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Cannes 2016 - Week 1 Report

Our man in Cannes reports from the first week of the world's most prestigious film festival.




Words by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)



On Wednesday night, I saw Woody Allen, flanked by friends and security guards, shuffle through the halls of the Palais de Festival in Cannes. His presence, if anything, speaks to the power of the Cannes Film Festival, which opened with Allen’s Café Society on Wednesday night. If the festival can coerce one of the world’s most private public figures into waving at hordes of people on the red carpet, then it can do anything.

And it’s been anything goes at the festival so far: after five very long days, the films have run from social issue dramas to angry family reunions; from lyrical American road trips to bat-shit Chilean acid trips. The viewing has been consistently fascinating since the festival started, so here’s a look at some of what’s been shown so far.


Cannes is known for its glamour, so let’s start with the two most star-studded movies, both of which were screened as part of the official selection out of competition. The first was the aforementioned Café Society (***½), in which Bobby, a young man from New York (Jesse Eisenberg as the Allen stand-in, giving the same performance he gives in every movie I’ve seen him in), goes to work for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a big shot studio publicist in 1930s Hollywood. While working in Hollywood, Bobby meets and falls in love with Vonnie (Kristin Stewart), a secretary who happens to be in love with Phil. There’s nothing new here; it’s same ole’ Woody. Set in New York and Hollywood of the '30s, love is found, love is lost, love is sadly seen again in passing years later. There’s the same borscht-avec-existential-dread Allen has been pushing since Bananas (1972), and it just doesn’t feel fresh anymore. But if you like Woody Allen movies (and why wouldn’t you like Woody Allen movies?) then this one is good for a lark. The film will receive a US release in July.


By now, American audiences already have had a chance to see the mediocrity that is Money Monster (**). In Jodie Foster’s movie, an impoverished man, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), angry at the “system,” decides to take Lee Gates (George Clooney), a Jim Cramer-style investment show host, hostage on live TV, and it’s up to the host’s director (Julia Roberts) to negotiate his demands. Though a thriller about economics, Money Monster’s treatment of complex economic matters feels undercooked. And the economic factors that drove Kyle to commit terrorism on live TV are largely clichés: low paying job, dead mother, and a kid on the way. At one point, Kyle angrily says to Lee, “you believe in money, you don’t believe in people,” but Money Monster doesn’t really believe in people either. It’s a facile thriller with half-baked ideas that you might as well skip.


So far, the official selection films in competition for the Palme d’Or have been uniformly strong, and Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada (*****), the first such film to be screened, may be the strongest film of the festival so far. In the Romanian drama, Lary (Mimi Branescu), a middle-class doctor, goes to his recently deceased father’s memorial service at his mother’s apartment. Crammed into the small apartment are many friends and relatives of the deceased, each of whom harbours bitterness and vague anger, each for their own reasons. For almost the entire duration of this three-hour tour-de-force, Puiu never lets us leave the apartment, allowing us to gradually sort out who is related to whom and what the causes might be for this family’s malaise. You have to be patient with Sieranevada; after taking 45 minutes or so to set the scene, the film proves to have an energy that builds and intensifies. As the characters become more and more disgusted and distraught, they bound off one another like atomically charged particles, chaotically storming into separate rooms in which they face even more contentious exchanges to bound away from once more. Slowly but profoundly, we get a real sense as to who these characters are, and it becomes thrilling to see their angry ballet of discontent.


The first two French movies to play in competition were Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical (Rester Vertical ****½) and Bruno Dumont’s Slack Bay (Ma Loute ****½). Staying Vertical follows a struggling screenwriter (Damien Bonnard) as he detachedly goes through a series of bizarre sexual and familial relationships. In Slack Bay, a cannibalistic peasant family quietly “disappears” members of a frivolous set of upper-class tourists on the west coast of France as an inept obese detective tries to figure out what’s going on. These unbelievably heady movies serve as good companion pieces - both are steeped in French literary traditions. Staying Vertical plays like a nouveau roman, which is to say it is a sober, intellectually erotic examination of stylised relationships. Slack Bay plays like théâtre de l’absurde - it is a surreal, bawdy burlesque with undercurrents of manic despair. What’s great about these thoroughly Gallic movies is that they have bottomless bags of surreal tricks at their disposal to persistently shock and surprise the audience. Yet both films lack the slightest hint of gimmickry; they feel very real and very urgent. They’d make great companion pieces.


British director Ken Loach, whose The Wind that Shakes the Barley won the Palme d’Or in 2006, goes back to his kitchen-sink-realism roots with I, Daniel Blake (***½). Loach’s earnest, socially conscious weepy follows the titular Daniel Blake, an elderly widower with a heart condition. His efforts to receive government benefits are often thwarted by a needlessly complicated and hostile bureaucracy. I, Daniel Blake angrily indicts a system that keeps Daniel and his friend Katie, a single mother of two, in a cycle of poverty. This is a message movie through-and-through, and its pressingly important message outshines some of the film’s obvious contrivances (Daniel’s and Katie’s friendship, while heartwarming, never quite feels believable).


One of the hottest in-competition tickets (I had a hell of a time trying to get mine) at the Palais this year was Sunday’s American Honey (***½) from British director Andrea Arnold. Star (Sasha Lane), a young woman who takes care of two kids who aren’t hers, leaves her old life behind to join a rag-tag team of magazine salespeople. Eventually, she forms a forbidden romance with Jake (Shia LaBoeuf), the smarmy lead salesman of the team. The film’s first half is fantastic; we can see how the young salespeople feel sweepingly liberated by a life of drinking, smoking, and singing on the open road, but we can also see how close they are to the dangers of absolute destitution, a juxtaposition of ideas that elicits a strong emotional reaction to the film. American Honey is too long, unfortunately, and the second half dedicates too much time to the romance whose stakes feel somewhat low. If Arnold had buttressed the romance by carving out more thoroughly the great supporting cast she had at her disposal, American Honey may have been a masterpiece instead of simply a very good movie. It cannot be denied, however, that Arnold is a supreme stylist - the American Midwest has rarely looked this beautiful, and her handheld camera poetically champions young underprivileged women characters. In Arnold’s roving low angle shots of Star, we see a character held up as a queen amidst amber waves of grain, a character who would ordinarily be cast aside.

Other in competition titles that have screened include Chan Wook-Park’s The Handmaiden and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, both of which I will have the opportunity to see on Monday night.


The Un Certain Regard portion of the official selection opened with Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s politically charged drama, Clash (****). A brutal, intelligent film, Clash is set in Egypt right after the military took power from Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood party. In Diab’s film, police almost indiscriminately throw protesters and bystanders from the streets into the van. Clash may be the most appropriately titled film of the festival thus far: the police clash against Arab Spring protesters, the police clash against Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the arrested Muslim Brotherhood protesters clash against the less religious protesters, Muslim Brotherhood members clash among themselves - all as the conditions of the van become increasingly inhumane. The film skillfully uses the microcosm of this police van to reveal the deep and explosive strife between and within different factions of Egyptian society. Occasionally, the film indulges in Hollywood moments of forced sentimentality and staginess, but overall, Clash is an impressive, thoughtful movie that looks at a desperate political situation from all angles.


The festival’s Critics’ Week offered Albüm (***½) as one of its first films. The droll first feature from director Mehmet Can Mertoglu follows a couple who fake the woman’s pregnancy for the sake of the photos in the family album. Albüm has more than a few moments of truly inspired absurd comedy. It’s hard not to laugh when the couple hurls insults at a screaming baby that they are considering adopting. Unfortunately, the pacing of the film sags noticeably between such moments. But when Albüm works, it really works, something that certainly makes it worth a look.


The Director’s Fortnight opened with a film from an Italian master, Marco Bellocchio. Unfortunately, Bellocchio’s new film, Sweet Dreams (**), is disappointingly saccharine and sloppy. In the legendary director’s newest film, a man is hung up on the mysterious death of his mother, a childhood trauma that dogs him well into middle age. The film is maudlin and lacks organisation, and the garage-band sounding score is just terrible. There are some strong moments, but Sweet Dreams makes us long for the Bellocchio of Fists in the Pocket (1965), China Is Near (1967), or even something as recent as Vincere (2009).


A much better film from the fortnight was the Swiss animated movie, Ma Vie de Courgette (****½) from Claude Barras. This moving claymation feature tells the story of Icare, or Courgette (the French word for zucchini) as he would rather be called. After his abusive single mother passes away, the nine-year-old Courgette goes to live in an orphanage with other children from troubled backgrounds. After taking some time to fit in, Courgette forms strong, meaningful friendships with the other orphans. Though it can be dark, Ma Vie de Courgette is the kind of movie I would show to my nine-year-old if I were a parent. It doesn’t shy away from the fact that some children grow up under disturbing conditions, but it also recognises the resiliency of the child spirit in overcoming those conditions. The animation is great; Barras has a real knack for creating expressive eyes - eyes that are both tired from hardship but alive with hope.


And finally (for now), the great Alejandro Jodorowsky had a film in the Director’s Fortnight as well. His newest, Endless Poetry (****½), is part Amarcord (1973) part performance art. It is a stirring autobiographical kaleidoscope of love, doubt, happiness, and art. A young Alejandro Jodorowsky (played by the director’s son, Adan Jodorowsky) navigates a surreal world in search of truth and happiness. The film is always breathlessly deep and visually interesting, but Endless Poetry is most moving when Jodorowsky, playing himself as an old man, speaks wistfully with his younger self - just as the film is moving when the young Jodorowsky deals with his conservative parents (in one funny flourish, Jodorowsky’s mother, played by Pamela Flores, performs her lines exclusively as opera arias).

Jodorowsky spoke about the film after the screening. When he came out on stage, he was a normal man, just as tall as the moderator, hair just as grey. It occurred to me then that for the previous two hours and fifteen minutes, we had lived as Jodowsky, we had seen and been enveloped by the world as he sees it - an experience that only the movies can give us. Though much emphasis is placed on the business side of things here in the South of France, the Cannes Film Festival certainly celebrates those wonderful films that give us the precious experience of being someone else, of seeing with their eyes in the beautiful paradox that is the private yet public comfort of a movie theatre.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see through Jim Jarmusch’s eyes for a while.


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