It's not uncommon for a film at Cannes to send critics rushing for the exit before the credits roll—but it doesn't usually happen at the first press screening of the competition.
On Wednesday night, though, around 45 minutes into Amat Escalante's elegantly made, relentlessly grim Mexican drama Heli, there was a mini-exodus toward the back exit.
The reason? A realistic-looking (and sounding) snap of a dog's neck at the hands of a vicious paramilitary officer.
About 15 minutes later, another crowd of journalists huffed and puffed their way out of the screening room, this time at the horrific sight of a hostage's genitals being set on fire.
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Heli, about the impact of drugs and violence on one family's already bleak existence, is one of those skilfully crafted, unflinching works (common at Cannes and other international film festivals) that nevertheless leaves you questioning what the point of all the queasiness might be. In other words, after squirming and shielding his or her eyes through entire sequences, what is a viewer left with?
Heli is hard to dismiss, but it may be even harder to defend.
Much easier to like was the competition entry screened Thursday morning: François Ozon's tender, slyly funny and splendidly shot Jeune et jolie (Young and Pretty), a portrait of an adolescent prostitute that is easily the director's best work since Swimming Pool (2003).
Revolving around Isabelle, a ravishing 17-year-old Parisian (played by Marine Vacth) who leads a double life as high-schooler and high-class call girl, the film observes the young woman's sexual awakening, the time she spends with clients, and the consequences of her actions with a fine-tuned sense of irony, real depth of feeling, and not a shred of judgement.
Wisely, Ozon never provides any explicit psychological explanation for how or why Isabelle, who comes from a well-off family presided over by a loving mother (the terrific Geraldine Pailhas), slips into prostitution. One of the movie's most unsettling and provocative ideas is, in fact, that such a transgression could actually be easy for a young woman who is so consistently an object of desire. Ozon introduces Isabelle through the prism of the male gaze (her younger brother watching her as she lies on a beach in the opening shot), and he often frames her face against dark or deep-toned backgrounds to highlight her singular beauty.
Indeed, the filmmaker suggests that Isabelle's physical appearance and her awareness of its effect on people make her intolerant of ordinary adolescent life; when we see her visibly bored and estranged from her classmates (with the exception of one loyal girlfriend), we sense her impulse to experience something beyond the average, daily routine.
Ozon uses a "double" motif to develop the notion that for Isabelle, sex and prostitution offer a form of escapism from, or transcendence of, banality. As she loses her virginity to a handsome German on holiday, Isabelle turns her head only to see a fully clothed version of herself watching from afar (a classic "Ozonian" moment), and during several of her encounters with clients, mirrors show her reflection. Isabelle, perhaps, is using her sexuality to get outside of her everyday skin, to become another version of herself.