Off Topic

Dennis Lim at the 71st Cannes Film Festival

Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters, 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 121 minutes.

OF ALL THE PRESSURES weighing on a major film festival, the most urgent—and in some ways the most absurd—is the one to be topical. How does a behemoth like Cannes meet the moment, and what would that even mean? As the most powerful film showcase and marketplace in the world, Cannes doubles as an annual referendum on the state of the art and the industry, and two framing narratives dominated this year’s pre-festival coverage. The first stemmed from the festival’s ongoing battle with Netflix, with Cannes positioned as the stubborn old guard defending the sanctity of the cinematic experience against the content bulimia of the streaming services that increasingly function also as production entities. The second concerned the thorny matter of diversity—or rather the lack thereof, hardly a new problem at Cannes—and the festival’s professed commitment to moving toward gender equality in the aftermath of #MeToo.

It was inevitable that the 2018 Cannes slate be seen—and second-guessed—through these two lenses. Whether responding to criticism of its boys’-club selection policy or plugging the holes that Netflix left in its wake, the festival delivered its most surprising and varied roster in some time. Not that you would know it from reading the trades. The new competition ban on Netflix titles—which bypass French cinemas, given the local law that mandates a thirty-six-month window between theatrical and streaming releases—led to Netflix’s decision to pull all its films. Going into the festival, it seemed that more ink had been spilled on these exclusions (most notably, Orson Welles’s unfinished final work, The Other Side of the Wind) than on the actual lineup. Journalists interpreted this as “weak buzz” and cranked out the obligatory thumb-suckers on whether or not Cannes “still matters.” The Hollywood Reporter ran an especially inane story titled “5 Signs of a Festival in Decline,” which included a lack of PR stunts and fewer hangovers. It is impossible to give credence to such complaints since the global art cinema that Cannes stands for at heart is precisely what much of the mainstream film press spends the rest of the year actively ignoring. But it bears noting that this is a festival that serves different constituencies, and these days, a good Cannes for the art form is, almost as a rule, not a good one for the industry.

As for the gender question, the festival handled it much as it has any other social or political issue of the day (refugees, terrorism, etc.): with a couple of nods to the topic among the films on view, and a few generally well-intentioned initiatives offscreen, some meaningful and some awkward. With considerable fanfare, Cannes instituted a sexual harassment hotline; tote bags came with DON’T RUIN THE PARTY flyers; and there were more women than men on the main juries. (In stark counterpoint to these carefully choreographed gestures, Asia Argento got right to the point at the closing ceremony, going off-script to bluntly describe the festival as Harvey Weinstein’s “hunting ground.”) Directly addressing the gender imbalance that has plagued not just this festival but the movie industry since its inception, eighty-two women—one for every female-directed film to show in competition, not even 5 percent in all—staged a protest on the red carpet, led by jury president Cate Blanchett. It was unfortunate timing that the rally preceded the premiere of Eva Husson’s cliché-bound film about a Kurdish female battalion, Girls of the Sun, perhaps the worst-reviewed competition entry and, in this context, a cautionary tale of the hazards of quota programming. Husson was one of only three female Palme d’Or contenders (out of twenty one), but the festival made a noticeable effort for parity elsewhere: Nearly half the films in the secondary Un Certain Regard section were by women. While the conversation about gender and diversity is long overdue at an event that has always venerated male auteurs, it could stand to happen more vigorously among those who control the early stages of the chain of production––the funders and agents and labs that, in habitually clamoring for more of the same, do their part to uphold the status quo, ensuring that the same types of filmmakers continue to produce the same types of films.

Lukas Dhont, Girl, 2018, color, sound, 100 minutes.

In the end, the jury sidestepped the pitfalls of a topical Palme d’Or—as happened with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, a year after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq—by awarding the top prize to Shoplifters, an affecting, fine-tuned domestic drama by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The newsier films took the runner-up prizes. Spike Lee earned the second-place Grand Prix for BlacKkKlansmen, hailed as his best in years, though still lacking the wit and bite of vintage Spike. A caricatured take on the real-life early 1970s case of an African American detective who went undercover in Colorado to infiltrate the Klan, the movie never misses an opportunity, through nudging Trump references and a bludgeoning Charlottesville coda, to inform its liberal audience that the most noxious forms of racism persist to this day—in case the constant assaults from the White House were not reminder enough. The third-place Prix du Jury went to Lebanon’s Nadine Labaki for Capernaum, a slum-kid odyssey with some standout non-pro performances and many standard tear-jerking maneuvers from the annals of urchin cinema. Paweł Pawlikowski won Best Director for the handsome if slightly schematic semi-musical romantic tragedy Cold War. And the screenplay prize was shared by the gently allegorical mystery 3 Faces, the latest from Jafar Panahi, still forbidden from leaving Iran, and Alice Rohrwacher’s inventive fable about a modern-day saint of sorts, Happy as Lazzaro, easily one of the freshest films in competition. (Netflix announced on the last day that it had acquired Happy as Lazzaro, though the film, which already had a local distributor, will still open theatrically in France.)

Kore-eda, a reliable, well-liked Cannes veteran who has come close before, was a popular winner for Shoplifters, widely deemed a return to form. This achingly sad film, revolving around an ad hoc clan of petty criminals, is also perhaps the ultimate expression of a question that has animated much of Kore-eda’s recent work: What constitutes a family? All the same, it’s worth noting that any of the other East Asian films in the unusually strong competition would have been an even more deserving—and more interesting—winner. Asako I & II, an oblique and sometimes opaque riff on obsessive desire, and the first foray into competition for Kore-eda’s countryman Ryusuke Hamaguchi, was probably too eccentric for a major prize. But Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White was a prime contender from a filmmaker who, two decades into a remarkable career, is often taken for granted. A radiant showcase for Jia’s regular star, Zhao Tao, it picks up some loose ends from his earlier films (and creates a few new ones), but despite its retrospective dimension, it’s not exactly a summative work so much as proof of the generative potential of his rich corpus. Another clear competition highlight that won only the International Critics’ Prize (and unanimous critical acclaim) was Lee Chang-dong’s tense, haunting multiple-character study Burning. The South Korean director’s first film in eight years amplifies the coy between-the-lines ambiguity of a Haruki Murakami short story into a tour de force of negative space and epistemological uncertainty.

The jury also bestowed a Special Palme d’Or on Jean-Luc Godard for The Image Book—a made-up consolation prize that, at the very least, acknowledges that he exists in a league of his own. Exactly fifty years after leading the May 1968 shutdown of the festival, Godard returned with yet another effortless provocation, a montage of grim beauty and brute disjunction in the essayistic mode of his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1989–99), drawn from an encyclopedic database of movie clips, news reports, and viral videos. Citing the authenticity of the fragment, Godard wrests these audiovisual scraps from their original contexts, distorts and chromatically manipulates them, and edits them back together into an idiosyncratic taxonomy of twentieth- and twenty-first-century trauma and conflict. Among other things, The Image Book—which culminates in a lengthy disquisition on the Arab world as it is has been seen through Western eyes—is a meditation on the violence of representation, on the necessity and impossibility of collapsing experience into words and images. Title notwithstanding, sound is at least as important as image: Voice of Godard musings and snatches of film dialogue encircle the viewer in ricocheting surround sound, which Godard deploys for maximum disorientation, much as he did in 3-D in Goodbye to Language (2014).

Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Diamantino 2018, 35 mm, color, sound, 92 minutes.

It was both thrilling and somewhat ridiculous to see a work of such radical ambition and dense erudition—impossible to process in a single viewing—in the firmament of the Cannes competition, where it fell prey to instant-reaction culture and assessments from trade reviewers who no doubt resented the assignment (“for life-membership Godardians only”). But there was no more telling demonstration of the Cannes opinion factory in pointless overdrive than Lars von Trier’s return from exile, with the festival’s designated outrage, The House That Jack Built, seven years after he was branded persona non grata for making an ill-advised Nazi joke at the Melancholia press conference. The title character is a serial killer (a terrific Matt Dillon) in the process of recounting several of his crimes to an interlocutor named Verge (as in Virgil); the details of his murders, some grisly and some comic, alternate with philosophical discussions on art history and human depravity. Duly trolled, most reviewers responded with predictable indignation while failing to register the singular tone of this intractable object, part middle finger and part mea culpa, at once self-implicating and self-immolating, both a critique and a defense of problematic art and bad taste, the hopelessly incorrect credo of an artist fully committing to his megalomaniacal, misanthropic, and masochistic tendencies.

While Cannes is very far from being a discovery festival, it welcomed several notable young talents into the fold this year. Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, whose absurdist pop sensibilities are a perfect antidote to the self-seriousness of the typical festival film, won the top prize in the Critics’ Week parallel event for their first feature-length collaboration, Diamantino, the brightly hued tale of an empty-headed Cristiano Ronaldo–like footballer enmeshed in a lunatic abundance of outlandish subplots, from the refugee crisis and separatist populism to B-movie-style genetic modification. Belgian director Lukas Dhont won the Camera d’Or prize for first feature for the much-hyped Girl, about the travails of a transgender teen. Centered on a remarkable star turn by Victor Polster, Girl complicates the coming-of-age template in admirable, sometimes debatable ways, surrounding its ballerina protagonist with a host of extraordinarily supportive characters––the better to focus on her inner conflict, which is subtly articulated until a conclusion that smacks of both contrivance and sensationalism. (Netflix picked this one up as well.)

The most impressive debut I saw, The Load, begins as a wintry, minimalist road movie about a truck driver tasked with transporting mysterious cargo from Kosovo to Belgrade during the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. This first fiction film by Ognjen Glavonic, who made the war-crime documentary Depth Two (2016), uses its streamlined premise not to ratchet up suspense but as a prelude to a slow-dawning reckoning, in which implications of guilt and complicity take their time to sink in. It was also a Cannes newcomer, the Chinese director Bi Gan, who provided my most memorable experience of the festival: Long Day’s Journey into Night, which showed in Un Certain Regard. Bi’s Kaili Blues (2015), one of the most precocious debuts of recent years, featured a forty-one-minute tracking shot that transformed the film into a waking dream, mingling past and present, scrambling cause and effect. This follow-up, made on a bigger budget and with movie stars (Tang Wei, Sylvia Chang), boasts an even more staggering feat: Its second half consists of an hour-long, gravity-defying 3-D shot, a wholly transporting cinematic approximation of a dream state. Bi is unafraid to show his influences—there are traces here of Wong Kar-wai, Andrei Tarkovsky, and David Lynch, whose Mulholland Drive (2001) is a useful key in decoding this movie of mirrored halves. In a landscape where staid realism dominates, Bi’s attempts to refine the filmic vocabulary of dreams and memories are truly exciting, as is his apparent conviction that whole new realms of cinema are possible in making the immaterial material.

The Seventy-First Cannes Film Festival was held May 8 through 19.