Cannes 2014: Hazanavicius' 'The Search' is Better Than Critics Claim
by Alex Billington
May 21, 2014
Every May, I fly all the way across the Atlantic to Cannes Film Festival just to watch good films. Films that are interesting, invigorating, exciting, entertaining, moving, no matter what they may be or who may have directed them, as along as they are good. Even those that are stories we may have seen before in other films, it doesn't matter, I'm not here to see failed experiments, I'm here to watch well-made, well-meaning movies. Ever since The Artist won the Best Picture Oscar in 2011, critics have been unnecessarily hating on director Michel Hazanavicius. I believe he's a great filmmaker and his latest, The Search, is another solid film.
A sort-of remake of Fred Zinnemann's 1948 WWII film The Search, this new version is updated in setting and story, taking place during the Russia-Chechnya conflict in the 90s. With two separate storylines, one of them follows a young boy whose parents are killed and he wanders through the war-torn country searching for his sister, eventually bonding with Berenice Bejo's UN character; the other follows a teen forced into the Russian army, who is morphed from a cordial youngster into a bastard soldier. One of the film's big faults is the way it balances both of these storylines, even though the story about the kid, played incredibly by Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev, is much more interesting and worth more of our time. But each gets equal screentime.
That said, the rest of the film is rather powerful, and tragically moving by the end. Distilling the idea down to one phrase, I would liken it to finding hope in a hopeless world, with hope represented by the young kid and Berenice Bejo and their story, and the hopelessness represented by the soldier. The themes and ideas are there on the surface, exposed in an engaging way. However, it seems to be such a standard presentation that some critics are frustrated by it and therefore went overboard opposing any of it. On the contrary, I felt as if the message, while certainly projected right in front of us, was well-meaning and potent in its emotions. I actually found myself tearing up watching the kid struggle so much. It just doesn't deserve any of this hate.
Yes, the film preys on our feelings, both negative and positive, to convey its point. But it's a message that, while we've heard and seen it many times before, still needs to be repeated over and over until we stop hurting each other. In fact, Hazanavicius' approach to the Chechnyan conflict is designed to make audiences sympathize with the victims, the innocent people, while at the same time showing us exactly how and why hate and resentment lead to this tragic war to begin with. It doesn't hold back on the violence, showing gore and dead bodies and the horrors of war. Some may not be able to take it and will turn away, saying they've had enough. Others will quickly understand why showing these kind of images can hopefully inspire change.
The main lost boy, named Hadji, brings so much life to The Search through his charisma and very natural performance. Even when he's frowning (which is often), you can feel that he just wants to smile, and wants to be happy again, and is seeking any solace in such an atrocious world. Berenice Bejo, who shows her true acting range in Asghar Farhadi's The Past, occasionally reaches the same heights/depths as she does in that film, but has a few unconvincing scenes that needed to be reworked. However, I never found her distracting or problematic overall, if anything she brought a likeable charm that might've been absent with another actress, and allows us to at least believe in one good person trying to make difference, since that is so rare.
I really don't understand why other critics seem to want to hate Michel Hazanavicius and his films so much. The Search is a film that doesn't attempt to reinvent cinema or experiment with style or give us a story that we haven't ever seen before, but it is a good film, not a bad one. It looks great throughout, it's powerful, and relies on tough emotions to engage the audience, but not everyone likes being engaged by these emotions. And maybe that's where it lost some critics, but not me. I thoroughly enjoyed The Search and was moved by it, hopeful that it can continue to show people around the world that kindness will always triumph over evil.
Alex's Cannes Rating: 7.8 out of 10