The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross) looks set to be a franchise hit, as the adaptation of the first book of the Suzanne Collins trilogy lives up to the hype. It’s a frightening premise, pitting 12- to 18-year-olds in gladiatorial fight-to-the-death combat in a future America, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), where the rich exploit the poor (more than now) and hold these games as sport for the rich and as punishment of the poor for an earlier rebellion.
Each of 12 districts sends one boy and one girl, chosen at a “reaping” – a televised lottery – as “tributes”, and from District 12 Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in the place of her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields). Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the boy her own age chosen.
In the hands of the District 12 host Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss and Peeta are prepared as best they can be. Cinna gets them off to a great start at the opening pageant by designing costumes that trail flames, a stunt that helps them gain sponsors whose aid will help them in the games.
Costumes, and hairstyles, notably that of compere Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), will guarantee at least one technical Oscar®, and Lawrence, having missed out on the award for Winter’s Bone (where she also ate squirrels), should at least be a nominee for best actress. It’s the glorification of violence by children against children, even toned down for a 12A certificate, that most disturbs the mind, along with the proximity to what passes for current entertainment in the world of reality TV.
The basic idea comes from the myth of Athenian children being sacrificed to the Minotaur, but it’s not hard to see more modern references, from The Truman Show, as the organisers manipulate the environment and create new hazards, to even The Weakest Link, as the tributes form alliances. That’s actually a bit silly – District 2’s well-trained Cato (Alexander Ludwig) gets other tributes to help him pursue Katniss, as if having disposed of her he’s not going to kill them.
There were times when I was thinking, that’s just not fair, like sending fire to “turn” an escaping tribute, or ex nihilo creation of monster dogs, or changing the rules as readily as Mr Gove changes education targets, but I suppose that indicates I was rather involved in the story. The shaky camera is quite nauseating in the early scenes but settles down eventually, which is just as well as some of the visuals are stunning, and I don’t just mean the haircuts.
The Kid with a Bike (Le Gamin au Vélo, cert. 12A, French with English subtitles) shared the Grand Prix at Cannes with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne create another of their tales of human life and relationships, though this is less traumatic than some of their earlier films, such as L’Enfant and The Silence of Lorna.
Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret) is an 11-year-old boy in care, refusing to believe his father Guy (Jérémie Renier) has abandoned him. Symbolic of that loss is that Guy has sold his son’s bike.
Local hairdresser Samantha (Cécile de France) gets involved – she buys back his bike and gives it to him – and then finds, at cost to her own relationships, that she’s involved more than she expected, and takes him on a foster child. When Wes (Egon Di Mateo), a local petty criminal with a Fagin-like recruitment policy, draws Cyril into his circle, Samantha again comes to his rescue.
There’s no attempt at analysing what Cyril’s life was like with his father, or why Samantha plays Good Samaritan. We just see paths crossing, and an adult and child forming a fragile bond.
When an example of restorative justice ends messily, the possibility of more tragedy threatens even that glimmer of hope. Scenes of (literally) free-wheeling joy, and superb performances by de France and the remarkable Doret, make this a marvellous and poignant story.