Cannes 2013: 'Michael Kohlhaas' review

The Cannes Film Festival just got medieval on our asses with Arnaud des Pallières' Palme d'Or outsider Michael Kohlhaas (2013), a tale of injustice and revolt set in 16th century France. Adapted from the Heinrich von Kleist novella, Pallières' latest follows the plight of its eponymous hero (Mads Mikkelsen), a happy and prosperous family man and horse trader who suffers an injustice at the hands of an arrogant young baron. Kohlhaas seeks redress legally, only to be rebuffed and threatened. Tragedy strikes when his wife, Judith (Delphine Chuillot), is murdered, leading our protagonist on the path to vengeance.

The towering Mikkelsen wowed Cannes last year as a teacher stubbornly refusing to bow to injustice in Thomas Vinterberg's excellent The Hunt (Jagten, 2012). Injustice is once again on the menu here; however, as an actor in possession of a range as epic as the Cevénnes landscape against which his latest film plays out, Kohlhaas is an utterly different kettle of fish to mild-mannered Lucas. His quiet power and physical presence evokes precisely the right balance between steadfast principle and sympathetic humanity. Although the story has all the generic elements of a typical Hollywood revenge picture - "First they took his horses, then they took his wife" - Pallières thankfully doesn't go down the brash Braveheart route.

Michael Kohlhaas is no rousing epic. The period is realised with an economy which actually benefits the film. There are windy mountaintop scenes, the fog engulfs characters and the autumn leaves provide an almost Gustav Klimt-like backdrop to earlier idyllic scenes. These are people who live in the world; used to walking barefoot on cold stone and taking their baths in the courtyard. (In one stunning sequence, Mads delivers a foal in front of our eyes.) Likewise, Kohlhaas' army is not a CGI-generated horde of pixels but rather a ragtag bunch of misfits, with its own Sancho Panza in the form of Sergi Lopez. Though some of the most significant acts of violence happen off-camera, what we do see is bloody and brutal.

An attack on an enemy keep is played out in hushed silence; an important battle is seen in one shot from the hilltop where Kohlhaas and his daughter await the outcome. We, like Mikkelsen's wronged man, take no pleasure in this brutality. This is no power fantasy, and Kohlhaas is presented with the moral implications of his decisions by a protestant pastor, played by the wonderful Denis Lavant. However, after his turn in last year's Holy Motors, it's now difficult to see him without thinking of the waiting limousine just out of shot.

Kohlhaas' predicament is made all the more real because of the ethereal presence of his aforementioned daughter Lisbeth (Mélusine Mayance), making the stakes all the higher - this is a man who still has much to lose. Taking key influence from filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa in its action, Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960) in its setting and Andrei Tarkovsky in its satisfying depth, Michael Kohlhaas is a sombre and brilliantly realised period revenge drama, armed with a lurking muscularity.

The 66th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 15-27 May, 2013. For more of our Cannes 2013 coverage, simply follow this link. 

John Bleasdale


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