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“Back to normal” was undoubtedly the prevailing ethos of this year’s Cannes film festival. This was to be expected after the cancellation of the festival in 2020, with even the powers-that-be at Cannes having to accept the reality of worldwide lockdowns during the pandemic’s initial wave, and the unorthodox circumstances of the 2021 edition, held in July instead of May to take advantage of the seasonal ebbing of the virus in Europe, and characterised by a regime of mask-wearing, testing, panics about rumoured outbreaks and a near-total absence of attendees from outside of continental Europe, factors which combined to give the entire event a slightly deflating, alienating feeling, unavoidable regardless of the quality of films on offer that year.

How, then, could this year’s festival, back in its familiar timeslot of May, with no more testing, the mask rules gone (owing to a nationwide ruling just before the start of proceedings) and the thronging crowds back on the Croisette, be perceived as anything but normal? “Normal”, here, is of course a relative term, since Cannes has always been such an atypical, eminently surreal experience: one where gaudy Eurotrash and austere arthouse sensibilities coexist, where excitable celebrity watchers hanging out for a glimpse of Robert Pattinson mingle with exhausted journalists emerging from their sixth screening of the day, where the hedonistic excess of endless parties alternates with the strict security regime governing every movement in and out of festival venues, and where both the obscene display of wealth and signs of abject poverty are always near at hand. Even for those who spend their lives on the festival circuit (or at least did, until Covid entered the scene, and who are only now slowly re-emerging from their online festival cocoons), Cannes is an exceptional experience, so utterly unlike even other A-List festivals that it stands alone in the calendar, marking the end of one cycle of cinema and the beginning of the next. It has only been in the virus-addled 2020s that the metronomically reliable annual rhythm of this cycle has broken down (two-and-a-bit years between festivals last time around, barely nine months for this one). This is only one of the reasons for which, despite the veneer of a return to business as usual at the festival, things are anything but usual right now.

The fact that the festival took place against the backdrop of the war in the Ukraine was another. The festival’s organisers stuck their colours to the mast by inviting Volodomyr Zelinsky – himself a member of the entertainment universe by dint of his prior life as a comic actor on Ukrainian television – to speak via a video-link at its opening night ceremony. If Putin’s decision to invade Russia’s neighbour has sent shockwaves across Europe, from the influx of Ukrainian refugees to the tit-for-tat economic embargoes that threaten to plunge the continent into recession, with gas shortages and blockages of grain deliveries looming, then the most visible effect on Cannes was a seemingly trivial one: the paucity of oligarch-owned yachts dotting the harbour. And yet the conflict seemed to cast a looming shadow over the entire event, not just as a moral challenge to the frivolity of watching movies (no matter how much claim to artistic status they may enjoy) when entire cities are being obliterated, but also as a potential portent of the future. Now that Russia has been expeditiously expelled from the global economy and China has locked itself off from the outside world as part of its intransigent zero-Covid strategy, what future does the film festival have? How can it sustain itself if the globalised economy of which it is an avatar is being hacked into pieces?

Tchaikovsky’s Wife

The festival nonetheless wisely decided against a wholesale boycott of Russian filmmakers, which was called for by the more strident pro-Ukrainian figures in the film world, and in addition to Ukrainian entries such as Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchul’s Pamfir in the Quinzaine and Mariupol no. 2 in the official selection (whose director, the Lithuanian Mantas Kvedaravičius, recently died amidst the bombing campaign directed at that town), dissident Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov featured in the competition with the period drama Tchaikovsky’s Wife. Perhaps the most prominent representative from the region, the Belarus-born, Ukraine-raised, Berlin-residing Sergei Loznitsa was also showcased at the festival, with his found footage documentary The Natural History of Destruction bowing in an out-of-competition slot. Loznitsa’s scathing views of Putin and the political order the Russian autocrat has created are no secret, although these were not enough to prevent the director’s expulsion from the Ukrainian film academy soon after the invasion on the specious grounds of “cosmopolitanism”. His latest release, whose titles derives from the German author W.G. Sebald’s writings, presents images of the destruction of German cities at the tail-end of World War II, mingling aerial views of bombed-out districts with imagery of war leaders addressing their national audiences with tub-thumping morale-boosting speeches. The resonances with the present situation, if not part of the original intention of Loznitsa’s project (which evidently predated the outbreak of active conflict in the Ukraine), were unmistakable, but the lofty detachment he exhibits to the question of war, avoiding an overtly partisan stance by deliberately playing with the ambiguous status of the footage he deploys, would have done little to win over those of his critics looking for a more engaged statement from the documentarian.

Pacifiction

Loznitsa’s film was a bracing experience for the viewer, but it was not the best film of the festival. This status, in the opinion of your humble correspondent, incontestably belongs to Albert Serra’s tale of South Sea neo-colonialism Pacifiction. The Catalan auteur’s films have long haunted the sidebars of the festival, screening at the Quinzaine, Un certain regard and in hors-compétition slots, but it is with his sixth feature, and his first to be set in the present day, that Serra made his bow in the competition, with festival director Thierry Frémaux finally seeing fit to promote Serra to the big league. In doing so, however, he highlighted how rare the kind of cinematic ambition that marks Serra’s cinema was otherwise present in the competition.

Pacifiction has, by Serra’s standards, an involved storyline, centring on De Roller, the French high commissioner to the still-colonised Tahiti, who fends off the competing claims of indigenous activists pushing for independence and the disreputable Europeans who cling onto power (in the form of military officers) or profits (Morton, the owner of a seedy nightclub in the island’s capital called Paradise). Tensions appear to ratchet up as rumours circulate about government plans to resume atomic testing in French Polynesia, but the louche insouciance with which Benoît Magimel embodies De Roller – who spends most of the film clad in all-white suits and dark sunglasses – is a signal for the languid pacing of Serra’s enterprise, which after nearly three hours of running time resolves few of the narrative strands it had opened. If anything, the closing stanzas of the film witness a decomposition of the story’s elements, as causality and space-time relations themselves evanesce into extended bouts of near-abstraction. The Pacific islands setting elicits numerous references to other works across the arts: Murnau’s Tabu, Joseph Conrad’s novels and, above all, the paintings of Paul Gauguin will enter the viewer’s mind while watching the film. Indeed, in Serra’s hands, cinema, here, begins to merge into painting. With the pink hues of a sunset, the deep blues of nocturnal waves or the lurid neons of a trashy discothèque dominating the screen, it is colour more than plot that drives Pacifiction forward.

If Serra is the archetype of a neo-modernist filmmaker, striving to revivify the provocative, épater le bourgeois sensibility of a Fassbinder or a Buñuel by channelling it through the formal traits of 21st century “slow” cinema, then he finds a curious counterpart in the neo-classicism of James Gray, whose Armageddon Time was another of the festival’s highlights. Despite the yawning differences in their aesthetic leanings, Serra and Gray both open pathways forward for cinema that avoid either the neo-barbarism of most blockbuster cinema or the deadening stylistic homogeneity of “quality” television. In Gray’s case, Armageddon Time represents a return to familiar terrain: after the excursions in space, time and genre in The Lost City of Z (2016) and Ad Astra (2019), we are back in outer-borough New York, and back to the family-centred dramas of Gray’s earlier work. If anything, his latest film is his most unashamedly personal. With the auburn-haired protagonist Paul Graff, entering middle school at the dawn of the 1980s, Gray gives us an overtly autobiographical view into his own adolescence in Queens, which is rendered in the film with unparalleled textural detail, from the prison-like drabness of the public schools to the flinty accents of the members of Paul’s extended Jewish family. Our protagonist is dreamy, restive and perhaps a little self-entitled, which produces a natural resistance to ineffectual authority figures, whether it’s his own meek father or the nebbishy sixth grade teacher at his local school. Instead, Paul gravitates towards the only black boy in his class, Johnny, and the two are soon cutting class to peruse record stores and play arcade machines. A more serious indiscretion – smoking weed in the school bathroom – sees Paul’s family whisk him off to an expensive private school, only possible by the largesse of his grandfather (played by Anthony Hopkins), who encourages Paul’s artistic interests while reminding him of the anti-semitic pogroms that enforced their emigration to North America. It is literally in the hallways of the Kew-Forest School that the film takes an unexpected twist, as Paul is given a pep-talk by none other than Fred Trump (father of…), and later attends a school assembly address by sister-of Maryanne (in a cameo by Jessica Chastain). Parallels between the ascendancy of Trumpism and an earlier reactionary turn in American politics are underscored by the insertion of Ronald Reagan’s television appearances during his first presidential campaign, but Gray’s film is also an earnest exploration of the workings of everydav privilege, which can extend even to those whose family DNA includes being the victim of racist ideologies. In this sense it is even a self-critique, an acknowledgement that Gray’s professional success owes as much to mechanisms of social oppression from which he was spared as it does to his own talent and genius.

De Humani Corporis Fabrica

In another mode of cinema entirely, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel resume their sensory ethnography project with De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the duo’s most impressive film since 2012’s Leviathan. Their new film – the title is drawn from Vesalius’ mediaeval book of anatomy – retains the disorienting camerawork and carefully sculpted soundscapes of its predecessor, but whereas previously it was the de-anthropomorphised world of a New England fishing trawler that was the object of their cinematic investigation, here the focus is the human body itself as it is processed through the modern-day medical system. With shooting taking place at a selection of hospitals in the Parisian region, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel revel in the visceral imagery of keyhole cameras passing through intestinal tracts, blood being extracted through penises, or eye surgery patients receiving contact lens implants, while also giving us Wisemanesque glimpses into the functioning of healthcare bureaucracies, or the handling of troubled mental health patients. Collated from a mass of material, the film is also a supreme work of montage, which is sometimes manipulated so that transitions from one patient or body part to the next are only belatedly recognisable. Moments of the film certainly require spectatorial fortitude (that there were walkouts at the screening I attended was not a sign of its poor quality), but the dominant feeling of the film’s ending is a truly uplifting one – despite, or because of, the obscene caricatures in the murals adorning the hospital rec rooms lovingly panned over by Castaing-Taylor/Paravel’s roaming camera.

As luck would have it, I caught De Humani Corporis Fabrica immediately before a screening of David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. Both films give us eye-wincing depictions of the human body in the act of being surgically sliced up, and could conceivably run together on a stomach-churning double-bill, which could well be promoted with a tagline drawn from the dialogue of Croneneberg’s release: “Surgery is the new sex.” In a dystopic future world (actually Athens, where filming took place), humans have lost the ability to feel pain, but are increasingly able to grow extra organs in their own bodies. A pair of avant-garde performance artists, Viggo Mortensen’s Saul Tenser and his romantic and work partner, Léa Seydoux’s Caprice, use this ability to subject themselves to blade wielding robotic arms, which remove the supernumerary body parts in front of a live audience. To satirise the contemporary art world is perhaps an easy hit – indeed, the screenplay was written 20 years ago, and the scene has only become even more a parody of itself in the intervening time – but the mix of deadpan humour and viscous gore is classically Cronenbergian. Crimes of the Future is a profoundly ugly film – exhibit A: the skeletal massage chair that Tenser uses to prepare himself for the organ removals – but this laideur is absolutely willed by Cronenberg, an overt signal to his films of the past such as Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986).

Crimes of the Future

Crimes of the Future made its bow, of course, in the competition, but Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s film was one of the coups of the Director’s Fortnight (also known as the Quinzaine). In addition to the winking bawdiness of Fogo-fátuo by João Pedro Rodrigues, a queer sci-fi film set largely at a fire station in the year 2069, whose firefighters contend with a Portugal ravaged by wildfires while performing pornographically-tinged ballet routines, the section was also able to boast new releases by name directors such as Mia Hansen-Løve (Un beau matin [One Fine Morning]), Alice Winocour (Revoir Paris [Paris Memories]), Pietro Marcello (L’Envol [Scarlet]) and Philippe Faucon (Les Harkis). But the real value of this year’s Quinzaine came, true to its spirit, in the discoveries it allowed. Mark Jenkin has been making Cornwall-based films for nearly two decades, but his artisanal production methods – shooting on self-developed 16mm stock, using post-synchronised sound and even sourcing generator power through environmentally sustainable means – first received prominence with 2019’s Bait, a treatment of social tensions in a traditional fishing village during tourist season. With Enys Men (the title is Cornish for “Stone Island”), Jenkin enters a more spectral realm, with a middle-aged wildlife volunteer played by Mary Woodvine spending much of the film traipsing through the rough-hewn topography of the rocky outcrop in order to record botanical changes to the island’s environment. Her world starts to unravel, however, as she hallucinates/encounters catastrophes from the island’s past and, perhaps, future. While the blend of psychological horror and temporal looping recalls Nicholas Roeg or even Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Jenkin’s Brythonic settings and commitment to analogue aesthetics in all its imperfection pleasingly evokes an older lineage of filmmaking which stretches back to the numerous Brittany-set films made by Jean Epstein from the 1920s to the 1940s.

Enys Men shared its supernatural touches with Les cing diables (The Five Devils) by the young French director Léa Mysisus, in which a young girl with a preternatural sense of smell can witness flashbacks into the past, as well as La Montagne (The Mountain) by Thomas Salvador, in which a middle-aged man experiencing corporate ennui (played by the director) decides to set up camp high in the Alps before making an astonishing encounter deep inside an ice cave. Nicolas Pariser’s Le Parfum vert (The Green Perfume) gives us a camp spy caper with liberal nods to ‘30s Hitchcock films and Tin Tin comics (the latter re-read while the director was caring for his newborn child), as an actor from the Comédie-française unwittingly finds himself embroiled in the eponymous international conspiracy after his friend is poisoned. One of France’s most esteemed novelists, pioneering autofiction writer Annie Ernaux, found herself working with a different medium in Les Années Super 8, gathering her ex-husband’s 8mm home movie footage (much of which came from family holidays in a range of exotic locales, from Morocco to Albania, which were then only beginning to open up to mass tourism) to which she adds a literary voiceover probing her own memories of the era as she dealt with burgeoning literary success at the same time as the tragic breakdown of her marriage, all of which takes place outside the frame of the images of the happy family opening Christmas presents or exploring distant lands.

Un varón

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Quinzaine, however, came with Colombian director Fabian Hernández’s Un varón (given the blunter English title A Male). On one level, the film is a rather straight tale of gang-controlled poor neighbourhoods in Bogotá, and the efforts of the adolescent protagonist Carlos to prove his toughness by inserting himself into the machistic, violent world of the drug cartels, at the same time as seeking the ostensible protection of his mother and sister. But the viewer will invariably start to question the identity of Carlos – or that of the actor playing him – questions which will never be directly addressed by the film, or the filmmaker in interviews surrounding its premiere at Cannes. The result is that Un varón turns into two very different films depending on the status we ascribe to Carlos, as every scene, even every line of dialogue, potentially gains a radically altered meaning on this basis. Through the simplest of gestures, Hernandez hits upon the ambiguous relationship between representation and reality in a way that only the cinema can offer.

All this is to say that, under the stewardship of artistic director Paolo Moretti, the Quinzaine had an incomparably strong line-up this year, building on the success of last year’s festival and making the section, which runs autonomously from the rest of Cannes and has often struggled with its own sense of identity, central to the experience of any festival-goer interested in cinema that can push the boundaries of the medium. The plaudits he has received from critics and other programmers for the efforts of his team are thus manifestly justified. After four years at the helm (including the cancelled 2020 edition), surely he was primed for a long tenure at the Quinzaine, which seemed so perfectly pitched to his own curatorial sensibilities? Apparently not, as news emerged shortly before the festival that the Société des réalisateurs français (SRF, the guild of French filmmakers which organises this part of the festival), elected not to renew his contract. The rationale for such a change is, to be blunt, a mystifying one, and can only give rise to speculation of political machinations behind the scenes. Whatever the real motivations were for Moretti’s dismissal, the decision to oust him was a scandalous misjudgement, and may well prove to be a self-inflicted wound by the SRF: if ensuring the best possible programming at the Quinzaine is its chief aspiration, then it is hard to see how their actions in sidelining Moretti serve this goal.1  

In contrast to Moretti’s precipitous dismissal, Thierry Frémaux has presided over the official selection for nearly two decades, and although there were some discontented murmurs in the late 2010s over his handling of the streaming issue, at present it looks like nothing will ever dislodge him from the délégué général role. In truth, he is a requisite master at balancing the competing stakeholder interests in the festival, but this has its effects on his programming: as the increasingly threadbare rewards of Un certain regard attest, Frémaux has never really excelled at unearthing new cinematic talent, which has the flow-on effect that the competition becomes ever more dominated by the clutch of established auteurs who seem to have droit de seigneur over a slot whenever they have a new film in the offing. These include Hirokazu Koreeda, who after his Palme d’or for Shoplifters in 2018 has shifted his filmmaking outside of his native Japan, first with the French-set The Truth in 2019, and now with this year’s Broker, filmed in South Korea. Despite the shift in locale, Koreeda’s unfailing thematic preoccupation with family relations, and the infinite variations that are possible within this configuration, is continued with Broker. Song-Kang-ho reprises his gruff patriarch persona from Bong joon-ho’s Parasite, but this time he plays a petty crook involved in an adoption racket: when young mothers leave their newborns in a church baby box (a widespread practice in South Korea), he and his accomplice intercept the child and arrange adoption through informal (and therefore lucrative) channels. When one mother, So-young (played by Lee Ji-eun, who is, I am reliably informed, a K-Pop idol) has second thoughts about her abandoned infant, the trio embark on a road trip, unwittingly pursued by detectives trying to break up the adoption ring. It is all too easy to see the group thus formed as an Ersatz family, an impression heightened when they are joined by a foster child added into the mix for comic effect, but what could appear to be a formula for sentimentality achieves genuine pathos through Koreeda’s reliable light-touch.

Tori et Lokita

The Dardenne brothers are another stalwart of the festival, having premiered every film of theirs since Rosetta in competition. Their newest film, Tori et Lokita, shares with Broker the premise that an artificial family can easily give rise to genuine bonds of filial affection: the titular characters here are West African immigrants – Tori a young boy from Cameroon, Lokita an older teenager from Benin – who have migrated to Belgium, but Lokita can only legally stay under the pretext that she is Tori’s sister. They work odd jobs in restaurants to pay off the people smugglers who organised their passage to Europe and eke out an existence in their new surrounds, but their situation is imperilled when the immigration authorities insist on a DNA test to prove their kinship. To get out of their impasse, Lokita accepts an unenviable task watching over a cannabis production facility, having to hole herself up in the concealed lab for the entire duration of the job. Despite the abrupt shock with which Tori et Lokita concludes, there is something palpably familiar in its narrative coordinates, which draw liberally from the themes of their earlier work (L’Enfant and Lorna’s Silence most notably), but as with Koreeda it is the Dardenne brothers’ dogged commitment to their method which ensures the film’s potency.

Other auteurist luminaries made less propitious bows at the festival. Like Koreeda and the Dardennes, Arnaud Desplechin furrowed familiar pastures with Frère et sœur (Brother and Sister), in which family troubles dominate the lives of middle-class characters in the town of Roubaix in north-east France. The film centres on the sibling hatred between the confessional writer Louis and his actress sister Alice Vuillard, which has reached operatic proportions of venom over the years, even if, as the film’s jumpy temporal structure attests, a clear causality for the animus is hard to pinpoint. Both Louis’ wife and the youngest Vuillard sibling Fidèle try to mediate their relationship, but make little progress with their headstrong counterparts. Unfortunately, the star power of Melvil Poupaud, Marion Cotillard and Golshifteh Farahani is not enough to lift the film above its melodramatic trappings, which hit the spectator with blasts of emotion while not really giving us enough information to empathise with or even understand the inner turmoil of the characters, who instead come across chiefly as insufferably self-absorbed. 

Skolimowski’s EO suffered from different shortcomings to Desplechin’s film. Essentially a retread of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), the centre of the story is, naturally, a donkey, who is shunted out of a circus due to protests against animal cruelty and then impassively passed from one transient owner to the next. The premise allows Skolimowski to present a tableau of contemporary Polish society stretching from small-town football fans to ex-urban truck drivers, and concludes with a closing act dominated by Isabelle Huppert’s late appearance. The world of Skolimowski’s film is depicted with an energetic punkishness that belies his status as an octogenarian cinéaste, but the gambit of so openly avowing a debt to Bresson’s film can’t help but raise unfavourable comparisons with the original, and the question as to what purpose remaking the classic really served in the first place. 

Stars at Noon

Neither of these films, however, were anywhere near as flawed as the major bomb of the festival, Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon, which was mysteriously awarded the Grand Prix (the competition’s runner-up prize) ex aequo with Lukas Dhont’s Close. Or perhaps not so mysteriously, given her close ties to jury head Vincent Lindon. In any case, the film is so bad as to go down as a stain on Denis’ otherwise formidable body of work. The project is drawn from a novel by Denis Johnson, set in Nicaragua in 1986, a time when the revolutionary Sandinista regime was fighting a brutal CIA-backed counter-insurgency. Denis’ efforts to transpose the setting to the present day Central American republic are, however, desultory and superficial, with the result that the film really takes place in a kind of Nowhereland lacking in political texture and populated by cartoon characters. The central figure in the narrative, Trish, is an aspiring journalist whose purpose for being in the country is unclear: no publications are willing to run the pieces she proposes (which are hopelessly shallow anyway), and she has to sleep with local bigshots to cover her per diems. When one of these turns out to be a British oil company middleman being chased by the Costa Rican police, the duo make a dash out of the capital. But in spite of the political thriller premise and the graphic depictions of sweaty hotel room sex, the film is as listless and insipid as its main characters. Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn are both out of their depth as the leads, and the only moments when the film shows some sparks of life come from cameo turns by John C. Reilly (via Zoom), and a late turn by Benny Safdie as a barely undercover CIA agent. Denis, of course, has made a career out of probing neo-colonial power structures in films such as Beau travail (1999) and White Material (2009), but in her latest film any system-criticism beyond surface-level quips in the dialogue is crushingly absent. If the film had any redeeming feature, it was the fact that it was openly set during a time of stringent Covid protocols, with masks widely worn (at least by the background characters) and health checks used as narrative hooks. In this, it was absolutely alone at the festival. Apart from a single off-hand remark in Fogo-fatúo about the king dying of the Corona virus (which was played for laughs and drew them from the audience), the rest of the films I saw took place in a universe where Covid simply never existed. Nobody, of course, wants to attend a festival where all the films dwell on the pandemic, particularly at a point where we seem to be emerging from the worst of it, but the blind spot represents yet one more way in which cinema seems to be divorcing itself from reality.

Stars at Noon found equally vociferous detractors and defenders on the Croisette, but it was far from being the most contentious film at this year’s festival. That accolade unavoidably goes to Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness. After satirising the globalised bourgeoisie in The Square in 2017, which garnered him the Palme d’or, Östlund repeated the gambit this year – and got the prize again! If The Square gained a certain critical unanimity five years ago, the same could not be said this time around, and the film’s divided reception was only heightened when it was granted the festival’s main honour: to win the Palme d’or once is acceptably brash, but twice in a row? Who does he think he is, Michael Haneke? There were certainly reasons enough to be repelled by the film: its 2.5-hour running time spread across three loosely connected episodes, the loathsome nature of virtually all of its characters, the extended vomiting scene that forms the centrepiece of the film… But central to most attacks on the film was its political standpoint. How serious could Östlund’s critique of the hypocrisy of the world elites be if his film received an eight-minute standing ovation from the rich and famous at its gala screening in the festival palace? Does his satire really hit so hard if it can be gleefully lapped up by exactly the people it targets, or is Östlund complicit in the phenomena he mocks? Does his comedy neuter his moral condemnation? And in fact, Triangle of Sadness is undeniably a funny, entertaining film, whose distended duration is sustained by the procession of laughs it cultivates. From the awkwardness of the opening scene, as a couple from the influencer generation bicker over who should pick up the cheque after their meal in a fine restaurant, across the numerous sardonic one-liners and the duelling political quotes between a communist American ship captain (Woody Harrelson) and his Russian oligarch of a rhetorical sparring partner. It is when Östlund turns to an elaborate parable in Part III of the film that he is, however, in far more uncertain waters. The superyacht that had been the setting for Part II has been attacked and sunk by pirates, and a handful of survivors wash up on the shore of what appears to be a remote, uninhabited island. The only one of them who has any survival skills, however, is the Filipino cleaner Abigail, who uses her newfound superiority to reverse the social hierarchy and boss around, bully and even sexually exploit her underlings. But it is in this update of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic that Östlund’s political allegory breaks down: if Abigail actually does have the basic degree of competency lacking in her fellow castaways that enables her to keep the group alive, then is the privileged position she therefore accrues not justified? Is Östlund unwittingly providing an alibi for, rather than a denunciation of, the extreme social inequality that marks our current age? Is it ideological weak spots such as this that is the reason why we can watch his film without ourselves feeling too rebuked?

Triangle of Sadness

Amidst the polarised discourse incited by Triangle of Sadness, my overriding reaction was thus the relatively rare one of ambivalence. In this way, it was perhaps emblematic of the ambivalence surrounding Cannes and, by extension, the cinema this year. What kind of role will the cinema play in the new media landscape? How does it distinguish itself from the “content” unrelentingly churned out by the streaming services and other multimedia platforms? Now that the public is allowed to go back into movie-theatres, will they actually want to, or has this social ritual been irrevocably snapped, supplanted by the unshakeable omnipresence of the mobile screen? And if would-be viewers do venture into the darkened rooms of old, what films will they elect to see? The cinema is at a crossroads. If it is to endure, then those in the industry have a choice to make. Either they can take the well-worn pathway of nostalgic reaction under the “back to normal” mantra, clinging onto the formulae and customs that worked in the past in a desperate bid to revive the glory days and remain a relevant medium. Or it can forge a new route, create a new cinema for the coming age. At Cannes, there was plenty of evidence of the filmmaking world’s powerbrokers persisting with the former strategy. But, thankfully, there were also glimpses of the latter course of action. The last thing we should want a film to be is normal. Cinema is, must be, an abnormal art. And it is only through a relentless thirst for invention that it will survive.

Endnotes

  1. I admit I have certain conflicts of interest in this matter, but I defy anyone to refute the claims I make in this paragraph.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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