It’s one of the oldest clichés in football. A team dominates the match and is ahead on the scoreboard at half-time, but throws their lead away after play resumes. Or the reverse: after meekly surrendering in the opening 45 minutes, they manage to stage a remarkable comeback in the second-half, and come away with the spoils. Fronting up to the ravenous press after the final whistle, the team’s weary gaffer will inevitably utter a phrase that has already been repeated thousands of times by generations of football managers who have found themselves in the same situation, literary originality not being one of the hallmarks of their profession: “It was a game of two halves.”
Strangely, film festivals can register a similar dynamic to football matches: often, they take a while to hit their straps, beginning tepidly but rounding out with a strong finish. Or, alternatively, they start with an exultant bang before trailing away in lamentable ignominy. At this year’s Cannes, it was the latter trajectory that prevailed in the competition, the sports-like nature of which is immeasurably exacerbated by the cut-throat atmosphere that prevails on the Croisette. In the first half of the festival, the competition seemed to move from one triumph to the next, as press and industry figures alike hailed the cinematic masterpieces on show. Then, as the midway point of the festival was passed, the critical fortunes of the films on offer nosedived. From one day to the next, it seemed, the works on display became markedly worse, and the mood among festival attendees correspondingly soured, attitudes shifting precipitously from approbation to opprobrium. It was, the armchair football managers among us might say, a festival of two halves.
If a festival is like a football match, you might ask, then what are the two teams in question? Who, exactly, is playing against whom? The natural answer would be the filmmakers vs the audience. But Cannes is a little more complex than that. Yes, those present at screenings form one of the antagonistic parties. But given that attendees are for the most part critics and industry figures, there is no audience in the ordinary sense of the word at Cannes. And the opposing side is not so much the filmmakers as it is the festival organisers – above all, délégué général Thierry Frémaux, who for the last decade has been the public face of the official selection. This is why it is the competition that, above all, raises the passions of festival-goers. The other sections of the festival – Un certain regard, the Quinzaine des réalisateurs, the Semaine de la critique – usually elicit contented approval, or, in a worst case scenario, mild disappointment. Some entries may be enthusiastically fêted, but it is rare, and, to my mind, somewhat untoward, for films in these sections to be subjected to vociferous condemnation. The rules of engagement for the competition, however, are starkly different. Here, it is demanded of films that they be outstanding contributions to the art of cinema, and if any of the competition entries should fall short of this benchmark, the knives come out, as the press pack mercilessly attacks the source of their ire. Indeed, the very term “press pack” seems nowhere more appropriate than at Cannes, where, every year, for ten days in May, a crowd of normally mild-mannered journalists are transformed into a throng of braying wolves ready to pounce on the wounded prey. Their fury, however, seems primarily directed at the film’s status in the competition, at the fact that it had been bestowed with such a hallowed position in this annual cinematic pantheon. From the critic’s point of view, the injury of the bad film is compounded by the insult that, because it has been included in the competition, we will be compelled to actually sit there and watch it.
It is true that this hothouse environment prevails only in the volatile projections de presse, which have a totally different logic to the gala screenings.1 Concomitantly, the stakes surrounding a film’s perceived merits are disproportionately heightened, creating a bipolar effect amongst attendees: the giddy highs of success are swiftly followed by the morose lows of failure. This happens every year on the Croisette. But it is rare for the festival to so strictly sifter the wheat from the chaff in such an unambiguously chronological order.
In this vein, the first half of the competition registered a pleasingly upwards trajectory. It is true that the festival’s opening night film, Woody Allen’s Café Society, can best be described as middling fare. As with much of his recent work, the dominant mood is one of amber-hued wistful nostalgia, this time for Hollywood in the 1930s. Jesse Eisenberg reprises his function as an Allen stand-in, here taking on the role of Bobby Dorfman, a naive, slightly dopey Jewish kid from New York who heads off to the West Coast to make his way in the industry, principally via a nepotistic hire from his Uncle Phil, a powerful Tinseltown agent played by Steve Carrell. Bobby falls in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who unfortunately happens to be – as the film telegraphs from a very early stage – Uncle Phil’s mistress. If emotional fireworks are promised by this shopworn love-triangle premise, Allen opts for a subdued, if not downright deflating path: Vonnie stays with Phil, while Bobby returns to New York to run a nightclub for his gangster brother. Although the end sees Stewart and Eisenberg cross paths again, the film’s dispiriting conclusion is, as its final line puts it, “dreams are dreams”.
Indeed, there is a vein in Woody Allen’s work that echoes the anti-romantic sentiments of this film – Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives and Match Point to name a few. But whereas the earlier films tend to denounce the opportunism of settling for the pragmatic option in life, and the moral transgressions it can lead to, Café Society sanguinely accepts its protagonist’s bittersweet capitulation to prosaic realism. A cipher perhaps, for Allen’s own aesthetic compromises, as the filmmaker enters his ninth decade: his drive to make a film every year, regardless of its merits, unavoidably results in an uneven œuvre, with an embarrassing misfire or two for every film that is on-target. His latest release lies between the two extremes; by no means catastrophic, it is merely unremarkable, and thus is perfectly slotted as an opening night film, which as a rule is more about celebrity pulling power than cinematic prowess. If it detains Allen loyalists – of which, in spite of everything, I still count myself as one – then it will primarily do so precisely out of their loyalty. Indeed, the one truly new thing about the film was its backer: as was the case with an inordinately large number of the festival’s American entries, Café Society was funded by Amazon Studios. With its turn to feature film production, the online retailing giant seems to have grown another tentacle in its squidlike grip over the planet. Some were hailing the quality of the films Jeff Bezos’ firm was underwriting – which, it is true, included works from some of the most respected auteur filmmakers working today – but I could not help but feel that, sooner or later, the penny will drop that the company’s intentions may not be so benign after all.
The initial forays in the competition proper, however, were decidedly more promising than Allen’s offering. Rester vertical (Staying Upright) by Alain Guiraudie and Ma Loute (Slack Bay) by Bruno Dumont formed a pair of early entries, premiering at successive 8:30am screenings, that had the twin feat of ushering new names into the competition pantheon, after the two filmmakers had spent years mucking around in Un certain regard and the Quinzaine, while simultaneously stamping the festival with France’s unstinting cinematic amour-propre – although admittedly this year’s selection was less Gallic-heavy than last year’s line-up. More than this, however, the two films sought to blend surrealist humour with a social-realist preoccupation for those marginalised outcasts who are the inevitable by-product of highly stratified class societies such as our own. Their relevance for a country consumed by disquiet about what the future holds for it was only too palpable: even the title of Guiraudie’s film resonated with the Nuit debout protests that have occupied the Place de la république since March. As is to be expected, however, Guiraudie steers clear of the capital and instead situates his film in a remote part of the country: here, Brest and its surrounds. The film follows its sexually confused protagonist Léo, a screenwriter who wanders around rural France in search of inspiration, but manages only to impregnate a local shepherdess. When she abruptly leaves him, the lethargic Léo must take care of the baby by himself, but he also embarks on trysts with her father, a sullen teenaged boy called Yoan and an irascible old man with whom Yoan lodges. Fleeing reality, Léo slides into destitute homelessness as he refuses to complete a screenplay for his insistent producer. All the while, wolves are a lurking, menacing presence in the film, but Rester vertical’s bleakness is significantly leavened by moments of screwball oddity: at one point, the producer hunts Léo down through swampland in order to get his script, while later in the film, the protagonist, on the run, is confronted with his own picture on the front page of a local tabloid, sensationalistically denouncing him for the twin crime of sodomy and euthanasia.
This admixture was shared by Ma Loute, which centred on the Bruforts, a family of impoverished mussel farmers in fin de siècle northern France who supplement their income by carrying wealthy tourists across the muddy marshes of the coastal locale, in addition to occasionally killing and eating said tourists. The disappearances attract a pair of pratfall-prone, bowler-hat wearing detectives, Machin and Malfoy (the duo coming across as a combination of Laurel & Hardy, on the one hand, and Thomson & Thompson of Tintin fame on the other), but a brood of bumbling aristocrats holidaying in a nearby villa – whose number includes Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Juliette Binoche – are blithe to the peril they are in. Meanwhile, Ma Loute, the Bruforts’ eldest son, crosses the seemingly unnavigable class divide when he falls in love with the beautiful but suspiciously androgynous Billie. A follow-up to the unexpectedly popular 2014 Quinzaine enry P’tit Quinquin (which itself is slated for a sequel), Ma Loute recycles the earlier film’s detective framework and bouts of slapstick mayhem, as well as abundantly mining the innate humour generated by the rustic Ch’ti dialect. After establishing himself as a po-faced minimalist with works such as Hadewijch (2009) and Hors Satan (2011), Dumont’s shift to high farce is as unexpected as it is vivifying, and on the back of P’tit Quinquin and Ma Loute, we can only hope it continues.
With Sieranevada, Romanian director Cristi Puiu also arrived in the competition with a film that successfully fuses the comedic and the serious. If the Romanian New Wave as a whole is formally associated with the plan-séquence, Puiu has probably taken this technique to greater extremes than any of his countrymen. As with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2007) and Aurora (2010), the three hours of Sieranevada (the film’s title, complete with idiosyncratic spelling, is never explained) consist primarily of handheld long-takes, but here the film takes place almost entirely in a cramped flat, as an extended middle-class family gathers to mourn the death of its patriarch. The main character of the film is the father’s son, Lary, a somewhat meek man in his forties whose bickering with his wife is rather innocuous in comparison with the family conflicts unfolding around them, but in truth the real protagonist of the fiction is the camera itself, which seems to prowl through the rooms and corridors of the apartment with a mind of its own, only half-interested in the rolling conversations of the family members. We must wait two-and-a-half hours for the film’s big reveal, and even then it is something of an anti-climax, but Puiu is evidently concerned more with the minutiae of the daily interactions between close friends and relatives than he is with narrative pyrotechnics. For the most part, the profusion of dialogue in the film hues closely to quotidian affairs, but the recurring moments when family members veer into politics-with-a-big-P are the highlights of Sieranevada’s logorrhoeic absurdism: Lary’s brother persistently plies his family with increasingly abstruse 9/11 conspiracy theories, while an elderly, unrepentantly communist grandmother verbally destroys a monarchist relative with her encomiums to pre-1989 Romania.
In fact, the former Eastern bloc nation was well-represented at this year’s festival, with Puiu’s film accompanied by Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat (Graduation) in the competition, and first-timer Bogdan Mircea’s Caîni (Dogs) in Un certain regard. Neither of these films, however, impressed to the same degree as Sieranevada. Mircea’s grisly depiction of rural Romania was instantly forgettable, and points to the difficulties a new generation of filmmakers face in coming to prominence after the much-vaunted Romanian New Wave of the mid-2000s. Mungiu, of course, is the most high-profile representative of that wave, but his latest work is distinctly less powerful than 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, the benchmark 2007 film against which the rest of his œuvre will inevitably be measured. Here, the diligent doctor Romeo is one of the few honest people left in Romania, it seems, but his ethical probity is sorely tested when an attempted rape of his daughter Eliza harms her prospects of acing her final exams and guaranteeing her acceptance into Cambridge, which had been Romeo’s plan for the girl since infancy. Although Eliza is having second thoughts about leaving Bucharest – inspired primarily by the angst of leaving her boyfriend – Romeo enlists the aid of an affably corrupt politician to ensure his daughter passes the exam. The moral transgression has its inevitable repercussions, but the end result feels a bit too tidy, and it can not but suffer from comparisons to Sieranevada; whereas Puiu pushes the boundaries of form and plot-structure, Mungiu prefers, both stylistically and narratively, to remain within a certain comfort zone.
The real triumph of the festival, however, was neither French nor Romanian, but a German film. More unexpectedly still, it was a German comedy, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. For a previous example of a German comedy that was actually funny we probably have to go back to Lubitsch (and even he decamped for Hollywood at the first opportunity), but Ade’s third film convincingly disproves the stereotype of the humourless Teuton. In doing so she comprehensively won over the festival’s denizens, whose acclaim for Toni Erdmann was more unanimously effusive than virtually any film I have encountered in my six years of covering the festival, as evinced by the unprecedented 3.8 out of 4 rating Ade received from the Screen International critics panel.
Toni Erdmann is a persona devised by the whimsical Winfried, an aging, slightly hippyish piano teacher with a proclivity for donning disguises. Taking inspiration, I would hazard, from Andy Kauffman’s lounge singer Tony Clifton, Winfried dons a bedraggled wig and a set of protruding dentures to incarnate his buffoonish character, and on a whim decides to pay a visit to his uptight daughter Ines, a corporate consultant who has seconded herself to Bucharest in order to work on an outsourcing plan for a multinational oil firm. To the mortification of Ines, Toni is able to infiltrate and subversively lampoon the soulless corporate environment in which she is immersed, despite – or perhaps because of – the eccentric nature of the guise he adopts. The scenes that garnered most commentary from the press included Ines’ complete rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” at a Romanian client’s house, and her spontaneous decision to throw a naked party for her bemused co-workers after having difficulty putting on a pair of stockings. Evidently, Winfried’s devil-may-care attitude ends up rubbing off on his staid daughter. More broadly, Toni Erdmann broaches trenchant political issues connected with the corporate culture that prevails in contemporary capitalist societies, whether “mature” economies such as Germany or peripheral nations that are desperately trying to play catch-up. The role of German firms in these countries is tackled head-on – Ines is essentially used as a cover for the firm to fire proletarian oil workers for the sake of “competitiveness” – while the intractable difficulties women face in the steadfast machismo of the board room is also addressed: although she is given a degree of respect on the job, Ines must self-effacingly deny any pretence of being a feminist, and at the end of the day the boys will still head off to the strip club. If there is a recipe for success at Cannes, it may well come in the blend of politics and humour that characterised the best films of the competition this year – certainly such an approach at least provides a welcome reprieve from the unremitting miserablism that is often the lot of the hapless festival-goer. If I have a misgiving about Toni Erdmann, however, it is that the languid tempo Ade adopts is often in tension with the comic pacing that the film demands, and it may well have benefited from some tightening here and there.
Andrea Arnold’s American Honey was another high-profile competition film made by a woman director; by a strange coincidence, it also clocked in at 162 minutes. A rambling film set in the socially anomic American South, the British director’s foray across the Atlantic Ocean follows Star, an 18-year-old orphan who abandons dumpster diving for a shiftless boyfriend in order to embark on a new life: after encountering the irrepressibly ebullient Jake (Shia LaBeouf) in a supermarket, she joins a squadron of drop-out kids who operate a magazine subscriptions scam under the imperious tutelage of the tempestuous Kristal (Riley Keogh).To Kristal’s ire, Star and Jake tentatively explore their budding passion for each other, while the rest of the gang listens to a barrage of hip hop and pop music as they travel in a van across the backwaters of America. Several directions for the film are suggested, but, disappointingly, none are decisively taken by Arnold, and American Honey’s inconclusiveness after more than two-and-a-half hours is a little hard to swallow. Moreover, certain aspects of the film come off as derivative – a dance scene to Rihanna recalls Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles (Girlhood, Céline Sciamma, 2014), while LaBeouf’s character is redolent of James Franco’s turn as Alien in Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013), and his laboured clowning detracts from the film as a whole. Finding poetry in the world of the downtrodden is clearly Andrea Arnold’s preferred modus operandi, but whereas in films such as Fish Tank (2009), she has an acute sensitivity for the milieu she depicts, here the filmmaker’s eye comes across as that of a gawker taking macabre pleasure in unfamiliar surrounds, not too different to the poverty-tourists who fill their Instagram feeds with photos of rust belt cities. It is only in rare moments of American Honey – a late scene where Star drops in on a house of meth addicts, for instance – that Arnold is able to transcend this sociological voyeurism for something more profound.
If anyone can claim to the be the grandfather of kitchen-sink realism in the cinema, however, it is the indefatigable stalwart of the British left, Ken Loach. With I, Daniel Blake Loach has established a new world record: this is his 13th film to be included in competition at Cannes. After the relatively frivolous features Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and The Angel’s Share (2012), Loach here returns to his bread-and-butter: unflinching depictions of the depredations suffered by the working-class under capitalism. In charting the tribulations faced by a middle-aged blue-collar worker after losing his job, Loach’s latest film bears significant similarities with last year’s La loi du marché (The Measure of a Man, Stéphane Brizé), to the extent that it could almost be seen as a remake of the French film, were it not for the fact that the English director has been churning out comparable works for the better part of five decades. If anything, the resemblance between the two films suggests the parallel social issues faced on both sides of the Channel. The 59 year-old titular character is a Geordie widower who slides into a pit of bureaucratic maltreatment: a heart attack renders him incapable, in his doctor’s view, of continuing to work as a joiner, but the Cameron-era welfare system decides that he is ineligible for a disability pension, and so he has to join the “job-seeker” program instead, where our hero is ritually humiliated by supercilious employees and repeatedly suspended from payments for supposed infractions of his job-seeking “contract”. As he slides into crushing destitution, a ray of light enters Daniel’s life when he meets the young single mother Katie, a Londoner provided with emergency accommodation 250 miles away from her home. Their relationship remains strictly platonic, with the two joining forces to confront the reality of poverty and the cold indifference of the welfare state. A visit to the local food bank – which has sadly become a prevalent feature in post-crisis Britain – provides for a particularly gut-wrenching scene, as Katie is so overcome with hunger that she takes to slurping tomato soup directly from a can, but a late plot-turn in which, to Daniel’s dismay, the young woman joins an escort agency is rather more gratuitous, and paves the way for the melodrama of the film’s conclusion. Subtlety, of course, has never been Loach’s forte; thankfully, the over-egged denouement does nothing to mar this emotionally arresting indictment of the degrading effects that neoliberal economics has on human lives. Jeremy Corbyn supporters, of course, will love I, Daniel Blake – but to say this, in my book, is the highest form of praise.
The undeniable qualities of the film notwithstanding, the announcement that the George Miller-chaired jury had bestowed Loach with the coveted Palme d’or was met with a general reaction of surprise – the prize can’t even be seen as an ersatz lifetime achievement award, given that Loach had already won it for The Wind That Shakes the Barley in 2006. Given its universal critical plaudits, Toni Erdmann seemed to be an unbackable favourite for the palm – but in the end Ade came away empty-handed, with the bulk of the various runners-up prizes going to decidedly inferior works. Was this a sexist snub in line with Cannes’ long track-record of misogynistic neglect of women filmmakers (in 69 years, Jane Campion is the only female recipient of the Palme d’or)? Before you all fire up your twitter accounts, I should say that I doubt it: it is more likely that the arbitrary nature of festival juries is at the root of this year’s curious slate of prize-winners.
The other critical triumph of the competition was Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, a two-hander starring Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani as a contented young couple who live in a cute cottage in suburban New Jersey with their bulldog Marvin. Driver is the eponymous protagonist, living in the eponymous town. Yes: in a droll touch, both are called Paterson. Every day of the week, Paterson the man wakes up just after 6am and heads to the bus depot to drive a local route, before coming home at the end of his shift, whereupon he takes Marvin for a walk and stops off to drink a single beer at an unrealistically convivial dive bar. In his spare moments, he takes respite from this routine by writing wretched poetry in a little notebook, drawing inspiration from the town’s lyrical hero William Carlos Williams. Paterson’s girlfriend Laura, meanwhile, has no regular job, but is constantly dreaming up new schemes to fill her days, some of which pay off (selling cupcakes emblazoned with her distinctive monochromatic patterns), and some of which do not (learning to play the guitar so she can be a Country & Western musician). This serenely humdrum existence is sprinkled with minor events – a bus breaks down, a jilted lover whips out a gun in the bar, the two watch a black-and-white film in a movie-theatre (“just like living in the twentieth century”, as Laura puts it in one of the film’s rare moments of grating self-awareness), and, as the film draws to a close, Marvin does a very naughty thing – but to tell the truth there is little meaningful narrative progression. After the disappointment of Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), where Jarmusch was trying just that little bit too hard to be effortlessly cool, I came into Paterson with low expectations, and the pairing of Driver and Farahani – both of whom are a little, shall we say, overexposed at present – had the potential to be profoundly irritating. But the delights of monotony are so charmingly depicted, and the two lead actors so winsome in the subtlety of their performances, that I was won over to the film.
A number of old-timers were present, meanwhile, with films that were serviceable additions to their distinguished bodies of work, without being particularly ground-breaking pieces of cinema that would push us to redefine their pre-existing œuvres. The Dardenne brothers – whose cast-iron guarantee of a competition slot is matched only by Haneke – followed Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night, 2014) with La Fille inconnue (The Unknown Girl), another film centring on a female protagonist faced with an exacting moral quandary: vedette du jour Adèle Haenel is Jenny, a young medical professional who has temporarily taken over a GP’s office in (surprise!) a depressed part of Liège, while she waits to take a much more prestigious position at a medical research centre. But when she refuses to answer the door to a young migrant woman in need, who is subsequently found dead, Jenny assumes guilt for the incident, and embarks on a mission to find out the victim’s identity and the circumstances of her death. A reliably strong film that continues the ethical explorations of their earlier work, La Fille inconnue nonetheless lacks the emotional punch that capped its predecessor, and will go down as a relatively inconsequential addition to the Dardennes’ corpus.
Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta is similarly underwhelming: punctuated with allusions to Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock, the film actually takes its material from three Alice Munro short stories. In a Buñuelian turn, two actors play the role of Julieta, before and after the death of her husband Xoan (suggesting, if we are to take it at face value, a rapid, trauma-induced aging process), and the film’s narrative is imparted by means of a letter the desperate protagonist writes to her estranged adult daughter. Despite a magnificent use of colour (especially in a lengthy scene in a train carriage, the site of Julieta’s first encounter with Xoan) and a deft control of mise en scène, Julieta is, in the final analysis, nought but a cinematic trifle from an auteur who is capable of much more spectacular things. If fireworks were to be had with Almodóvar, it was in the press conference, where an intrepid reporter probed him on his implication in the Panama Papers scandal. While the harried moderator rushed to change the topic, Almodóvar fobbed off the accusations of tax evasion by claiming that if the scandal were a film, then his part would only be that of an insignificant extra. We look forward to this film!
Asia was represented with two very different works, from two very distinctive directors. Park Chan-wook’s icy thriller The Handmaiden adapts the English novel Fingersmith to 1930s Japan-occupied Korea, but keeps the stuffiness and aristocratic perversion of the original. Sook-hee is enlisted by a low-life swindler posing as a count to become the handmaiden to wealthy heiress Hideko, so as to help “The Count” in his seduction of her, but the heiress instead falls for Sook-hee herself. The ensuing labyrinthine plot is sprinkled with moments of gruesome brutality and frenetic lesbian sex scenes of an intensity that was last seen at Cannes in Kechiche’s La Vie d’Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour, 2013). As undeniably gratifying as these sprinklings of sex and violence are, the end result, as with Park’s The Stoker (2013), is to leave one with a pungent aftertaste of nihilism. On the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, Brillante Mendoza featured with Ma Rosa, a neorealist-influenced work focusing on a drug-dealing matriarch in the slums of Manila who has to contend with the police when they bust her and her husband’s operation. The austere film was an effective rendition of the violence and precariousness of life in the bas-fonds of the Philippines, but it caused barely a ripple of attention from a press corps consumed by more attention-grabbing fare.
Emerging cineastes Jeff Nichols and Kleber Mendonça Filho were also given competition berths, but in the case of both, their entries were a step down from earlier outings. With Aquarius, the Brazilian focuses on the efforts of Clara, an aging music journalist who lives in an art deco beachfront apartment in Recife, to resist a real estate developer who wants to buy her out. As she is the last hold-out on the block, her building is emptied of neighbours, while the smarmy developer’s psychological warfare extends to holding loud orgies in the apartment above her and, when this tactic fails, unleashing a termite infestation in the property. Alongside this plotline, we are also given an intimate portrait of Clara’s culturally rich life. A widower, she remains close to her adult children, and even after losing her right breast to cancer is not quite ready to give up on her youth, as sessions of pot-smoking and gigolo-screwing attest. Aquarius continues Mendonça Filho’s exploration of the social contours of his booming hometown, but the result is, on a formal level, much less innovative than his debut feature Neighbouring Sounds (2012), and the analysis of class contradictions in the former film is largely voided in Aquarius: after all, Clara herself is considerably wealthy, and, as a prologue set in the 1970s confirms, she comes from a privileged, old money background. What are we being asked to do then, but to side with one (cultured, progressive) section of the bourgeoisie against its (crass, profit-driven) rivals? If clear-cut class politics were to be found from the filmmaker, it would come in his team’s protest at the film’s gala screening, as cast and crew held up signs denouncing the “coup” against Workers Party president Dilma Rousseff.
The political stakes of Nichols’ Loving were much less ambiguous: in this period drama about the couple who successfully challenged Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage in the 1960s, the question of justice could not be more clear-cut. Many will no doubt reach for the recent legalisation of gay marriage as a historical parallel to the Loving case, but there is a gulf separating the two in terms of the degree of repression they faced: not only was the marriage of the Lovings, who wedded in DC, not recognised by Virginia authorities, but they were arrested when found in bed together, and sentenced to a 25-year-exile from their home state. Nichols delivers what is essentially a propaganda film for these matrimonial Jackie Robinsons, and this is a fine ambition as far as it goes, but in spite of creditable performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga the film is hampered by its own historical baggage. Richard and Mildred Loving’s marriage is, if anything, too loving: they barely raise their voices at each other despite the stresses their relationship is put under. How infinitely more interesting it could have been – even if it meant being less faithful to the factual record – if Nichols had shown the couple locked in a bad marriage, mutually destroying each other at the same time as fighting for the legal recognition of their nuptials?
Significant discoveries were, alas, in short supply at Cannes this year. For this purpose, it is always advised to look further afield than the competition, which is a coronation ceremony more than a search for new voices, but even the other sections had little to offer by way of unheralded talent. This was most disappointing in the case of Un Certain Regard, which consisted almost exclusively of films by un- or little-known filmmakers. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm, a sweet tale of a gambling-addict novelist and his young son who are brought together by a typhoon battering their home town, was the most significant exception here, but none of the 20-odd other films were truly outstanding. Kiril Serebrennikov’s Student, drawn from a German play about a fundamentalist high school student who denounces his teachers and fellow students by quoting the scriptures at them, featured a bitter condemnation of the social conservatism that forms the ideological buttress for Putin’s rule, but in the end retained overly heavy traces of its theatrical origins, and was particularly marred by the unnecessary didacticism involved in repeatedly showing the Bible passages in on-screen titles. Maha Haj capably delivered a portrait of life for a family of Palestinians on both sides of the border with Israel in Personal Affairs, and the perils that can result when militarised border crossings mix with fractious domestic disputes, while Stéphanie Giusto summoned the pop-star Soko to reincarnate turn-of-the-century avant-garde dancer Loie Fuller, but the French filmmaker uses the opportunity only to re-hash clichés that had already been worn out by Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010).
With nods to Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Émile, Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic gained points for originality: Viggo Mortensen raises six children in near-total self-sufficiency in the backwoods of the Pacific North-West, providing them with a superlative education to boot, but the film’s saccharine, Little Miss Sunshine-esque ending betrays its origins as a Sundance hit. By contrast, David Mackenzie’s violence-drenched, southern Gothic tinged Hell or High Water, featuring a pair of brothers who rob small-town branches of a local bank in order to prevent their mother’s house being foreclosed on, is crushingly unoriginal, right down to using Nick Cave for the soundtrack, and its meagre highlights mostly come from Jeff Bridges’ turn as the sardonically racist Texas Ranger tasked with tracking the fugitives down. Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration drew interest partly through sheer surprise: the 42 year-old had never shot a metre of film before turning his hand to this work. His ambition to make a “realist” vampire film set in the Rockaways, featuring a 14 year-old black kid called Milo who is convinced he belongs to the undead, is laudable, if overtly signalled by the protagonist on a repeated basis.
If there is a vampire at Cannes, however, it is the competition, which has, in the last couple of years in particular, sucked the life out of Un certain regard, despite the fact the Frémaux oversees both sections. Whereas in past editions the UCR section often featured films that were eminently worthy of competition status, this year it seemed to consist purely of second-tier pieces. It may partly be the press to blame: who among us has not lamented the fact that a great work of cinema has been relegated to Un Certain Regard, when it should rightly hold its head high with the big boys in the competition? If our wishes are granted by the festival’s powers-that-be, then it is only logical that the quality of the sidebar should suffer accordingly.
By contrast, the Quinzaine seems to have reasserted itself in the last couple of years, and although it will never be able to challenge the competition for supremacy, it is notable that Edouard Waintrop was able to attract filmmakers of the calibre of Pablo Larraín, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Marco Bellocchio, Paul Schrader and Laura Poitras to premiere their latest work in the section. Of the aforementioned directors, Larraín received widespread acclaim for Neruda, a biopic on the Marxist poet from the point of view of the detective hired by the country’s rightist government to track him down, but for me it was fellow Chilean Jodorowsky’s Poesia sin fin (Endless Poetry) that was the most energising Quinzaine entry: the second instalment, after La danza de la realidad (The Dance of Reality, 2013), in Jodorowsky’s fanciful autobiography, we now see Alejandro (played by his son Adan), as a budding poet making his entry into the Bohemian world of Santiago’s arts scene in the 1950s. Every bit as deliriously surrealist as the filmmaker’s prior work, the crowd-funded Poesia is thankfully free of Danza’s cheap CGI effects: instead its spectacle is drawn from the thousands of volunteers who signed up as extras for carnival and circus scenes of Griffithian scale. On a touching note, the film ends with a reconciliation between Alejandro and his father (played, confusingly enough, by Jodorowsky’s other son, Brontis), as well as a strident appeal by the director for a cinema of “essence, not appearance”. The other big-name filmmakers in the Quinzaine, however, delivered what will ultimately go down as minor footnotes in their careers. Bellocchio’s conventional biopic Fai bei sogni (Sweet Dreams) relays the memoirs of a sports reporter who spends his life coping with the suicide of his mother when he was a young boy (to make matters even more grim for the journalist, he is also a Torino fan). Poitras’ Risk continues her unmasking of the modern surveillance society, accompanying Julian Assange as he seeks refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in the wake of the Wikileaks cable release. The project evidently predated her Snowden documentary, but although it gives a certain insight into the paranoia and delusions of grandeur that even his supporters must admit are a part of Assange’s psyche, it lacks the explosive power of Citizenfour. Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog, meanwhile, was one of the most eclectic entries at the festival, with Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and man-mountain Christopher Matthew Cook hamming it up as a trio of bumbling criminals plotting a kidnapping in Cleveland. Schrader himself seemed perfectly lucid to the free-wheeling stylistics and faintly ludicrous narrative of Dog Eat Dog, telling the audience at the Théâtre Croisette not to take the film too seriously, and treat it simply with a sense of fun. Wise words of advice indeed.
As far as young filmmakers are concerned, the most striking film in the Quinzaine was Houda Benyamina’s Divines – deserved winner of the Caméra d’or – which acquaints us with two impulsive teenaged girls living in a particularly insalubrious corner of the banlieue who ditch their uninspiring school classes for a life of petty crime. Benyamina’s film is not quite ground-breaking cinema, but there is a genuine energy and authenticity to her depiction of ghetto life on the outskirts of Paris, and its machine-gun bursts of dialogue drew a warm response from the French audience. Likewise, the Semaine de la critique, whose specific remit is precisely to unearth fresh filmmaking talent, featured a couple of notable discoveries: Julia Ducournau’s vegan cannibalism film Grave (Raw) garnered a significant amount of interest, while Olivier Laxe’s Mimosas, a lyrical celluloid journey through the remote valleys of southern Morocco, with minimal narrative but mesmerising cinematography, portents the arrival of a new cinematic voice working in the vein of a Lisandro Alonso or a Ben Rivers (a kinship evinced by the fact that the latter filmed the shoot of Mimosas for his film The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes are not Brothers).
I must now, patient reader, return my focus to the competition, and embark on the distasteful, albeit morbidly enjoyable, task of excoriating the latter half of its line-up. A certain complacency about the competition had set in as we sailed into the midway point of Cannes: virtually all the competition films thus far had been of a reliably high quality, surely this would continue to be the case? Perhaps the most glaring exception was Nicole Garcia’s Mal de pierres, a melodramatic romance starring Marion Cotillard and Louis Garrel, which may have at least passed muster were it not for a disastrous plot twist in the third act that rendered the conclusion of the film utterly risible. At the time of viewing, this could have been a forgivable hiccough on the part of festival organisers; in retrospect, however, it now appears as a portent of what was to come. The true turning point came with Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, which made its bow before the press on the Monday evening. It so happens that I routinely dislike Assayas’ films, but always for differing reasons, so I am never totally prepared to write him off as a director, and try to approach any new film he makes with an open mind. My attitudes to this one, however, may have been more easily defined, as it is essentially a sequel to The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), with Kristen Stewart once again featuring as a brooding millennial in bondage to an older celebrity; this time she is hired to buy clothes to sustain the Kardashianesque superstar Kyra’s insatiable need for new outfits. The role at least plays to the strengths of Stewart, but her limitations as an actress were apparent in the film’s “scary” moments, as she is haunted by the ghost of her dead twin brother, and harassed via a long series of anonymous text messages while taking the Eurostar to London. As with Sils Maria, Assayas patently strives to make a statement on the social media-saturated, celebrity-infatuated modern world. But the director is perennially undecided about whether he should luxuriate in the glitz from within, or stick to critiquing it from without. Of this superficial environment, then, he has precious little of any profundity to say, and the shallowness of his commentary is compounded by the gaucheness of Personal Shopper’s ghost scenes. Perhaps I am congenitally incapable of warming to Assayas, but for his latest film, at least, I was not the only one: the press screening was greeted with a resounding round of boos, and the early responses to the film were, with some exceptions, predominantly negative.
Matters worsened with Xavier Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World). The choice of title is at least a courageous move, given the ease with which irascible critics could use it against the brash youngster. For his sixth film Dolan ropes in a quintet of French cinematic demi-gods (Baye, Cotillard, Cassel, Ulliel and Seydoux) for an adaptation of the 1990 chamber piece by Jean-Luc Lagarce, about an AIDS-afflicted gay man (Ulliel) who pays his bickering family a visit to inform them of his impending death. Normally, films adapted from plays are advised to tone things down for the big screen – the machinery of the cinema is capable of providing its own emotional accents – but here Dolan takes the opposite route, ramping up the histrionics to an unbearable degree. The film consequently becomes bogged down in interminable shouting matches, through the fog of which it is difficult to determine what the actual issues are that keep the family members at each other’s throats. Cotillard is particularly grating as the stammering, put-upon wife of Cassel’s violent chauvinist pig, and, under Dolan’s direction, the other characters struggle to transcend such thin stereotypes. I met virtually nobody at Cannes who warmed to the film, so it was natural, then, that it should be awarded the Grand Prix, the festival’s runner-up prize.
Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a trawl through the world of Los Angeles-based lesbian cannibal fashion models, was even more vocally denigrated, reportedly prompting irate critics not only to loudly boo it, but also to shout obscenities at the screen. Given the events of the past year, there were widespread concerns about the possibility of a terrorist attack at the festival, and security levels were raised accordingly. In the end, however, the only “terrorism” visible at Cannes was that of the journalists who maliciously trashed those films that did not meet their favour. Rumours even swirled that Neon Demon only featured on the competition because Amazon forced it on Frémaux (ah, is that the sound of a penny dropping that I can hear?). Sadly, I must confess to being a less than diligent correspondent, skipping the press screening for a party, so I can not pass my own judgement on Refn’s latest. The following morning, however, I did subject myself to what was the most irredeemably abject film of the festival, Sean Penn’s ponderously bien-pensant piece of garbage The Last Face. Part of the growing sub-genre of Western-superstars-in-third-world-disaster-area movies, The Last Face brings together Javier Bardem as a grizzled doctor in the field and Charlize Theron as the chief executive of the aid organisation “Médecins du monde”, who embark on a tempestuous romance in the midst of the Liberian conflict of the early 2000s. The Last Face had the rare feat of turning the crowd against it right from its opening title card, which preposterously compared African civil wars to a lovers’ tiff. From that point on, a curious phenomenon occurred, one which I have never before seen at Cannes: with every pompous line of dialogue or ham-fisted revelatory moment, the audience broke out in ironic applause.2 Indeed, it was hard to know what was worse about the film: its latent racism – the only black Africans we see are smiling children, raving lunatics with machine guns, and corpses – or the sheer ineptitude of its screenplay. It is obvious that Sean Penn cares deeply about the issues afflicting these war-ravaged parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but here his efforts to denounce crimes against humanity only result in a crime against cinema.
Thankfully, my festival did not end on this note, as, before flying home on the Saturday afternoon, I managed to catch a projection of Paul Verhoeven’s Isabelle Huppert-vehicle Elle. The film may prove to be controversial, given that it plays rape revenge fantasies for laughs, and at times even seems to connect the phenomenon with female cat ownership. But Verhoeven’s brisk direction is so assured, striking just the right note between erotic thriller and campy comedy, and Huppert is so obviously ideal for the part of an icy, manipulative corporate woman who can only derive sexual satisfaction from acting out rape scenarios, that the film is supremely enjoyable from start to finish.
But I want to end this festival report by discussing a pair of films which, although they were relegated to Hors Compétition screenings, were infinitely more deserving of a competition spot than the Dolans and the Penns of 2016. 86 year-old Paul Vecchiali rounds out his idiosyncratic œuvre – which, despite stretching back to the 1970s, has garnered little attention outside his native France – with the loosely autobiographical Le Cancre (co-scripted with film critic and sometime director Noël Simsolo). Here he plays Rodolfo, an aging ladies man who spends the film encountering a stream of former wives, lovers and acquaintances in a bid to find the address of Marguerite (Catherine Deneuve in a cameo role), a paramour from his younger days, all the while reminiscing about his past romantic conquests with his patient son Laurent. Shot mostly in Vecchiali’s own house on an exiguous budget, Le Cancre’s eloquent, almost Proustian dialogues are delivered in a mannered fashion, with cadenced diction and overly deliberate gestures. Dispensing with cinematic naturalism, the abstract theatricality of Vecchiali’s approach is not without recalling the early French sound films of the 1930s, and it is not for nothing that he openly avows his debt to Jean Renoir. His work forms part of a marginalised, quasi-artisanal tendency in French cinema, representatives of which include Jean Eustache, Maurice Pialat, Jean-Claude Biette, Pierre Léon and the Spaniard Adolfo Arrieta, and it is encouraging to see this trend continue to bear fruit.
Still more aesthetically fecund was Albert Serra’s La Mort de Louis XIV (The Death of Louis XIV). Jean-Pierre Léaud, complete with a bulging wig which dominates the screen, magisterially incarnates the Roi-Soleil in his dying moments, as the monarch suffers from a gangrenous leg after a hunting accident – an affliction that the best of 18th century medicine can do nothing to heal, the king’s doctors having erroneously decided against amputating the royal limb. While the immobilised Louis lies on his death bed, progressively weakening as the film marches forward, he is tended to by his medical retinue, visited by courtiers and fed, bathed and pampered by his legion of servants. There are shades of Sokurov’s Taurus (2001) in Serra’s film, with its dissection of an impending power vacuum caused by the mortality of an uncontested ruler, while its scintillating rendering of the baroque costumes and royal chambers builds on the stylistic hallmarks of Serra’s own Història de la meva mort (The Story of My Death, 2013). Above all, however, the film is a testament to the singular cinematic presence of Léaud. Very few actors are capable of holding our attention for 100 minutes of screen time while essentially remaining supine throughout the film. Léaud, one of the most captivating figures in the history of film, achieves this feat with ease. His very being is cinematic. Etched onto his face, palimpsest-like, are traces of the works which have made Léaud an immortal: Les 400 Coups, La Chinoise, Out 1, La Maman et la putain… La Mort de Louis XIV is a fitting tribute to the actor, who by the end of the film is completely at one with the majesty of the character he is playing. When the ailing king, his leg gnarled and blackened from the gangrene, finally expires, Serra delivers a fitting stroke of comic release: his doctors, uncontrollably weeping in distress, comfort each other with the remark: “On fera mieux la prochaine fois.” I am not the first to suggest – Dennis Lim has already beaten me to the punch3 – that the line is an apt summation of the festival itself, which started so promisingly, but was only rescued from total dissipation by films that were unjustly kept out of the competition. Yes, Cannes, we’ll do better next time.
- The reader from afar should be forewarned that it is the gala screenings that are usually the source for gushing stories of films receiving 10-minute standing ovations: given the presence of the filmmaking team at these events, such spectacles of wild acclaim are the general rule, no matter how objectively awful the film might be. ↩
- Jean Reno, to his credit, seemed to be the only member of the filmmaking team aware of The Last Face’s failings, and delivered such pearls of dialogue as “You mustn’t grab, you must love” with a barely-concealed mirthful disdain. ↩
- Dennis Lim, “Tony! Toni Toné”, Art Forum, http://artforum.com/film/id=60409. ↩