Our man in Cannes, Séamas McSwiney, reports on the closing of the festival and the presentation of the Palme d’Or and more.
The stardust is swept away and the red carpet rolled up for another year, as Cannes looks to its 72nd in 2019 with just a little trepidation about maintaining its starring role as the preeminent crossroads for cinema. Despite its current shortcomings, or perhaps thanks to them, Cannes is more than ever a vital debating stage in the quo vadis of cinema, in both societal and industrial terms. Not to mention cultural and artistic. This years major topics were not new but had certainly moved up a notch on the urgency scale. The Netflix exclusivity vs cinema-in-theatre debate had a few unnecessarily ugly exchanges between French protectionism and rampant digital oligarchs, instead of offers of creative compromise in the name of cinema; the inadequacy of Cannes’ response to the women in film conundrum marked the new progress in the equality of opportunity debate while demonstrating, for those who fathom the true difficulty of this change, that a lot of grassroots work needs to be done to create harmony —ironically this discussion was accelerated by the sex crimes and misdemeanours of Cannes’ former most influential player, the now unnameable H ; bubbling under the surface was an apparent downturn in attendance, possibly due to the slight reduction in Hollywood firepower on the red carpet. While some gleefully predict the demise of Cannes’ relevance, many say this commercial cinema chill can only serve to better underscore Cannes’ true role, despite its elitist veneer, as the prime purveyor of cinematic diversity, the ephemeral capital of World Cinema.
Oppression Chic 1, 2, 3
In contrast to the evening gowned and tuxedoed that applauded them, the three top prizes went respectively to a tale of the economically downtrodden in Japan, to a tale of the racist down-trodders in the US, and back to a tale of downtrodden refugees in Beirut. Would that the powers that be have the social conscience of auteur cinema and the world would be a better place. Or is it just a case of misery makes good, if simplistic, drama. One unifying difficulty that all three of these films had was a manipulative bid for the emotions of the audience at the expense of subtlety and narrative coherence.
Manbiki Kazoku (Shoplifters) by Kore-Eda Hirokazu took the Palme d’Or for a tale of a motley crew family that indulges in petty theft as a survival policy in today’s Japan. While the staging of this activity is not very credible at the beginning, involving classic use of vulnerable children to validate the storyline in set-ups that show them to be inept and shopkeepers to be super-dumb, it gradually reveals its true intentions of the nature of family ties. There are no bad children, only inadequate parents, whether blood or adoptive.
BlacKkKlansman is a typically freewheeling Spike Lee Joint. He likes to put it in your face, again and again, to the point of being less credible for all its demagogy. But Spike’s comic-book-style simplistic narrative works when the audience realises there’s nothing nuanced or intellectual about his re-interpretation of the true story of African-American Ron Stallworth, who infiltrated the KKK in the late in 1979. He crowns it off rather brilliantly by including news footage, — like he did with his own Malcolm X but here more with the gut wrenching power of Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir— of the Charlottesville car massacre of last year incorporating an interview with the same David Duke we may have thought was overly caricatured in the preceding drama. We realise Duke was simply being realistically characterised and things are really as bad as Spike says.
In Capharnaum by Nadine Labaki a 12-year old boy, Zain, sues his parents for “giving him life” in a world not worth living in. Through an awkward flashback mechanism, we learn what incited him commit the knife crime that brought him to this courtroom in Beirut —the packaging off of his sister as a child bride. However, this glum-faced angel’s behaviour is often as irresponsibly ignorant as his parents and we are, deliberately and systematically, put on tenterhooks when he has to care for 1-year old African baby, Yonas, (actually played by a baby girl aptly named Treasure) who exhibits all the wonderful joie de vivre that Zain lacks. Perhaps the unintended message is that an optimistic demeanour is the surest path out of misery.
Thankfully, one of the most accomplished films in competition, Cold War, by Pawel Pawlikowski, managed to pick up the Best Director prize. Here we followed a tale of mismatched passion between two characters who evolve in post war Poland, before trying again in 50s Paris.
Best Actress went to Smala Yasyamova for a gruelling turn in Ayka, by Sergey Dvortsevoy, the tale of a gritty migrant worker surviving in a harsh and wintry Moscow. To pay ruthless loan shark debts, she has to return to work on an expired visa the very day she gives birth and abandons her child. She is in every frame of this gruellingly claustrophobic mise en scene, very reminiscent of the style of Son of Saul by Laszlo Nemes that took the Grand Prix in 2015.
Marcello Fonte took best actor for Matteo Garrone’s Dogman, set in a desolated suburb, akin to but more microcosmic to Garrone’s Neapolitan setting for Gomorrah. Despite the struggles to exist and petty drug dealing, Marcello, a dog groomer, has a convivial life until he is taken as a moral hostage by his self-imposed thug of a friend, Simoncino, and forced to make treacherous decisions in regard to his community. Inevitably, he bites back.
The scenario prize —too often offered as a consolation prize to films that have little scenaristic shape— was shared between Alice Rohrwacher for Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazarus) and Jafar Panahi for Se Rokh (Three Faces). Hers was a well-intentioned saga of a simple man, the victim of a complex world, and his the story of a driven woman looking for answers, à la Kiarostami but without the poetic intensity.
La France, un point
None of the majority French films distinguished themselves in Competition this year, save for Jean-Luc Godard for Le Livre d’Image (The Image Book) who collected a Special Palme d’Or to register his importance to cinema. However, one statistic was thrown out at a CNC conference stating that 75% of the films in the various selections had French investment, and probably even more had French representation as the most film sales agents are Paris-based. Maybe this influences selection for Cannes? Other interesting numbers to be proposed say that France has not only the highest proportion of women directors of the more than 200 French films produced annually, but also has more female producers, DOP’s and, estimates suggest, more than 50% of all editors.
Lars is a feminist filmmaker?
Thankfully the gender balance debate has more than one egalitarian parameter and is, in and of itself a rather multifaceted puzzle. There was an interesting media and critical contrast between Girls of the Sun, by the proven talent Eva Husson —which sunk to the lowest level of the Screen Daily critics grid, despite having been chosen as the standard bearer of Women in Film’s Saturday parade— and Lars Von Trier’s out-of-competition (because too violent) The House that Jack Built, which was predictably reviled by some for its cruelty and misogyny. The irony is that on a very basic academic reading, the Von Trier is more feminist than Husson’s film. In Girls of the Sun, the two female protagonists, who have left their children behind to fight for a greater purpose, conclude by advising, in a sisterly way, to go home and be a good mother, while in the Von Trier, an increasingly nasty man, played with intriguing conviction by Matt Dillon, openly confesses to a feminist shopping-list of narcissistic cold-blooded white male sinfulness and winds up being thrown into the deepest of hells as righteous punishment. If a man had written the Husson conclusion, he’d be vilified for patriarchal proselytising and if a woman wrote Jack’s itinerary and demise, she’d be mocked for indulging in feminist revenge fantasy.
Perhaps we need to get a grip to track a coherent middle ground and find a sparks to illuminate the nuances along the way.