Cannes Check 2014: Michel Hazanavicius’ ‘The Search’

Welcome back to Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at next month's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off on May 14. Taking on different selections every day, we'll be examining what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. Next up, from the most recent Oscar winner in the lineup: Michael Hazanavicius' “The Search.”

The director: Michel Hazanavicius (French, 47 years old). Three years ago, Hazanavicius was a somewhat unlikely Competition entrant: regarded as a lightweight commercial comedy director, his film was initially placed in a non-competitive slot, and only upgraded when another planned inclusion didn't pan out. That film, of course, was “The Artist.” Now, Hazanavicius returns to the festival with an Oscar to his name, while he and his wife — last year's Best Actress winner Bérénice Bejo — are one of French cinema's premier power couples. A lot happens in three years.

Born in Paris to a family of Lithuanian immigrants, Hazanavicius began his career directing commercials and television, where he worked throughout the 1990s before making his first theatrical feature, “Mes amis,” in 1999. He hit the commercial jackpot in France with his next two films, the spy spoofs “OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies” and “OSS 117: Lost in Rio,” which initiated his collaboration with “The Artist” star Jean Dujardin. Immediately after “The Artist,” he contributed (again with Dujardin) to the raunchy portmanteau comedy “The Players,” while “The Search” is his first attempt as prestige drama.    

The talent: You know Bejo by now: after several years on the sidelines, the actress broke through with an Oscar-nominated turn in “The Artist,” and won at Cannes last year for showing her serious side in “The Past.” She takes the lead here, with four-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening in a key supporting role. They are the only name draws in a cast otherwise heavy on Georgian and Russian, some of them non-professionals. As on “The Artist,” Hazanavicius also wrote the film, and edited it in collaboration with Anne-Sophie Bion. He also takes a production credit this time, sharing it with “The Artist” producer and Oscar winner Thomas Langmann, while his regular cinematographer, Guillaume Schiffmann, is also back on board.

The pitch: About as drastic a change of pace from the silvery sparkle of Hazanavicius' last film as could be imagined, “The Search” is described as a remake of Fred Zinnemann's Oscar-winning 1948 war drama of the same title. In that film, Montgomery Clift made his debut as an American army engineer in post-WWII Europe who takes under his wing a young Auschwitz survivor searching for his mother in the transit camps. Hazanavicius' gender-tweaked update relocates the story to war-torn Chechnya and places Bejo in the Clift role. She plays a French NGO employee who forms a bond with a young boy separated from his family in the conflict. Details are otherwise scarce, as secrecy has surrounded the project from the beginning: Hazanavicius began quietly shooting in Georgia in September last year, later moving to Paris. At 149 minutes, it's his largest-scale and most ambitious film to date.

The prestige: Hazanavicius remains a bit of a wild card. “The Artist” may have been a Cannes hit and an awards-season juggernaut, but the silent comedy was also such a novelty item that it's hard to say if the director really announced himself with it, or simply pulled off a kind of conjuring trick with great élan. What it did do, however, was lend him enough industry clout to attempt something very different, with what looks like limited commercial potential. “The Artist,” too, was something of a leap into the unknown, but was still backed by the director's proven flair for throwback comedy; with Oscar success having raised the stakes, Hazanavicius has a lot more riding on “The Search.”

The buzz: Rumor has that sales of the film have been a little slow, but it's hard to say whether that's indicative of reservations about the film itself, or simply if the tough subject matter is hard to bank on without prior critical endorsement. If Hazanavicius pulls off anything akin to what Zinnemann managed in the original film, we could be looking at one of the emotional battering-rams of the lineup — one that may capture audiences even if critics remain skeptical. Bejo has the chops, it seems, but there remain any number of unknown factors here. 

The odds: Even if the film works at an audience level, the jury may not be convinced that Hazanavicius is an imposing enough auteur to take the gold; if anything, mainstream Oscar success may have made him a more resistible contender for festival prizes. (Bookmakers Paddy Power give the film Palme d'Or odds of 12-1, presumably on the basis of the director's raised profile; Jigsaw Lounge's 35-1 odds may be closer to the mark.)  Back-to-back acting awards at Cannes aren't unprecedented — Barbara Hershey pulled it off in 1987 and 1988 — but it'd still be a considerable surprise to see Bejo triumph again. The principal child role in Zinnemann's film won Ivan Jandl a special Oscar; with that in mind, perhaps 13-year-old Russian actor Maksim Emelyanov is a Best Actor possibility to consider. 

Next in Cannes Check, we'll look at one of the starriest US titles in the Competition: Tommy Lee Jones' “The Homesman.”