Report on Cannes Film Festival 2017 by Jason Wood (Programming and Film Lead for Film Hub NWC, Artistic Director: Film at HOME & Professor of Film at Manchester Metropolitan University):
Director Michel Hazanavicius proved himself a dab hand at replicating the cinema of the past with The Artist and does so again here with slightly diminished effect. That’s not to say the film is without merit and one admires it for its accessible approach to a filmmaker undergoing a huge political awakening. Paris 1967. Jean-Luc Godard, the leading filmmaker of his generation, is shooting La Chinoise with the woman he loves, Anne Wiazemsky, 20 years his junior. They are happy, attractive (well, one of them is), in love, they marry. But the film’s reception unleashes a profound self-examination in Jean-Luc. The events of May ’68 will amplify this process, and the crisis that shakes the filmmaker will transform him profoundly, from a star cineaste to a Maoist artist entirely outside the system, as misunderstood as he is incomprehensible. Godard has already criticised the film, and one can understand his stance, given that he is still living and producing pioneering cinema. Louis Garrel, a man who seems as detestable off-screen as he is on, as perfect as an insecure and preening narcissist and Stacy Martin is very watchable as his caged and increasingly unamused and abused muse. Fans of Clark’s Desert boots and functional spectacles will be in heaven and there are reach outs to Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories in the constant calls Godard faces to return to the filmmaking style of Breathless.
This stark and emotionally desolate tale of a Russian couple in the throes of a terrible separation confirms Andrey Zvyagintsev as one of the most accomplished filmmakers of his generation. Boris and Zhenya are going through a divorce. Arguing constantly, and in the process of selling their apartment, they are already preparing for their new lives: Boris with his younger, pregnant girlfriend and Zhenya with the wealthy lover who is keen to get married. Neither seems interested in their 12-year-old son Alyosha. Until he mysteriously disappears. A film that is chilling in its presentation of conflict on a personal, national and international scale, it is shot in industrial tones to heighten the emotional Russian hinterland in which it unfolds. There is a scene right at the start of the film in which the couple speak of their son as a terrible burden to them, an unwanted symbol of love gone sour. The scene becomes the stuff of nightmare as the director slowly reveals the son in another room hearing every word. The torment on his face is inescapable. I will see it in my dreams. A masterful, utterly compelling work that that combines of a taut police procedural with the spirituality of Kieslowski’s finest work.
Writing about the latest film from Noah Baumbach feels redundant. The tale of the extended family of a New York artist played by an irascible Dustin Hoffman, the film is produced by Netflix so will bypass UK cinemas anyway. I originally thought this no great loss but having ruminated on it a number of pleasures have suddenly become more apparent. I was sceptical of the casting but my own bias blinded me to the fact that Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller are actually very good in it. The same cannot be said of Emma Thompson as an alcoholic matriarch. It’s well written and covers with some class the dysfunctional nature of family life. The use of a song by Prefab Sprout is a good choice and the editing is marvellous. I still prefer Alex Ross Perry, who covers similar terrain to less acclaim.
I was one of the few seemingly immune to the merits of The Lobster but The Killing of a Sacred Deer from Greek director Yorgos Lànthimos is something else. Colin Farrell (channelling Roy Keane) plays Steven, a charismatic surgeon who is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice after his life starts to fall apart following his opaque relationship with a teenage boy. Faust meets Sophie’s Choice in this chilling analysis of the banality of evil. The sound and production design is extraordinary, and more than once I was reminded of Kubrick. I was also reminded of what might have happened had Kubrick made Happiness. This is undoubtedly a very dark work and it treats undiluted evil with a matter of factness that has led many to discount the film’s obvious intellect and mistake it for complacency. Contains several flashes of pure brilliance.
Michael Haneke revisits familiar ground with some brilliance but also a sense of deja vu in Happy End, a portrait of a bourgeois Calais family with a number of skeletons loudly rattling around in their closets. Other familiar Haneke preoccupations recur including the nature of evil, race, death and the role that technology plays in our loves. It’s elegantly done with Huppert and Kassovitz both excelling in an ensemble cast that also welcomes Toby Jones. A work that is characteristically unafraid to deal with many of the subjects closest to the heart of contemporary society – most prominently the refugee crisis – it is utterly fearless. The addition of humour provides moments of brevity whilst conversely also underlining the sense of absolute dread. There seems to be a reference to Amour in a scene in which Jean-Louis Trintingnant cooly speaks of having suffocated his infirm wife to end her suffering. The film also looks and sounds exquisite.
This highly anticipated follow-up to iPhone sensation Tangerine from US indie wünderkid Sean Baker just about delivers on the promise of the director’s debut and the hype surrounding this festival screening. Another collaboration with writer Chris Bergoch, the film tells the story of a precocious six year-old and her rag-tag group of friends whose summer break is filled with childhood wonder, possibility and a sense of adventure while the adults around them struggle with hard times, it’s equal parts American Honey with a dash of Beasts of the Southern Wild. What elevates the film is its compelling look at life on the blue-collar margins and its ability to capture the wonderment of childhood. Willem Dafoe sprinkles some fairy dust as Bobby, the put upon manager of the down-at-heel hotel on whose denizens the film focuses. Bobby could almost be Dafoe’s character in Schrader’s Light Sleeper, several years on. Child actor Brooklynn Prince aside, the real star is arguably DOP Alexis Zabe (Post Tenebras Lux, Silent Light) who lends the film its woozy, hyper reality of Disneyland colours and Orlando storms.
Director Naomi Kawase uses the tentative connection between a partially sighted photographer and a woman who writes film audio descriptions in this wistful and quietly compelling mediation on beauty, impermanence and loss. Imbued with a wistful tone and performed with assurance, the film’s most obvious quality is its somewhat gauzy visual aesthetic that records the world from the perspective of a man for whom the ability to be able to decipher the world visually is slowly disappearing. Some found the film too small-scale and gossamer light, but I appreciated Kawase’s avoidance of grand gestures in favour of something all together more subtle.
The final statement from Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami, 24 Frames utilises 24 of the photographs the director had taken down the years and then imagines what may have taken place moments after the photograph was completed. Inspired by the notion that painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it, this is a calming, meditative piece of work that straddles the line between cinema and art-installation. Viewing it shortly after the attack on Manchester, I found it a surprisingly moving experience.
Abel Ferrara headlines a series of concerts and a film retrospective in Toulouse, France, dedicated to songs and music from his films. Preparations with his family and friends show another side of the cult director of films such as Bad Lieutenant, The King of New York and Pasolini as the New Yorker and dentist’s dream is joined on stage by past collaborators, including composer Joe Delia, actor-singer Paul Hipp and his wife, actress Christina Chiriac, for concerts at the Metronum in Toulouse and the Salo Club in Paris in October 2016. Much like the director, this is a shambolic, unstructured work but it has a scruffy charm all the same and does serve to remind of the many notable films the director has made. The notion that a film captures a particular pace only for the briefest of moments struck a chord with Ferrara as he reminisced about a New York now largely alien to him. It set my kind thinking too.
Rokas and Inga, a couple of young Lithuanians, volunteer to drive a cargo van of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. When plans change and they find themselves left to their own devices, they cross the vast snowy lands of the Donbass region in search of allies and shelter, drifting into the lives of those affected by the war. They approach the frontline in spite of the danger, all the while growing closer to each other as they begin to understand life during wartime. Screened in Director’s Fortnight, the latest work from Sharunas Bartas has some interesting ideas about war and transience but they are rather poorly executed, robbing the film of all urgency.
Laurent Cantet is one of French cinema’s most consistent film makers and what is more appealing is his eye for a story that blends social and political issues. His latest work looks at some of the issues that have arisen in contemporary France following a spate of recent terrorist attacks and very much acts as a commentary on the rise of far right politics. It is set in La Ciotat in the South of France where the troubled Antoine attends a summer writing workshop in which a few young people have been selected to write a crime thriller with the help of Olivia, a moderately famous novelist. The creative process will recall the town’s industrial past, a form of nostalgia to which Antoine feels indifferent. More concerned with the fears of the modern world, the young man soon clashes with the group and Olivia, who seems at the same time alarmed and captivated by Antoine’s violence. A work of depth and intelligence, it’s meticulously executed – the technique of using multiple cameras to capture the perspectives of the various characters is recalled from The Class – and the performances of both Marina Foïs as Olivia and the various youths recall Cantet’s ability with actors. Written by regular Cantet collaborator Robin Campillo, it manages to avoid being didactic.
A return to Thomas Cullinan’s novel of the same name, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled purports to offer a more female centric take on Don Siegel’s 1971 Clint Eastwood starring adaptation. The film unfolds in a girls’ school in the state of Virginia in 1864. As the Civil War rages, The Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies has been sheltered from the outside world until the day a wounded Union soldier (Farrell) is discovered nearby and taken in. Coppola’s fourth collaboration with Kirsten Dunst, the film makes notable use of its Louisiana locations but I found it an empty and redundant viewing experience. I am perplexed by the positive Peter Bradshaw review in the Guardian that as well as praising the film’s wit and vibrancy, also finds a comparison Black Narcissus. The film may well be more widely appreciated by those unfamiliar with the original. I found this to be the least interesting work yet from Coppola, a director I ordinarily very much admire.
Co-written by Claire Denis and novelist Christine Angot and reportedly inspired by Roland Barthes’s prose meditation A Lovers Discourse: Fragments, Let the Sunshine In marks a rare but distinguished foray into romantic comedy for the highly regarded French auteur. It’s an idiosyncratic detour of course and retains many of the director’s characteristic trademarks, including a love of the oblique and the elliptical. Juliette Binoche is luminous as Isabelle, a newly divorced Parisian artist who is waiting for the right partner to come along. She has lovers and these liaisons are dangerous in that they don’t seem to provide the satisfaction they ought. Is there anything or anyone that can rekindle her joie de vivre? Beautifully scored by Stuart A. Staples, gorgeously shot by Agnes Godartd and featuring the director’s trademark ‘music’ moment (here there are actually a number of them, including a jaw dropping scene set to Etta James), Let the Sunshine In has been well reviewed but for others may be an acquired taste. It made me swoon and Paris on screen has rarely looked more ravishing.
An astonishing documentary from Sonia Kronlund, Nothingwood observes Salim Shaheen, the most prolific and popular actor-director-producer in Afghanistan. Shooting Shaheen as his 110 feature films are locally celebrated, Kronlund also captures the moment a new film is conceived with his repertory cast of equally eccentric actors. A fascinating character study of a one man industry who became smitten by cinema as a child, this is also a portrait of a country that has been at war for more than thirty years and of what it means to relentlessly pursue your dream. Undoubtedly my Cannes discovery, it received a reaction from an adoring audience that I have never before witnessed in my 18 years of attending the festival; undiluted adulation.
Robin Campillo’s follow up to Eastern Boys takes as its backdrop the early 1990s and the rise of the AIDS epidemic in France. With AIDS having already claimed countless lives for nearly ten years, Act up-Paris activists multiply actions to fight general indifference. Nathan, a newcomer to the group, has his world shaken up by Sean, a radical militant, who throws his last bits of strength into the struggle. Sprawling in the very best sense of the work, 120 BPM is astonishing in its merging of the personal and the political. Rarely putting a foot wrong, Campillo, perhaps still best known as the regular writing collaborator of Laurent Cantet, documents a real sense of suffering and frustration at the hands of multi-national pharmaceutical companies who are unable to provide answers and resistant to the sharing of vital information. Culminating in an eloquent moratorium, the film combines poetry and realism to devastating effect. The use of music is also exceptional.
Sadly another Cannes Netflix production. Korean director Boon Joon-Ho’s latest creature feature is an inventive animal rights drama sharply scripted by UK journalist Jon Ronson. An Seo-hyun gives an outstanding performance as 13-year-old Mija, who having grown up with no parents, is looked after by kindly grandpa Heebong, played by Byun Heebong (who was in The Host and also Bong’s Memories of Murder). Her only friend and companion is Okja, the giant pig leased to them by flinty-hearted food tech CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilds Swinton, all glacial evil in a rather second-hand performance). Okja’s ultimate destiny is to be taken away from them, poked and prodded by Mirando’s scientists, displayed to the media as an example of next-level meat production, paraded with the firm’s grotesque celebrity TV vet Dr Johnny Wilcox (Jake Gyllenhaal, giving a ghastly performance and hogging the scenery to no great effect) and then finally eaten. But a crew of animal rights activists, led by the inscrutable Jay (Paul Dano), have other ideas…Reminiscent of The Simpson’s episode in which Homer fattens up a giant pet lobster named Pinchy before dousing it in butter and gorging on it, this is a film that offers immediate gastronomic gratification but which on digestion is far less satisfying than it seems. It makes some important points re capitalism and how corporations are approaching the problems of diminishing food supplies but it paints in incredibly broad strokes. It’s most successful in the early sequences which play out as a superior family film but UK audiences deserve to enjoy the undeniable and inventive visual spectacle Okja serves up on the big screen.
Agnes Varda – 89 – and French artist JR have things in common: their passion for images and more particularly a desire to question how images are exhibited, shared and exposed. In this hugely engaging documentary the pair follow an installation project across France, interacting both with each other and the ordinary working people with whom the project comes into contact. A sometimes painful watch for lovers of the great French director, Varda is suffering failing eyesight, this reminds you of exactly why the director of masterworks such as The Gleaners and I is to be so warmly cherished. Varda and her younger counterpart frequently clash but ultimately find common ground. This film is an endearing wonder and a tonic for us all.
For me, Fatih Akin is very much a hit or miss director and his latest is very much in the miss category. It was by far the worst film I saw in Cannes. Anchored by an admittedly strong central performance from Diane Kruger as the wife of an ex-Turkish drug dealer who is senselessly murdered (along with the couple’s young son) after he has turned his life around, the film veers from compelling courtroom drama to politically infantile revenge tale as Kruger seeks justice for the pro-Nazi couple the courts have allowed to walk free on a number of minor technicalities. Akin is to be admired for looking at the rise of the far right in Germany (the film is set in Hamburg) but this lacks the energy and adrenalin of Head On and the political intellect of The Edge of Heaven. Very much one to avoid.
A highly anticipated BFI production, Rungano Nyoni’s first feature was one of the films I was most excited to see in Director’s Fortnight. Incredibly original, it ultimately delivers a little less than I hoped. But that’s not to say it still contains much that is impressive. After a minor incident in her village, 9-year-old Shula is exiled to a travelling witch camp where she is told that if she tries to escape she will be transformed into a goat. As she navigates through her new life, she must decide whether to accept her fate or risk the consequences of seeking freedom. A film about folklore, tradition and childhood, it is superbly shot, choreographed and designed and certainly confirms Nyoni as an exciting new voice on contemporary cinema.
I have been a huge fan of Mexican director Michel Franco (Daniel and Ana, After Lucia) and his return to filming in Mexico after a U.S sojourn for the Tim Roth starring Chronic is another excellent and unsettling drama. 17 year-old Valeria (Ana Valeria Becceril) is pregnant by her teenage boyfriend, but she hasn’t informed her absent mother April (Emma Suárez). When her sister Clara (Joanna Larequi) goes behind her back and calls April, their mother arrives full of concern, support and tenderness. But once the baby is born, it soon becomes clear why Valeria wanted to keep April as far away as possible. Franco is superb at looking at the combustible nature of bourgeois family life and of creating incredibly flawed but fascinating characters. April, brilliantly portrayed by Suárez, is completely lacking a moral compass, making her a fascinating character to spend time with. Everyone in this film is weak. Even the baby cries endlessly. Franco creates a kind of hell, populated with little Satan’s.