very frank, forthright manner.” Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has publicly criticised “Leviathan”. Zvyagintsev said that Medinsky’s point of view “must be respected”, adding “our goal was certainly not to confront power”. But he described the cursing as “truly necessary” and dismissed an incoming law restricting swearing in media as “not very suitable”. “Art must provide light, it should be a form of enlightenment, and it should give people hope but there are people who see things in a different way,” he said. “I do indeed hope that we will reach mutual understanding and that freedom will prevail in the world. I do however firmly intend to continue living in my country and keep making films.”

Producer Alexandre Rodnianski noted that around one-third of the film’s budget had come from the public purse and hoped it would make audiences “laugh and cry” when it hits Russian cinemas in October. Critics gave the film rave reviews, with Britain’s Guardian calling it a “masterpiece” and US trade magazine Variety hailing it as a “stunning satire”. The controversy over the film has been brewing for some days and Russian media have carried reports about it. “The film won’t suffer from cutting profanity out of it,” Russian media have quoted Medinsky as saying. “The film is talented but I did not like it.”

Asked about Medinsky’s comments on profanity, Zvyagintsev said he hoped that because his film was made before a law curbing swear words comes into effect in July his movie would not be affected. “I don’t think we use too many swear words in the film,” he said. “Each word was carefully weighted, we wondered if it was necessary to use this or that word in the dialogue. “These laws that ban things aren’t very suitable in my eyes,” he said. “In the film it was truly necessary to use this kind of language and these swear words.”

The film received mostly favourable reviews after a press screening. Under the headline “A New Russian Masterpiece”, critic Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian said: “Andrei Zvyagintsev’s latest is a very strong contender for the Palme d’Or — a mix of Hobbes, Chekhov and the Bible, and full of extraordinary images and magnificent symmetry.” In “Clouds of Sils Maria”, Binoche plays Maria, a “grande dame” international film star with a complex, sexually charged relationship with her personal assistant (Stewart). They hole up in a chalet in the Swiss Alps so Maria can prepare for a new theatre role which has strong parallels to her own life and career, leading to a fateful confrontation between the two women. The French Oscar winner (“The English Patient”) said Stewart, the megastar of the “Twilight” films, had helped her on some of the finer points of being a major celebrity, such as the right way to get out of a limousine in a dress without exposing yourself.

“For Kristen to play the assistant was hilarious,” she said. “Those kinds of details she knows more than me in a way because she’s really in the world of paparazzi and all that.” Both actresses drew strong reviews for generating on-screen sparks, though some reviewers faulted the film’s “wordiness”. Among the 18 contenders for the Palme d’Or, which Cannes jury president Jane Campion will award at a gala ceremony Saturday, a handful of frontrunners were the talk of the French Riviera resort town. “Mommy”, an innovative melodrama by 25-year-old Canadian director Xavier Dolan; British biopic “Mr Turner” by Mike Leigh; “Two Days, One Night” by two-time Cannes winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne of Belgium and starring Marion Cotillard; “Leviathan”; and Turkish domestic drama “Winter Sleep” by Nuri Bilge Ceylan were all seen as potential winners. Last year, love epic “Blue is the Warmest Colour” took the prize.

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