It would be exaggerating to say that Cannes at the beginning of the last week was like a ghost town but the 71st episode of the world’s flashiest film festival began in unusually subdued fashion. The vast subterranean halls of the festival Palais where the industry event, the Marché Du Film, based in, was empty.
Everyone in Cannes likes to complain, even if they are secretly very glad to be there.
Reviewers were grumbling about new screening arrangements which meant that they couldn’t see or write about the films in advance of their official red carpet premieres. Well-heeled distributors expressed their disappointment that they were able to get tables in their favourite restaurants. In normal, busier circumstances, they would have had to book months in advance.
At least, the opening ceremony itself was a glittering affair. This was the first Cannes since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. The festival had chosen only three films in the main competition – Eva Husson’s ‘Girls Of The Sun’, Alice Rohrwacher’s ‘Lazaro Felice’ and Nadine Labaki’s ‘Capernaum’. To make up for the oversight, the main competition jury included five women on it and was chaired by Cate Blanchett. The statuesque Blanchett was joined by the much smaller Martin Scorsese to declare the event officially open.
Later in the week, Blanchett was to lead 82 women up the red carpet in a silent protest against the small number of female directors who have been chosen for the main competition over the event’s history: 82 as against 1,688 male directors, a scandalous ratio.
Asghar Farhadi’s opening night film, ‘Everybody Knows’, proved to be underwhelming. The Oscar-winning Iranian director was working in Spanish for the first time with Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem as his stars.
Scottish director Kevin Macdonald presented his heartbreaking new feature documentary, ‘Whitney’, about the life, triumphs and squalid death of Whitney Houston. In the film, Macdonald revealed that Houston had been the victim of sexual abuse as a child. The film has the same impact as Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, ‘Amy’.
One of the best films in competition was Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. Likely to be among the frontrunners for prizes, this is the story of a young Polish singer, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and of her very turbulent, decades-spanning love affair with composer, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Shot in black and white, the film takes us from post-war Poland, where Zula sings propagandistic folk songs, to Paris in the 1950s, where she blossoms forth as a Piaf-like chanteuse.
Often at Cannes, the world’s media and the industry delegates arrive at the beginning, stay until after the first weekend and then rush home again. Their exodus sucks out all the energy from the second half of the festival. Fremaux and his team tried to prevent the usual mass migration by programming the big English-language films during the second week. These included not just the new Star Wars movie, ‘Solo’ and David Robert Mitchell’s noirish drama ‘Under The Silver Lake’, starring Andrew Garfield.
Spike Lee was first up with ‘BlacKkKlansman’, about a black cop who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. This received a standing ovation. Lee then used his press conference to rail against a person currently resides in the White House (Donald Trump). After a blast of Spike Lee, it was time for the return of the prodigal son, Lars von Trier, the Danish director who had been a favourite in Cannes until his ill-advised remarks about Adolf Hitler at a press conference in 2011. This year, his ban was lifted and he turned up with his serial killer film, ‘The House That Jack Built’. True to form, the Von Trier film, which stars Matt Dillon as the homicidal maniac, completely divided audiences.
Venerable star Jane Fonda was in town to introduce the festival premiere of ‘Jane Fonda In Five Acts’, a new HBO-backed film which tells the story of her extraordinary life. In the documentary, Fonda speaks very frankly indeed about everything from how much vodka she drank before the nude scenes in Barbarella to her mother’s suicide. She deals in depth with her troubled relationship with her father Henry Fonda. We also learn that her exercise video, Jane Fonda’s Workout, was made to raise money for her political causes.
After its torpid start, this year’s Cannes festival became very much livelier. Foreign distributors were relieved to discover that Netflix and Amazon Studios hadn’t bought up everything. The Croisette, the festival’s main sea-front thoroughfare, was as crowded as ever. Another surprising trend was that the festival seemed awash in animation, not all of it aimed at kids. For example, screening out of competition was Polish animated feature, ‘Another Day Of Life’, based on the book by the celebrated Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński about his experiences in war-torn Angola in the mid-1970s.
As ever, it is impossible to second guess where the jury will award its main prizes. A relatively unheralded film, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s love triangle drama ‘Burning’, is currently leading most of the critics’ polls. Another Asian feature, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest family melodrama ‘Shoplifters’, was also rapturously received.
It is good to see that Godard’s ‘The Image Book’, formally the most radical film in the Cannes competition, has secured a release. Enrapturing and infuriating by turn, this is one of the director’s polemical film essays. It manages the unlikely feat of proclaiming the death of cinema in an extraordinarily cinematic way.
What is clear from all these films, however long they take to reach a cinema near you, is that the doom-mongers who claim that the festival is dying, are very wide of the mark. This year’s edition may have been slow to get going but it eventually served up the usual potent, Riviera mix of controversy, glamour and absurdity alongside some very fine movies.