Squared Circle

Ruben Östlund, The Square, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 142 minutes.

FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, a rare consensus emerged at the Cannes Film Festival. If the 2016 edition will be remembered for its farcical jury decisions, this year’s official selection stands a good chance of being barely remembered at all: Rarely does the Cannes competition, world cinema’s most pedigreed showcase, leave so little of a collective impression. In stark contrast to the ceremonial merriment of its seventieth anniversary, which occasioned a star-studded Cannes yearbook photo call and a gala evening of musical numbers (Isabelle Huppert warbling “Happy Birthday”) and speeches about the importance of the festival, the mood on the ground was palpably weary and irritable. Complaining about Cannes is a long-standing journalistic tradition—André Bazin was in 1955 lamenting the “ridiculously narrow” entrances that led to “a terrible crush going in and out”—but this year the grievances were especially loud and sustained. Heightened security measures (metal detectors and airport-level bag searches at the Palais des Festivals, soldiers armed with machine guns patrolling the Croisette) meant jangled nerves, extensive delays, and plenty of time in long lines for frustrated festivalgoers to grumble, ad nauseam and not without justification, that this was the weakest Cannes lineup in memory.

Hats off, though, to Pedro Almodóvar’s jury for anointing a most deserving—and surprising—Palme d’Or winner in Ruben Östlund’s The Square. Whether peeling back the brittle surface of Scandinavian liberal democracy (Play) or prodding the wobbly foundations of the nuclear family (Force Majeure), the forty-three-year-old Östlund is one of the sharpest and funniest satirists working today. The Square revolves around the well-heeled, well-groomed Christian (Claes Bang), a curator at a Stockholm contemporary art museum where the new exhibit (for which the film is titled) is a demarcated four-by-four-meter zone that announces itself as “a sanctuary of trust and caring.” The description proves somewhat at odds with the actual public square where Christian finds himself the victim of a pickpocketing scam that triggers an overzealous response and then a crisis of conscience. An analytical filmmaker with a taste for sociological critique, Östlund is sometimes likened to Michael Haneke (more on him later), but unlike Haneke, who engineers his scenarios like steel traps, Östlund enjoys scenes that play out in unpredictable and surreal ways. His manner of implicating the viewer is less didactic than empathetic, prompting open-ended questions of how one might react in similar situations, which lent The Square a site-specific mise en abyme effect in Cannes. Not least among its pleasures, Östlund’s wry dismantling of ego and privilege among the cultural class held up a mirror to the petty self-regard and herd mentality on routine display at the festival, which can itself resemble an elaborate behavioral experiment.

The Square is a film with plenty on its mind, tweaking art-world pretensions and liberal pieties, exploring the gap between belief and action, contemplating the relationship between the individual and the collective—all over a 140-minute duration that some found excessive. (Distended running times were a problem across the board, likely a factor of rush edits.) The film proceeds in fits and starts, constantly revising and complicating its ideas, veering in tone from jocular to sober and back. All of which made it a refreshing change from the white elephants—the solemnly respectable prestige films with clear intentions and predetermined meanings—that more frequently take festival prizes. Most conspicuous in this category this year were Haneke’s Happy End (the title is ironic) and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (the title is very unironic). Haneke, a two-time Palme d’Or winner who left Cannes empty-handed for the first time since 2003’s Time of the Wolf, is working in a slightly more sardonic register here, but Happy End is otherwise business as usual—in fact, it’s a self-conscious reprise of his greatest hits, training its microscope on an extended bourgeois family in Calais, France, where a refugee crisis is unfolding under their oblivious noses. No less subtle—and winner of the third-place jury prize—Loveless is a handsome, wintry drama about a divorcing couple and their unwanted child that evolves into an allegory of soul-sick modern Russia.

Valeska Grisebach, Western, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 119 minutes.

The Cannes bubble no longer seems willing or able to keep the real world at bay. A striking number of films were billed as being “about Europe,” though, needless to say, some engagements are more meaningful than others. A German woman loses her Turkish husband and child to a neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, a by-the-numbers study of grief and vengeance that won Diane Kruger the best actress prize. Kornél Mundruczó’s slick high-concept fantasy Jupiter’s Moon grants a Syrian refugee superpowers and Christlike status after he’s pumped full of bullets. But the film with the most interesting vantage on the new Europe was also the one that made its geopolitical points most obliquely. Western, the first feature in more than a decade by the talented Valeska Grisebach (Longing), is set among a group of German workers who are toiling on a water facility project in rural Bulgaria. Cast entirely with non-actors, Western is, as the title suggests, a supremely intelligent rethinking of genre conventions, a gripping culture-clash drama attuned to new forms of colonialism.

Hailed by almost everyone who saw it as a festival highlight, Western screened in the parallel Un Certain Regard section, apparently a victim of the unstated yet plain-as-day Cannes policy to velvet-rope off the main competition exclusively for films with movie stars. If the competition was especially fatiguing this year, it may have been for the prevalence of a particular kind of feel-bad film that conjoins formal stylization with casual sadism, whether in the service of a would-be moral tale like Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer or a one-note genre exercise like Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

No coincidence that the few bright spots were literal signs of life, works that thrived on a messy vitality. Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, which administered a needed dose of electroshock therapy to the moribund competition in the home stretch, is a crime caper with a committed Robert Pattinson performance, a propulsive Oneohtrix Point Never score, and a nuanced, indeed intersectional, understanding of class and race. Winner of the runner-up Grand Prix, Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats per Minute revisits the urgent early 1990s heyday of ACT UP in Paris; it’s familiar terrain but brought to life with firsthand intimacy and a welcome attentiveness to the everyday labor of activism. Yoking together two New York stories separated by half a century, Wonderstruck, Todd Haynes’s characteristically personal and lovingly detailed take on a children’s movie, beautifully inhabits a skewed kid’s-eye perspective (which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his early short Dottie Gets Spanked). It’s also one of Haynes’s most exuberant demonstrations of his core belief that blatant artifice can engender overwhelming emotion.

Robin Campillo, 120 Beats Per Minute, 2017, color, sound, 140 minutes.

Even from its ivory tower, Cannes could not avoid the film industry’s continued hand-wringing and infighting over distribution methods, specifically the ascendance of streaming services. The inclusion of two high-profile Netflix productions—Bong Joon Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)—dominated the pre-festival coverage and the opening jury press conference (Almodóvar declared that the Palme should be off-limits to films that will bypass theatrical exhibition, only to later soften his stance). Facing a backlash from French theater owners, the festival decreed, even before the first screening, that starting next year all films competing at Cannes must also screen in French cinemas. The embrace of TV, though new to this festival, was not much of a stretch, given the auteur imprimaturs of Jane Campion (Top of the Lake: China Girl) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks: The Return), former Palme d’Or winners and jury presidents, both reveling in the comparative freedom of serial television. In Lynch’s case, the first two hours of The Return, seen on the huge screen of the Grand Theatre Lumiere, were so singular, so uncompromising, so transporting, that they dwarfed everything else at Cannes.

The festival’s most overt gesture toward the future was Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena, its first foray into virtual reality. This seven-minute piece, drawn from and simulating the experiences of migrants who made the crossing from Mexico to the US, will soon be on view at the Fondazione Prada in Milan. The Cannes iteration, limited to one thousand or so visitors, came with an incongruous (though very Cannes-like) veneer of exclusivity. Eligible guests were chauffeured a few picturesque miles down the coast to an airplane hangar: You sign a waiver and wait your turn—partaking of the Perrier and fruit on the snack table, should you wish—before entering, barefoot and one at a time, a dark room covered in sand. Donning an Oculus Rift headset and a backpack, with two technicians by your side, you’re granted the illusion of roaming through the Sonoran Desert, brushing up against the photorealistic avatars of immigrants who have endured the journey. (You move into them and see their beating hearts.) Before long, a helicopter beam blinds you, and border agents arrive, barking orders and pointing their rifles in your face. The widespread (and widely challenged) notion of virtual reality as “empathy machine”—as evident in the proliferation of consciousness-raising, humanitarian-themed VR works—merges here with Iñárritu’s shock-and-awe sensibility to create something at once brutalizing and trivializing, rife with irony and ripe for precisely the kind of satire that won the Palme d’Or. Indeed, the whole thing might have been devised by the well-intentioned, tone-deaf culturati of The Square, an invitation to get under the skins of actual refugees that was also among the most cossetted experiences available in Cannes.

The Seventieth Festival de Cannes ran May 17 through 28.