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Cannes 2016 - Week 2 Report: Part 2

Our man on the croisette reports from the final three days of this year's festival.




Words by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)



On the last Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the Cannes Film Festival, you could tell that people were starting to get tired. Many journalists had gone home. In screenings, you could see the silhouettes of heads droop forward or towards a shoulder. During a screening of Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, one young man sitting down the row from me let out a tremendous groan. I initially thought it was a reaction to the film’s most mind-numbingly irritating scene, but he was actually asleep, mouth agape. Even the sustained primordial grunt projected from the depths of his lungs didn’t rouse him from his fitful slumber. To help me combat the drowsiness that my lack of sleep and proper nutrition had caused, I downed the Palais des Festivals’ complementary coffees like a fiend - espresso when I had a long screening so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom, lungo, like a true American, when I knew I wouldn’t be in a movie for too long. It was those coffees that saw me through seeing these last eight films from the 2016 Cannes Film Festival.


Cristian Mungiu, winner of the 2007 Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, was back at Cannes with his new film, Graduation (*****). In this Romanian film, Romeo (Adrian Titieni), a doctor and middle class father, has high hopes that his daughter, Eliza (Maria Drăguş) will be able to study in London after doing well in high school. Meanwhile, his marriage with his wife, Magda (Lia Bugnar), is falling apart; he has already begun a relationship with the slightly more energetic Sandra (Mălina Manovici), a single mother. One morning, soon after being dropped off at school, Eliza is attacked, and the culprit manages to flee. The crime upends the family’s plans and expectations as Eliza rethinks what she wants to do, leading her father to object and bend laws regarding standardised testing to try to help her. Mungiu is a great modern tragedian; Graduation, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days before it, moodily depicts how characters are thrust into distressing situations through no fault of their own, leaving them to learn how to adapt and cope with a new reality. What’s great about Graduation is that it manages to subtly show how the crime affects Eliza and Romeo differently, how it reveals their different visions of what’s important, and how those visions can be in direct conflict with one another. The film also brilliantly shows the ripple effect that such a crime produces; Eliza’s victimisation inspires her father to fix standardised testing on her behalf which then affects the lives of his bureaucrat friends and associates etc. A complex portrait of family life with an appropriate brooding style, Graduation proved to be one of Cannes’ best films.


One highly anticipated movie in competition this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (****), a trash gem of a film. In Refn’s neon nightmare, Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to L.A. in hopes of being a model. Almost immediately, she rises precipitously in the modelling world, a world filled with haughty photographers and plastic young women. Everyone in the modelling world recognises an “it” factor in Jesse, a product of her good looks and her paradoxically non-innocent naiveté. The Neon Demon starts to say something profound about the bizarre profession of modelling in its first half, but it slides into incomprehensibility as it progresses. But what a slide! The menacing techno feel of the film makes you feel like you’re at a great European nightclub. One sequence in the middle of the film features Jesse undergoing a nightmare rave transformation into a famous model - it’s a sequence that comes closer to the Star Gate scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) than anything I’ve ever seen before. But the mode is decidedly, wonderfully trashy. The Neon Demon can also be hilariously stilted; characters expressionlessly say the dumbest things (“I hear your parents are dead…that must be hard for you”) without the movie seeming to have the slightest clue. If Refn has never cracked a joke, or even a smile, in his entire life, I can’t say I would be surprised. In any case, The Neon Demon is worth seeing for its vapid beauty, its silly menace, and its endearing unironic techno cluelessness.


The late addition to the official selection was Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (****). From the director of A Separation (2011) and The Past (2013), this Iranian film tells the story of Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). When the couple’s apartment building begins to collapse, they temporarily move into an apartment whose proprietor is a mutual friend from the production of Death of a Salesman in which the two are actors. One night, Rana is mysteriously assaulted by an unknown assailant who thought Rana was the apartment’s previous tenant. The attack and the search for the culprit begins to put a strain on Emad’s and Rana’s relationship. With A Separation, Farhadi proved that he was one of world cinema’s most intensely humanist directors, partially because he gave voice to so many different characters with different motives and pasts. The Salesman juggles fewer characters than his previous films, making it more of a pure revenge drama than an ensemble meditation on subjectivity. Nevertheless, The Salesman still manages to feel very true in its representation of fidelity and the devastating process of the erosion of fidelity - when Emad and Rana begin to inexorably distance themselves emotionally from one another, we feel the pain and frustration. Ultimately, if The Salesman disappoints, it does so the same way that Almodovar’s Julieta disappointed: the two directors have made such dizzyingly exciting movies that when their newest works fall short of the mastery of their recent works, the films feel underwhelming as a result. Nevertheless The Salesman, like Julieta, ultimately stands proud on its own as a good movie.


One thing Cannes is famous for is the occasional post-screening booing. I had not heard any boos well into the second week and I was worried I wasn’t going to hear any at all. But then finally the moment came after the premiere of Paul Verhoeven’s scandalously fantastic new film, Elle (*****). People boo for two reasons: the film may actually simply be bad, or it may strike a resonant chord the viewer might have not wanted struck - a sign of a great movie. I believe people booed Elle for the second reason. In the film, Michèle (the formidably great Isabelle Huppert), a successful video-game executive with a past she’s quick to distance herself from, is the victim of a violent rape in her own home. Michèle manages to continue with her professional and social obligations as though the attack were only a minor inconvenience. Elle, though sexually violent, never feels exploitative - a quality that may arise from the fact that it is such a thoughtful movie. Huppert plays Michèle as a great enigma, a woman whose slightest gesture or turn of phrase may give a clue to the true nature of her murky motives or desires. Elle, perhaps more than any other movie in competition this year, allows us the joy of interpretation: was she attracted to her rapist? Did she know his identity all along? Or was the rape actually traumatic? Did she manage to transcend the trauma to live her successful life on her own terms? Did she manage to get revenge? These questions wouldn’t have simple answers in real life, and Elle has the intelligence to reflect this truth in not offering simple answers either (as tastefully as it possibly can). It’s a shocking, occasionally witty, deeply disturbing, courageous movie.


I hadn’t seen a film in competition that I didn’t like until Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World (**). Alas, the art-house world’s wunderkind wasn’t able to cram much wunder into his adaptation of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s play of the same name. Touting a great cast, It’s Only the End of the World recounts the homecoming of Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) to his suburban home to tell his dysfunctional family that he is terminally ill. Whether it is a weakness of Lagarce’s play, I cannot say, but at least in Dolan’s film, little is done to differentiate Louis’ sister (Léa Seydoux), his brother (Vincent Cassel), and his mother (Nathalie Baye); they all feel like the same character, jabbering and shrieking away at Louis about nothing. And when they talk, everything they say is so constantly on-the-nose; in one irritatingly long scene (Dolan doesn’t do much to break free from the theatricality of his source material), Antoine, Louis’s brother, tells Louis off in the same exact way (“You act superior!”) over and over and over - while Ulliel mugs the same whimpering puppy-dog eyes that are frozen onto his face for most of the film. Some of this could be interpreted as stylisation, but the tone is too smug and the symbolism too half-assed to indicate to me that this was the case. The film’s flashbacks have the power to move in a real way, but they are too brief and few-and-far-between the scenes of hot, loud air. By the end of the film, It’s Only the End of the World seems very puffed up with its own concept of profundity, but by the end, you’ll have stopped listening.


Dolan wasn’t the only one to make an underwhelming movie. I did not bet on the right horses in the Un Certain Regard race during the second half of the week. Both Stefano Mordini’s Pericle il Nero (**½) and The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (**) by Francisco Márquez and Andrea Testa ended up being disappointments. In Pericle il Nero, an Italian film, we follow Pericle, a low-ranking mob member whose job is to sodomise businessmen who betray his family. After one “hit” goes wrong, Pericle (Riccardo Scamarcio) has to lie low, and while lying low he meets and begins living with Anastasia (Marina Foïs). A movie whose best moments are interesting reflections on the idea of loneliness, Pericle il nero lacks a real centre of gravity that keeps the film’s unorganised story together, and Pericle’s relationship with Anastasia feels far fetched from the start.


The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis, from Argentina, deals with a man who, while living under that country’s former junta rule, is given the unenviable task of warning two strangers that they may be arrested. The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis simply has a paucity of ideas. Though the film isn’t very long, a disproportionate amount of the screen time is dedicated to Francisco Sanctis (Diego Veláquez) walking worriedly around a totally empty Buenos Aires. Every now and then he encounters an associate or someone with whom he can discuss his mission, but those scenes aren’t interesting enough to justify the long boring bouts of Sanctis pacing about the city.


In a special out of competition screening, Albert Serra and legendary actor Jean-Pierre Léaud (Antoine Doinel from Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) presented their new film, The Death of Louis XIV (****½). A strange, languid period piece, the film depicts in detail the slow painful death of the French monarch from gangrene, whose bed is surrounded by noblemen, advisors, and doctors as they poke at him, insist he eat some breakfast, and fool themselves at any little sign that might be interpreted as an improvement in health. Serra’s vision of royalty and the effect it produces is absolutely fascinating. As the king, the blinking, flat-mouthed Léaud looks like a giant baby in his frilly regalia - and he’s often treated as such by his court: when he manages to take a few bites of his dinner early on in the film, a roomful of people claps and encourages him. Though the film is long and takes place almost entirely in one room, Serra uses countless variations on moments like these to make a dazzling slow burn of a film on the idea of royalty. The absurdity of the concept isn’t lost on the director - though not a comedy, The Death of Louis XIV contains a few truly funny moments, and the film’s last line is just about as perfect as Some Like It Hot’s “nobody’s perfect!” It’s a great movie worth seeking out.

Before finishing the discussion, there was one trend among the art-house films I’d like to draw attention to. In many films from the official selection, women characters were attacked and/or aggressed (sexually or otherwise). The list of films in which such moments occur include Slack Bay, The Handmaiden, The Unknown Girl, Graduation, The Neon Demon, The Salesman and Elle. I think these movies all smartly kept this violence from being exploitative (with the possible exception of The Neon Demon). In The Handmaiden, The Unknown Girl, Graduation and The Salesman, the worst is even kept off screen. I think the intelligence with which these films approach this delicate issue indicates that contemporary art filmmakers do care about women characters - it seems the violence is less exploitative than it is revelatory of ideological inequalities between men and women. Having said this, I think this is a trend that we should regard with a certain degree of mistrust. While I hope movies continue to be as brave as Elle, I also hope we see more characters like Star from Arnold’s American Honey, who live on their own terms, no matter how cast aside they are within the pecking order of their own culture.

On a lighter note, I’d like to give a shout-out to two first-time filmmakers who had short films that were shown as part of Cannes’ Short Film Corner. The first was the German filmmaking team of Cord Schmidt's and Korbinian Richter's Schnurlos Verschwunden, about a Skype business call gone horribly wrong; the second was Australian director Carey Ryan’s silent dance film Empathy Is the Devil. Both films were witty, crisp, and stylish. Keep an eye out for them if you have 15 minutes to spare.

For movie-lovers, this year’s festival proved to be very fruitful; films from all categories and competitions struck a great balance between familiar and new, between restraint and extremes, between guarded optimism and nihilistic pessimism. The styles were stirring, the directorial voices were clear, and there are many among them that I cannot wait to see again.

For what it’s worth, these 10 films were my favorites.


Sieranevada
Graduation
Paterson
Elle
Toni Erdmann
Slack Bay
Staying Vertical
The Handmaiden
The Death of Louis XIV
Endless Poetry


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