Review: Hazanavicius goes serious – and seriously wrong – in ‘The Search’

CANNES – At the risk of being unkind about a filmmaker who delighted me (and many others) so unequivocally with his last feature, it's probably tempting fate to open any film with the words, “What is this piece of shit?” That's not an entirely fair assessment of “The Search,” Michel Hazanavicius' follow-up to his unlikely, Oscar-garlanded 2011 hit “The Artist,” but it does roughly sum up the jaded bafflement with which it was received by journalists in Cannes this morning. A stiff, lumbering humanitarian drama that works obtusely and tirelessly against its director's spryest skills, it's proof positive that good intentions pave not only the road to hell, but the one to dreary mediocrity as well.

Whatever road it's on, “The Search” sits squarely in the middle of it. Fred Zinnemann's 1948 Oscar-winner of the same title was a Hollywood studio film that depicted contemporary casualties of war with then-uncommon fortitude and frankness. Hazanavicius' ostensible update similarly attempts to thwart expectations of populist entertainment, opting for the most stoically sincere possible treatment of its no-fun subject, the near-irreparable personal and political damage wrought by the 1999 Chechen conflict. Yet for all its manful efforts, the result is very much what you'd expect from a deft comic pastiche artist trying his hand for the first time at sturdy human drama: a diligent film rather than a tough one, its impressions of conflict and crisis drawn from numerous earlier, better films on equivalent thematic territory. “This is not 'Private Ryan,'” one soldier yells at other when things get hairy. You sense Hazanavicius wishes it were.

It's not the Second World War, at any rate: Hazanavicius' decision to relocate the drama to Chechnya is at least an individual and inspired one, providing an appropriate, still under-exposed parallel context to WWII's sprawling aftermath of social separation. (If it seems strangely late to be taking on that particular war, perhaps the present-day horrors of Ukraine are being filtered through this adaptation.) Far less successful is its rejigging of the original premise, which effectively splits the American GI played by Montgomery Clift in Zinnemann's film into two disparate, never-united characterizations: Carole, a French EU representative conducting a human rights survey of the area in the hope of prompting European political intervention, and Kolia, a Russian teenager drafted into the army and all-too-swiftly dehumanized by the trials of war.

Put through his paces in a variety of gruelling set pieces that recall a watered-down “Come and See,” Kolia's character (played with sturdy impassivity by Maksim Emelyanov) has the thankless task of providing a first-hand window into an atrocity that Carole only experiences second-hand. His experience is inevitably more viscerally engrossing than hers, yet it's the shrill, complacently self-righteous Carole that the film appoints its protagonist. Berenice Bejo plays her with palpable discomfort, showing little of the fire or intuition that won her Best Actress at this very festival a year ago. “Politics are important too!” she shrieks, though her one-note rants on the subject make it distinctly hard to agree.

Carole's hesitant semi-adoption of orphaned nine-year-old Hadji (lAbdul Khalim Mumutsiev) gives the film its narrative and emotional spine, though the practical and political challenges of her doing so are neither as complicated nor as compelling as the original film's touching bond between soldier and child of war. The addition to proceedings of a brusque but benevolent American Red Cross worker Helen (Annette Bening, all stressed hair and will-this-do severity) only further dilutes the heart of the drama. Her repeated tête-a-têtes with Carole about policy and institutional duty provide the dullest lulls in a film that – like so many titles in this year's Cannes crop – could stand at least 30 minutes' pruning.

Helen is our conduit to the film's chief source of tension, as she befriends Raissa (Zukhra Duishvili), a stricken young Chechen woman whom she is unaware is Hadji's long-lost sister. The will-they-won't-they trajectory toward the siblings' reunion should be the stuff of high, tear-streaked melodrama, yet Hazanavicius' scattered script fudges that arc too: despite the title's foregrounding, Raissa's search for Hadji is entirely a one-way affair, frequently abandoned by the script in favor of Carole's frittering, first-world crisis of conscience.

“The Artist's” sparkly silent-film novelty cradled an affecting story of creative insecurity and endurance – it succeeded thanks to it's director's knack for locating drama in comedy, but “The Search” suggests he doesn't have the reverse trick nearly as neatly nailed. As aggressively humorless as Bejo's one-ply character, its few gestures toward levity rarely seem organically dictated by the material: Carole's grisly attempt to engage the solemn, initially mute Hadji with an impromptu boogie to the Bee Gees' “You Should Be Dancing” is a particularly wince-worthy stab at light-in-the-tunnel pathos. When “The Search” lands a punch of genuine feeling, it's almost despite itself: when Hadji finally speaks (not, it should be said, with a suavely delivered “wiss plezhurr”), it counts as a moment of moderate, sentimental release, if only because the film's other voices are so chiding and so few.

Drabness is a difficult outcome to avoid when taking on the Chechen War, not that Guillaume Schiffman's fifty-shades-of-gray cinematography looks overly hard for poetry amid the rubble. But dourness surely is. It's easy to sympathize with Hazanavicius, whether this is a long-cherished passion project only enabled by the surprise success of his last film, or a panicked attempt to prove himself worthy of the prestigious honors lavished upon him three years ago. Still, one presumes a filmmaker sufficiently enamored of vintage Hollywood to have made “The Artist” (and remade Fred Zinnemann, come to think of it) is au fait with Preston Sturges' “Sullivan's Travels,” in which a celebrated director of comedies flails with his over-reaching attempt to make something of capital-I Importance. If he is, Hazanavicius has learned none of its lessons.