Cannes 2014 Review: THE SEARCH, A Solid Lob Right Down The Middle

Somebody remind Michel Hazanavicius that he already has the Oscar. 

Because it seems that the raison d'être for the French director's multi-lingual, morally hectoring war drama is solely to add some weight to his effervescent filmography. To bolster his standing as the Gallic auteur Hollywood can count on. Cher Michel - don't you know you've had that all along? 

To strengthen that bridge between Rive Gauche and the West Coast, Hazanavicius turns east. To the Caucasus then, back to the year 1999. That was the year Russia reinvaded Chechnya, a former Motherland subject that had been a de facto independent republic for most of the 1990s, surviving the year and a half skirmish between 1995 and '96 that would later be known as the First Chechen War. In 1999 began the Second Chechen War. In 1999 begins our tale. 

The Search follows four characters whose lives are touched by conflict. First introduced is Hadji (Abdul Khalim Mamutsiev), a nine-year-old boy who is witness to his parents' murder by Russian soldiers in the opening moments of the film. Hadji managed to hide in the house with his baby brother, unlike his sister Raïssa (Zukhra Duishvili). Less lucky, she's right next to her parents for the Russians' crime and is presumably the victim of another one at their hands. The shock of that opening sends Hadji mute. The three siblings are soon split up and spread across the country. While Raïssa maintains the composure to travel through towns and refugee camps looking for her brothers, Hadji is nearly catatonic, evincing enough energy to occupy space and not much more.

Our other two leads are introduced subsequently. Berenice Bejo is Carole, an NGO worker in Chechnya gathering testimonies to present before the UN Human Rights Council. Last but not least is Kolia (Maksim Emelyanov), a good hearted 19-year-old quite literally plucked off the street and inducted into the Russian army. Kolia's path never crosses with our other three characters. His tale, which follows the broad story beats of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, runs parallel to the main narrative. While the other three characters are intersecting, just missing each other or arguing with the orphanage director played by Annette Bening, Kolia is beaten, reprogrammed and taught to kill.

If his storyline supplies the steady brutality, Bejo's makes sure things don't veer too far from the sentimental. Wouldn't you believe it, Hadji ends up taken in by Carole, and with the help of her CD collection (The Bee Gees go over well), and, truth be told, a translator, she's able to break through and get Hadji speaking again. Which is too bad, because in Hadji's stupor Hazanavicius once again proves himself an excellent director of silence. The issues arise once everyone starts talking, and prove unable to do so without creaky speechifying.

That kind of speechifying eats up the film's final third. Like Chekhov's gun on the mantelpiece, you know when a character is introduced in the first act with UN access, you're never going to make it until through the third act without an impassioned appeal. The film is a loose remake of a 1948 Montgomery Clift picture, but it might as well be a spiritual remake of every Hollywood message movie there is where the payoff is a teary lecture. I didn't read the credits in full, but it would come as no surprise were Stanley Kramer singled out for special thanks. 

The Search is not in any conventional sense risible or bad. It is simply conventional. The actors acquit themselves well; the battlefield recreations are quite impressive and technically accomplished. Hazanavicius is not an ineffective director. He ably accomplishes the tasks he sets for himself, but it seems strange that the task at hand is to pull off a middling drama. And middling it is. There are entirely zero chances taken, the film has not one surprise in store. Look back at the plot summary and let your mind wander. Chances are, the direction your imagination leads you will likely merge with The Search's path, particularly if you follow the well-trod one forged by countless films before.

If Michel Hazanavicius is going to continue mining Old Hollywood properties to riff on, might I direct his gaze to one director in particular? He too mixed European sophistication and mainstream favor. Winner of many awards, he never grew ashamed of his comedy background, but embraced it, matured with it, pushed it to new ground. Before starting your next project, M. Hazanavicius, could you please look up Billy Wilder?
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