Picture this, dear reader: from the very beginning of this year’s Cannes film festival, I had been having nightmares about the prospect of getting into the inaugural press screening of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Not necessarily because I am particularly enamoured of his work – in fact he is a director whose films have inspired varying reactions in me, blowing alternately hot and cold – but because experience had taught me that the task of actually getting into this screening would be a daunting one. And so it proved to be. But I had no choice: other commitments meant this would be the only chance I would get to watch the Tarantino at Cannes, a film which, for good or bad, would surely be the talking point of the festival. Through a tag-team effort that is not without controversy within the Cannes press corps, a few of us had staked out a position in the queue two hours before the séance was due to commence. If I had thought this would be easily sufficient to enter the screening room, that nobody else could possibly be prepared to queue up that long, I was immediately disabused of the notion. Even at this absurdly early point, we were already well back in the line: others, I later heard, had taken up their positions more than three-and-a-half hours before the film’s scheduled start-time (it must be said that the demographic profile of these people skewed heavily towards the young and the male). An agonising wait ensued. About an hour before the screening, those with higher-ranked badges than mine began to be let in. As the white and pink badges streamed into the Debussy theatre, anxiety turned to despair. Then, o sweet miracle, my line started inching forward. As I crept toward the entrance, winding a way through the holding pen, optimism welled inside me. But this was misguided. The diligent security guards began to limit the theatre’s intake to twos and threes, and then, depressingly, to single individuals. As I stood third in line, it ground to a halt. It was then that the security guards relayed the definitive message to us: the theatre was complet, there would be no chance of being let in. The thought occurred to me that, with its interminable queues, heavy-handed security and ambient odour of tacky consumerism, the experience of watching a film at Cannes is in many ways like flying, or it would be, if you were never totally sure that you would actually be allowed onto the plane (so in that sense it’s like flying with United).
After the news filtered through, those shut out of the screening stood, momentarily, in a daze. Was it worth hanging around, just in case security might end up letting in a few more people after all? Such thinking is entirely in vain. Never, under any circumstances, will the Cannes guards re-open a theatre after having declared it full. Having not made plans to see another film, it was left to me to spend the next three hours meandering aimlessly around the Croisette. As could be predicted, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood generated a passionately divided reaction from those critics who did manage to get into the screening, with Tarantino’s portrait of Tinseltown at the time of the Sharon Tate murder inspiring adoration and revulsion in equal parts: the former from the legion of confirmed Tarantino fans who closed ranks around their idol, exulting in his mobilisation of cinephilic nostalgia, the latter from the more militant-minded of the Me Too-inspired branch of film criticism, dismayed at Tarantino’s continued predilection for sustained scenes involving grisly violence against women, which here reached paroxysmal levels. Or so I’m told. The debate around Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, even if it may resemble a dialogue de sourds, will no doubt be a major one for film criticism in 2019. But it is one that, for the meantime at least, I will have to sit out.
A couple of nights later, on the eve of my departure from the Côte d’Azur, I was faced with a tormenting choice. Should I turn up for the 10pm session of Bong Joon-ho’s Gisaengchung (Parasite), showing for the press in the Salle Debussy, or settle into the 9pm catch-up screening of Ira Sachs’ Frankie in the distinctly less pressurised environs of the Salle du Soixantième, tucked away in the back of the Palais, where I knew I could front up shortly before the film would start without any fear of missing the screening? At this point in the festival, the two competition films had become a mutually exclusive proposition: viewing one would inevitably mean missing out on the other, thus potentially robbing me of the chance to intervene into another of the festival’s major talking points. Despite the major differences in the two directors’ respective aesthetics, both films interested me greatly. But I had to choose between them, and in this case, I must admit it was decidedly non-cinephilic criteria that swayed my decision. With its shorter duration and earlier timeslot, watching Frankie meant I could be home and in bed an hour-and-a-half earlier than if I decided to go with Parasite, and so Ira Sachs won my vote. And of course, Bong Joon-ho won the Palme d’or. Indeed, by all accounts, his satire on the searing class divisions of contemporary post-industrial societies was a deserving winner.
I have begun this year’s report, therefore, with the dubious strategy of talking about the films I did not see at the festival – one through circumstance, the other through my own free choice – and must ask for clemency from the reader for my critical fecklessness. Covering Cannes is all about strategy, about the choices one makes as one is faced with the unforgiving reality of the festival timetable, and the unpredictable nature of the supply/demand ratio at screenings, which a change to the schedule of press screenings this year all too futilely attempted to redress. Should I have joined the Tarantino queue even earlier than I did? Should I have been more resolute, and persisted with the late-night Bong Joon-ho screening? In retrospect, certainly yes. But it is impossible to know these things in advance, and instead the festival correspondent has to rely substantially on a gut judgement that experience (with the festival, with the cinema, and probably also with the psychology of queuing) can hone, but never truly perfect.
There remains the fact that I did see a large quantity of films at the festival, a good number of which were actually quite decent, and after this diversion through the virtual land of the films that I did not see, my focus will now lay on the real terrain of those I was able to take in and thenceforth subject to the faculties of my critical judgement, and which, even if they did not draw the same kind of media attention as Tarantino’s and Bong’s latest films, amply merit writing about.
I could not, for instance, be all that disappointed with my choice to watch Frankie over Parasite, since Ira Sachs delivered an impressive, even moving work. With its multinational, star-laden ensemble cast (Isabelle Huppert, Jérémie Renier, Pascal Greggory, Brendan Gleeson, Marisa Tomei and Greg Kinnear all feature) and its postcard setting in the mediaeval Portuguese town of Sintra, the film had every possibility of being a quintessential example of a plodding Euro-pudding. Matters were not helped by the fact that the storyline focuses exclusively on middle-class characters leading a life of comfort and privilege – at one point, the drama revolves around the loss of a €40,000 bracelet. In true Ira Sachs form, too, the action is minimal, with lengthy scenes dominated by loquacious, quasi-theatrical dialogues, as a tangled group of protagonists attempts to resolve the various impasses marking their relationships. But in the director’s skilled hands this approach pays off, with the results standing up with the best of Éric Rohmer, Woody Allen or Hong Sang-soo. As the titular Frankie, Huppert, here, is the throbbing centre of the film’s constellation of characters: an aging Parisian actress grappling with her terminal cancer, Frankie has gathered her loved ones in Sintra for what seems like a valedictory holiday. While she is in a loving, if not entirely faithful, marriage with the jocular Irishman Jimmy (Gleeson), Frankie’s relationship with her son Paul (Renier) is more strained, the question of her inheritance looming over the both of them. At the same time, her step-daughter Sylvia’s marriage to Ian is descending into an acrimonious divorce, while a production designer Frankie had befriended on a film set, Ilene (Tomei), appears to be in a still-born liaison with the over-keen Gary (Kinnear). In charting this complex web of relationships, Sachs is commendably careful to avoid tying up the loose-ends too neatly, instead preferring to leave matters as an open question: a closing shot of the characters assembled on the shore, the sun setting off the coast behind them, leaves matters unresolved, but is all the more beautiful for doing so.
This said, there were decidedly more daring efforts on offer across the various sections of the festival. Albert Serra’s Liberté was a reliably audacious effort from the Catalan provocateur. Stripped of even the minimal narratives of his previous films, Serra’s 132-minute procession of 18th-century aristocratic libertines engaging in a night of sexual abandon on the outskirts of Berlin is notable for founding a new film genre: the slow-cinema porno. Albert Serra seems to have been motivated, if anything, by Godard’s reply to a feminist critic chafing at a planned nude scene in British Sounds (1969): “Don’t you think I can make a cunt boring?” In spite of the sensual excess on offer, with a proliferation of oversized prosthetic penises, ejaculations, flagellated buttocks, and even, late in the piece, a notorious “golden shower”, the film has a dialled-down, almost deadening rhythm, with extended screen time given over to the repetitive, mechanical movements of his Sadean protagonists. Instead of its potentially titillating elements, it is Liberté’s deeply cinematic qualities that instill the film with a scintillating quality: the wan candlelight providing the nocturnal scenes with a flickering illumination, the rustling leaves and squelching forest undergrowth, the ever-present drone of cicadas. As with Història de la meva mort (Story of My Death, 2013) and La Mort de Louis XIV (The Death of Louis XIV, 2017), Libérte shows Serra’s continuing interest in the feudal aristocracy during its late-1700s death throes, as the French revolution signalled the end of its class existence. More concretely, it also highlights his predilection for the baroquism of the period’s fashion: the film is replete with powdered wigs and caked make-up, which miraculously remain intact throughout the libertines’ various debaucheries. Liberté originated as a theatrical performance in Berlin’s Volksbühne in 2018, which met with a divided critical response that was overdetermined by the hostility towards the theatre’s then new director, Chris Dercon (who has since resigned). Not having managed to catch the stage show, it is nonetheless hard for me to conceive of the project as anything other than a work, profoundly, of cinema. For all his experimenting with other artistic dispositifs – first the art gallery, now the theatre – Serra is a filmmaker to his core.
Terrence Malick’s auteurist reputation is probably at the opposite end of the spectrum to that of Serra: ruminative, spiritualist, so serious as to be po-faced, his films almost never inspire the kind of mischievous laughter that Serra’s do. With A Hidden Life, the formal hallmarks that have been present in his recent films to such an extent that they have almost become clichés of Malickness are all there in force: the swirling camerawork, the philosophising voiceovers, the seemingly random cuts to the splendour of the natural world. However, in his last few films (more specifically, everything after 2011’s Tree of Life), this apparatus has been deployed mainly to explore the emptiness in the contemporary lives of wealthy Sybarites, a move that resulted in a series of deeply flawed, even infuriating works. Here, by contrast, Malick wisely shifts the focus to a character who is a priori more deserving of his artistic treatment, and the new film is considerably more rewarding as a result. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a real life figure, was an Austrian peasant who during World War II refused to comply with Nazi-imposed military service, unable to reconcile his moral compass with the prospect of fighting a war he knows to be unjust. The war itself seems to have barely touched the remote mountain village where he and his family lead a traditional rural life with few traces of modernity. But Franz’s act of defiance, motivated by his religious beliefs despite the fact that his local priest implores him to adopt a more pragmatic stance, nonetheless draws the attention of the fascist authorities, who haul him into prison, while his fellow villagers subject his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) to an unending stream of abuse – willing deference to Nazi ideology having filtered all the way down to this bucolic redoubt. The contrast between the open, verdant valleys of Franz’s home and the dank cell to which he is confined could not be starker, but this divide is traversed by the letters of love and support he and his wife exchange during his captivity. Surprisingly, however, Franz’s Nazi captors seem willing to strike a compromise: he can avoid active combat, serving in a military hospital, if he signs a letter admitting to the justness of the Nazi cause, otherwise he will be executed. Everything in Franz’s character, however, indicates that this is not a path that is open to him, even in the face of his wife’s pleas to save himself. Despite the fact that his steadfastness touches the case’s judges (a dubious moment in the film, given that Nazi judges were generally bloodthirsty sadists), their decision must be upheld. A moving film on a deep ethical quandary – should Franz really cause such suffering to his wife and children on a point of principle, when, as is noted frequently, his stance will make no material difference to the war effort? – A Hidden Life has unevennesses over its nearly three-hour running time, but it marks a strong return to form for Malick, who in truth is one of the few filmmakers in the world whose aesthetic rigour is a match for the moral gravity of the film’s theme.
Of the “old masters” at the festival, Ken Loach also unleashed a strong addition to his œuvre. Throughout his more than five-decade career, Loach has become so committed to his preferred mode of social-realism that his name has become a byword for working-class “kitchen-sink” dramas. It was with his previous film, however, Palme d’or-winner I, Daniel Blake, that his style was able to pack an unprecedentedly powerful punch, no doubt accentuated by the increasingly dour situation faced by much of Britain’s population nearly a decade into Tory-imposed “austerity”. With Sorry We Missed You the formula is repeated, and the results are similarly effective. The geographic setting remains the same: the northern, post-industrial city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. But whereas I, Daniel Blake focussed on the soul-destroying indignity experienced by the unemployed, here it is those mired in the precarity of zero-hours contracts who draw the sympathetic gaze of Loach’s camera. Ricky (a displaced Manc) and Abby (his Geordie wife) face a persistent struggle to provide for themselves and their two children: while Abby has relatively steady if exhausting employment as a care-provider for the elderly and infirm, Ricky decides to try his hand with a delivery company, whose exploited labour ensures that online purchases can be promptly dispatched to our doors. The nature of employment at this firm is spelt out to Ricky by his neo-fascist thug of a boss: as an independent contractor rather than an employee, he has to provide his own van, and work can be given and taken away from him at a whim, while missed shifts can result in exorbitant fines. The long hours Ricky and Abby work mean that neither are in a position to adequately look after their children, and their eldest son starts down the path of delinquency: spraying graffiti around the city and skipping school (which under a recent, perverse British law, can result in the parents being subject to criminal charges). The film is far from being unrelentingly dreary, enlivened as it is by scriptwriter Paul Laverty’s moments of levity (including a characteristic slanging match between the Manchester United-supporting Ricky and a Newcastle fan he delivers to), but the vision it offers of the inhumanity of the archetypal 21st-century workplace – whose legally self-employed sub-contractors are no more existentially secure than their 19th-century proletarian ancestors – is a bleak one all the same. Commendably, the film avoids all mention of the B-word that is presently swallowing up the attention of the British media: inside the EU or out of it, Loach suggests, Ricky and Abby’s plight will remain the same. It is only a more sweeping change to the political order that can change their lives.
Other entries from established veterans of the Croisette had, however, more mixed results. Almodovar’s starkly autobiographical Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory) centres on Antonio Banderas as a middle-aged filmmaker named Salvador Mallo (a near-anagram of Almodovar’s own name), whose debilitating physical pain leads him to start smoking smack provided by Alberto (Asier Etzeandia), an actor from an old film of his. In his heroin-induced fog, Mallo meanders through nostalgic reminiscences of the past – flashbacks of which prominently feature Penélope Cruz as his doting mother – and produces a theatre monologue about his first, stormy romance in the socially emancipated Madrid of the post-fascist 1980s, which Alberto is all-too keen to perform. A contrast to some of Almodovar’s previous, frothier films (I’m So Excited, The Skin I Live In), Pain and Glory sees him make a return, both thematically and stylistically, to his break-out films of the 1980s and 1990s, and was an early favourite for the Palme d’or. A deeply personal work, it nonetheless has a tendency to fall into a mise-en-abîme of self-absorbed solipsism.
It saddens me to report that with Le Jeune Ahmed the Dardenne brothers, who share with Haneke a near-impregnable hold on a competition slot for whatever they make, proffered one of the weakest films of their career. The titular character is a seemingly mild-mannered 13 year-old boy who, under the spell of a local ISIS-supporting imam, dreams of travelling to Syria to join the movement (the film is evidently set a few years in the past, before its fortunes took a turn for the worse), and takes it upon himself to stab an insufficiently pious schoolteacher of his. Far from impressing his mentor, Ahmed is chastened for this spontaneous act, which could draw unwanted attention from the authorities to the preacher’s proselytising, and he ends up in a juvenile detention centre. Allowed to do agricultural work during his sentence, Ahmed draws the affection of a local farm girl, but his blossoming attraction to her comes into conflict with his fundamentalist beliefs. Right to the end, it seems, Ahmed remains resolute in the face of temptation, and even plans to repeat his attack during a planned reconciliation with his teacher-victim. Of course, this being a Dardennes film, the path of redemption opens itself up to Ahmed, but the film suffers from a certain schematic, lightly sketched quality, and despite the nature of its subject-matter lacks the emotional and ethical profundity of their best work. It is almost as if Le Jeune Ahmed sees them filming on auto-pilot, going through the motions of their filmmaking logic, but without any deeper sense of conviction.
Jim Jarmusch opened the festival with a red carpet spectacle whose casting seemed to beg for the old Universal slogan: “More stars than there are in the heavens.” Messieurs and mesdames Driver, Murray, Sevigny, Swinton, Glover, Gomez, Perez, Kane, Landry Jones, Pop and Waits all featured in parts big and small in The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch’s spoof on the zombie genre, which follows on from his earlier vampire-pastiche Only Lovers Left Alive. Filled with cinephilic references (to Romero, notably, but Sam Fuller’s name also appears on a gravestone) and in-jokes to Jarmusch’s inner-circle (characters are often given lightly re-worked versions of the actor’s name, such as Zelda Winston, while Iggy Pop’s turn as a zombie winks to the fact that he could basically play one without any need for make-up), the film also attests to Jarmusch’s sovereign disdain for all pop culture made since 1985: “Here’s an idea,” we can almost hear him saying, “what about making a parody of a zombie film? – Great idea, Jim! Nobody’s ever thought of doing that before…” Adam Driver, Bill Murray and Chloë Sevigny are a trio of cops in the quirky, Twin Peaks-like town of Centerville, who respond with archetypally Jarmuschian laconicism to the spate of zombie attacks afflicting their precinct. As the apocalypse takes hold – not even Swinton’s samurai sword-wielding Scotswoman can keep the undead at bay – the film’s protagonists succumb to a spiral of self-referentiality: Driver’s admonitions to Murray that “This is going to end bad” turn out to be motivated by the fact that he has already read the script to The Dead Don’t Die, and indeed, with a horde of animated corpses encircling their cop car, he is definitively proven right.
By opening proceedings in such an apocalyptic manner, Jarmusch seemed to set the tone for the rest of the festival. A sense of impending doom pervaded Cannes, a tendency which was most noticeable in the Director’s Fortnight program. With its aptly nihilistic title, Lech Kowalski’s documentary On va tout péter (Blow it to Bits) ably relayed the restive mood of the French working-class under Macron’s turbo-charged neoliberalism. In a real-life version of Stéphane Brizé’s En guerre, unionised workers at a car parts manufacturer, faced with the demise of their factory, decide to take matters into their own hands. Their rolling picket lines and efforts to exert political pressure on the company owners are, however, to no avail, and they are faced with the Hobson’s choice of a savage restructuring that would see most of them lose their jobs, or a closure that would leave them all unemployed. What other rational solution to their situation is there, then, other than to yield to the temptation to blow up the factory with dynamite? Despite being marred by the triteness of Kowalski’s voiceover, the film shows us the radical despair presently faced by so many industrial workers in Western countries, the material gains they had acquired from past struggles now making their workplace “uncompetitive”, as the callous lexicon of modern capitalism terms it. The irony of it all: if workers in the past mobilised with the goal of abolishing wage-slavery, now the impetus for political action is to maintain their proletarian status, the alternative quagmire of long-term unemployment being a far more depressing prospect.
Quentin Dupieux’s surrealist fiction Le Daim (Deerskin) operates on a different formal level altogether from Kowalski’s militant documentary, but contained a similar abyssal logic. Georges (Jean Dujardin) is a disaffected middle-aged man who leaves his job and wife behind and empties his bank account to purchase a genuine 1970s deerskin jacket, which he falls in love with despite its ill fit on his stocky frame. The jacket owner also throws in an old mini-DV video camera, which our protagonist, seeking refuge in a quaint hotel in a remote mountain town, uses to film his surrounds. But Georges comes under the psychotic spell of his deerskin coat, whose goal is to be the only jacket in existence, and to fulfil this goal he ends up undertaking a spree of grisly murders. In the meantime, Georges has struck up a strange bond with the bartender Denise (Adèle Haenel), who also edits found footage in her spare time, and, convincing her that he is a legitimate filmmaker with producers stuck in Siberia, he hires her to edit his material, which Denise does with alacrity. The references to Dupieux’s own gonzo-filmmaking, departing wildly from the normal rules of French film production, are self-evident, and the 75-minute film briskly makes its way to its inevitably gruesome conclusion, while providing some of the biggest laughs of this year’s festival in doing so (Denise, for instance, reveals that she has re-cut Pulp Fiction in her spare time to put the film back into chronological order. The result: it sucks.)
Over in Un certain regard, Bruno Dumont delivered his second installment of his Joan of Arc diptych, Jeanne, with similarly loopy results. On trial for witchcraft, the 19 year-old Joan is played by a clearly pre-pubescent actress (Lise Leplat Prudhomme, who also played the young Jean in the previous film), who makes a creditable stab at embodying France’s national hero, and Dumont, shooting much of the film in his favoured terrain of the windswept Norman coastline, fills out the rest of the cast with a parade of oddballs. While retaining, like Dreyer and Bresson before him, long tracts of the dialogue from the actual trial’s protocols, made even more uncanny by having a 10 year-old girl match wits with an assembly of church elders, Dumont also has a propensity to interrupt proceedings with outbursts of cheesy, 1980s-style electro-pop to move the narrative along.
Gaspar Noé rounded out Cannes’ trio of Gallic eccentrics with the 50-minute multi-frame moyen-métrage Lux Aeterna, screening in Noé’s familiar turf of a post-midnight out-of-competition slot. In true Noé style the film is at once visually exhilarating and laughably pretentious, a combination that he willfully assumes, and the bracingly stroboscopic conclusion almost seemed deliberately calculated to alienate the masses assembled in the Grand Lumière, most of whom were no doubt there primarily to see the film’s stars (Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle, most notably) in the flesh. Dalle’s unrivalled screen presence is in full force here, particularly in an opening dialogue scene where she and Gainsbourg trade horror stories from past on-set experiences, before the film navigates the viewer around another troubled film shoot, this one attempting to capture a crucifixion scene that sees Gainsbourg, Abbey Lee and Clara 3000 tied to stakes. Lux Aeterna is, Noé proudly proclaims, a film about cinema, even if this sui generis work will probably end up being screened anywhere but a cinema.
Pleasingly, this year’s Cannes had a strong crop of emerging filmmakers. With Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov shows us the after-shocks of an actual apocalypse: Leningrad, in the immediate wake of World War II, when the Russian city had suffered the deadliest military siege in world history. By 1945, the city’s remaining residents can bask in the role they played in triumphing over the Nazis, but this is mitigated by the physical and emotional traumas the war has left behind, factors which were not overly helped, of course, by the fact that the USSR was still ruled over by Stalin’s iron fist. Iya, the titular character whose nickname comes from her statuesque height, is a doe-eyed nurse prone to epileptic fits, looking after her rather more calculating friend Masha’s young child while the latter is away on the front. Iya’s epilepsy leads her, however, to smothering the child to death, a piece of news which a battle-hardened Masha receives with surprising equanimity. Masha wants another child in return, but her abortion-riddled womb is unable to bear it, so she prods Iya into agreeing to act as a surrogate mother, while resorting to even more underhanded tactics to find a willing father for her future offspring. While unflinchingly showing the difficulties faced by the war-ravaged country, with its maimed, shell-shocked population, Balagov commendably avoids making cheap shots at the Soviet system: with the exception of the overweening mother to Masha’s on-off boyfriend, whose party-provided palatial home lies in stark contrast to the cramped apartments the other characters live in, the authority figures in Beanpole are presented as largely benevolent figures concerned more with the matter-of-fact task of rebuilding the nation than with any gratuitous acts of cruelty or manipulation. But the film most stands out for the 28 year-old Balagov’s precociously mature mastery of the patient long-take style he unwaveringly adopts. Following on from 2017’s Tesnota (Closeness), Balagov’s second film establishes him as a proficient successor to the formal tradition of Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Sokurov (the latter of whom has, in fact, been a mentor to the young filmmaker).
Mati Diop, who made headlines as the first black female director to appear in competition at Cannes, also stems from a proud cinematic heritage: as the niece of the Senegalese master Djibril Diop Mambéty, she had already devoted her mid-length work Mille Soleils (2013) to his 1972 masterpiece Touki bouki. For her debut feature Atlantique (Atlantics), a fictional re-working of an earlier documentary short she had made, Diop strikes out on her own path. In a Dakar that has been gripped by a Dubai-style real estate bubble, with gaudy glass skyscrapers pitched at the country’s kleptocratic elite popping up on the city’s skyline, the workers who are actually responsible for the construction of one of these monoliths have not been paid in months. In economic despair, they set out on a perilous sea voyage to Europe, where prosperity, they are convinced, awaits, but their unreliable vessel is brought down by a storm, and the men all die, leaving behind a collection of grieving girlfriends. One of their group, Ada is still enamoured with the missing Suleiman, even as she prepares to marry a wealthy suitor. But a fire in their nuptial bedroom averts the wedding ceremony, and it becomes more and more evident that Suleiman and company, seeking revenge for the exploitation that drove them to their watery deaths, are able to act from beyond the grave. With her combination of mesmerising imagery and the controlled pacing of her narrative, Mati Diop delivers a gripping ghost story that also functions as a poetic parable for the depredations of global capitalism.
Like Diop, fellow Cannes debutant Ladj Ly is of a Franco-African background, but in Les Misérables he prefers to train his eye on France’s banlieues. The film’s titles makes an unambiguous point: Victor Hugo’s wretched ones are, today, to be found in the migrant-filled tower blocks of Paris’s urban periphery. Very loosely inspired by Hugo’s revolution-set novel (and the musical it spawned), Ly’s film opens with semi-documentary footage of the festivities celebrating France’s 2018 World Cup victory, in scenes whose youthful ebullience recalls that of Panahi’s Offside (2006). But this momentary national unity quickly subsides as the yawning social divides of the French capital reassert their logic. Euphoria turns to outrage as a police crackdown on some restive kids gets out of hand, and the ensuing brutality is captured by a passing drone. Ly gives almost equal screen time to the rebellious youth of the banlieue – caught between consumerism, religious fundamentalism and the latent possibility of a more meaningful revolt – and the trio of police officers who patrol their cité. In fact, undercutting the radical promise of his setting is the fact that the cops are by far the most developed characters in the film, as Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a new recruit from the decidedly more peaceful environs of Cherbourg, joins the more cynical squad members who have been stationed in these housing estates their entire careers. Filmed with a raw energy that befits its setting, Ly joins the ranks of French filmmakers from marginalised backgrounds who have managed to get a debut feature up off the ground. Virtually none of them, however, have been able to establish themselves in the still overwhelmingly bourgeois French film industry. Despite the film’s rough edges, with Les Misérables, Ly makes a case to be the one who does.
This year’s festival was refreshingly free of any truly disastrous flops, but there were a spate of films by established directors which nonetheless did not quite fulfill the expectations that their previous work might have raised for them. Kleber Mendonça Filho, the Brazilian director of the superb O Som Ao Redor (Neighbouring Sounds, 2012) and Aquarium (2016), consolidated his hold on a competition spot with Bacurau, with a clear intention of delivering a parable for a country sliding back into fascist dictatorship. The titular small town, situated in the Sertâo, a region renowned for its arid soil and entrenched poverty, mourns the loss of its elderly matriarch, but soon its residents are faced with a more existential threat: erased from Google maps, it transpires that the remote village has been selected as the hunting ground for a grotesque human safari by a group of rich American tourists (led by Udo Kier and enabled by metropolitan Brazilians contemptuous of their rural compatriots). As the body count piles up, the townsfolk have to rise up and resist or face being wiped out entirely. The potential was there for a profound rumination on the intertwining of social oppression in Brazil and the role of US economic imperialism, but alas, after a strong opening stanza, Mendonça’s film is too patchy and confused to really deliver on this promise.
Likewise, Corneliu Porumboiu, working with a much larger budget than he has normally been granted, incorporates a swath of genre tropes into La Gomera, as the pudgy cop Cristi (Porumboiu regular Vlad Ivanov) finds himself implicated in an international drug smuggling ring, mostly out of lust for the glamorous Gilda, who just happens to be the paramour of the cartel’s boss. To communicate with each other over long distances while avoiding detection, the drug smugglers have adopted the Canary Islands whistling language, which they proceed to teach the slow-learning Cristi. Porumboiu’s characteristic dry humour, which has combined with his commitment to the Romanian new wave aesthetic to such great effect in his earlier films, is present at times in La Gomera – most notably in a scene where a guileless American filmmaker stumbles into a dangerous gun stand-off in a warehouse due to his enthusiasm for the site as a filming location – but these moments are all-too rare in a film that otherwise sees Porumboiu’s trademark style struggle to find compatibility with the generic expectations of the gangster thriller.
Arnaud Desplechin also failed to leave his auteurist signature on a genre project with Roubaix, une lumière (Oh Mercy!), a police procedural set in the impoverished northern post-industrial town of Roubaix. Police chief Daoud is charged with investigating the death of an elderly resident in a dilapidated terrace house estate, and his suspicion soon falls on a lesbian white trash couple in a neighbouring building. Desplechin puts barely a foot wrong in the narrative unfolding of the murder mystery, but Oh Mercy! will end up being little more than a minor footnote in the French filmmaker’s distinguished œuvre. Xavier Dolan, by contrast, remained well within his comfort zone with Matthias et Maxime, in which Dolan himself plays a post-adolescent Montrealer struggling with his sexuality after a fateful kiss with his close friend for a student film project. Predictably, Max also has issues with his mother, and is prone to getting into prolonged, shouty arguments with her and the rest of the film’s ensemble cast. Dolan’s quirks are thus in full force in this film – and, in his former actor Monia Chokri’s Un Certain Regard entry La Femme de mon frère (A Brother’s Love), they even seem to be metastasising – but they are at least a degree less irritating here than they were in the likes of Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World, 2016).
One of four women directors in the competition, Céline Sciamma carried the most hopes for a long-overdue second female Palme d’or winner (after Jane Campion’s The Piano in 1993) with Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Certainly this would have been a key milestone in the drive for gender parity in the world’s most prestigious film festival, of which Sciamma herself has been a forceful advocate. In the end, Sciamma had to settle for the Prix du scénario, and, to tell the truth, this was the most it deserved. With its story of an illicit lesbian romance in 18th century Brittany between the young aristocrat Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) and the sexually liberated Marianne (Noémie Merlant), who has been hired by Héloïse’s domineering mother to paint her portrait, Portrait of a Lady on Fire drew near unanimous critical praise, but in comparison with Sciamma’s Tomboy (2011) and Bande de filles (Girlhood, 2014), it is a far more staid, even middlebrow affair (lesbian sex in historical biopics no longer sufficing in and of itself to stir up some controversy).
In 2019, then, the goals of the 5050 x 2020 movement still seem a long way off, but there was one way in which the festival made a significant step forward in gender equality, even if in a more low-profile way than the demand for 50% female representation in the competition line-up. In previous editions of the festival, parents (and especially mothers) with young children were anathema: breast-feeding areas were virtually non-existent, and a complete lack of childcare facilities meant that bringing children to Cannes required an expensive full-time nanny (or a well-oiled operation of parental tag-teaming). Thanks to the determined efforts of the group Parenting at Film Festivals, founded earlier this year by a trio of young mothers based in Spain, France and Germany, this deplorable situation was overturned with the founding of Le Ballon Rouge, a childcare space, held as part of the Marché du Film. “Kids are the new VIPs,” ran the crèche’s motto, and young Meleager not only revelled in the newly-opened daycare space, he also lapped up the media attention festooned on Le Ballon Rouge. It is steps like these, as minor they may seem, which are integral to enabling women to succeed in the film industry. On a more personal note, I can say that the special screening of animation shorts organised for Le Ballon Rouge’s young denizens, which represented Meleager’s first time watching a film in a cinema, was a fonder viewing experience than any other I have had at Cannes.
The other special screenings on offer at the festival – the official ones – included two films focussing on the decadent trajectories global superstars from the distant past (i.e. the ‘70s and ‘80s). Dexter Fletcher, who people of a certain generation (my generation, that is) will always know as Spike from Press Gang, took on Elton John’s rise from the dreariness of post-war suburban London to fame, fortune and hedonistic excess in Rocketman, a biopic every bit as subtle and understated as its subject, which had the unfortunate side effect of leaving me with “Your Song” stuck in my head for days on end. Given that the film concludes with footage from the Cannes-filmed video clip for “I’m Still Standing”, with Taran Egerton CGI-ed onto the Croisette to maintain continuity with the rest of Rocketman, Fletcher’s film was fated to have a Cannes premiere before its global release. The filmmaker, indeed, had already subbed in for Bryan Singer in an uncredited directing role on Bohemian Rhapsody, which has been a surprising box office hit, and given Elton John’s enduring fanbase, it’s hard to see this film doing any differently. Fletcher should be careful about being pigeonholed into doing projects of this ilk, otherwise we may well see him at a future Cannes with “Ra Ra Rasputin”, the upcoming musical biopic on the life of Boney M.
Of more substantial cinematic credentials was Asif Kapadia’s Maradona. Rounding out a trilogy of documentaries, after Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), on preternatural talents whose outlandish success ended in tragedy, Kapadia’s latest film focuses on the Argentine footballer’s time in Naples in the second half of the 1980s, when he steered the city’s club to unprecedented footballing glory before leaving Italy in disgrace after a conviction for cocaine use. If this story has been told many times before, on film and in print, Kapadia’s effort distinguishes itself for the access he had to a trove of more than 500 hours of home video footage of the Maradona household in the southern Italian city, which the British filmmaker combines with matchday footage, media coverage and interviews with Maradona himself to chart the player’s tumultuous time with Napoli (although sadly, unlike Elton John, el pibe de oro did not make personally make an appearance at the festival). A source of near religious adulation from the Neapolitan fans, who celebrated for weeks on end after he had brought the club its first Campeonato, Maradona found the celebrity suffocating, and escaped the pressure cooker atmosphere through embarking on Mafia-supplied 72-hour drug binges, somehow combining this habit with the weekly routine of Series A matches. His relationship with the city soured, however, when Argentina faced Italy in the 1990 World Cup semi-final in – of all places – Naples, and the brash Number 10 controversially called for the local tifosi to support his nation against their own. After Argentina won the match on penalties, with Maradona taking the winning spot-kick, it seemed only natural that a come-uppance would be sought, and Kapadia implies that Maradona’s subsequent drug bust was the work of a vengeful Italian state. As with the previous installments in his trilogy, Kapadia intersperses his account of the Maradona saga with enthralling footage of the performer in action. Here, the dexterous pirouetting of his dribbling feet, the improbable geometry of his visionary passes and shots, is pure visual poetry. In contrast to the filmmaker’s earlier subjects, however, Maradona did not die young, and he is still with us today, a fact which allows the footballer to give us his own thoughts on the game. When it comes down to it, he tells the viewer, football is the “art of deceit” – l’art du feint, as the French subtitles had it. Le cinéma aussi.
Cannes Film Festival
14-25 May 2019
Festival website: https://www.festival-cannes.com/en/