The best of week one
The omens are bright ahead of the Cannes film festival. The sun shines, the Med sparkles and the delegates behave like excited kids on Christmas morning. They come pouring out of the hotels and apartments on the opening day, with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts, eager to throw themselves headlong at the movie theatres. The world is their oyster; nothing’s going to stop them. Nothing, that is, except the security gates.
The security gates are a new addition, springing up overnight outside the doors to the Palais, the vast brutalist conference centre on the Croisette. I suspect they might be here to stay. Security has ramped up in the wake of the Nice terror attack. Airspace and road space have been restricted; local police kitted with new semi-automatic handguns. Only last year the place still felt like a playground. The revellers could largely come and go as they pleased. Now they have to stand in line, loading their belongings into plastic trays before being herded one by one through security, like terrified passengers boarding an international flight. No doubt the measures are necessary; they may be a comfort. But they do make a festival feel marginally less festive.
While it remains to be seen whether the schedule reflects these tense, uncertain times, the early signs suggest it will. Once through the gates, we’re slapped with Loveless, the opening film of the Palme d’Or competition, ringing with apocalyptic portents and geopolitical tremors. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev should have won the top prize for the magnificent Leviathan in 2014. His latest thunders into town like an angel of vengeance, spinning the tale of a warring Moscow couple so immersed in their own gleeful drama that it takes a full two days before they realise that their 12-year-old son has absconded. The subsequent search carries them through a virtual nuclear winter of blighted woodland, abandoned buildings and desolate country roads that may well lead to hell. Loveless is brilliant, it’s brutal, and watching it takes its toll. The delegates staggered out as though they’d just been tenderised with meat hammers.
Then there was Kornél Mundruczó’s Jupiter’s Moon, which finds bold new angles into the migrant crisis to serve up a rum, quasi-religious thriller about a disgraced medic who takes a miracle boy under his wing. Aryan (Zsombor Jéger) is a Syrian out of Homs, the son of a carpenter (and reputed terrorist), who possesses the ability to levitate at will. Some idiots booed this but I rather liked it. Jupiter’s Moon is fun and exuberant, if a trifle overegged, and I relished Merab Ninidze’s performance as the cynical doctor who claims to be too devout for the Bible. “I don’t read that stuff,” he tells the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “There’s a lot of violence and sex outside marriage.”
Hopes were high for Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, featuring the excellent Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, but the movie feels a faint letdown after 2015’s Carol. Adapted from Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel, this is basically a kids’ film dressed in adult clothes; wide-eyed and knowing. It’s about two hearing-impaired children from different eras (1927 and 1977) who each set forth on pilgrimages to New York. Haynes’s parallel plots bounce pleasantly off one another and then come snugly (even smugly) together amid the splendour of the American Museum of Natural History. Ostensibly they’ve come to admire the exhibits. Mainly they’re just admiring themselves in the glass.
Still, at least Wonderstruck is coherent. That’s more than can be said for Ismael’s Ghosts, starring Mathieu Amalric as a disreputable director and Marion Cotillard as his wayward wife – missing, believed dead – who suddenly barrels back into his life. What a curious, eccentric, maddeningly French affair this is. It reminded me of my favourite mistranslation on the English-language menu of a local cafe: a dish that advertises itself, mystifyingly, as “ox dimensions, one person”. Ismael’s Ghosts is no disaster but its rich, meaty chunks are all over the place. They’re too much for one film; too much for this person.
Loveless leads the charge in the opening days, except that this Cannes still feels freshly opened. Over the coming week we’ll be lavished with new work from the likes of Lynne Ramsay and Michael Haneke, together with quadruple helpings of Nicole Kidman. Until then, early controversy has been provided by the decision to include two Netflix titles (the spry and winning Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories) in the main competition. Opponents claim the presence of the streaming giant is at odds with Cannes’s ethos of supporting French cinemas; the French Federation of Film Distributors says it “endangers a whole ecosystem”. Jury president Pedro Almodóvar has already suggested he would resist handing the top prize to a Netflix production. Jury member Will Smith, by contrast, can’t see the problem. Who on earth knows how this particular spat will play out? Right now the judges are singing from separate hymn sheets.
One consequence of having to queue in front of the gates is that many delegates appear to have pitched camp inside the festival site. If it’s such a faff getting in, there’s no point popping out. And this is fine, because the Cannes Palais contains multitudes and is fiendishly fascinating. It’s honeycombed with secret doors and hidden lifts, screening rooms and a bustling marché. I’ve been coming for 12 years and have hardly begun to unpick all its mysteries. The Palais may very well expand and mutate by the month. Over dinner one night, the talk is all of the secret cafeteria, two floors underground, almost impossible to locate. Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw claims to have been led there once and then struggled to find the stairs back out. I vow that at some point during this festival I’m going to search for it too.
In this way, perhaps, we’ve already made peace with Cannes’s increased security, indulging in a cineaste version of Stockholm syndrome. The gates are a nuisance but they point the way to a nirvana of market stalls and cafes, flying Syrians and ghostly wives. I’m choosing to view them as teleportation devices, like something out of a sci-fi B-movie, complete with blinking lights and ominous beeps. Each one is a portal to an outlandish new world.
The best of week two
No visit to Cannes is complete without a trip to the market at the back of the Palais. Hidden from view, like a demented old aunt, sits the realm of zombie rabbits and “erotical thrillers”, a teeming tide pool of B-movie cinema. Except that this year I’ve left the visit too late. When I wander down, early evening on the second Wednesday, the circus is already pulling out of town. It leaves behind a mess of abandoned stalls and plastic crates and myriad screens broadcasting a film called No Signal. It’s lonesome in the market after the sales staff have gone, like walking past a row of off-season beach shops, the dinghies and balls trapped behind wire mesh. Creepy, too, because on retracing my steps I find that the main exit is closed, which means taking a circuitous route through a maze of underground walkways. Someone should shoot a horror flick set down in the Cannes market at the festival’s end.
Cannes grows old. The punters are tired. It’s all they can do to keep themselves vertical. The whispers, meanwhile, are that this has been an uneasy edition, revealing a festival in a fascinating state of flux. The independent film sector is in decline, subscription TV is on the rise and the Netflix row suggests that Cannes is still finding the best way of riding both sides of the seesaw. Even its lavish 70th birthday celebrations (guests included Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche, Charlize Theron and Claudia Cardinale) seemed a valiant attempt to enshrine the festival’s past, perhaps as a means of safeguarding its future. Cannes will endure; it’s too glorious not to. Right now, though, it remains a big analogue beast, toiling to adapt to a digital planet.
The main competition needed something outrageous to zap it from its slough, and it came courtesy of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which had sections of the audience energetically booing the screen. Yorgos Lanthimos’s freeze-dried revenge saga casts Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman as a moneyed married couple who find themselves targeted by a supernatural teenager (Barry Keoghan), while the tale slaloms from deadpan black comedy through Cape Fear-ish thrills towards a finale of such matter-of-fact horror that it can only be watched through splayed fingers. We wouldn’t want to live in Lanthimos’s anaesthetised, off-centre world. But his films make us feel that we already do.
On balance, I preferred Sacred Deer to The Beguiled, the festival’s other Kidman-Farrell collaboration, although this too had its merits. This time around, Farrell’s the wounded civil war soldier and Kidman the fragrant headmistress of a girls’ seminary, tucked back from the road, draped in Spanish moss. Credit to director Sofia Coppola for finding a fresh, feminist route through Thomas Cullinan’s source novel. She slides Farrell’s devilish charmer under the sheets of his sick bed and then proceeds to (literally) cut him down to size. The schoolgirls are circling, the sexual tension is mounting. The plot plays out as a prolonged attack of the vapours.
Coming into the festival, pundits were merrily tipping Michael Haneke to win an unprecedented third Palme d’Or. But I was unconvinced by Happy End, a cool-eyed dissection of a bourgeois French family, which felt too much a reprise of themes he’s tackled with more impact before. Better by far was Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which sets forth as a pointed art world satire before throwing its arms wide to include us all in the joke. Claes Bang gives a tremendous performance as chief curator at Sweden’s X-Royal Museum, undone by the viral video that was intended to promote his latest exhibit. What a warm, smart, splendidly humane film this is. Its seeming digressions aren’t really digressions at all, in that they all spin out of Östlund’s unifying thesis on public space and personal responsibility. Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West ride shotgun as, respectively, a brittle journalist who keeps a pet chimpanzee and a preening conceptual artist whose address is interrupted by a heckler with Tourette syndrome.
By about the midway point, the delegates can sympathise with the plight of West’s character. The festival schedule keeps breaking their flow, shouting for their attention, throwing in extra screenings, repeat showings; photocalls, press conferences and seminars. And when we pile up the steps to the cinema it is almost as if the movies come piling past in the opposite direction, running at us and through us; each one impossible to hang on to for long because, look, here’s another, hard at its heels.
BPM is an urgent account of late-80s Aids activism; Rodin an inert monument to the celebrated French sculptor. Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories tells a lovely, scratchy New York family story that still rather belies its small-screen Netflix pedigree, while Robert Pattinson jetted in to promote his role as a bankrobber in the Safdie brothers’ buzzing, boisterous Good Time. I was also impressed by Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, even though the plot is a little stock and overheated. Diane Kruger plays the bereaved wife and mother, chasing neo-Nazis all the way from the courthouse to the beaches of Greece.
Back in 1968, this festival was effectively shut down by director Jean-Luc Godard, determined to show solidarity with the French protesters. Now that nugget of Cannes history has been unearthed, after a fashion, in Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable, which stars Louis Garrel as the cantankerous new waver and British actor Stacy Martin as his hapless teenage bride. Hazanavicius’s tale is perfectly diverting and played with panache. But it strays close to Austin Powers in the way it reframes 60s radicalism as a series of pop art gestures. Outside the Palais, on ritzy Rue d’Antibes, is a high-end boutique that calls itself Mai 68. This, I suspect, is the filmic equivalent.
Does the Cannes lineup need shaking up? Security has been tightened; there was a one-minute silence for the bomb victims in Manchester. And yet this new closed-door policy seems to have been extended to the main competition as well, shutting out some of the more obviously raucous contenders. Further up the Croisette, for instance, the rival “directors’ fortnight” sidebar finds space for The Florida Project – a heart-stopping portrait of child poverty, evocatively played out around Orlando’s flophouse motels. No doubt that’s the ideal launchpad for Sean Baker’s terrific little film. But some fresh blood in competition would not go amiss.
Under my balcony, an American man is hoarsely venting his fury. He’s railing about this; he’s railing about that. The rant goes on for a full five minutes before I realise that the figure below is actually Abel Ferrara, the disreputable king of the New York indie scene, one of the last men standing as the event winds down. He’s remonstrating with another man, who might be his assistant – or just some unlucky passer-by. “This is fucking bullshit!” Ferrara yells. “I was having a ball and then this fucking happens!” If he doesn’t pipe down, security will come get him. He’s raging, noisily, against the dying of the light.
Tips for the Palme d’Or? Who the hell can say for sure? The judges huddle behind closed doors. The Square, Sacred Deer or Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which I wrote about last week, would all make worthy winners. Alternatively, the prize could go to A Gentle Creature, the most bold and brutal film in competition; a jagged, roiling prison town nightmare. Over a punishing two-and-a-half hour spell, director Sergei Loznitsa charts the odyssey of impassive Alyonka (Vasikina Makovtseva), who wants to deliver a care package to her husband in jail. Along the way, she finds herself thwarted by bureaucracy, menaced by the police and manhandled by the drunks inside the town’s hellish brothel. The picture is savage, intense, with a top note of surrealism; Kafka’s greatest hits, as sung by Tom Waits. With exquisite cruelty, the organisers drop A Gentle Creature right near the end of the festival, as a little treat for the exhausted punters. All around the cinema, I’m aware of the viewers passing out in their seats and then snoring like buzzsaws. This film is too much to bear; it’s knocking them out one by one.
About two hours in, Alyonka takes cover in the waiting room of the local station, where the benches are lined with dozing vagrants. There, our heroine is approached by one of her fellow plaintiffs, a crazed Miss Havisham type, who warns that whatever she does, she must not close her eyes. The woman says: “Don’t fall asleep here – or you’ll get carried off.”
This, it strikes me, is a fine cautionary message for the dog days of Cannes, when the true believers risk nodding off at the wheel and the event is left facing an uncertain tomorrow. Wake up, stay alert, this festival’s not quite finished yet. If we fall asleep here, then we’ll get carried off.