AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2016
by Harlan Kennedy FRSA
The palms waved, the seagulls sang, the food was fabulous. As the French say, in moments of thought between the clamour and glamour of annual Cannes bangs, “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Or vice versa. The 69th festival began like every previous one, only more so.
Hadn’t we had a Woody Allen opening film before? Yes, twice. But CAFÉ SOCIETY is more glittering than HOLLYWOOD ENDING or MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. In fact it’s Woody’s handsomest yet.
Haven’t we experienced Jodie Foster at Cannes being strafed by paparazzi? Yes, but this time, unlike forty years ago, she wasn’t a teenage street moppet publicising her movie debut in a Scorsese triumph (TAXI DRIVER, Cannes Golden Palm winner 1976). She was director of the second big Hollywood film out of the bag at Cannes 2016, MONEY MONSTER.
That starred George Clooney and Julia Roberts. They were duly red-carpeted, and in turn cued more stars. The Cannes nightscape, along that part of the Croisette where the Palais rears up and sparkles, was like those stellar skies where you can hardly see the darkness for the star fire. Directors, actors, actor-directors were all in the fiery mix. Sean Penn, Steven Spielberg, James Franco, Juliette Binoche, Marion Cotillard… .
In a volatile universe you don’t know where the next bright spot will appear or next nebula flare up. This year it appeared in the weirdest places. Take three from the fest’s first days.
1 (un). Five years ago who thought Bruno Dumont, sombre mystic of the French and Flemish flatlands (HORS SATAN, FLANDERS), could make comedies? But after 2014’s P’TIT QUINQUIN, his first film for the funnybone, comes SLACK BAY, an inspired knockabout ‘dramedy’ set – like QUINQUIN – in a landscape annexed by a police investigation. On top of the only hill in this low-lying duneland is the summer mansion containing Fabrice Luchini, his wife Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and his flamboyant, slightly mad sister, played by a Juliette Binoche clearly egged on to ham it up. Below in the estuary hovels live a family who kill and eat unwitting ferry passengers. Looking into the disappearances – with the dim, slow gaze of previous Dumont sleuths (P’TIT QUINQUIN, HUMANITY) – is a pachyderm-sized police detective who keeps falling down, literally, on the job. Sometimes the best way to reach a sandy crime scene is to go horizontal and roll down a dune towards it. The film is totally cuckoo, deeply funny and ends with a late burst of Dumont mysticism that includes levitation.
2 (deux). It’s a longish time since Romania wowed the punters at Cannes. Eleven years in fact. Back in the middle of the last decade Cristi Puiu’s THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU (2005) participated in that country’s anni mirabiles on the azure coast. Compatriot Cristian Mungiu won the Golden Palm two years later with FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS (2007). Puiu was back on form this year with SIERANEVADA. It’s another nearly-three-hour humdinger like LAZARESCU: a tragicomical sprawl of a story, largely set inside a single Bucharest flat. Imagine an eastern European take on Joyce’s THE DEAD. At a commemorative dinner party for a dead paterfamilias, the myriad relatives clatter into quarrels, break down in grief, reopen old grudges, persecute a visiting black sheep, and widen the drama’s acoustic by airing suppressed political passions. There isn’t a dull moment, and that says a lot for a nearly one-set film that barely ever goes out for air.
3 (trois). Maden Ade’s TONI ERDMANN divided the critics big-time, including this one, sliced clean down the middle. Is it the competition-trouncing epic comedy some claimed – made in Germany of all places, which hasn’t contended at Cannes since Wim Wenders lead-ballooned with PALERMO SHOOTING – or is it one-joke movie spreading its frail conceit over two and half hours? I chortled too at Peter Simonischek’s first appearance as prankster dad to a thirtysomething business daughter (Sandra Huller). The young woman tries not to freak whenever the disguise-fond pater – false teeth, tousled wig – elbows into a party tete-a-tete with a top client. Think of Barry Humphries disgorging Les Patterson all over your career. But the one waggish idea is endlessly recycled. Even in the age of “sustainability or bust,” purposeful re-usage does not include limited-variation movie jokes.
We all have different ways of reaching towards filmic Heaven. And sometimes we end up, by chance, in Hell or Purgatory. That this year’s Cannes poster was as golden-yellow as a field of rape was not meant to cue a TV interviewer’s opening-ceremony question to Woody Allen, which embroiled the festival in instant controversy. You’ve spent a lot of time working in Europe recently, said the journo, “and you haven’t even been convicted of rape.”
Ouch. The Polanski joke flared and fizzled. Thierry Fremaux, festival boss, looked unhappy and was reported to have taken Woody aside to apologise. The microphone-pointer claimed, later, that he hadn’t heard of Woody’s own alleged misadventures with minors. Truly? What galaxy has he been in? Or is half the world now too young to remember yesterday’s tabloid high noons? (I haven’t heard of them either, my lawter tells me to say).
Never mind. Back to that sunshine-yellow poster. The flight of wide steps it depicts, scaling the side of a modernist building on a tree-girt Mediterranean headland, is of course from Godard’s LE MEPRIS. The single figure depicted may be Michel Piccoli (the film’s star) – or it may be, for the festival, a visual synecdoche. Is the poster’s lone ascender the cinephiles’ Everyman, including excluding the gowned and gorgeous Everywoman, who ascend the Cannes carpet nightly to attain the spoils of cinematic paradise?
Each person’s paradise is different. Hence the poster’s sovereign loner. The most you get at Cannes is a big lobby leaning this way or leaning that, with some dissenter always – vive la difference – spoiling the party.
Women on the Verge of an Exisential Breakthrough
Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY was another movie hosanna’d by many, including me, while some grouched in protest. They grouched at the presumption of a British filmmaker (formerly of FISH TANK and WUTHERING HEIGHTS) having a bash at a USA-set road epic. The story material brims with vernacular and local colour as a busful of dropout teens, some semi-delinquent, all rocking to casual sex, dope and roadside jive sessions – the music is terrific – tour America selling magazine subscriptions door to door.
I know that sounds bathetic. I know you’re scornfully imagining the poster copy. “They live hard. They love hard. They rock hard. They’re – magazine sellers.” But this film is a humdinger; it’s like NASHVILLE on crack. Arnold read about these teams of teen hustlers, gangmastered into hucksterism to amass the fees that fatten their leaders’ wallets. Every doorstep pitch, while collecting cheques or signatures, is a lie about working to pay for college or passing the cap for charity. Every high earner is a hero. Every low earner is hazed, humiliated or hung out to dry.
Shia LaBeouf is wonderful as the team’s top seller. An alpha sex-bomb with studs, earring and a single dreadlock. Never-acted-before newcomer Sasha Lane, spotted on a beach by Arnold (there’s Lana Turner-worthy legend-making for you), is just as wonderful as the new girl eager to learn her bearings while pursued by LaBeouf as his latest prey. The dialogue is a racy, pacey lingua franca – much of it surely ad-libbed or workshopped on the hoof – and the songs that break out, here, there, everywhere, are the expression of a youthful, wantoning, raucous energy. The tuneful vulgate of the teenage soul.
Almost everyone loved Pedro Almodóvar’s JULIETA. Almost 30 years after WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN, cinema’s Spanish blade – his vorpal steel still going snicker-snack even if his vertical hair is now snow white – makes a film about, yes, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But what a difference an epoch makes. Little Pedrito has grown up. Adapted from three stories by Canadian Nobel laureate Alice Munro, his screenplay is a shimmeringly sombre tale of estranged love. The tale iridesces subtly through decades as the heroine (played by three actresses) grows up through youth, love, homemaking, motherhood, widowhood, into the final and unconquerable – or perhaps it won’t be? – sadness of parental estrangement.
Why has her daughter cut herself off? What was the mother’s legacy of pain or unlove? We search, we peer. At last we find, or think we do. For Almodóvar the facts of life lie in the flux of life. While there are motion and emotion there is hope. Like that piece of molten visual poetry, midway, in which Julieta’s naked and impassioned thrash with a stranger on a moving train is reflected in the night window, as eerie and hallucinatory, as the glimpse moments before of a stag running slow-motion through the snow. The ending has the majestic ambivalence of much of what goes before. A crane shot rises above a vista of lakes and mountains, abjuring the very scene we thought about to follow. Instead the mother-daughter reunion, if it happens, must happen in our imagination – the best place for it to earn the power and meaning it will have, subtly different for each of us.
There were so many Best Actress contenders at Cannes, including three in the same role for Almodóvar, that you needed a degree in calculus to keep up. Pairing up at opposite ends of the spectrum were two newcomers and two stellar veterans. Sasha Lane in AMERICAN HONEY was one first-timer, the other Hayley Squires in Ken Loach’s I, DANIEL BLAKE. This is minor Loach: a plain if touching two-hander about an ailing Geordie carpenter and the new-to-Newcastle single mum he befriends, both desperately seeking welfare aid. But Squires can act crisis, tears and heartbreak as if she has been stomping the screen for half a century.
So does Isabelle Huppert in the Paul Verhoeven-directed ELLE. And France’s greatest actress has been stomping the screen for 50 years or damn close. Forget “No sex, please, we’re sexagenerians.” If SHADES OF GREY is mommy sex, welcome to granny sex. Huppert, 63, plays a rape victim in this adaptation of French author Philippe Djian’s bestselling bra-ripper OH… She gives as good as she gets, then comes back for more. She likes the rough stuff. This actress is terrific – when isn’t she? – and Verhoeven hasn’t hit these high-class hokum heights since BASIC INSTINCTS.
For the other screen dowager delivering dynamite, scroll down a little. Latin America’s Sonja Braga. Coming soon to a paragraph near you.
Crack in the World
Some of the best movies at Cannes were a quest for harmony in a disharmonious world. (So were some of the worst. Try swallowing Sean Penn’s THE LAST FACE without chucking up. Love-and-war bombast; cringey coexistence of stellar showboating – Charlize Theron, Javier Bardem – with attempts at in-your-face realism from the zones of famine, war and atrocity).
Discord-and-resolution was the energising dynamic of three front-running Palm contenders: Brazil’s AQUARIUS, Romania’s BACCALAUREAT and Canada’s IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD. French Canada, in the case of Xavier Dolan’s funky-expressionistic chamber drama. Based on a play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, it’s about a family reunion that goes through the furnace before emerging, like ceramic, strengthened if a little glazed. A strong Gallic cast – Vincent Cassel, Gaspard Ulliel, Marion Cotillard and as mum a revelatory Nathalie Baye – excels in a domestic/dynastic set-to redolent at times of O’Neill. (That’s Eugene, not Shaquille).
AQUARIUS caused the biggest hoo-ha in Cannes. Before the movie, Brazil filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho and his lead cast stood atop the palais steps unfolding paper slogans. “Coup d’Etat in Brazil”; “Brazil is no longer a democracy”; and the like. Roar of crowd. Inside the theatre, same stunt. Roar of audience. Then the film: a richly enjoyable 140-minuter about a seventyish senyora (superbly played by Sonja Braga, once of KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN) defying the property bullies who seek to oust her from her apartment, the last one inhabited in an ocean-view block. The family subplots intrigue. The real-estate nasties get nastier. The larger political overtones, of life in a corrupted country, don’t get lost. The film’s ending, involving insects, nearly brings the house down. And that’s a plot clue.
Filmmaker Cristian Mungiu potted the Golden Palm back in 2007, when FOUR MONTHS, THREE WEEKS AND TWO DAYS introduced us to a force called Romanian cinema. He was back this year with BACCALAUREAT. Post-Ceasescu life in the ex-communist land is still, suggests Mungiu, seething with corruption. Hence the ticklish descent into dodgy dealing by a father trying to smooth his daughter’s path to exam success (she could get to Cambridge) after a fended-off rape attempt injures her morale. And her writing wrist, now plastered like some of the local dignitaries dad tries to woo. It’s funny, bitter, cautionary, at best Ibsenite.
Up the Down Staircase
The up escalator in the press area of the palais didn’t work this year. So we had to climb up to the press boxes using crampons and pitons. Well, it felt like that. A long slog for movie-numbed legs. (Eventually, simple wheeze, they turned the down escalator up. But no one told me till the last day)
Either the machinery seized up; or the festival was saving money; or, my theory, they were miming a message for moviemanes about the magic of counter-intuitive culture. There was lots of that this year. What goes up must come down. But equally, what comes down can go up again.
Jim Jarmusch’s PATERSON blended Zen serenity with off-kilter comedy. The poetry-writing bus driver is played by Adam Driver. If you think that’s a casting in-joke there’s also an ‘out-joke’ for everyone in the protagonist’s name. It’s Paterson and that’s his route. Paterson, NJ.
Doubling-up is rife in this simple yarn with duple grace-notes. Four sets of twins float through, some in mere eyeblink roles. The echo name of William Carlos Williams recurs, former Paterson resident and the poet hero’s poet hero. And the movie opens and closes with the same lines from one of the hero’s A mirror universe? Possibly. Or: everyone lives with a doppelganger and may not realise it. They shouldn’t be frightened. Or not before they need to be.
In a festival encouraging your counterintuitive tao, there was also the Swiss model-animation comedy MA VIE COMME COURGETTE (MY LIFE AS A COURGETTE). Claude Barras’ debut anime is a joy. The pumpkin-headed kid with the blue hair, red nose and UFO-sized eyes lives in an orphanage. Mum died in an attic trapdoor accident (as they sometimes do). Now he must turn misery to manhood, via the makeshifts of imagination, mischief and, of course, l’amour. It’s the best out-of-nowhere European stop-motion film since A TOWN CALLED PANIC.
Zen contrariness. Ya gotta love it. Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn has become a name to conjure with and it’s black magic with which he works. If you survived his last Cannes arthouse slasher, ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Ryan Gosling slicing up everyone in sight), you might live through THE NEON DEMON. Elle Fanning plays the aspiring model coming to LA to fall foul of fashion bimbos who seduce, rape, kill and eat. Blood on the walls; eyeballs on the floor; Jena Malone in a morgue fucking a corpse. Talk about the X generation; these are some kick-ass supermodels. Anna Wintour – hold the centrefolds – should do a Vogue special on them.
Through Elle and Eye Water
Perhaps there is such a thing as second childhood. The Cannes closing days were so crackers you thought Christmas had arrived. If ELLE and THE NEON DEMON weren’t enough, there was Sean Penn’s THE LAST FACE, variously referred to by colleagues as THE LAST LAUGH or THE LAST STRAW.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house at moments. In this tale of African-working UN aid workers Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem it isn’t the fates of the suffering that cause helpless blubbing. It is the cockamamie camerawork, the supporting performances so wooden you want to cry “Timber!”, and the lines of inspired meaninglessness like “There’s something in propinquity that’s not to be confused with fate.” As if to enhance the film’s pitch for cerebral cred, one character starts a sentence with “Bronte once said….” To which any educated viewer will respond, “Which Bronte?” To judge by THE LAST FACE’s addled wordsmithing and loony logorrhoea, it’s Bronte-Thesaurus.
To make amends, the Un Certain Regard section – main official sideshow – closed with a black-and-white charmer of zero pretension. Finland’s THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MAKI, the feature debut of Juho Kuosmanen, was six years in the making. Kuosmanen couldn’t find the money, and a true boxing story – Finland’s first champion pugilist – had to be thoroughly researched. (The Cinefondation, a Cannes endowment body, pitched in some finance). It dawdles at times, this meld of docudrama and biopic. But there’s a lovely offhandedness in the comedy and characterisation and even in the scenes in the ring. Don’t expect RAGING BULL, more RAMBLING REINDEER.
And the Winner Is
Came the hour, came the prizes. A jury led by George MAD MAX Miller was expected to rev the engines in favour of high-octane action pics or funky fantasy adventures. But this is Cannes. Even Australo-Hollywood petrolheads know art is the main thing on the menu.
Even so, gobs were collectively smacked when the Golden Palm went to Ken Loach’s I, DANIEL BLAKE. It was nowhere on the list of bookies’ favourites. Even so, it ambled right past TONY ERDMANN, JULIETA and AMERICAN HONEY, though Andrea Arnold’s razzle-dazzle-realist road pic did pick up the Jury Prize. (That’s the Cinderella gong). Exactly ten years after THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY, Loach joined the elite band of two-time Palm winners. He can now go to heaven on the same coach as Coppola, Kusturica, the Dardennes, Shohei Imamura and Bille August.
The acting prizes smacked more gobs: Jaclyn Jose in MA’ ROSA, a neo-realist plodder from the Philippines, and Shahab Hosseini in Asghar Farhadi’s THE SALESMAN, an Iranian riff on Arthur Miller’s ‘Death of..’ that doesn’t take off cinematically like Farhadi’s Oscar-winning A SEPARATION (2011).
By the time the Best Director prize was torn in two, to be presented ex aequo to Romania’s Cristian Mungiu (BACCALAUREAT) and France’s Olivier Assayas (PERSONAL SHOPPER), most of us had decided to withdraw our gobs, or sensitivities, into a smack-free area. But even there the long hand of loopy jurying reached in to wallop us with a final winner. The Grand Jury Prize, the festival’s runner-up bouquet, went to Xavier Dolan’s IT’S ONLY THE END OF THE WORLD.
Almost no critic but me liked this film. (See above). But French-Canadian Dolan has become something of a festival darling (TOM ON THE FARM, MOMMY) and the gods evidently decided this was his year. It may have helped – it fed the Cannes headlines – that he was the youngest director in competition, at 27, while Loach, a month off 80, was the oldest. Quel yin; quel yang.
That’s Cannes 2016. Can’t wait for 2017. The only thing worse than a day of having your gob smacked in the south of France is a year of not having it.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved