CANNES, France (AFP) - The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius followed up his Oscar winner with a Chechen war drama, again starring his wife Berenice Bejo, which disappointed Cannes critics on Wednesday.
The Search, a remake of a post-World War II classic by Fred Zinnemann, features Bejo as Carole, a human rights official for the European Union during the second Chechen conflict in 1999.
She grows increasingly exasperated with the indifference of her bosses in Brussels, spurred on by an American charity worker (Annette Bening), who tells her her reports are useless if they don't lead to Western intervention.
When Carole meets a nine-year-old Chechen boy struck silent after his parents are gunned down by Russian soldiers before his eyes, she sees a chance to at least make a difference on a smaller scale and takes him in.
A parallel storyline follows a sensitive young Russian man, arrested for smoking pot, who joins the army to escape a jail term and is turned into a killing machine by his sadistic senior officers.
Hazanavicius' The Artist, an ironic, affectionate take on Hollywood's silent age, was a box office smash and won five Oscars in 2012 including best picture, best director and best actor for Jean Dujardin.
Hazanavicius said that level of success had given him nearly boundless freedom to pick his next project.
The 47-year-old director, a descendant of Lithuanian Jews, said he decided to update the 1948 Zinnemann picture about a young survivor of Auschwitz because cinema had yet to tackle the horrors of the war in Chechnya.
"I had the impression I could do whatever I wanted to and so I chose this," he said of The Search, one of 18 features vying for the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or top prize.
Hazanavicius said the conflict in Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim region that declared independence from Russia after the Soviet collapse in 1991 and then fought two bloody wars with the federal government in Moscow, featured "all the ingredients of modern warfare".
These included disproportionately high civilian casualties, Western apathy and often skewed media coverage.
Despite repeated questions on the current context of the Ukrainian crisis, Hazanavicius declined to comment on it, with his producer noting that that film project began long before the tensions in Ukraine erupted.
"I've tried not to make a film with a political focus but to look at the human impact of war," Hazanavicius said.
Bejo, 37, said she appreciated the picture's focus on the local victims instead of foreign do-gooders.
"In films on war, it's usually the Westerners who save everybody else or there's a love story," said Bejo, who won the Cannes best actress prize last year for her role in Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's The Past.
"What I loved in the screenplay was that it focused on the other people: the civilian population who suffers." The two-and-a-half-hour-long picture met with boos and a smattering of polite applause at an early press preview and drew mainly scathing reviews on social media.
London-based film magazine Little White Lies said the director's latest film "swaps silent charm for bombastic schmaltz" while US movie website Indiewire said "Hazanavicius' first conventional dramatic effort is a dispiritingly bland attempt at wartime perseverance".
Time Out London called it "the sort of film for which the terms well-meaning and misguided were invented".
"You might also wish that The Search was as silent as The Artist because some of Berenice Bejo's scenes as an idealistic, frustrated human-rights worker - the wet, wailing core of this leaden movie - are seriously clunky," its reviewer Dave Calhoun said.
"This is the movie equivalent of a Hollywood actor making a consciousness-raising visit to a refugee camp." David Ketchum of trade magazine Variety said it was a "heavy-handed cautionary tale that's an absolute mess".
However French daily Metro praised its relevance "at a time where the violence in Ukraine raises questions about the ability of the European Union to speak with one voice to the master in Moscow".