Day 1 at the Cannes film festival and we're about to take off. The selection committee surprised many pundits this year when they decided to place the relatively unknown Emmanuelle Bercot’s Standing Down (La Tête haute) in the usually glamorous opening night slot. Good for them. Nicole Kidman’s Grace of Monaco left a heavy stench in the Theatre Debussy when it opened last year; the strange, laughable sort of Turkey that it was. Looking to make amends perhaps, the festival decided to forego the lure of Mad Max: Fury Road and go for a piece of gritty working class realism instead.
Standing down follows a troubled French boy through the last years of his adolescence. And we open with a bang. We see the young lad Malony (Rod Paradot) as toddler in Judge Catherine Deneuve’s office. His mom has a screaming match and leaves him there and Bercot cuts to the credits, an 15 year old Malony doing donuts in a the parking lot of a housing estate. KRS One blasts from the cinema speakers. We’re a long way from Monaco already.
From here the film follows the familiar cues. He fights with his counselor and has a knack for robbing cars; he doesn’t trust his own emotions; Mom’s a bit all over the shop; Dad’s nowhere to be seen. But Bercot does manage to hold back from slipping into that Dardenne Brothers mold by focusing on the strong maternal relationship between the Judge and the young boy. She’s known him his whole life, perhaps better than anyone. And there’s undeniable warmth between them.
Word on the Croisette is that Paradot was cast outside his school gates and, it must be said, that during a number of Malony’s numerous outbursts his inexperience shows. However, when things are a little calmer he relaxes into the role. We see him light up as he picks up new skills and during the film’s curiously androgynous central romance.
Much was made of Bercot being the first female director to open the festival since 1987. Were boxes being ticked? Who’s to know? Whatever the case she has shown herself to be a director of note. A fine cut from a satin scarf to a ray of sun midway is a remarkable moment. And hers is a film obsessed with hands. Hands that reach out; clench up; fidget with elastic bands; and ultimately let go.
Things are kicking off nicely here. The opening bugle carries an interesting tone. We're a long way from Monaco indeed...
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