“Think with your hands.” Godard’s pronouncement – which the attentive viewer may have heard spring from his mouth two or three times before – opens Le Livre d’image (The Image Book), the latest entry in the hermitic Swiss director’s now six-decade long œuvre, the last four of which have, increasingly incongruously, come under the label of “Late Godard”. It’s an exhortation that we would do well to take seriously, to heed in its literal sense. His new film is, more purely even than recent releases such as Film socialisme (2010) and Adieu au langage (2014), a work of montage, a dynamic assembly of images and sounds, whether created by Godard’s own hand or plucked from humanity’s audiovisual reservoirs. And the principles governing this montage-practice are primarily tactile in nature: it is the feel of an image, the feel of a sound, that governs Godard’s hand on the (virtual) editing table, more so than any explicit meaning or intentionality. Helped by a small team of technician-researchers, now including Fabrice Aragno, Jean-Paul Battagia and the French academic Nicole Brenez, Godard manipulates his images, in the original sense of the word: he grabs them by the hands, stretching them, rubbing them, flicking rapidly through them, or holding steadfastly onto them.
At certain points – and this marks a formal innovation equivalent to the use of disjunctive 3D in Adieu au langage – he even alters the aspect ratio of the film mid-shot, switching from wide-screen to academy ratio and back again, in a poeticisation of an unfortunate feature of contemporary image consumption (namely, fiddling with the aspect ratio settings on a television set in order to get the “right” picture). Elsewhere, his stubbornly anachronistic use of worn-out VHS copies of films yields strikingly washed out images, with the resulting desaturated whites dominating the screen to the point of rendering the original source almost unrecognisable.1 After watching the film, a friend expressed his wish to be able to read it like a picture book, to flip back and forth, or scrub through its timeline.2 Perhaps, indeed, it is this kind of viewing mode, at home on YouTube or Daily Motion, rather than in the cinema, that Godard’s film is made for. His is an aesthetic of the scrubber. And, I dare say, it is this approach that gives Godard the capacity to produce such arresting moments of beauty.
This is not to say that Le Livre d’image is a purely impressionistic work, even if this is the dominant way in which the film can and should be received upon an initial, single viewing within the frenzied context of a film festival. Le Livre d’image represents a kind of epilogue, vingt ans après, to Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) carrying out the same kind of historico-politico-audiovisual rumination for the nascent 21st century as Histoire(s) did for the exsanguinated 20th century. It’s a vision of horrors – wars, atrocities, humiliations – and splendour. The image, in spite of everything, survives. Mostly absent of even the gossamer-like narrative of his recent features, Le Livre d’image is instead divided into five overtly signalled chapters (the five fingers of the hand, perhaps), but it also has a more implicit tripartite structure. The first four of these chapters consist of a series of essayistic collages which, were it not for the poetry of the editing and the polyphonic interplay of image, music and text, might resemble the “supercuts” which have become so prominent in Internet culture. The first chapter, “Remakes” (which Godard tellingly puns with Rimes, “rhymes”), juxtaposes “originals” with their reworked versions, especially in Godard’s own œuvre. If some of these borrowings are familiar to us – the regurgitation of lines from Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) by Michel Subor and Anna Karina in Le Petit Soldat (1960) – other pairings are new (the water in L’Atalante [Jean Vigo, 1934] and Hélas pour moi ), and even confronting. What is the relationship between Ici et ailleurs (1974) and Salò (Pier Paolo Pasolini), two nearly simultaneous works? Which is the remake of which?
A later sequence forms an ode to the relationship between the railway and the cinema: two industrial, 19th century technologies whose histories are deeply enmeshed with each other – as well as, it barely needs emphasising, with some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. But the mood here is generally buoyant, with extracts from The General (Buster Keaton, 1927), Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1934), Berlin Express (Jacques Tourneur, 1948) and Sicilia! (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1999), as the motion of the trains and the rhythm of the editing enter into harmony with each other. The same can not be said of the other chapters (“Succès a St. Petersbourg” and “L’Esprit des lois”), which are sprinkled with images of violence and death. ISIS propaganda videos feature strongly here – combined variously with school shootings in the US (Elephant, Gus van Sant, 2003), the impaling of a Teutonic hero (Die Nibelungen, Fritz Lang, 1924), or a French poet declaiming “Quelle horreur!” (Le Testament d’Orphée, Jean Cocteau, 1959). La guerre, Godard’s rasping, gravelly, 87 year-old voice tells us, est là.
The fifth chapter, “La Région centrale”, beginning more than halfway through the film, represents a shift in tone, and even introduces a (residual, even palimpsestic) element of narrative to the film. Long quotes from Albert Cossery’s 1984 book Une ambition dans le désert are read out on the soundtrack, giving a condensed account of the novel’s plot, concerning a revolutionary situation in the fictional Middle Eastern monarchy of Dofa, which has had the great fortune to not be in possession of a plentiful supply of oil, thus avoiding the attentions of more powerful countries. The Arab world evidently has Godard’s sympathy, and has done since at least the Six Day War. Here, the images only have the loosest of connections with this narrative voiceover, but the utopian vision of a “happy Araby” (as the title of Alexandre Dumas’ travel diaries puts it) includes some of the most wondrous imagery of the film: vistas of seaside towns, for instance, are digitally treated to bring out splashes of blue and red on the screen, in painterly compositions that resemble the work of Godard’s artistic “masters” (Nicolas de Staël and Henri Matisse most notably).
As the film draws to an end, there is another tonal transition. In this coda, the Dofa storyline is abandoned, and Godard again speaks in his own name. Here, he is both at his most stridently militant – “As for me, I will always be on the side of bomb throwers”, he states at one point, almost as if to goad a reaction from the more conservative wing of the Cannes press corps – but also his most unabashedly optimistic. The film ends with a ballroom dance sequence from Max Ophuls’ Maupassant adaptation in Le Plaisir (1952), with an old man, wearing a mask to hide his age, frenziedly dancing to the point of physical collapse. The scene speaks, of course, to Godard’s eternal cinematic youthfulness, constantly able to reinvent himself, and incorporating the latest developments in film technology as he does so, even while retaining the persona of a cantankerous Luddite. For many at Cannes, this extract was almost treated as a farewell gesture, the sense that Godard is not much longer for this world compounded by the halting croakiness of his voice. But let’s not write him off just yet. After all, this was also a widespread interpretation of Adieu au langage, and Godard has been performing the role of a gnomic senex for at least the last thirty years. One thing is for sure: as long as Godard lives he will make cinema.
Nearly as big an event as the film itself was Godard’s press conference, his first at Cannes for 14 years. If he was ostentatiously absent from the Croisette for Film socialisme and Adieu au langage, this year the director chose to have a virtual presence at the festival. With Fabrice Aragno holding an iPhone up to a specially positioned microphone so that the filmmaker could speak directly to his interlocutors, Godard conducted the press conference via the intermediary of FaceTime. Every press conference given by Godard is, in some way, an event, and this proved no different. Among cheekily delivered provocations (actors, for instance, of which there are none in this film, contribute to the “totalitarianism of the filmed image against the thought image”), Godard insisted that he had the courage to continue filmmaking, but that “this depends on my legs, on my hands, and a little on my eyes.” Perhaps most revealing, however, was his explanation of an enigmatic equation that has periodically surfaced in his work since the mid-2000s: “x + 3 = 1”: “When you make an image, whether it is of the past, the present or the future, then in order to find a third image that can begin to be a true image or a true sound, suppress two of them.” This was, he insisted, “the key to the cinema” – certainly, it is a conceptual entry way into his own montage-practice. But, Godard was careful to add, “we must not forget the lock.”
Given that I have opened this festival report with such a lengthy discussion of Le Livre d’image, it goes without saying that I consider the film to be a chef d’œuvre. Godard, it seems, is almost incapable of making anything else. Beyond the loyal band of Godardians, (which must, we should note, include the festival’s délégué général Thierry Frémaux), this did not appear to be a widely shared opinion. Whereas Adieu au langage received effusive cheers during its premiere screening, Le Livre d’image mostly elicited indifference, and not a few bemused walk-outs, from those amassed in the far from full Théâtre Lumière. In truth, although Godard has regularly screened his films on the Croisette since the 1980s, there is something distinctly dissonant about the presence of his films in the temple of celebrity-worship and commercial dealing that is the festival – like listening to Stravinsky at Glastonbury, a critic once remarked – and this is yet further exacerbated when his films crop up in the competition, as if there is any commensurability between his work and that of the rest of the official selection. Evidently, this year’s Cate Blanchett-headed jury felt the embarrassment, rewarding Godard’s effort with a “special Palme d’or” (that is, not the real one). Such tokenistic gestures aside, Le Livre d’image is nothing more nor less than a film-meteorite, a missive from a distant planet, shooting through the atmosphere, pointing us towards what the cinema can be, and reminding us not to accept the cinema as it is.
Even if none could properly compare to Godard’s bolide, the most fascinating entries in this year’s festival were precisely such film-meteorites, which tended to strike in the margins of the festival, momentarily drawing our gaze away from a competition that ordinarily monopolises media attention at Cannes. As a scintillating visual experience, Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt ’s Diamantino was the main rival to Godard’s supremacy. Whether in collaboration with one another or working alone, the young duo have been a presence in festivals and galleries for nearly a decade now, with a growing slate of films combining playful, camp humour with an unerring eye for creating dazzling images from 16mm celluloid and digital video. It was thus strange – although in strict conformity with the rules – to see their new feature appear in the Critique de la semaine section, reserved for first- and second-time features. The eponymous Diamantino is the star player for the Portuguese national team, and combines superlative football skills with a vain, vacuous personality, obsessed with cultivating his own looks and fame to the exclusion of all other considerations (no prizes for divining the footballer who may have served as a model for the protagonist). The film starts as a relatively conventional football film – a degraded genre if ever there were one – with the camera closely following Diamantino during a match in the manner of Parreno/Gordon’s film-portrait Zidane (2006) or Helmuth Costard’s Fußball wie noch nie (1971). But in the middle of the game, as the striker bears down on goal, the screen is suddenly filled with pink, fairy floss-like clouds and giant puppies (!). This scene, the most unforgettable of the entire festival, sets the stage for the free-wheeling, eccentric plot that follows, which variously takes in evil twin sisters, a female spy going under cover as an African refugee boy, and a devious scheme to enlist Diamantino as a poster-child for a right-wing campaign to withdraw Portugal from the EU (Pexit, as it were), all of which is delivered to the viewer with such insouciant panache that one cannot help smiling throughout the delirious proceedings. As legendary Scottish manager Alex Ferguson might have said: “Cinema, eh? Bloody hell!”3
If Diamantino came close to pure filmic pleasure, perpetual provocateur Gaspar Noé’s Climax sought to bring out a very different response from the spectator. Had it not already been taken by the French distributors of the Hollywood gross-out comedy franchise The Hangover, the title Very Bad Trip would have been a more apt marker for Noé’s follow-up to his 3D porno Love. A multiracial, sexually fluid dance troupe gathers in an eerily isolated practice space to hone their routine under the auspices of Emmanuelle, who has also, perhaps unwisely, brought along her eight year-old son Tito. Partying after the end of the rehearsal (a remarkably choreographed number captured in a single take), the dancers drink copious amounts of sangria and unashamedly flirt with one another, but belatedly discover that their punch has been laced with LSD, leading to a collective freak-out which affects the camera just as much as it does the characters – including the unfortunate Tito, locked in an electricity cabinet by his acid-addled mother, giving rise to the single most bizarre line of dialogue at the festival: “Tito’s fried! But don’t worry, we’ve got a boom box.” With dark, pulsating music throbbing throughout the film, woozy camerawork that borders on the nauseating and an increasingly hellish colour palette, Climax veers into horror-film territory, as the dancers, gripped by an all-pervasive terror, begin taking out their paranoiac panic on each other. Certainly, self-justified provocation trumps any sense of profundity here (a judgement which extends to Climax‘s Le Penesque opening credits salvo: “A French film and proud of it”), and it is difficult for me to say I liked the film when I had to momentarily leave the screening due to feeling physical ill, but Climax was nonetheless a unique cinematic experience, and stood so stunningly apart from an otherwise prosaic Director’s Fortnight line-up that it was hard to dispute the jury’s decision to give it the sidebar’s main prize.
Noé’s Danish co-conspirator, Lar von Trier, made a return to the Croisette for the first time since 2011, seven long years after he was “banished” from the festival following a press conference in which the filmmaker professed feeling sympathy for Adolf Hitler.4 Although his persona non grata status had expired – everyone can be rehabilitated, it turns out – it can’t exactly be said that the festival welcomed back its prodigal son with fanfare. The House That Jack Built was shunted to an out-of-competition slot, with von Trier’s media exposure kept to a minimum (there would be no repeat of the notorious events of 2011). Von Trier himself displays little sign of contrition for his supposed transgression, and his latest film shows that, even at the age of 63, he is ever-willing to play the role of world cinema’s enfant terrible. After Nymphomaniac’s (2013) take on the porno, von Trier continues his journey through various disreputable film genres, here alighting on the slasher film. Matt Dillon is a psychopathic serial killer prone to brutally murdering the women he encounters in his life, as well as, at various points in the film, shooting their children and snipping off the feet of ducklings. Describing his criminal acts to Bruno Ganz’s off-screen interlocutor “Virge” (the Roman poet Virgil, we will later realise, who accompanied Dante through the nine circles of hell in the Divina commedia), Jack presents his murders as works of art, comparable to those of great musicians and architects: Wagner, Speer, et ainsi de suite. But his obsessive-compulsive desire for perfection frequently thwarts his designs, and were it not for the blithe incompetence of law enforcement officers and the occasional divine intervention, would surely have led to his prompt arrest.
Given that von Trier was practically goading critics to attack him for sadistic misogyny, the divided response the film garnered was utterly predictable, and included overblown reports of mass walkouts – in reality the vast majority of the audience stayed till the end, and any boos were drowned out by audience members singing along to “Hit the road, Jack” during the final credits. Much of the negative press coverage came, it must be said, from a certain corner of the Twittersphere that, even with the best of intentions, often lapses into a form of feminist Zhdanovism: peremptorily dividing works into “good” and “bad” on the basis of the imputed moral make-up of their protagonist/author.5 In truth, although von Trier has been known to be more cinematically ambitious, his film is far more complex than the unguarded outburst of a woman-hating chauvinist it has been painted as, and its epilogue (“Katabasis”), showing Virgil and Jack’s descent into the inferno, is as visually inventive a use of CGI imagery as I have seen. Should Hollywood ever work its way around to adapting the Divine Comedy to the screen (it is a built-in trilogy, after all), there are worse directors the commission could go to than von Trier.
These tussles aside, the general mood of the festival was one of eerie tranquility. If Cannes is a scandal-making machine, it seems that this year the controversies played out before the start of proceedings, leaving the festival itself largely bereft of its normal hum of debate and wrangling. As the wider world seems to be floating towards a new state of cold war, with global superpowers increasingly flexing their muscles and national enmities bubbling up to the surface, so too was the festival beset by its own intra-cinematic cold wars. The press, notably, were up in arms at what could have appeared to outsiders as a straightforward alteration in the screening program. Prior to this year, the Cannes schedule, as rigorously adhered to as the Swiss railway timetable, has always given priority to press screenings, held the night before or morning of that evening’s gala premiere. Necessary for journalists to meet precipitous filing deadlines, this system has, from the festival organisers’ point of view, the evident drawback that a film can be irreparably torn apart by the press well before its formal debut, a tendency greatly exacerbated by the rise of social media insta-criticism.6 This year, then, the order was changed: 7pm galas were now held simultaneously with the press screening (in different cinemas), while the press screening for the late night gala slot was held over until 8:30 the next morning. To placate irate journalists feeling slighted by this wholesale demotion in the pecking order, who argued instead for the imposition of a social media embargo à la the Berlinale, the festival sent a long, explicatory email to its accreditees, which feels like it sprang from the pen of Frémaux himself. Here we were told that the previous schedule’s “underlying logic was based on usages blown to bits by the massive incursion of digital technologies in our professional and personal lives over the past fifteen years or so. Basically, as soon as a film is screened, the social networks turn it into confettis de rumeur.”7 Extra screenings and increased access to festival venues were also promised, but did little to assuage a press corps anxious about its ability to turn over copy in a much shorter window of time, and irritated at its reduced role in setting the pulse of a film’s reception. Personally, the change had little effect on your humble correspondent, who writes his report to you well after the festival’s close, and who doesn’t even have a Twitter account. More broadly, however, it had the effect of sucking the energy out of the room during the press screenings: erstwhile cauldron of Hernani-like critical sparring, the Debussy theatre this year was not only much easier to get into, but was also suffused with an uncanny sense of calm, even indifference.8 The sense that a film’s fate had already been sealed, that critics had been reduced to irrelevance in the last outpost in which they had exerted any influence in the film industry, could not be avoided, and was compounded by the journalists who, especially with films appearing late in the calendar, eagerly spoke of unofficial earlier screenings they had managed to penetrate one way or another. No films in 2018 were subject to a resounding chorus of boos, as can so often be the case at Cannes, but if the festival organisers made the scheduling change out of dread that competition films would be skewered by the press, it’s quite possible that they have brought on an even worse fate: deadly apathy.
But Cannes also had bigger issues to contend with than the simmering tension between cantankerous critics and fearful filmmakers. The real cold war broiling within the film world is the tussle between cinema exhibitors, often backed up by government legislation around release windows, and the global streaming behemoths that are Netflix, Amazon and company. In this context, Cannes, and more particularly Frémaux, finds itself caught between Scylla and Charybdis. Last year, the festival sought to open itself up to the online titans – screening Netflix productions such as Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, as well as TV series Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake: China Girl. The result for festival-goers was a fascinating motley of audiovisual forms, but it also got Frémaux into a spot of bother: when Netflix refused to make its titles available for theatrical release in France (which would have entailed a government-mandated three-year wait until they could appear on its own platform), exhibitors, many of whom sit on the Cannes board, were in uproar, and according to a Variety report looking back at the contretemps, Frémaux almost lost his job as a result.9 The same “mistake” would not be made this year: theatrical exhibition was a prerequisite for a slot in the official selection, and Netflix, unwilling to back down, consequently refused to make its films available for consideration. Compared to the hybrid composition of last year’s festival, Cannes 2018 was thus a much more traditionally cinematic affair, but this came at the cost of cutting itself off from a significant sector of the industry. As the Anglo-Saxon trade journals gleefully pronounced, the result was a severe drop in the normal bustle of buying and selling activity in the festival market, enough to yet again raise the spectre of a festival in crisis.
Critical apathy, commercial inactivity, both of which were aggravated by the relative paucity of big-name auteurs in the competition slate and the underwhelming star presence on the red carpet, all this sounds like a festival that, if not in crisis, at least was suffering from an unfavourable conjuncture – and this is not to mention the ongoing rumblings about inadequate female representation in the festival line-up, all the more agitated by last year’s Weinstein revelations and the various hashtag movements that ensued.10 How then can I explain the largely positive impression I had of this year’s festival, and the unusually high strike rate I had with the films I viewed? It is not only, I would hazard, because supervisory duties with young Horatio meant that the number of screenings I managed to take in this year was markedly lower than is my custom.
If the film-meteorites discussed above – inventive, provocative, speculative – either failed to make it into the competition, or, in Godard’s case, were so palpably distant from everything else it had to offer, the contenders for the Palme d’or were, on the whole, more consensual affairs, easier to slot into established critical frameworks of auteurist or national/continental filmmaking. Indeed, it seems that the most practical way to present the main films in the festival is precisely through grouping them into several competing geographic regions, like a cinematic World Cup, or an echo of Huntington’s reactionary-bellicose theory of a “clash of civilisations”.
In this light, the undisputed “winner” of the 2018 edition of Cannes was East Asia, and not only because Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Manbiki Kanzoku (Shoplifters) scooped up the Palme d’or. Few could begrudge Kore-eda’s triumph – the first for a film from the Asian continent since 2010, and the first for a Japanese director since Shohei Imamura in 1997. Shoplifters, indeed, is one of the most impressive films of his career, with its carefully unveiled storyline resulting in a devastating emotional punch at the end. Lily Franky, whose winningly unkempt insouciance has seen him become a talismanic figure in Kore-eda’s recent work, plays to type as Osamu, a kindhearted drifter who has roped a boy into his shoplifting racket, while his wife Nobuyo cares for an old woman whose pension cheques she cashes in. By the end of the first act, a young girl, seeking refuge from her quarreling parents, also finds a home with Osamu and Nobuyo. Despite eking out a clandestine existence in a ramshackle hovel, this makeshift family actually seems to be reasonably well-functioning, but the dark background of the “parents” will eventually come to light. While continuing his thematic focus on unorthodox families, and especially the role of the father figure within them, Shoplifters also sees Kore-eda at his most unobtrusively but insistently political: with its sympathy for members of the criminal Lumpenproletariat, the film shines a light on a marginalised underside of Japanese society that is all too often elided from the nation’s socially harmonious self-image.
Fresh from the international esteem for his five-hour, semi-improvised film-fleuve Happy Hour, Ryusuke Hamaguchi garnered a competition berth for a work of more conventional length, Asako I & II, adapted from a Tomoka Shibasaki novel. In his new film, a couple meet in Osaka and instantly fall in love, but the titular heroine is soon abruptly abandoned by the dreamy, impulsive Baku. Moving to Tokyo to get over her lost love, Asako is astonished to find a doppelgänger of Baku in an office block near the coffee shop where she works, and, irresistibly, falls for him. Ryohei, has a far more stable, grounded personality than his lookalike, but the relationship is unsettled when the original – who, having become ultra-famous as a fashion model, adorns billboards around the city – makes a re-entry in Asako’s life, and she has to choose between the two men so identical in appearance yet contrary in temperament. A sublimely crafted film, which glides between the quotidian and the thaumaturgic (the likeness between Baku and Ryohei is never explained), Asako I & II gives the viewer an elaborate portrait of middle-class youth in present-day Japan, with, at its core, an enigmatic heroine struggling to reconcile her divided desires. As its title suggests, it is Asako rather than Baku/Ryohei in whom the real figure of the double resides.
Not to be outdone by its historical rival, China also featured two prominent films in the official selection. Competition mainstay Jia Zhang-ke returned once more to the Croisette with Jiang hu er nv (Ash is Purest White), a strong addition to one of the most important œuvres in contemporary world cinema, but also, in some sense, a testimonial film, re-working and mashing up elements from Jia’s earlier work – before our eyes, Jia has evolved from Wunderkind to éminence grise. As with his previous release, Mountains May Depart, Ash is Purest White has a tripartite structure that stretches from the turn of the millennium to the present-day. Indeed, we get the sense that the late 1990s/early 2000s is the key historical frame of reference for Jia – a time that marked not only the beginning of his filmmaking career, but also the onset of China’s sweeping economic transformation and the concomitant rise of consumer culture in the People’s Republic. Here, Jia’s ever-present muse Zhao Tao plays Qiao, an underworld mole from the north of China whose beau Bin (Liao Fan) is making a rapid ascent through the ranks of the local mafia clan. When rival gang members attack Bin – in a fight sequence that is one of the most unabashedly kinetic scenes Jia has ever shot – Qiao saves his bacon with an illegal gun, but ends up behind bars after taking the wrap for her beloved. Once out of prison, several years later, Qiao drifts across the backlands of China, in mid-2000s-set scenes that variously recall Platform (2000), The World (2004) and Still Life (2006), driven by the vain hope of re-uniting with Bin. This middle section is the most successful part of the film – which closes with a 2017-set conclusion reuniting the two leads – and is also the least attached to the gangster tropes that dominate the opening and closing segments. Indeed, tonal changes, which have always been a part of Jia’s aesthetic, are pushed to the fore in his new film, which vacillates between genre thrills and auteurist rigour, and even incorporates moments of wondrous whimsy (a UFO sequence, most notably). Whether it is a millennial dance troupe doing the moves to “YMCA” by the Village People, or the Maoist rhetoric booming through loudspeakers, haranguing coal miners to build a socialist future (Qiao’s drunk, embittered father, it turns out), Jia’s ability to produce images that are at once visually striking and politically pregnant remains undiminished.
The PRC was also represented, in Un Certain Regard, by the 29 year-old Bi Gan, with his sophomore feature Long Day’s Journey into the Night, which, like Kaili Blues, is set in the provincial city of his debut’s title. Here, Luo, a taciturn, impassive man, returns to his hometown and attempts to track down an old lover, but his efforts to find her increasingly lead him astray from this Quixotic quest. Halfway through, the protagonist sits down in a half-empty cinema to watch a 3D film, and the spectator, exhorted to don the 3D glasses provided at the entrance, joins him, with the added dimension signalling a shift into a surreal, dream-like world. But the gimmick of stereoscopy adds little to the visual experience,11 and, more broadly, the undeniable visual bravura of Long Day’s Journey into the Night, with its lurid palette and the confidence of its swooping camera movements, struggles to compensate for the film’s narrative obscurity, and signals a certain proclivity in the young director for stylish surface effect over any potential depth of meaning.
Not to be outdone by its neighbours, South Korea was represented on the Croisette by Lee Chang-dong’s long-anticipated return to the screen with the Murakami-adaptation Burning, his first film since 2010’s Poetry, which, like the Hamaguchi film, trains its eye on characters in their mid-20s who remain stuck in a directionless phase of their life.12 Working as a deliveryman while nurturing dreams of being a writer, Jongsu bumps into Haemi, an old friend who now works for an electronics store, spruiking for customers in skimpy attire. No sooner are they reacquainted than Haemi, who also practises miming, asks Jongsu to care for her cat while she travels to Africa, which our hero dutifully does, principally out of desire for Haemi (mysteriously, however, we never actually see the cat in question, which seems to have a stubborn desire to avoid the spectator’s gaze). When his inamorata returns, Jongsu is dispirited to discover that she is accompanied by a wealthier, handsomer man, Ben. Their nascent romantic rivalry, however, does not prevent Ben from introducing Jongsu to the thrills to be had from furtively burning down greenhouses. An elegant film mingling drama with understated comic moments, Burning gained near universal praise from the Cannes press corps.13
In comparison with the strength of the East Asian entries, other geographical regions had more mixed results with their films at Cannes. The Middle East (in the broad sense of the term) was strongly represented with major new works from festival-circuit grandees Jafar Panahi and Nuri Bilge Ceylan. In Panahi’s Se Rokh (3 Faces), actress Behnaz Jafari, playing herself, enlists Panahi (also, as is to be expected, playing himself), to travel to a remote part of Azeri-speaking northern Iran after a teenage girl sends her an online clip apparently showing her committing suicide. To seek out the truth behind this enigmatic video-missive, their road-trip takes them on a winding journey to isolated villages with a collection of idiosyncratic inhabitants, each given ample time in front of Panahi’s camera. Although it sometimes flirts with being too much of an homage to Kiarostami’s totemic 1990s films (the recent death of his mentor clearly had a profound effect on Panahi), the proceedings are handled with Panahi’s deft touch, and his unwavering concern for holding onto the mystery of cinema remains unimpaired here.
Like Panahi, Ceylan remained true to form with Ahlat Agaci (The Wild Pear Tree). As with his recent films, the running time of The Wild Pear Tree stretches past the three-hour mark, most of which is filled with long, involved dialogues on weighty topics, but far from being a spectatorial ordeal, the proceedings are kept at a brisk pace. Sinan, a student with literary pretensions, returns to his home village in Anatolia, in order to pen a novel about the region. The tyro makes little headway with finding financial backing for funding the self-publication of his putative masterpiece – the local powers that be are largely uninterested in fostering literary endeavours unless they serve touristic purposes – and even manages to insult the area’s most highly-regarded man of letters, in a superbly wrought dialogue scene held in the town’s bookshop, with a wall-sized portrait of Kafka imperiously looking down at the twosome. Sinan’s family, however, is confronted with a graver problem: overcome by melancholy cynicism, his father Idris, a school teacher who is also trying to restore an inherited farm, is gripped by a gambling habit that squanders the little money his family can get their hands on. The uncharitable Sinan only has barely-concealed disdain for his father’s fall into dissolution, but when the younger man also suffers a major setback, paternal redemption turns out to indeed be possible.
Beyond these two works, however, the region’s presence was relatively weak. Asghar Farhadi was granted the competition’s opening night slot for his Spain-set kidnapping thriller Todos lo saben (Everybody Knows), with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz providing the requisite Iberian star-power, but the result retains the major flaws of all Farhadi’s films: histrionic acting, a proclivity for supposedly bravura camerawork that actually comes across as hackneyed (here, for instance, an overhead drone shot of a wedding dance), and, most calamitously (in all his films), overwrought narratives primed for dramatic tension which, for all the director’s concern for crafting intricate storylines, nonetheless contain gaping holes in the plot. Egyptian-American A.B. Shawky was the only first-time feature filmmaker in this year’s competition, but the distinction was a slightly mystifying one: his story of a young orphan boy teaming up with a man from a leper colony to travel across Egypt in search of their families suffers from a crippling excess of sentimentalism, a trait that is only emphasised by the treacly music smothered over the soundtrack. Veteran Lebanese actor-turned-filmmaker Nadine Labaki does not have the excuse of inexperience to fall back on, but a surfeit of sentimentalism also fatally undermines a film with a promising premise: in Capharnäum, a 12 year-old boy from the slums of Beirut decides to sue his parents for being irresponsible enough to give him life when they were completely incapable of adequately raising him. A passion project, Capharnäum suffers, if anything, from too much of it (passion, that is): Labaki tries to insert so many social issues into the film that she finds it difficult to maintain a focus on any one of them, and the buzz around its Palme d’or chances was, to my mind, quite perplexing (in the end, the film won the jury prize, one of the competition’s consolation awards).
If the Middle East had patchy results, then North America was notable for its near absence from the official selection: only two titles in competition, and zero in Un certain regard.14 This supposed under-representation of the USA no doubt fuelled reports from the American media about the lack of festival hype, but one notable focus of audience excitement was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. The film gives us the improbable-yet-true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a black cop in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s (the city’s first), who, with the aid of his Jewish partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), set himself the mission of infiltrating the KKK, while at the same time hooking up with a leader of the local chapter of the Black Panthers, and ends up establishing an uncanny rapport with the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, one David Duke (a game Topher Grace). The film is animated by a fundamental political question: whether social justice can be achieved by reforming the system from within (Stallworth’s position), or overthrowing it from without (the Black Panthers). Everything seems to point to Lee’s film advocating the former strategy: not only does Stallworth successfully disband the KKK’s Colorado branch, he even manages to purge the police of its own racist elements. Impressive. But then BlacKkKlansman closes – spoiler alert – with an extended montage of news footage from last year’s Charlottesville protests, in which Trump-adoring neo-Nazis killed a left-wing counter-demonstrator. The effect is to demolish the entire political logic of the film up to then. Revolution, it turns out, is necessary. That the coda denoted a transformation in Spike Lee’s political attitude was made obvious during his incendiary, expletive laden press conference. Here, the filmmaker recounted his efforts to get the blessing of Heather Heyer’s mother for using the footage, and insisted on the absolute need for including it in the film, even if it would meet with eye-rolling from critics – “Fuck everybody else,” he said (I’m relying on my notes here), “that motherfucking scene is staying in the motherfucking film” – before launching into a tirade about Trump: “That motherfucker did not denounce the Klan, the Alt Right and those Nazi motherfuckers.”
David John Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake complemented BlacKkKlansman as the other American competition film. But, well, Mitchell is no Spike Lee. Sam (Andrew Garfield), an unemployed dude in the hipster neighbourhood of the film’s title, lusts after a blonde neighbour, but she mysteriously disappears soon after their intial encounter. Sam’s pursuit of her leads him through an increasingly surreal LA limned by urban legends and conspiracy theories, and larded with retro 90s pop culture (it’s almost a jolt to realise that the film is in fact set in the present day), as well as nods to classical Hollywood, especially Hitchcock. The film’s myriad bizarre elements are mildly satisfying in isolation, but add up to a messy and bloated whole, which leaves most of its plot-strands under-developed and unresolved, despite the 139-minute runtime. After the massive success of It Follows, Mitchell was evidently granted near-total creative freedom for his new project, but as this bloated mess shows, freedom can sometimes be a very bad thing.
If Cannes is often justifiably accused of having a Eurocentric programming ethos, this was not particularly in evidence this year. Only three French films made it into the competition, as well as two Italian titles. For the most part, however, none really aroused too much attention at the festival: Matteo Garrone, with Dogman, Christophe Honoré, with Plaire, aimer et courir vite, and Stéphane Brizé, with En Guerre, essentially made re-treads their previous work, while Eva Husson’s Les Filles du Soleil (Girls of the Sun) – starring Golshifteh Farahani as a Kurdish guerrilla fighting against ISIS and Emmanuelle Bercot as an eyepatch-wearing war photographer embedded with her battalion – was a departure from her previous Bang Gang (2015), but was also one of the unmitigated disasters of the festival. Truly, there is nothing worse than a bad film about a worthy subject, and Girls of the Sun is a grotesque travesty of the film that needs to be made about this urgent topic, which, to be honest, should probably look more like Wakamatsu/Adachi’s PFLP: Declaration of World War (1971) than a faux-profound melodrama that didn’t even have the guts not to present the conflict in Kurdistan through the liberal-humanitarian gaze of a Western observer. Cannes indisputably needs more women directors represented in its line-up, but when the ones that do get in have films that are this bad, you have to wonder…
Saving the honour of the festival was Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro). In the early 1990s, an extended family of peasants leads a seemingly idyllic existence in rural Italy, blithely unaware that the landowners they work for are essentially keeping them in bondage, centuries after the abolition of feudalism. When their case is revealed the serfs are granted their freedom, but within a couple of decades they have been reduced to itinerant vagabonds roaming the urban wastelands of post-crisis Italy. The exception is the titular character, a naïf who, Rip van Winkel-like, slept through the transformation and wakes up in the present day, without having aged a day. With its magic realist narrative, Lazzaro Felice nonetheless furnishes an apt metaphor for the opening up of Italian society to the winds of globalisation, and even augurs the populist political storm that has engulfed the country so soon after the film’s completion.
If East Asia had any rival to its claim of festival supremacy, it was not in Western Europe but in the old Eastern Bloc that this was to be found, as the region’s filmmakers grappled both with its contemporary reality and the overbearing weight of its history. Kiril Serebrennikov’s Leto (Summer) focuses on a love-triangle in the early 1980s Leningrad punk scene, as Natasha finds herself caught between her husband Mike, an established punk rocker from the band Zoopark, and newcomer Viktor, the lead singer of Kino. Their efforts to establish a punk sub-culture in the late Brezhnev era are, certainly, admirably charted by Serebrennikov. Ironically, given the filmmaker’s present politically-motivated legal problems, it is the mildness of the authorities’ attitudes towards the movement that comes through in the film: the main concern seems to be to keep audience members in their seats during public performances, with politically daring lyrics usually causing nothing more than a furrowed brow from the local apparatchiks. Some of Serebrennikov’s formal flourishes, however, are embarrassingly out-of-kilter, and there is thus a curious symmetry between the film and its subject: just as the Leningrad punks discovered Lou Reed and Iggy Pop 15 years late, so Leto is the work of a filmmaker who doesn’t quite have his finger on the pulse of contemporary cinema. And yet the film ends on an undeniably moving note, informing us of the young deaths of Mike and Viktor in the years 1990-1991, at the very time that the social structure they were in rebellion against was collapsing into dust.
One of today’s foremost filmmakers from the former USSR, Sergei Loznitsa continued his recent prolific streak with Donbass, his take on the Novorossiya independence movement during the most intense phase of the Ukrainian civil war, which was completed too late for a competition berth, but was granted the opening night slot in Un certain regard instead. Apparently inspired by YouTube footage seen by the director, the film’s episodic narrative, linked together in Altmanesque fashion, touches on various absurdities of daily life during wartime, and combines his impassive documentary technique with the grotesque touches of earlier films such as Krotkata (A Gentle Creature, 2017). But here his procedure becomes heavy-handed and contemptuous, and his one-sided view of the conflict tips over into full-blooded Russophobic propaganda.15 This tendentiousness becomes flagrant in the film’s implausible final scene, which pushes the contrast between his understated form and the dubious nature of his content to unhinged extremes. You don’t have to be a Putin booster to feel that, with Donbass, a great filmmaker has discredited himself.
Refreshingly, two directors from Central Asia received the limelight this year. In Laskove bezrazlichie mira (The Gentle Indifference of the World), Kazakhstan’s Adilkhan Yerzhanov gives us an existential hero in the mould of Camus’ Meursault with the character of Kuandyk, a taciturn drifter tasked with the protection of Saltanat, who has moved to the city in order to pay off her family’s debts. After an arranged marriage falls through, Kuandyk tries to support Saltanat, but his efforts irresistibly draw him into a series of violent situations. One of the most visually splendid films of the festival, The Gentle Indifference of the World is structured around a series of immaculately composed tableaux, whose static monumentality is pierced by outbursts of sudden brutality. Yerzhanov’s older compatriot Sergey Dvortsevoy, meanwhile, focused on the plight of Central Asians in Moscow in his second feature Ayka. Ayka is a Kirghiz woman living a clandestine existence in the Russian capital, who abandons the baby she has just given birth to in hospital in order to return to work to pay back loan sharks. But when her employers disappear without paying their staff, she has to resort to more desperate measures, while also filling in as a cleaner at a veterinary hospital. In comparison to Yerzhanov’s film, Dvortsevoy has a rougher, harsher aesthetic, as his handheld camera persistently follows Ayka in the manner of the Dardennes’ Rosetta. Whereas the heroine meets with callous indifference from all quarters, great care and resources are lavished on the wounded dogs brought to the vet – an unsubtle contrast, admittedly, but one that doesn’t dim the power of the film.
Finally (yes, this exhaustive festival report is indeed coming to an end), Poland was represented with Pawel Pawlikowski’s Zimna wojna (Cold War), a film whose tale of love across the Iron Curtain inspired me with the title for my report. After Ida, Pawlikowski repeats the stylistic markers of his 2013 Oscar winner: notably its stately black and white photography and boxy Academy ratio framing. Shortly after the Communists take power in Poland, classically-trained composer Wiktor forms a troupe of folk musicians from a rustic part of the country, and falls in love with one of the singers, Zula, whose looks and attitude suggest a slightly different background from that of the rest of her ensemble. Coming under pressure from party functionaries (particularly the oafish Kaczmarek) to “politicise” the routine by adding kitschy homages to Stalin, Wiktor takes the opportunity of a trip to Berlin to defect to the West, where he ends up playing jazz in Parisian nightclubs, but Zula declines to come with him, in a plot point that seems drawn from Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise, 1994). Despite coming in at a brisk 84 minutes, Pawlikowski’s film offers an epic vista stretching from 1949 to 1964, as Wiktor and Zula ping-pong back and forth between France, Poland and Yugoslavia, while dealing with the twin turmoil of Cold War Europe’s political vicissitudes and their own tumultuous love for one another. An “impossible love story in impossible times”, as its Cannes blurb had it, Cold War no doubt has resonances for the present-day, but it also shows the limits of these parallels. For all the chatter around new “cold wars” – from which I, evidently, am not immune – the use of this term still resides squarely in the land of metaphor. In the history of global conflicts, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the real Cold War was of a different, and far more consequential, order entirely.
Cannes Film Festival
8-19 May 2018
Festival website: https://www.festival-cannes.com/en/
- The technique also bears witness to the deteriorated state of Godard’s once famously extensive video tape collection, which is now slowly decomposing into nothing. ↩
- See Daniel Kasman, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/cannes-2018-correspondences-5-changless-change-jean-luc-godard-and-jia-zhangke ↩
- Senses had the great pleasure of interviewing Abrantes and Schmidt: the conversation is published here: http://sensesofcinema.com/2018/features/the-dionysian-stage-of-2018-interview-with-gabriel-abrantes-and-daniel-schmidt. ↩
- This makes his comments sound worse than they actually were. See my report from way back then: http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/festival-reports/an-exceptional-forum-to-defend-freedom-of-expression-the-64th-cannes-film-festival/ ↩
- One intemperate reviewer called The House That Jack Built “repulsive, toxic trash” and even took umbrage at her perception that von Trier was being offensive towards the police(!). ↩
- Exhibit A: Sean Penn’s execrable The Last Face, whose deserved critical evisceration in 2016 reportedly prompted the festival’s scheduling volte-face. ↩
- The literal English translation, “confetti-like strips of rumours” does little justice to the original turn of phrase. ↩
- The two are not unrelated: frenzied queuing to see a film tending to up the critical stakes of whatever is subsequently seen. ↩
- https://variety.com/2018/film/news/cannes-film-festival-selfie-ban-netflix-1202808672/ The piece also provided us with the gossipy tidbit that Frémaux’s salary stands at €120,000. ↩
- In fact, a symbolic demonstration was held by actresses on the red carpet during the opening night gala, but such efforts have resulted in nothing more than hand-wringing from festival organisers about the low numbers of women filmmakers selected in the competition. ↩
- Who is doing 3D in 2018 anyway? The technique deservedly died another death four or five years ago ↩
- The absence was at least partly due to the Korean Film Council blacklist under the Park Geun-hye administration, which unofficially banned politically averse filmmakers from receiving backing for their work, and was revealed in the wake of the ex-president’s impeachment. ↩
- I, unfortunately, will have to reserve a definitive judgement on the film, as an emergency with little Horatio resulted in my leaving the press screening early. ↩
- This ignores the avant-premiere of the Ron Howard-directed Solo in an hors compétition slot, which, showcased for the cynical reason of media hype, at least had the merit of giving festival-goers an early sign of the Star Wars franchise’s commercial exhaustion. Mention should also be made of Terry Gilliam’s Franco-Spanish co-production The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which finally received a public screening after the most disastrous production process in the history of the cinema, and repeated attempts by erstwhile producer Paolo Branco to block the film’s release. Alas, however, I was one of many journalists turned away from the single press screening. ↩
- Given that the film was partly-funded by the Ukrainian government, hardly an impartial party in the conflict, this is probably not surprising. ↩