Going into the Cannes Film Festival, Asghar Farhadi‘s “The Salesman” seemed an early favorite to win the gold. Now that the film has screened, we can say for certain that Farhadi absolutely remains a force to reckon with, but you can probably count him out for the Palme d’Or.
“The Salesman” sees the director returning to number of themes and ideas he has explored in his previous films, including male codes of honor, family tensions and the nature of justice. In excavating those themes, he is without rival, and he ably flexes his dramatic muscles here. So why then, was the film received with the faintest whiff of disappointment?
It might have something to do with expectations. Simply put, you know what you’re going to get with a director like Farhadi, and then you get it, and then, well, what else? It’s the same problem that befell the recent films by Woody Allen and the Dardennes brothers — they all consistently deliver good work, but work that is highly coherent in style and theme, so when it stays good without breaching great, it comes as a regret.
And there’s nothing to regret about this Farhadi riff on revenge, a slow burn story of a couple torn apart by a home invasion. Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are happily married, living in a temporary pad while theirs is being repaired. The earthquake that starts the film, effectively kicking them out of their apartment, neatly prefigures the next cataclysm that will cut a fissure in their marriage.
That’s when Rana, thinking she is letting in her husband, absent-mindedly allows in a stranger who clearly assaults her, and perhaps does something worse, though Farhadi keeps the entire assault off-screen, leaving that possibility oblique.
Whatever the case may be, the results are the same. Rana is traumatized by the attack, and finds herself processing her trauma in often contradictory ways. An actress, she is no longer able to walk onstage (the film’s title comes from a production of “Death of a Salesman” that both husband and wife are starring in), but does not want to give up her part. She has trouble staying at home, but is even more troubled out in the world.
Perhaps because there’s little he can do to ease her psychic scars, Emad becomes obsessed with finding the perpetrator, and — spoiler alert — he does. Up until that point, the movie keeps slow, deliberate pace, to the point where the first hour can feel a bit mushy around the edges. By the time the third act kicks into gear, however, it tightens like a coil.
Emad, Rana and the perp spend the last half hour or so in an empty apartment, dancing around each other. Though a vengeance riff, it remains a Farhadi film all through, so dancing around each other means a lot of talking about action instead of doing action. And that’s fine – the former playwright is uncommonly gifted in writing third acts, where each line of dialogue and simple gesture are imbued with meaning.
In Farhadi’s world, a simple pause can speak volumes.
11 Best Cannes Moments, From Madonna to Jerry Lewis' Hotel-Trashing Poodle (Photos)
"In 1991, Sean Penn had directed a movie ['The Indian Runner'] and Madonna was in a different movie ['Truth or Dare']. This was after their marriage had broken up. Roger and I went to a nice party, and he spoke to Charles Bronson and Sean Penn and this other lady sitting next to Sean. And eventually Roger said to me, 'I'm tired and I have to get up early, but I know my editors will want something about Sean and Madonna. So I have to wait until she gets here.' I said, 'You've been talking to her for the last half hour.'"
Jessica Chastain: "Cannes was really my first festival. I was there with 'The Tree of Life,' and I walked down my first red carpet with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, the three of us holding each other's hands. But I was also there for this very small film I made for $100 a day ['Take Shelter'], which won the grand prize at Critics' Week, and 'The Wettest County in the World' [renamed 'Lawless'], which had a bidding war that Harvey Weinstein won...
Jessica Chastain continues: "And on the last day of the festival I was back home, having breakfast with one of the producers of 'Wettest County,' and my phone kept going off. And I finally picked it up, and there was a text: 'Palme d'Or, "Tree of Life."' I actually started crying in the middle of the restaurant. I feel like my career was born in Cannes."
Mark Damon, CEO, Foresight Unlimited: "We brought Jerry Lewis to Cannes way back in 1983 for 'The King of Comedy.' Well, he not only insisted on a suite for himself, but also a separate suite for his dog at the Carlton. A tiny little French poodle had a suite all to himself! The dog wound up shitting all over the carpet and the Carlton Hotel expelled Jerry and his dog before he could do any promotional work for us."
Elizabeth Kim Schwan, President of International, Covert Media: "In one of my early years of attending Cannes, I went to the premiere of 'About Schmidt.' Walking down the red carpet I was enjoying the moment, looking up at the Palais and the steps to the theater. Suddenly the paparazzi began to take notice of me, yelling at me to get my attention, and the flashes started going off. I wondered who they were mistaking me for when suddenly I realized they were yelling 'bouge!' to me, which means 'move!' Turns out Gina Gershon was right behind me."
Stuart Ford, CEO, IM Global: "My No. 1 memory arises from a few years ago when Martin Scorsese and I spent a day in a Majestic penthouse suite jointly pitching key foreign distributors on his career-long passion project 'Silence' [now in postproduction]. It was Marty's first-ever experience personally pre-selling his movie in Cannes -- but I was all the time wondering to myself, 'Why the hell does he need me here?' That's a guy who knows how to pitch a movie."
Nadine de Barros, co-founder, Fortitude International: "I was at the Majestic, and there was a buyer at the concierge desk -- he'd forgotten to put his suitcase into the taxi. The concierge calls the airport, then turns to the buyer and says, 'I'm sorry, but your suitcase? Kaboom!' The airport had blown the suitcase up since it was sitting out front and no one was there to claim it. The buyer did the entire Cannes market with holes burned in his sweater, suits and pants -- anything that hadn't been totally burned to a crisp. That's why I hand-carry all my clothes on the plane."
Mimi Steinbauer, CEO, Radiant Films International: "My very favorite Cannes memory is being up at a fabulous chateau for New Line's party when we were selling the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. The best moment was when black horses and horsemen came riding across the lawn in front of the chateau. As the evening drew to a close the owner of the chateau, a dashing older gentlemen seemingly straight out of a movie set, asked me to move to France and live there with him--not really my cup of tea, but a fun path-not-chosen moment in life."
Joni Sighvatsson, chairman, Scanbox International: "My first Cannes was back in 1986, with my then-partner at Propaganda Films, Steve Golin, and Michael Kuhn. The three of us rented a tiny apartment, bunking together to make ends meet, running up and down the Croisette talking to anyone that would listen. Fast-forward four years, we were standing alongside David Lynch on the Palais stage, accepting the Palme D' Or for 'Wild at Heart.' That night was a blur, but we partied hard at the Carlton, and all I remember is the five-figure champagne bill."
Laura Walker, CEO, AG Capital: "In 2011 or 2012 I got a call in the middle of the night from someone telling me Sean Combs' yacht needed to be parked at the old port next to the Palais. I made some calls begging, borrowing and negotiating to make it happen. I got him the only parking spot where his yacht would fit, and I became his agent after that. Then he threw a big party, which was very generous, and I got to invite all my friends."
Ashok Amritraj, CEO, Hyde ParkEntertainment: "For many years, we used to have a party on a boat. I remember the last year the weather was so bad that I had more guests throwing up than watching the fashion show we put on, with models walking around. It may not be the happiest story, but it illustrates how unpredictable Cannes is at every turn."
Joachim Trier, director: "My grandfather, Erik Løchen, made a small Norwegian film, 'The Chasers,' that competed in the main competition in 1960, in the same program as Antonioni, Fellini, Buñuel, Bergman -- can you imagine? And the Norwegian media and public didn't really care. So when I was there last year with 'Louder Than Bombs' and I walked up the staircase to the Grand Palais as the first co-produced Norwegian film in the main competition in 36 years, I was thinking about my grandfather, who passed away when I was 9. And now the Norwegian media cared."
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Cannes veterans tell TheWrap their favorite stories about the festival