In a rare idle moment at Cannes, amidst the hectic schedule of screenings, I found myself nursing a glass of mineral water on the terrace of the Caffé Roma, a sprawling establishment abutting the Croisette, mere metres from the festival palace. Strong winds careened in off the bay, whipping an ethereal tinkle of briny sea mist into the air. As I listlessly flicked through the trade journals, dark, rolling clouds amassed on the horizon. The gloomy weather, in France’s most inclement May in living memory, showed no signs of receding.
At the table next to me, a young man was furiously writing down his thoughts in a small black notebook, whose yellowed pages were covered with a dense, illegible scrawl. A shock of thick, tousled hair dangled over his brow. Clusters of unruly stubble protruded from his gaunt cheeks. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years of age. With a rumpled black jacket and stained trousers, the figure he cut contrasted starkly with the ostentatious attire of the Mediterranean nouveaux riches around us. An espresso lay on the table before him, which on occasion he would absentmindedly knock while forging ahead with his jottings, but by this point only the coffee’s cold dregs remained in the cup. Every once in a while he would snatch a pause from these labours and stare out into space, a manic intensity emanating from his cobalt eyes. What can I say but that, in the Rimbaudian precocity of this mysterious soul, I fancied I saw something of my younger self.
Suddenly, his voice cracking with agitation, he exclaimed: “Where is the poetry in films?” His agonised gaze was transfixed ahead of him, and the question did not seem posed to me in particular, but who else could have been his intended interlocutor? And so I leaned over and, with calm sagacity, reassured him: “My young friend, there is no poetry in films. But at Cannes, perhaps, you might find some poetry between films.”
Yes, this is the true value of a festival like Cannes: not the quality of the films in and of themselves – no matter how sublime they may be – but the fulgurant jolts provoked by the coming together of such a multifarious array of works. A colleague of mine is prone to repeating, mantra-like, that when it comes to appreciating a film the context is just as important as the text. Soit. As long as we specify that at Cannes – more than the red carpets and fawning fans, more than the soul-destroying queues and stern security guards, more even than the wily shysters in the market and the journalists vacillating between jaded boredom and intemperate excitement in the press room – the context of any given film is all the other films. A film experienced at Cannes is profoundly coloured by the films it is sandwiched between, and by the fact that it is merely a brief installment in an unstinting 10 day-marathon of cinema.
As I embark on this festival report, then, I am overcome with the same pervasive anxiety that I detected in my callow confrère at the Caffé Roma. If I want to truly do justice to the festival, if I want to impart to my reader something of the unique phenomenological experience that being at Cannes represents, then I not only have to do faith to the films themselves, but I also, in some way, ought to replicate the sense of poetry that the festival imbues in its devotee, to reiterate the enjambements between films which inevitably arise in the minds of those of us who do their best to wrestle five or six screenings into every festival day.
Above all, I am vexed in how to commence this coverage. It is tempting to kick off with the opening night film, and proceed to chart the festival in chronological fashion, relentlessly pushing forward till the affair peters out on the final weekend. But this would mean opening my report with Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, which festivaliers had the great privilege of watching one week after virtually everyone else saw the film. Luhrmann’s garish work truly represents the antithesis of cinema, and his adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald is utterly devoid of the critical dimension that distinguishes the original work: once again, in plundering the cultural canon, the director completely misses the point. I could continue lacerating this putrid mess of a film, but the prospect of inaugurating proceedings on such a sour note is not, it must be said, an enticing one.
I could start with the Palme d’Or winner, which, as you no doubt know by now, was Abdellatif Kechiche’s La vie d’Adèle Chapitre 1 & 2 (Blue is the Warmest Colour). Indeed, there is much to say about this beguiling film – but surely beginning in this vein would merely be conforming to the most pro forma practicalities of by-the-books film writing?
Instead, I will strike out for more subjective territory, and begin by relaying my personal favourites. But before doing so, I must admit that, while the festival was a reliably solid affair, the highpoints in this year’s Cannes did not equal the summits that towered over last year’s edition of the festival. No film in 2013 matched the qualities of an Amour, a Holy Motors or a No. Conversely, however, very few films were as truly atrocious as the catastrophes which were just as representative of Cannes 2012 (tact will prevent me from pointing them out explicitly, but the reader can easily find out my views). This year’s festival was not a jagged landscape of vertiginous peaks and yawning troughs, whose erratic topography would foil many an intrepid explorer; rather, it was a gently undulating plateau, with solid ground underfoot and reliable terrain through which to chart one’s course. All the same, amidst this cinematic massif some film-mountains inevitably stood out.
James Gray’s The Immigrant was the most unequivocally sublime experience of this year’s festival; for this writer, at least, seeing it in the festival palace’s Grand Théâtre Lumière was akin to Caspar David Friedrich encountering the chalk cliffs of Rügen. This was, however, by no means an opinion universally shared by Cannes’ temperamental press corps. The criticisms were varied – the characters were not believable, the storyline was forced and manipulative, the pace was too languorous – but for me such cavils were immaterial faced with the palpable emotions emanating from the screen. When it comes down to it, what such opprobrium amounts to is a deep-seated fear of melodrama, as if this disreputable genre in and of itself disqualified any work from artistic greatness. To his credit, Gray evinces no such fear, and wades into histrionic waters with as much resolve here as he did with 2008’s magisterial Two Lovers. With The Immigrant, he departs from his favoured pays natal of Brighton Beach, and crosses the East River into Manhattan. But the film is no less personal for Gray, with the subject matter substantially derived from the New York Eastern European immigrant milieu of his grandparents. It is 1921, and Marion Cotillard’s Ewa has arrived in Ellis Island from Poland with her sister. Their fate, however, seems doomed from the start: the latter’s consumption results in her mandatory quarantine, while Ewa is threatened with deportation for succumbing to “loose morals” during the ocean voyage. Ewa’s seeming rescue at the hands of Bruno, incarnated by a Joaquin Phoenix seething with intensity, serves only to realise the characterisation made of her by the immigration officials, as the pimp co-opts her into his Blue Angel-style vaudeville routine. Ewa makes sustained efforts to break free of Bruno’s tenacious grip – with his cousin, “Orlando the Magician” (Jeremy Renner), pledging to whisk her away to California, that amaranthine promesse de bonheur – but the convulsions of the Hassliebe between her and Bruno and the inevitabilities of the genre dash these hopes. Ultimately, Bruno betakes himself to make the sacrificial gesture, declaiming in a Brando-esque concluding monologue “I’m nothing.”
In Gray’s bid to join the titans of melodrama – Griffith, Mizoguchi, Sirk – this serpentine narrative has about as much importance as it did for their masterpieces: which is to say, not much at all. Far more crucial is his ability to steer the atmosphere and mood of the film, his intuition for aligning its visual and emotional tonalities, and in this he is virtually without peer in contemporary filmmaking. The imposing, visual effect-laden recreations of the early 20th-century Lower East Side will inevitably recall The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America, but Darius Khondji’s amber-hued photography gives them a unique texture. The palette was inspired, according to the director, by autochrome images from the period, and in this regard the shots of Ellis Island’s tragedy-imbued detention centre are particularly evocative. The film’s strongest trump card, however, is Gray’s mastery of mise en scène, his assured control over shot composition, framing and camera placement, and the languid ease with which he transitions from one scene to the next. This talent places Gray firmly in the tradition of Hollywood classicism, whose aesthetic qualities were only given adequate treatment by French critics in the 1950s. It is small wonder, then, that Gray’s most enthusiastic supporters predominantly hail from the Hexagon, while outre-Atlantique he is met with a mixture of bemusement and disdain. For one of the genuine artists with a fiercely individual vision to have arisen from US cinema in the last twenty years, this lack of critical appreciation in his home country is a crying injustice.
L’Inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake) by Alain Guiraudie was the other film at the festival to have most productively mined the classical cinema for its rich results. The titular lake is a gay cruising spot in a rural part of France, and the only location used in the film. This Aristotelian spatial unity is neatly complemented by the Hitchcockian poise with which Guiraudie controls the narrative flow of his taut thriller. While holidaying at the lake, the young, athletic Franck strikes up a platonic friendship with Henri – a rotund widower of confused sexuality who contents himself with sitting on a sand dune and observing his surrounds – but also takes to lusting after the dashing Tom Selleck lookalike Michel. Franck is perturbed when Michel’s annoying former lover disappears one night, but this only seems to heighten the passion he harbours for his newfound paramour. Into this hermetically sealed world (we never see a woman in the entire film) steps the inquisitive Inspecteur Damroder, played to perfection by the stooping Jérôme Chappate. Damroder’s wry befuddlement when faced with the inner workings of the cruising scene makes him a distant comic cousin to Jean-Pierre Daroussin’s Inspecteur Monet in Kaurismaki’s Le Havre, but he is nonetheless on hand when the affair progresses to its grisly conclusion. No doubt the main talking point of L’Inconnu du lac will be – already has been – the punctuation of this tale of suspicion and intrigue by explicit, unsimulated sex scenes between its main characters. Here, Guiraudie makes a plaintive statement for the legitimacy of homosexual passion at a time when France’s image of itself as a tolerant nation is being shaken by unexpectedly vitriolic mass protests against gay marriage. Despite the blow-jobs and cum-shots, his prerogatives could not be further from pornographic delectation, even if the spectre of Bataille looms large over the film. In particular, he does not flinch from highlighting the risks associated with cruising – having unprotected sex with a stranger, he underscores, is barely less reckless than cavorting with a murderer. But for me, what sets the film apart is the pure photogénie of its imagery: the reflection of the sun shimmering on the azure waters of the lake, itself framed by precipitous tree-lined mountainsides. Vachel Lindsay once claimed that it was impossible to film the sea without making it look beautiful. The interplay between the respective liquidities of water and celluloid is indeed an irresistible aesthetic force – with the work of Epstein, Flaherty and Barnet being ample proof of this – but, alas, digital cinematography is far less assured of success in this regard, a fact which makes Guiraudie’s feat all the more appreciable.
So much for the classical tradition, then; what of the moderns? Perhaps their foremost representative at this year’s festival was the indefatigable Claire Denis with Les Salauds (Bastards). Like Stranger at the Lake, it was inexplicably shunted to Un Certain Regard, when far less deserving films made their way into the Competition. Bastards is a bracing, emotionally taxing experience, but, for once, the festival setting does the work a distinct disservice. Its densely layered plot focuses on Marco (Vincent Lindon), a ship captain who returns to Paris to deal with the aftermath of the sexual abuse of his niece Justine (Lola Créton, whose irritating screen presence is the film’s main weak spot). Marco moves into the same building as Raphaëlle (Chiara Mastroianni), the mistress of the shady businessman Edouard Laporte (Denis regular Michel Subor) and proceeds to have an affair with her, while Laporte is implicated in the young girl’s abuse – the sadistic character of which is indicated by a bloodied cob of corn (the detail, apparently, is taken from Faulkner’s Sanctuary), but whose true nature is not revealed until the film’s disquieting final sequence. Up until the harrowing denouement, however, the film’s lacunary narrative presents a formidable cognitive challenge to the viewer. An esteemed critic who I encountered in the Salle Debussy urinal perceptibly dubbed it a cubist work, and indeed, the question imposes itself as to how to process the scattered information we are presented with and synthesise it into a coherent whole? At the very least, the task calls for multiple viewings, combined with a prolonged rumination on its formal and narratological structures, a luxury impossible to afford oneself during a festival as intense as Cannes, when the irrepressible agenda of screenings and press conferences (not to mention queues!) commands the diligent correspondent to immediately shift the focus of his attentions. Upon exiting the early afternoon screening I attended, I confessed to Aricie – who was holding her viewing off for the star-studded evening session – that I shared the widespread perplexity that marked the film’s initial reception, and was still unsure quite what to make of it. But Bastards slowly came to occupy me, to unsettlingly embed itself within me, and its impact has stayed with me more profoundly then virtually any other film at Cannes – even those with which I had no trouble in unhesitatingly acclaiming. And so I feel the need to warn any prospective viewer – whether viewing Bastards at a festival or not – not to cast their judgement of Denis’ film too peremptorily. The film works in subtler, more intricate ways than may be immediately apparent.
Another stalwart of an alternative cinema aesthetic, defiantly challenging the dominant norms of the mainstream, was represented with Alejandro Jodorowsky’s La Danza de la Realidad (The Dance of Reality), screening in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs. To say that this was a long-awaited comeback for Jodorowsky is rather an understatement: this was the first outing for the gnomic director of Holy Mountain and El Topo since 1990’s disavowed The Rainbow Thief. The new film is also the most personal work in Jodorowsky’s œuvre, an oneiric memoir of his childhood in the Chilean town of Tocopilla. The young Alejandro is the son of a buxom opera-singing mother and a bullying, hardline Stalinist father (played by Jodorowsky’s son Brontis) who jointly run a store selling Ukrainian memorabilia. The picaresque opening half of the film – involving run-ins with dwarves, maimed mine workers, anti-Semitic schoolchildren and a clandestine cell of communist circus freaks – gives way to a prolonged episode in the second half centring on the father’s quest to assassinate Chilean military strongman Carlos Ibañez. But throughout the film, Jodorowsky evinces the same visual inventiveness and sardonic humour that marked the best of his earlier work – with the film’s only major drawback being the cheap CGI he occasionally has recourse to deploying. Fittingly, La Danza premiered on the same day as Frank Pavich’s documentary on the filmmaker’s ill-fated project to adapt Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, prosaically titled Jodorowsky’s Dune. Pavich muses that had the project – whose lovingly illustrated script would have yielded a 14-hour film – reached fruition, it may have radically altered the course of blockbuster cinema history, but the viewer is consoled with the fact that much of the creative input into the proposed work ended up filtering through to a range of other more felicitous enterprises. Jodorowsky enlisted a platoon of “spiritual warriors” to take part in the work – including Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, Gloria Swanson, H.R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon and Pink Floyd – but it foundered with the unwillingness of Hollywood studios to provide backing for such a mercurial director. By far the highlight of the documentary is Jodorowsky’s impassioned recounting of the myriad anecdotes associated with the decade-long Odyssey through the arcana of film production: including a legendary exchange with Dalí about finding toasters at the beach, and his barely-hidden glee at watching Lynch’s Dune in the early 1980s and discovering how truly awful the film was.
In a curious coincidence, another octogenarian filmmaker also surfaced in the Quinzaine after a long hiatus from the cinema. Marcel Ophüls had not released a film since 1994, but here he returns with Un Voyageur (Ain’t Misbehavin in English). Like La Danza, Ophüls’ film is an autobiographical memoir, but otherwise its reliance on talking heads reminiscing about the past results in the film bearing much greater similarity to Pavich’s documentary – right down to the fact that Ophüls also enlisted a budding young filmmaker to help with the nitty-gritty of charting his life. But from the time he was born (to auteurist legend Max and actress Hildegard Wall) Ophüls has led a remarkably eventful life, perennially affected by the various points of intersection between the cinema and history at large, and in the film he comes across as a requisite raconteur, spinning anecdotes with charismatic panache. Beyond the presence of these two screen masters, however, the Quinzaine slate, in artistic director Edouard Waintrop’s second year, was curatorially adrift: nothing, whether in terms of form or theme, seemed to hold the grab-bag of films screening deep in the bowels of the Marriott hotel together. Two highlights from a younger generation of filmmakers – the work of which should be the overarching focus of the Quinzaine’s program – were Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, a social-realist take on young Yorkshire boys dealing in scrap metal, and Sebastián Silva’s Magic Magic, a hypnotic depiction of a American teenage girl (Juno Temple) subject to a paranoiac freakout when staying in a Chilean log cabin with a group of newfound friends. Many of the other works selected by Waintrop, however, were lightweight and failed to leave a lasting impression. Since the halcyon days of Olivier Père’s tenure, the Quinzaine has lumbered into a state of disarray, which has continued under both Waintrop and his predecessor Frédéric Boyer. While those in the Official Selection’s programming team may relish the dissipation of their eternal rival, it can surely only be of benefit to the festival as a whole if the Quinzaine is able to recapture its lost glory.
If there was one notable feature of the Quinzaine as a whole, then it was the presence of a number of French films which all shared a certain common sensibility, partaking in a form of droll, quirky humour which has difficulty finding resonance beyond the French-speaking world. Serge Bozon, with the Isabelle Huppert police farce Tip Top, and newcomers Anton Peretjako with La Fille du 14 juillet (The Rendez-vous of Déjà-vu) and Guillaume Gallienne with Guillaume et les garçons, à table! (Me, Myself and Mum – bizarrely liberal English renditions of French titles seemed to be a recurrent feature at this year’s festival) all slotted into this cinematic mode. Of these, Gallienne’s adaptation of his own whimsically autobiographical play, in which he plays both the teenaged protagonist and his domineering mother, brought out the most genuine laughs. Indeed, for this Australian viewer, it was uncannily, if unintentionally, reminiscent of Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High.
But these works were all overshadowed by the triumph of Abdellatif Kechiche in the Competition. With La Vie d’Adèle, an adaptation of a searingly personal graphic novel by Julie Maroh, the Franco-Tunisian director pulled off a surprise victory – at least for those of attempting to second-guess jury president Steven Spielberg’s proclivities – but one that was no less deserved. The performances of Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux were by far the most captivating of the festival, and the gesture of awarding the Palme d’Or jointly to the two actresses alongside Kechiche was a fitting one. Exarchopoulos is the fresh-faced Adèle, a high school pupil in suburban Lille who, after some discouraging sexual experiences with boys, is magnetically drawn to Seydoux’s older, butch Emma, whose blue-dyed hair becomes the film’s overarching visual motif. Kechiche charts the unfurling of their relationship: it initially blossoms with all-consuming passion – and marathon sex sessions which were later dubbed pornographic by an aggrieved Maroh – but when the couple’s lives begin to diverge, with Adèle becoming a school teacher while Emma’s art career blossoms, cracks in the edifice appear. An act of infidelity leads to a crescendo of bitter recrimination, as the two lovers tearfully split up, but, even years later, the chemistry between them remains a potent, unruly force. The whole thing clocks in at more than three hours, but Kechiche’s immersive work has always necessitated a more dilated durational framework than the feature film format usually allows. Ironically, then, La Vie d’Adèle’s narrative structure, with its peerless ability to absorb us into the emotional world of its main characters without being subjected to the traditional dramatic arc of the feature film, is more televisual than it is filmic, aligning itself more with high-end TV drama than any counterparts in the cinema. Indeed, not only may this be the aesthetic direction in which Kechiche is headed – why try to shoehorn his sprawling récits into the sanctified 2-hour format when he could let them stretch across an entire TV series? – but this year’s Palme d’Or may even be the taste of things to come, an augury of the future presence, or even dominance, of quality TV drama in the upper echelons of the film festival world.
Kechiche’s success aside, this year’s festival was not a very happy stomping ground for established auteurs making films in France. I had high hopes for François Ozon’s new film, after the recent splendours of Potiche and, to a slightly more mitigated extent, Dans la maison (In the House). But Jeune & Jolie (Young & Beautiful) was sadly bereft of Fabrice Luchini – who is almost as integral to the success of an Ozon film, it seems, as Bill Murray is to a Wes Anderson work – and its icily-toned focus on Isabelle, a bourgeois Parisian teenager who inscrutably takes a liking to prostituting herself to wealthy clients, lacks any of the freshness that marks Ozon’s best work, notwithstanding an acerbic cameo by Charlotte Rampling late in the action. Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian, charting the encounter between a Native American suffering from mental illness after World War II and a mercurial French anthropological psychologist, was, if anything, even more of a letdown than his compatriot’s work: in spite of the pairing of Benicio del Toro and Mathieu Amalric, very little can be said for – or even about – this pedestrian film.
Amalric would also feature prominently in another two-hander screening later in the festival: Roman Polanski’s re-working of Masoch’s play Venus in Furs, where the actor engages in a back-and-forth power struggle with Emmanuelle Seigner in the rehearsal space of a Paris theatre, but the peripeteia of the plot are predictable from the start, and Seigner’s performance in particular is not enough to illumine a deeply claustrophobic work. Ashgar Farhadi, meanwhile, was working in France for the first time, but with Le Passé (The Past) he essentially repeats the same narrative machinery that earned him such global acclaim with A Separation. The convoluted storyline involves an Iranian man, Ahmad, returning to the Parisian banlieue to finalise divorce proceedings with his estranged wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo, who was inexplicably given the best actress gong), as she has taken up with another man (Samir, played by Tahar Rahim), at the same time as watching over a truculent brood of children of different ages. Inevitably, secrets from the past – concerning Samir’s comatose wife in particular – resurface, but the relentlessness with which Farhadi assaults the viewer with one plot twist after another, like a magician endlessly pulling rabbits out of his hat, makes watching the film a laborious process. Indeed, everything is so exquisitely structured to induce the maximum gasp effect from the audience – as if Farhadi has ingested Robert McKee’s Story and can belch out tutor texts at will – that the presence of a gaping plot flaw becomes all the more maddening. Other critics, however, remind me that A Separation suffered from precisely the same defect…
As is the case every year, the US was the main rival to the home nation’s dominance of the Official Selection. Beyond James Gray’s offering, a clutch of works from indie legends featured prominently this year. The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis was an early favourite for the Palme d’Or, and although it did not snatch the prize it won over most critics on the Côte d’Azur. Taking as its focus a fictional folk musician leading a driftless life in Greenwich Village at the height of the Beatnik era, the film leadenly belabours its allusions to real-life folk singers (Bob Dylan above all) and the Odyssean wanderings of its lead (who spends much of the film chasing a friend’s cat named… wait for it… Ulysses). But this does not overly detract from the charms of the film, which are substantially indebted to Oscar Isaac’s winsome performance as the titular character, and the dark undertones lurking beneath its wry humour come to the fore in an atmospheric centrepiece, featuring a Mephistophelian encounter with a John Goodman on a misty night-time highway en route to Chicago.
Steven Soderbergh – whose name will forever be linked to Cannes thanks to the 1989 Palme d’Or for his debut work Sex, Lies and Videotape – returned to the Croisette with Behind the Candelabra, a biopic on Liberace, with Michael Douglas achieving the transformation into the flamboyant pianist with perfection, while Matt Damon gives a subtler turn as his younger lover. In the wake of his much-discussed “retirement” from the cinema, Behind the Candelabra is either Soderbergh’s last cinema-film or his first TV-film – I have trouble remembering which, but it hardly matters at this point. While enjoyable enough, like Inside Llewyn Davis the film is anchored by its acting performances; on a visual level, in spite of the wealth of possibilities afforded by the subject matter, Soderbergh has been known to be more inspired. By contrast, the qualities of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska lay almost entirely in its black and white photography of the sparse terrain of the Great Plains, whose muted greys viscerally recall Robert Adams’ work. Beyond this, the father-son road-trip at the core of the film – a senile Bruce Dern sets out from his hometown of Billings, Montana in the misguided belief that he has won $1 million in a sweepstake – has a sweetness to it, without, however, having anything particularly profound to say.
One of the highlights of the American battalion of films came from an unexpected quarter: J.C. Chandor’s All is Lost generated little buzz in the lead-up to its low-key Hors Compétition screening, and its premise was not overly promising: Robert Redford is alone on board a yacht when its hull is pierced by a floating Chinese shipping container filled with gym shoes (ah, the political allegory…), and spends the rest of the film in a seemingly futile bid to stave the ocean off from swallowing him into its depths. After the execrable Life of Pi, Chandor shows how to make a genuine lost-at-sea movie. Apart from an early monologue and a sprinkling of expletives, as things go from bad to worse for the unnamed sailor, the film is absent of speech, and mainly features a grizzled Redford battling stoically against the elements, but it nonetheless manages to be gripping entertainment from start to finish, and builds to a rousing conclusion. Exiting the theatre after the screening, my only qualm with the film was precisely the ending, which I felt to be a cop-out, but later discussions with Aricie revealed a more ambiguous quality to the culminating scene that I had initially overlooked. Sadly, reader, I can’t be more specific without ruining the entire film.
Asian auteurs were also strongly represented this year. Whereas Kore-eda turned out a reliable family drama with Soshite chichi ni naru (Like Father, Like Son), using a hoary old switched-at-birth plot premise to gently interrogate the wisdom of the lopsided work-life balance of the contemporary world’s managerial elites, Jia Zhang-ke’s Tian zhu ding (A Touch of Sin) was an uncertain prospect: would his progressive absorption into official filmmaking structures irreparably dilute the bite of his films, or would the talent and resolve of the artist overcome such fears? Would this work be a return to the strength of his earlier output, or, as seemed likely, would it represent a new departure? In some ways, A Touch of Sin is indeed remote from Jia’s previous output – not least in its graphically violent excess (Takeshi Kitano was a co-producer) – but on a more profound level it continues in his broader project of unveiling contemporary social reality in China. In some ways, as odd as this sounds, Jia is the closest thing that the Chinese industrial revolution comes to having its own Balzac. As with much of the French novelist’s work, the four lightly intermeshed stories in Jia’s film are taken from news headlines of the day: of an anti-corruption campaigner taking to retributive killing sprees, of a receptionist at a sauna lashing out against the corpulent clients who taunt her, or of a young factory worker fed up with the regimented dreariness of life on the shop-floor that he leaps from an apartment building. The episodes may be uneven: the second is by far the weakest, while the first is irresistibly compelling (and bears not a little resemblance, strangely enough, to Tarantino’s Django Unchained). But, taken together, they yield a synthetic portrait of a society corroded from within by the gangrenous effects of its endemic violence.
By contrast, Takashi Miike’s Wara no tate (Shield of Straw) was a desultory offering; bereft of the delirious madness of his best work, it is a sub-par film which in no way distinguishes itself from any of the low-rent action movies perpetually churned out by the most mercenary tendencies within Hollywood. The film’s premise is nonetheless auspicious – a wealthy recluse puts a 1 billion yen price tag on the head of his granddaughter’s murderer, requiring a squad of police officers to protect the loathsome man from an avaricious populace while he is transported to Tokyo – and the moral quandary could have yielded something akin to Kurasawa’s High and Low. As it is, however, the trade journals were right to see the film’s main value lying in the sale of remake rights to Hollywood.
In spite of the disparity in their quality, Jia and Miike’s works share at least one thing in common: the unrestrained depiction of violence, and if this year’s festival had any underlying point of commonality, then it was the pervasive brutality imbuing so many of its films. At times, indeed, the festival came across as an unstinting exercise in human savagery – I recorded five films depicting acts of genital mutilation alone. Amat Escalante’s Heli and Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives probably went furthest in this direction. Refn’s film was one of the more prominent disappointments of the festival, and along with Shield of Straw it drew the most boos at it 8:30am press screening – a slot notorious for its volatile reactions. Whereas 2011’s Drive was an energising tour de force, his latest film is ponderous and vapid. Ryan Gosling teams up with Refn again, but the renewed partnership fails to recreate the chemistry which worked so well on their previous collaboration: here Gosling plays an American fugitive eking out an existence in Bangkok, who is tasked with avenging the death of his brother at the behest of his imperious mother. Kristin Scott Thomas’s turn as the mother is the film’s single highlight: Refn aptly describes the character as a cross between Donatella Versace and Lady Macbeth, and the actress pulls off the improbable combination (we can perhaps throw in some Clytemnestra for good measure) with sultry aplomb.
Other films in this vein were, thankfully, more successful. Mohammad Rasoulof added to his incomparably dark portrait of modern-day Iran with Adast-Neveshtehaa Nemisoosand (Manuscripts Don’t Burn), which goes for the jugular in showing the treatment meted out by the Islamic Republic to dissident intellectuals. Tore tanzt (Nothing Bad Can Happen) by the debutante Katrin Gebbe initially comes across as the type of tepid liberal film that German film school graduates disgorge by the hundreds, but Gebbe, helped in this path by the true story of young boy taken in by a family before being tortured to death by the father figure, pushes the sadism to extreme lengths.
As opposed to these individual acts of cruelty, deadly massacres perpetrated by state forces from 20th century Asian history formed the subject matter for L’Image manquante (The Missing Image) by Rithy Panh and Death March by Adolfo Alix Jr., but the respective treatments the filmmakers gave to these events varied considerably. Whereas Panh used wood-carved figures to stand in for the images that were never produced of his own family’s experience during the Khmer Rouge’s rule, Alix Jr. went for a Brechtian use of cardboard scenery and obfuscatory plumes of smoke to depict the enforced death march of thousands of Filipinos under Japanese occupation during World War II. A broader political resonance was also palpable in the Palestinian Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar and Chadian Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s Grigris. In the former, three young militants living in the West Bank face the wrath of the Israeli penal system after shooting an IDF soldier, but also end up turning on each other under pressure from the Zionist authorities. Although Abu-Assad’s portrayal of the resistance is not an overly flattering one, he leaves the viewer with no doubt as to where his sympathies lie, and affords the titular character a redemptive if vainglorious swansong. Redemption is also at hand in Grigris, whose protagonist is a nightclub dancer with a lame leg who falls in love with a local prostitute while also engaged in petrol smuggling. The tragic unfurling of the plot is only averted when Grigris’ pursuer is clubbed to death by the womenfolk of the village in which he has sought refuge. Zizek has often mused about the only possible alternative to the tragic ending of Antigone – in which the masses rise up to overthrow Creon’s tyrannical rule; here, Haroun realises the Slovene philosopher’s wishes in a very different context.
As I noted, there were very few categorical disasters this year. Paolo Sorrentino’s turgid La Grande Bellezza was one. Kinder critics may claim that he set out to make a decadent film in order to match the decadent subject matter, but I tend to think the reverse process was more applicable: knowing his own irremediable decadence, what else could Sorrentino crank out? The loyalty shown to him by the festival (this is his fourth consecutive film to screen in competition) is, to put it bluntly, baffling. Sarkozy’s sister-in-law Valeria Bruni Tedeschi offered another with Un Château en Italie (A Castle in Italy). No amount of whimsical slapstick shovelled into this film could be enough to make me care for its irksome characters, who spend the film fretting over everyday problems such as whether to let the public access their castle on Sundays, or whether to sell their Breughel painting to pay the bills. But the true stand-alone catastrophe of the festival was James Franco’s split-screen Faulkner adaptation As I Lay Dying. It pains me somewhat to say this, as, like just about every other graduate student in the north-eastern United States, I was once briefly a classmate of Franco’s, but not a single element of the film redeems this self-indulgent exercise in visual and auditory repulsiveness.
It would be a disservice to sign off on such a bitter note. Happily, the Semaine de la Critique offered salvation with its closing night omnibus 3X3D. Commissioned by the Portuguese city of Guimaraes on the question of 3D cinema, the triptych features panels by local Edgar Pêra (whose frenzied segment was headache-inducing), Peter Greenaway (whose segment resembled Russian Ark as imagined by a hyperactive child addicted to surfing Wikipedia articles) and Jean-Luc Godard. The prospect of a Godard world premiere – even if only of a short – made the screening easily the most anticipated event of the festival for this scribe, and so Aricie and I trooped down to the Miramar theatre more than two hours before it was due to begin, huddling together with a select band of other devotees to the cult of JLG. The Old Man did not fail to deliver: while it will only go down as a minor footnote in his venerable career, and functions mainly as an extended preview for the upcoming Adieu au langage, there is no other way to describe “Les Trois Désastres” than that it is pure Godard. As with many of his recent shorts, the film reworks and reorders material from his gargantuan Histoire(s) project, and indeed, most of the film rejects the premise of the commission by stubbornly remaining in 2D. When Godard does revert to stereoscopy – apparently using a homemade rig with consumer cameras – he often sunders the dual-layered image, and gives it a Fauvist look recalling the digital sequences of Éloge de l’amour. The title alone, however, gives an indication of Godard’s attitude towards 3D, despite the fact that he is shooting Adieu in the format, and he peppers his short with pronouncements such as “Le nom de l’ombre, c’est le nombre” (an untranslatable pun) and “Digital will become a dictatorship.” Merely trying to keep up with annotating the profusion of image and text during the screening was an exhausting effort – and when I later looked at what I had scribbled into my notepad it was almost entirely indecipherable, so a more precise account of this morceau will have to wait. But I can unreservedly state that the work is an intense and invigorating experience, more stimulating than anything else at the festival. Indeed, when asked for my favourite films from this year’s Cannes, I am somewhat ashamed that I do not immediately answer, “The Godard.” But in a way this is apt. In relation to the rest of contemporary cinema, Godard is absolutely à part, the audiovisual syntax he has developed is unique to his own œuvre, and bares no comparison with any of his peers. Seeing his work at Cannes is akin to hearing Stravinsky at Glastonbury. Godard simply is Godard.
Alas, as I come to the end of this report, I can only look regretfully on the films I wanted to see but which, for various reasons, I missed out on. The inimitable Lav Diaz’s Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan (Norte, The End of History) was, by all accounts, one of the strongest films at the festival – but at four hours long I was unable to squeeze it into my crowded schedule. Jim Jarmusch was promising a comeback of sorts (he has not made anything of note since 2005’s Broken Flowers) with Only Lovers Left Alive, but with my lowly level of accreditation I had no hope of getting into the single press screening that took place before my departure from the Riviera. The bitterest omission, however, came on my last night at the festival. Thanks to Aricie’s machinations, I had managed to procure a ticket for the evening gala screening of Arnaud des Pallières’ Mads Mikkelsen-starring Michael Kohlhaas (after the Kleist novella), a privilege from which journalists are usually a priori excluded. The only stumbling block was the tenue de soirée dress code. Borrowing a bow tie for the occasion, I threw a makeshift outfit together, and we headed to the festival palace. With a crush of well-groomed attendees encircling the entrance, we made it past the first stage of security, but then, two metres from the red carpet, I received a tap on the shoulder. A security guard had espied my less than formal attire and dragged me out of the queue. My Adidas trainers (they were black, mind) were the main cause for refusing me entry, but the rest of my garb did not help matters. No amount of remonstrating could sway the unflappable palace sentinels, and so we had to forego the screening (Aricie devotedly joined me in solidarity, although there was nothing wrong with her tenue) and make the long walk back to our apartment. As we strode despondently up the Rue Buttura, I noticed a familiar shock of unruly hair. Its owner was unmistakable: it was the young man from the Caffé Roma, but now he was sitting in the gutter, his head in his hands. He looked up at me in despair: he, too, had been denied access to the des Pallières screening due to his scruffy clothing. We briefly commiserated with one another on the misfortune, but that would be the last I saw of him.
Later, I did indeed manage to see Michael Kohlhaas, and I was greatly impressed with the film. But it is impossible to know how differently I would have responded to it if I had been allowed into the festival palace. Viewing des Pallières’ film on a DVD screener while lying on my couch at home stripped the work of all the aura of a Cannes screening, and, as my colleague is wont to utter, the context of a film screening is just as important as the text. Cannes is a callous mistress, treating her suitors with blithe contempt. And yet, year after year, we can not resist returning to her embraces.
Cannes Film Festival
15-26 May 2013
Festival website: http://www.festival-cannes.fr/en.html