Cannes seemed to re-assert its cultural authority this year with a spread of diverse films. Four women (Celine Sciamma, Justine Triet, Jessica Hausner and Mati Diop (who was also the first African woman) in competition being the most marked welcome development and a line-up of films which seemed much more engaged with the world around us, from inner city tensions (Les Miserables) and reframing gender histories (Portrait of A Woman on Fire) to the economic divide in contemporary society (Parasite) and director’s like Pedro Almodovar and Diao Yinan on superb form.
Pictured: Mati Diop, the first Black woman filmmaker to compete at Festival de Cannes
The two exceptions for me were predictably Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood - how could I have been seduced by the twittersphere into thinking this would be anything other than bloated self-indulgence? – and, disappointingly, The Dardenne Brothers who seemed out of their depth in dealing with Muslim radicalisation in Young Ahmed.
I watched seventeen of the twenty-one films in competition and twelve from across the Quinzaine/Un Certain Regard/Critics week/Cannes Classics sections. I also caught up with Hail Satan! in the market, which is an excellent doc on the increasing Christian fundamentalism of the bad old US of A (released in July), and watched the biggest home hit of 2019 at the Spanish box-office, I Can Quit Whenever I Want, which did in mainstream terms what Little Joe was trying to do in the arthouse.
Pictured: Bong Joon-Ho's Palm d'Or winning Parasite
Of all the films watched; I would have been happy to sit through Parasite and The Lighthouse again immediately, I didn’t want Almodovar’s Pain and Glory to end, Mati Diop’s Atlantiques was beguiling. I had to go to a meeting half way through Portrait of a Woman on Fire so still have that second half to look forward to. I walked out of Liberty, which was profoundly dull and Oh Mercy whose sub-Bernard Herrmann music was driving me crazy. Here’s my thoughts on some of the films which already have or I think will get UK release and their potential for indie exhibitors.
Deerskin, Dir: Quentin Dupieux (pictured above)
Jean Dujardin brings his affable star persona to this increasingly surreal, comical - think Buñuel meets Mr. Benn - cinematically violent story of a man possessed by a killer jacket. Dujardin plays it with the right degree of conviction and just enough twinkle in his eye to make the whole premise enjoyably believable. The prolific Adele Haenel becomes his partner in crime delivering a great Pulp Fiction editing gag to convince Dujardin of her filmmaking prowess. Comedy has difficulties crossing national borders but I think Deerskin has real potential with our audiences and comes in at a welcome 77 minutes.
Bull, Dir: Annie Silverstein
The rather unfortunate presence of Chloe Zhao’s acclaimed film of last year, The Rider, surrounds Bull, which occupies a similar milieu - the rough behind-the-scenes hinterland of American rodeos. It’s not derivative, just bad timing as Bull is an engaging drama focused on the relationship between a tearaway young white teenage girl Sheila (Yolanda Ross) and ageing Black one-time rodeo star, Abe (Rob Morgan). As with Zhao and Debra Granik, Silverstein gives us an all too rarely seen, generous view of working class and race relationships in contemporary America. Bull is dramatically more conventional than The Rider, which may well serve it better in the UK market, but no stars/critical distinction make it a challenge.
Bacurau, Dir: Kleber Mendonca Filho (pictured above)
Brazilian update of The Most Dangerous Game melds genre thrills of psychic western/horror with political parable. One of the many films in this year’s festival which threads real world concerns into its drama. Here, as with Parasite, it is the inequalities in society, but also Indigenous cultures as the playground - or rather hunting ground - of the rich. I first came across Filho in his short Vinil Verde which hinted at the unsettling abstractions to come and which is given enjoyable dramatic coherence in Bacurau. With good marketing of genre elements it has broader potential than his previous films.
Atlantiques, Dir: Mati Diop
A confident, impressive directorial debut from Mati Diop informed by but not overtly about African forced economic migration. Like her mentor Claire Denis she lets the film beautifully evolve in mystery and emotion. Being bought by Netflix does not bode well for UK theatrical prospects but, if we can get them to release it, Atlantiques would be excellent for New Release support.
Les Miserables, Dir: Ladj Ly
Contemporary update of Hugo’s novel in the Parisian neighbourhood that inspired it but definitely more Le Haine than musical. Les Miserables has an urgency and energy from the opening scenes filmed in the optimistic multicultural celebrations of France winning the 2018 World Cup. That optimism and multicultural celebration quickly gives way to day-to-day tensions on the estate, where heavy handed policing incites violence. Ly brings a deftness of dramatic touch whilst not pulling his punches at the end. The French Do the Right Thing will play strongly for indie/arthouse audiences.
A White White Day, Dir: Hylnur Palmason (pictured above)
Tantalisingly enigmatic Icelandic anti-thriller with the excellent Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson (Jar City) as a fractious retired policeman who increasingly believes his deceased wife may have had an affair. A great relationship with his grand-daughter serves as the emotional core of the film while the improbable, extreme Icelandic landscape is brilliantly used to reflect the film’s mood. A striking opening of seasons passing sets the tone. Less dramatically direct than Rams or Woman at War, A White White Day is a distinctive film with the potential of Jar City and Of Horses and Men.
Sorry We Missed You, Dir: Ken Loach
Ken Loach has been the most consistent documenter of the inequalities in British life and experiences of the working classes. He has re-hit his stride with another broadside at life in contemporary austerity, zero hour contract Britain. Rumour has it this is the second, following I, Daniel Blake, of a planned Newcastle trilogy. Long may he reign; however, I’m not entirely convinced by the lack of nuance but, in these times, who wants nuance? Should play well, but not sure zero hour contracts has the same broad appeal subject matter wise as I, Daniel Blake.
Little Joe, Dir: Jessica Hausner
Early echoes of Michael Crichton’s Coma and Cronenberg hinted at good prospects but, for me, Little Joe didn’t deliver on either the genre enjoyments of the former or the excesses of the latter. It feels like the English language didn’t work for the Austrian director whose previous films Lourdes and Hotel I loved. Little Joe was too glacial and at an abstract distance from the drama, as well as having some irritating plot details. However, Best Actress win for Emily Beecham as a modern-day Dr. Frankenstein might suggest it has greater appeal. Certainly interesting from the perspective of a female European director working in the UK.
Pain and Glory, Dir: Pedro Almodovar (pictured above)
All the signature elements of late period Almodovar - elegant camerawork, beautiful sets and people, resonant score - are in full display in this increasingly moving autobiographical film (so autobiographical that I gather they recreated his apartment to film in!) I found the first half held me at an emotional distance but, by the end, I wanted Pain and Glory to keep playing, such was the cumulative impact of weaving together different periods of his life. Antonio Banderas gives an excellent, award-winning performance. Should go down a storm at your local arthouse cinema.
The Wild Goose Lake, Dir: Diao Yinan
I loved the intense noir atmosphere (not seen so much rain since my last visit to Glasgow) of Yinan’s follow up to Black Coal, Thin Ice. Great set pieces infuse the mood with bursts of vibrant (a mass neon footed dance along to Boney M’s Rasputin) and violent (death by umbrella that will find its way into the next Tarantino) energy. There is a completely unnecessary rape scene which, frankly, if edited out would make The Wild Goose Lake a masterly and excellent genre contribution to contemporary Chinese cinema.
Vivarium, Dir: Lorcan Finnagan
This enjoyable ‘tale of the unexpected’ starts off brightly but slightly loses its way towards the final act. There is, however, much to enjoy including; the most demonic young child since Damien appeared in The Omen, and great performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots (as well as a barnstorming performance from Jonathan Aris as an eccentric estate agent), whose early dreams of parenthood soon turn into a surreal tragi/comic nightmare of a cuckoo in the nest. A Magritte style suburbia provides a unique setting. Distinctive, alternative filmmaking with style and panache which could appeal to our audiences.
The Lighthouse, Dir: Robert Eggers (pictured above)
A real blast of a film. Where Eggers’ The Witch was a slow burn lurking in the shadows, The Lighthouse is storm clouds on the horizon then full force gale with two exceptional performance from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison as 1890s American lighthouse keepers playing out a battle of wills on a grueling isolated watch. The macho psycho drama, like the weather, becomes increasingly unsettling and intense. Eggers’ attention to period detail is impeccable - the dialogue, the furniture, the lighthouse - but also visually the film looks and feels like it might have come direct from the early days of cinema. A Cannes highlight and a brilliant watch. Should play extremely well in indie cinemas, especially with the academy ratio and black & white as off-putting to the mainstream.
Parasite, Dir: Bong Joon-ho
Another quite brilliant highlight. Bong Joon-ho has crafted a delicious satire on class and wealth/poverty that is as entertaining as it is perceptive. The craft part - amongst many elements vying for praise - is the elegantly plotted inveigling of the poor family into the wealthy home, which is deftly and enjoyably done. Parasite goes about its satirical business with gusto, humour, unexpected twists and increasing violence. Bong Joon-ho is too generous a director to point the finger but, rather, leaves the audience in a glorious swirl of thrilling thoughtful cinematic brilliance. Promises to be big for the indie world.
Young Ahmed, Dir: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
The Dardenne Brothers’ trademark engrossing moral cinematic mazes hits a simplistic dead end with Young Ahmed. Their films usually subtly reveal the backstory of the characters as the film progresses, but here there is no attempt to explain how Ahmed, a previously ‘ordinary’ Muslim teenager, is radicalised beyond a caricature Iman and absent father, which makes the conclusion all the more frustratingly simplistic. I think it will come in for criticism for its liberal, wishful thinking. However, it may play well to liberal, wishful thinking audiences. Should certainly prompt discussion and those Brothers have solid arthouse form.
The Dead Don’t Die, Dir Jim Jarmusch (pictured above)
An entertaining if droll diversion through the zombie genre from Jarmusch. Lots to enjoy - Iggy Pop’s zombie craze for coffee, Tom Waits hermit wisdom, Tilda Swinton’s samurai sword swinging - for fans and hipsters, but I’m left longing for something more substantial from Jarmusch. Star names will attract audiences and, indeed, brand JJ has appeal for our core audience.
Fire Will Come, Dir: Oliver Laxe
Mimosas director delivers an authentic, atmospheric, earthy, elemental story of a tantalisingly out of reach redemption in the Galicia set Fire Will Come - great sense of place/characters and intense rain/fire sound design. It’s a small film but, like the upcoming release of Mark Jenkin’s Bait, Fire Will Come is a fresh cinematic voice and about a part of the world/characters rarely given space in the cinema. New release support anyone?
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Dir: Quentin Tarantino (pictured below)
Just awful – self-indulgent, over indulgent, flabby nonsense. How could I have been convinced by the twittersphere that this was going to be anything else? Yes, the first fifteen minutes were excellent, and then it was all downhill for the next 150. Brad Pitt’s Hawaiian shirt, however, was excellent. Tragically, will take a fortune.
The Whistlers, Dir: Corneliu Porumboiu
I was tired when I watched this and want to see it again as it felt a wholly original crime thriller from Police, Adjective, 12:08 East of Bucharest director Corneliu Porumboiu. Feels like it should have UK theatrical potential.
This Must be Heaven, Dir: Elia Suileman
Where I loved the combination of visual humour and politics in Divine Intervention I unfortunately found Suileman’s lugubrious presence repetitive in This Must Be Heaven. If you respond well to his deadpan demeanor then the film really works and is a typically acerbic look at being Palestinian in the modern world. His fresh approach to the subject matter could appeal more broadly than issue-based interest.
Los Olvidados, Dir: Luis Buñuel (pictured above)
On first appearance, Buñuel’s damning portrait of poverty and juvenile crime in the slums of Mexico city has more in common with the social/neo-realism of Rossellini than his early work with Dali or later films with Jean Claude Carriere. However, his surrealist touches give the grit of Los Olvidados a poetic and still confrontational edge. The restoration by the World Film Foundation looks fantastic.