Watershed Cinema Curator, Mark Cosgrove, reflects on Cannes Film Festival. Reckoning with the sheer emotional intensity of the week, he’s witness to a powerful public statement for gender equality, pleasantly surprised by world cinema’s increased profile at the festival, and has a week exploring the exciting array of brand new international film…
The intensity of Cannes – watching 30 films in 7 days – makes you experience the world through a concentrated prism, so that whilst you are immersed in the struggles of a young Syrian refugee in Lebanon, a man trapped in an arctic wilderness or a trade union dispute in France, you surface blinking into the real world light to see the headlines of Palestinians shot dead in the middle-east, students killed in America and preparations for a royal wedding. The real world exists somewhere?…doesn’t it?…somewhere between fiction, reality, tragedy, melancholy and magic.
This year Cannes begun to face up to its responsibilities in the post-Weinstein film world and gave more prominence to the myriad of systemic imbalances. It upped the profile of women with the headline of Cate Blanchett at the helm of a female dominated main competition jury. The press focus on all things red carpet gave profile to the public statement by 82 film industry women raising the issue of gender inequality at Cannes and the wider film business, as part of the 50/50 by 2020 campaign, as well as to a very public excoriation from Asia Argento at the awards ceremony.
The festival also locked horns with Netflix by excluding films not eligible for French theatrical release. The online platform was nowhere to be seen publicly, although still buying films in the market. The effect, ironically and pleasingly, was to give more space in the various strands to world cinemas. This year Cannes felt more like the global film festival and platform for international directors it should be rather than a Hollywood style playground. Even for the press, it became about the films rather than the glamour.
Moving on to the films themselves, here I was struck by the warmth and generosity in the relationship between two musicians in 1980s Leningrad in Kirill Serebrennikov’s Leto, the magical melancholy of Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzarro, the exuberance and joy at the end of A.B Shawky’s Yomeddine, the sublime economy of storytelling in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters, the slow burn social critique in Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning and of course the undimmed punk energy of Jean Luc Godard’s Le Livre D’Image. Here are my observations on some of the films I watched.
Dir. Kirill Serebrennikov
I saw this immediately after The House That Jack Built and felt like bathing in the cinematic milk of human kindness (if such a thing exists!). It is a portrait of the music scene in 1980s Leningrad, focussing on the story of two real musicians. Serebrennikov captures the creative generosity of music/musicians and the risks in the context of pre-perestroika Russia (ironic given that the director is currently under house arrest now). There are some striking interpretations of Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer and Iggy Pop’s The Passenger showing the influence of western music. Where Serebrennikov’s previous film The Student presented religion as an insidious virus here music is a genuine, generous and radical form.
Dir. Paweł Pawlikowski
Stunningly and beautifully filmed in black and white academy ratio, with two radiant lead actors, Cold War feels like an essential message from the electrifying cinema of 1950s Poland. Their relationship is against the background of communism vs. capitalism and jazz vs. the brass band. As with Leto you realise how significant music is in expressing not only cultural but political values. Through it all you feel you are watching the coolness of Zbigniew Cybulski (Poland’s James Dean) and the star energy of the young Bridget Bardot.
Dir. Christophe Honoré
The first half of this very wordy drama I found wearisome, but by the second half I had grown to care about these characters, their precarious relationships and the spectre of AIDs hanging over them. There is not the activism of 120BPM but rather the carefully crafted evolution of flirting to loving. The younger actor in particular gives a star making performance. It is ideal for LGBT audiences but unlikely to break out in the way 120BPM did.
Dir. Stéphane Brizé
The quiet intensity and anger which underpinned Brize’s previous film Measure of a Man is amplified in En Guerre to present an uncompromising view of working life at the whim of global capitalism, with unions and governments powerless to change. The excellent Vincent Lindon is again at the heart of the film negotiating with his co-workers to stop the shut down of their factory. Brize’s intense naturalism puts the viewer at the centre of the Union arguments, boardroom discussions and demonstrations and delivers an ending of such shock it takes your breathe away.
Dir. Joe Penna
I knew little about this film when I went in just that it starred Mads Mikklesen and was set in the Artic. I was somehow expecting a horror or a sci-fi film but instead it is a remarkably convincing survival film with Mads as the crashed lone pilot trying to stay alive and hoping for help. This simple premise is brilliantly and believably developed. With only something like three lines of dialogue, Mikklesen is completely and absorbingly convincing – somehow conveying his thought process through facial expressions. Arctic is a gripping and emotional masterclass in direction and acting.
Dir. Ognjen Glavonic
A sombre road movie through a blighted Balkan landscape becomes a meditation on the region’s recent past. The Load is based on true incidents during the 1990 Kosovo War, where trucks with unknown cargo were driven from Kosovo to Belgrade. The drivers were given strict conditions and not told what they were transporting. As a debut feature Glavonic shows great maturity and it’s interesting to see a young Serbian director explore his countries recent tumultuous past and connect with the wider history of the region. In a way it reminded me of early Wim Wenders in his road movie studies of Germany’s past in the 1970s, although different in style and subject focus.
Dir. Spike Lee
Spike is back on sledgehammer cinematic and political form to try to crack the Trump nut. The comic book style rendering of the true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in the 1960s belies Lee’s serious intent of pushing back on the current rise of the right in America. For me the film packs its biggest emotional punch when it is brought right up-to-date with footage from the Charlottesville protests/killing. Lee’s profile, cast and the award at Cannes should give the film added prominence. Opens in August.
Dir. Jia Zhangke
I loved Jia’s previous film Mountains May Depart but was not as enraptured as much with his new film. Yes I loved the journey through China’s land/cityscapes and the reflection on the modernisation of the country. There were some incredible scenes and the onscreen relationship between the gangster Liao Fan and girlfriend, Zhao Tao, is palpable, but as a whole it didn’t stack up for me with the coherence or intensity of his previous film.
Dir. Matteo Garrone
A companion piece in a way to Happy as Lazzarro Garrone’s Dogman is a reflection on contemporary Italian life with the focus here on machismo behaviour but sharing with Rocharwer the sense of loss of community. The director is back in more confortable Gomorrah style territory after his flirtation with fantasy of Tale of Tales. This story of Marcello (a deserving acting award for Marcello Fonte) a dog groomer/carer cum small time drug dealer is rooted in reality, both in the story inspiration and in the decaying desolate semi-urban semi-seaside setting. The gentleness of Marcello is contrasted with the violent recklessness of Simone: imagine the bulk of late period de Niro in Raging Bull crossed with the hair trigger violence of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. My references to Scorsese are intentional as Garrone explores Italian macho, however he has a profound sense of melancholy both in the setting and in the ending.
Cannes would not be Cannes without provocations and controversy. Below are three directors who, in different ways, lived up to their provocateur status, plus one more…
Dir. Jean Luc Godard
Cinema as an immersive audio-visual experience. I loved the punk energy of Godard’s film which tirelessly tries to dissect the connections and assumptions between sound and image, exploring wider socio-political thematics through what might appear initially as random juxtapositions. The focus though becomes the Arab world and how western cinema has constructed an infantilised image. Imagine Eisenstein crossed with the Sex Pistols and Rimbaud and you might be getting close to Godard’s range, or maybe just think late period JLG .
Dir. Lars Von Trier
I knew what to expect from Lars Von Trier – provocation and confrontation – professionally I had to see it all the way through. If I hadn’t been there in that capacity I probably would have walked out. There are better ways to spend a couple of hours! However on reflection I am beginning to view it as something of an unfortunate necessary antidote to the naturalised violence, sexism and misogyny that occurs regularly in film and television (akin in a way to Pasolini’s Salo – a film which, in my opinion, you should walk out but which is necessary to exist). Also, if we are going to have Silence of the Lambs, Val McDermid novels or Greek Tragedies then we are also going to have to have The House That Jack Built.
Dir. Gaspar Noe
Like the Lars Von Trier, I felt professionally duty bound to watch the whole film to see where this provocateur would lead us (given that you have to say – “Have you seen Gaspar Noe’s Climax?” – you can see what I mean!). Initial irritation with repetitive head shots of dancers audition tapes on a tv screen boxed in by dvds/videos – although the collection did give insights into what was to come – soon gave way to a mesmerising, extreme musical and then to an equally mesmerising, extreme horror movie. The move from static image to dance choreography to sinewy camerawork, from flat lighting to atmospheric grunge, is seductively and powerfully cinematic. What it all means – who knows – but it is audacious, intense filmmaking with amazing performances from his young dancer cast.
Dir. David Robert Mitchell
Lars von Trier may well irritate, however, whether you agree with the position or not it is also consciously provoking and confronting. On the other hand, Under the Silver Lake disappointedly keeps peddling the same naturalised sexism, wrapped up in kookie male hipsterism. This was a major disappointment given David Robert Mitchell’s previous film It Follows – one of the most original of the new wave of horror films. Under the Silver Lake starts off with aspirations of Lynchian creeping menace, but quickly dissolves into an extended episode of Scooby-Doo without the laughs.
Families are our own personal source of drama and the following collection of films, in various ways, deal with those personal dramas more often to reflect or comment on the wider social context around them. The most eloquent is the Palme d’Or winner Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, but all of these are strong distinctive films from both some newcomers as well as established names.
Dir. Mohamed Ben Attia
A Tunisian couple’s teenage son suddenly disappears taking the father on a journey to Turkey to try and understand why his son went to Syria. The bewilderment of the parents, and the father in particular, resonates with those television images from parents of the high school killer in America.
Intimate, well crafted and performed, Dear Son adds to the wider cinematic exploration of the pull of jihadi in the Arab world, as well as universal generational gulf.
Dir. Guillaume Senez
Another intimate and intense study of family life thrown into disarray – this time in Belgium, where a mother suddenly leaves her husband and two young children. The film offers no explanation for this, we simply follow the way in which the remaining family try to hold things together. It is beautifully acted, with Romain Duris as the struggling father. It is a small film but an interesting premise and ultimately uplifting outlook.
Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
Kore-eda’s economy of cinematic storytelling is sublime and here so finely tuned and distilled that you barely notice you are drinking in 100% strength critique of Japanese society and the family. A family survive in the margins of city life by living off of guile and wit. There under the radar survival is slowly revealed when they take a young girl in. Echoes of Ozu soon give way to Kore-eda’s unique status as one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation.
I would hope that the Palme d’Or and the director’s track record should make this work well.
Dir. Jaime Rosales
Secrets, lies and self-discovery infuse Catalan director Jaime Rosales’ story of a young woman’s search to establish her paternity. Rosales takes an intriguingly non-linear approach which, like a jigsaw puzzle, only falls into place when the last pieces (or scenes) are connected with the whole. More accessible than the director’s previous experimental work, and with Hélène Louvart’s fluid camerawork, Petra, with its intriguing premise, has some chance of breaking out wider.
Dir. A.B Shawky
This warm compassionate Egyptian film reminded me of David Lynch’s The Straight Road in its simplicity and directness. Beshay, a recovered leper who has never left the leper colony, and Obama, an orphan, go on a journey by donkey and cart to find their respective families. The journey takes us through attitudes in contemporary Egypt to deliver one of the most exuberant final scenes I’ve experienced.
Dir. Nadine Labaki
One of the strongest films in competition, director Nadine Labaki’s forcefully naturalistic and observational approach to the life of a young boy in a Beirut slum, is heart rendering. Lebanese actor/director Labaki’s previous work gives no hint of the level of intensity achieved here. The performances she gets from the 12 year old Zain Alrafeea is exceptional. There is no mawkishness here. Kes would be a good comparison but does not capture the modern world of refugee crisis, new depths of poverty and how families do (or rather, do not) survive. I thought either this or The Happiness of Lazarro would take top prize.
Dir. Alice Rohrwacher
Italian director Alice Rohrwacher continues the bewitching and subtle mix of neo-realism seen in The Wonders to her new film Happy as Lazarro. What appears to be set in a 19th century impoverished rural Italy, and with indentured labour and the cinematic universe of Ermanno Olmi, suddenly shifts to the contemporary, where the angelic Lazarro has not aged but his extended family of farm labourers have and are now dispersed in the city. Rohrwacher’s beguiling fable reflects on the nature of Italian family and community, with melancholy and magic.
Watershed Cinema Curator, Mark Cosgrove, reflects on the success of films screened in the last week
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