By David Sporn Entertainment & Arts Contributor
The 2016 Cannes Film Festival ended Sunday, May 22nd. Cannes is the glitziest, most distinguished, and most important film festival in the world. Past winners of the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest honor, include cinematic luminaries Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Luis Buñuel. In the Marché, the festival’s film market, producers strike multi-million dollar deals for production or international distribution rights. Cannes is a closed festival. All participants are industry insiders. It is a world of controlled anarchy and strict hierarchy. Inside the Palais des Festivals, the six story modernist convention center on the world famous palm-lined Promenade de la Croisette, along the Mediterranean, world famous filmmakers and A-list celebrities walk the red carpet of the Grand Théâtre Lumière in the trendiest Parisian couture. Others jostle for position. By the way, the brothers Louis and Auguste Lumière invented the cinematograph and directed the first real motion picture. There are five different levels of color-coded press passes. For the press, access to screenings, as well as staff courtesy, is dependent on color of their badge. Throughout the day and the night parties abound, champagne flows, and deals are finalized. Cannes is one of the largest film markets in the world.
This year there were twenty-one films in the official selection. These films vied for the Palme d’Or. Un Certain Regard, a competition that seeks to present “original and different” works, runs parallel to the official selection. This year Un Certain Regard exhibited eighteen films from twelve different countries including Finland, Israel, and Singapore.
The third competition is Cinéfondation created in 1998 to highlight the works of film school students. Eighteen films representing fifteen different countries were selected out of 2300 entries! Other parallel competitions include the International Critics’ Week and the Director’s Fortnight.
The International Critic’s Week was founded in 1961 by the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics. Critic’s Week exhibits director’s first or second feature films. Bernardo Bertolucci (“The Last Tango in Paris”) and Wong Kar-Wai (“Chungking Express”) were both recognized at Critic’s Week. The International Critic’s Week competition remains a launch pad for new and important filmmakers.
The Director’s Fortnight is an independent sidebar founded in 1969 by the French Director’s Guild. Interestingly, its founding was a reaction to the cancellation of Cannes in 1968 due to the student riots in Paris.
The Director’s Fortnight was launched in solidarity with Henri Langlois, the influential film archivist whose groundbreaking work at the Cinémathèque Française was a key influence on the French New Wave and Auteur Theory. His dismissal from the directorship of the Cinémathèque by de Gaulle’s Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, was one of many precipitating factors of the 1968 student movement. The most audacious and outré films are shown at the Director’s Fortnight.
There are also films shown out of competition. This usually includes big budget Hollywood productions screened at Cannes to generate hype. This year Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG”, Shane Black’s “The Nice Guys”, and Woody Allen’s “Café Society” were all shown out of competition.
Cannes also runs a sidebar of classic restorations. Some of this years highlights include William Friedkin’s underseen “Sorcerer” (1977), a remake of Henri George Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” (1953), Mario Bava’s “Planet of Vampires” (1965) which current Palme d’Or nominee Nicholas Winding Refn claims Ridley Scott ripped off for “Alien” (1979), and Kenji Mizoguchi’s oneiric masterpiece “Ugetsu Monogatari” (1953).
Additionally, each evening the festival will screen a movie outdoors at Cinéma de la Plage. Access to Cinéma de la Plage is free and open to the public. This year each film screening is preceded by a concert showcasing a classic Warner Brothers film score. A much-hyped restoration of Prince’s Purple Rain (1984) sadly has been canceled due to inclement weather.
Cannes Film Festival: A History
The Cannes Film Festival was not always the glitziest festival on the block. In the early 1930s the preeminent film festival in the world was The Venice Film Festival. At the time, Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini. While the Venice Film Festival began awarding prizes in 1934, the prizes were not chosen by a jury. Instead they were awarded by the president of the festival, Mussolini ally Luciano De Feo, in accordance with the National Institute For Educational Cinema. As the bond between Mussolini and Hitler strengthened, the winners of the Mussolini Cup, Venice’s highest honor, became more politicized. In 1938 Leni Riefenstahl won for her four-hour documentary “Olympia”. Italian and German films dominated the festival.
Reacting to this, French writer Philippe Erlanger proposed the creation of a new festival in 1937 – A festival that would rival Venice, and feature the works of French, English, and American filmmakers. Jean Zay, the French Minister of National Education, supported by the British and American film industries, created the Cannes Film Festival in 1939. Then war broke out. The first Cannes film festival was held seven years later in 1946.
The festival, held in the Casino de Cannes, exhibited such important films as David Lean’s “Brief Encounter” (1945) and Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” (1945). Every film in the official selection was awarded the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, the precursor to the Palme d’Or. Budgetary shortfalls in the postwar period led to the cancellation of the 1948 and 1951 festivals. The original Palais des Festivals was built in 1949 and celebrated with a particularly splashy festival in which Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” took the highest honors. If you haven’t seen “The Third Man”, you should!
Starting in 1953 the Cannes Jury became multinational, not just French as it had been since 1946. In 1955 the Palme d’Or was introduced. The palm design by jeweler Lucienne Lazon was based on the crest of the city. The first winner of the Palme d’Or was American Delbert Mann for “Marty” (1955). The fifties and sixties were a time of rapid growth for the festival, introducing the Marché du film and the parallel competitions.
As mentioned earlier, Cannes was canceled May 18th, 1968, nine days into the festival. In solidarity with Henri Langlois, who they believed to be unfairly dismissed from the Cinémathèque that he founded, Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and others attempted to halt the festival by hanging curtains over the screen in the Palais during the premiere of “Peppermint Frappé”. Although their protest was unsuccessful, by the next day enough filmmakers had withdrawn their films and enough jury members stepped down that the festival had no choice but to shut down.
In the early days of the film festival there was tendency to screen the same directors representing the same nations year after year. This was because at the time it was the countries that selected the films, much like the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. The original programmer of the Director’s Fortnight, Pierre-Henri Deleau, remembers, “Now, it’s ‘the Cannes Film Festival presents,’ but back then, it was ‘the USSR presents’ or ‘Great Britain presents’ — it was always the same directors coming from every country.”
This changed in 1972 when film critic Robert Fevre Le Bret was named festival president. He created two committees (there are now three) within the festival to decide which films would be selected.
The second major change that Le Bret introduced was to change the composition of the jury from academics and government officials to filmmakers and celebrities. This led to the Cannes’ aura of ‘Hollywood on the Mediterranean’.
Nevertheless, the festival is less about celebrity than pure cinema. The festival’s mission is, “to draw attention to and raise the profile of films with the aim of contributing towards the development of cinema, boosting the film industry worldwide and celebrating cinema at an international level.”
Over a hundred films are screened during the two weeks of Cannes. Though the Crown jewel of the Cannes Film Festival is the Official Selection, where new works of the world’s greatest directors (and sometimes lesser directors who don’t seem to belong) are screened for the first time. Let’s take a look at this year’s Official Selection.
The 2016 Official Selection
“American Honey” – Andrea Arnold (UK, US)
“American Honey” is the first American-set film for talented British helmer Andrea Arnold, one of the three female directors in the Official Selection. After her start as a dancer and television presenter in England, Arnold attended the AFI conservatory. Her short film “Wasp”, the story of a struggling single mother, won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Her films are penetrating studies of the lower classes, usually focused on gender dynamics.
Arnold’s most famous film is “Fishtank” (2009) starring Michael Fassbender. It is the story of an angry teenager who has a sexual relationship her mother’s boyfriend. Lead actress Katie Jarvis had no prior acting experience, which in Arnold’s hands creates a heightened sense of realism.
Arnold reuses this technique in her current film, “American Honey,” casting newcomer Sasha Lane in the lead role of Star opposite Shia LaBeouf (the toast of Cannes for his performance) and Riley Keough (“The Girlfriend Experience”), who happens to be Elvis Presley’s granddaughter.
“American Honey” relates the story of a teenage girl who joins a traveling magazine sales crew in Middle America. Early reviews have been mixed, praising the acting and the diegetic iPod mixes that lend the film the aura of a nouveau musical; however, many criticize the length and lack of plot.
Guy Lodge of Variety writes that “Be it in the grimy towers of an Essex council estate, the wind-whipped moors of Emily Brontë’s Yorkshire or, now, the truck stops and fleapit motels lining America’s highways, finding love in a hopeless place… is something of a recurring theme in the British director’s work.” He calls the film “Part dreamy millennial picaresque, part distorted tapestry of Americana and part exquisitely illustrated iTunes musical.” . Late in the film, a truck driver asks Star about her dreams of a better life. Barbara Scharres of RogerEbert.com interjects, “…my dream was for “American Honey” to be over.”
“Aquarius” – Kleber Mendonça Filho (Brazil)
Mendonça Filho began his career as a film critic before directing his first short in 1997. He directed his first feature “Neighboring Sounds” in 2013. Mendonça Filho has a recurring interest in the middle class and urban sprawl. “Neighboring Sounds” is in the neorealist tradition, a cinematic tradition that links all the way back to “Rome, Open City” exhibited at the first Cannes Film Festival (Developed in Italy, neorealist films are shot on location, use non-professional actors, and generally focus on the working classes).
The film is a mostly plotless story of the effect of the intrusion of a private security firm on a crime-ridden middle class neighborhood in Brazil. “Neighboring Sounds” is shot from the perspective of various members of the community and naturalistically explores the yin/yang oppression’s of crime and surveillance. Weaving together a dozen characters, Mendonça Filho uses expressive tracking shots in his 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a detailed sound design to create an elaborate socio-economic study.
Filho’s new film, “Aquarius” stars well-known Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, best known in the U.S. for Héctor Babenco’s “Kiss of The Spider Woman” (1985). In “Aquarius”, Braga plays an aging sexually frustrated music critic fighting a property company planning to demolish her elegant apartment.
While the film is ostensibly a very strong character study of this not all together likeable woman (as a lady of means she is acutely aware of class distinctions), Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian notes that on a macro-level it is a “metaphor for Brazil, with the cronyism, corruption and cynicism in its highest reaches.”
“Elle” – Paul Verhoeven (France)
Paul Verhoeven is one of my absolute favorite directors. Verhoeven is Dutch, and he holds masters degrees in mathematics and physics. He started his career in television; his breakthrough in the Netherlands came in 1969 with the TV movie “Floris”, which starred Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner). Rutger Hauer would become Verhoeven’s long time leading man, until their falling out in 1985. His international breakthrough was in 1973 with “Turkish Delight”, his second theatrically released film. The film starred Hauer as a passionate artist who enters into a destructive carnal relationship with a young woman from a socially conservative family. With its extremely explicit sex scenes, it has been compared to “The Last Tango in Paris”. It was extremely popular in the Netherlands, 26% of Dutch people saw it in the theater. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. “Soldier of Orange” about the Dutch resistance in World War 2 was released in 1979 increasing Verhoeven’s international fame.
He followed up with “Spetters” (1980) and “The Fourth Man” (1984). These two films pushed sex and violence to the limit allowed in the Netherlands. In 1985 Verhoeven relocated to Hollywood.
His first film was the under seen “Flesh & Blood” (1985), again starring Hauer. In Hollywood he earned a reputation as a big budget action director with three straight major hits – “Robocop” (1987), “Total Recall” (1990), and “Basic Instinct” (1992), cementing his status as an A-lister and a master of special effects.
His next film, “Showgirls”, the first ever widely released NC-17 film, was a commercial and critical failure. The film, a Las Vegas set send-up of “All About Eve” (1950), won a Razzie for worst film. Verhoeven was the first director to ever pick up his own Razzie.
After rebounding with “Starship Troopers” (1997) and “Hollow Man” (2000) he returned to the Netherlands. He released “Black Book”, his first Dutch film in over twenty years, in 2006. “Elle”, shot in France, is his first film since “Black Book”. “Elle” is a rape revenge film.
The critics’ response has been rapturous. Which is somewhat unsettling because they usually run about ten years behind Verhoeven. The Guardian writes “Elle” is “an outrageous black comedy, volatile and deadly.” Variety calls “Elle” “perhaps the greatest of Verhoeven’s storied career.” Sony, the home of all of his American films, has scooped up the North American rights.
“From the Land of the Moon” – Nicole Garcia (France)
This is Algerian-born Nicole Garcia’s third film in the Cannes Film Festival. Her first was “The Adversary” in 2002. “The Adversary” is a true crime story, based on the life of Jean-Claude Romand, who posed as a medical doctor for almost twenty years before murdering his family.
Garcia has been acting in cinema since the late 1960s. She is an actor’s director consistently eliciting compelling performances. Her newest, “From the Land of The Moon”, derives from a long tradition of very French tearjearkers. In this film a sickly and overly dramatic young woman (she follows “Wuthering Heights” a little too closely) enters into a loveless marriage, is sent away to a spa for treatment and relaxation, and of course starts an affair with a charismatic stranger.
Critics agree that the movie is sappy and overstated. Her film cannot be saved by strong continental filmmaking and “a performance of tremulous commitment” by French star Marion Cotillard (“Inception”). Jessica King of Variety slaps it with the ultimate put down for a European art film, writing ““From the Land of the Moon”… is as syrupy a confection as ever dripped from the pen of Nicholas Sparks.”
“Graduation” – Cristian Mungiu (Romania)
Mungiu won the Palme d’Or in 2007 for the film “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”. He directed his first feature in 2002. He is currently Romania’s most important filmmaker. “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” is the story of two students attempting to arrange an abortion in the waning years of the Ceausescu regime.
The film was hailed for its minimalism and rigorous formality, realistic yet willing to break the fourth wall. Mungiu stylistically utilized seamless long takes without ever becoming distractingly self-conscious. Variety notes that he has “an astonishing ear for natural dialogue.” “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” really is one of the best films to win Cannes in the twenty-first century. I mean it. It’s worth renting.
His new film, “Graduation”, tells the story of doctor who makes a corrupt deal with a local official in hopes of landing his daughter a scholarship to Cambridge. Jonathan Romney of Film Comment called it a “raining stones movie” in which a series of bad things happen to the characters no matter what choice they make.
While critics are mostly positive about the film, it is neither formally adventurous nor particularly narrative innovative. The film is yet another in a long line of stories examining moral compromise in what Romney calls “an endemically corrupt society.” He argues that the film’s problem is that Mungiu made the subtext of “social disillusionment” too overt.
“The Handmaiden” – Park Chan-Wook (South Korea)
Park Chan-Wook is one my favorite directors. He is arguably South Korea’s most famous director. In 2003 he won the Grand Prix (second prize) at Cannes for his nightmarish formalist and transgressive masterpiece: “Oldboy”.
Chan-Wook started his career as a critic and released his first feature the little seen “The Moon is… the Sun’s Dream” in 1992. He continued to work as a critic until his breakthrough film, “Joint Security Area” in 2000. “JSA” was the highest grossing film ever in South Korea.
The narrative concerns an incident in the demilitarized zone. “Joint Security Area” unfolds in “Rashoman” style flashbacks, finally revealing a truth that is at once simpler, more human, and more harrowing than anything the protagonist (a female military inspector) could imagine.
He followed “JSA” with the independently produced “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” (2002), the first of his vengeance trilogy. The film follows a deaf factory worker who is coerced to kidnap his wealthy boss’ daughter by his militantly leftist girlfriend. The accidental death of the young girl sets off a cycle of extreme violence. In particular an act of electrocution is one of the most realistically portrayed and emotionally taxing scenes I’ve ever witnessed in a movie.
“Oldboy”, released the next year was his international breakthrough. The story of man who is kidnapped and trapped in a room for fifteen years, “Oldboy” is astonishingly graphic in its violence and sex. Yet, as Roger Ebert notes, “”Oldboy” is a powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare.”
Park completed his vengeance trilogy with “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance”, a dark, somewhat comical film, which while another masterwork of technical craft, is in my opinion not as memorable as his earlier films.
In 2009 he released a gruesome yet lyrical film called “Thirst”, about a priest who becomes a carnally obsessed vampire after volunteering to test a vaccine for a deadly disease. Park described the film, very loosely based on Thérése Raquin by Émile Zola, as an illicit love story.
After directing a film in the United States with far less creative control than he was used to, Park returned to South Korea and to Cannes with the “Handmaiden”. Park has loosely adapted Sarah Waters popular lesbian themed Victorian set novel Fingersmith to Japanese occupied Korea. In the 1930’s a conman wants to marry a fragile heiress in order to steal her money. He convinces a female pickpocket to become her maid in order to win her confidence. What he doesn’t count on is that the two women develop a strong relationship.
Critics are extremely positive. Variety calls “The Handmaiden” “Sybaritic, cruel and luridly mesmerizing.” Much is made of the heiress’ sexually aberrant uncle and his collection of classic Japanese pornography. Critics suggest the character recalls the cruelty of the pinku eiga erotic films of the 1970’s.
Benjamin Lee, of The Guardian, writes “There’s explicit sex but more importantly, there’s longing, affection and intimacy.” I can’t wait. This was one of five Cannes films picked up by Amazon, so there’s a guaranteed stateside release. (By the way, see “Night Fishing”, his short shot on an iphone 4.)
I, Daniel Blake – Ken Loach (UK)
79 year old leftist social realist Ken Loach has been directing since the 1960s. He won the Palme d’Or in 2006 for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, about the Irish War for Independence, starring Cillian Murphy (“28 Days Later”). He has stated he wanted to explore how Irish independence was a social movement rather than a nationalist movement.
I can’t argue that’s its not a well made film but like everything he’s done it’s ideology first. Social realism is like caviar, you either like it or you don’t. Some people like it because you’re supposed to. Tim Luckhurst of The Times summed up “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” best, calling it a “poisonously anti-British corruption of the history of the war of Irish independence.” Luckhurst then compared Loach to Leni Riefenstahl, another talented director who had to fit all stories to an ideology. It’s called propaganda.
Loach is back at Cannes with “I, Daniel Blake” about a joiner who gets sick and needs state assistance. It seems the overwhelming critical view is, ‘well it’s a Ken Loach film’. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian calls it a “welfare state polemic.”
“It’s Only the End of The World” – Xavier Dolan (France)
That brings us to what may be the opposite of a social realist – French Canadian Xavier Dolan. A director who would use the entirety of Oasis’ ‘Wonderwall’ for a montage sequence.
Dolan is only 27 years old and this is second film in the Official Selection at Cannes, his fourth film in the festival overall! He was successful child actor, and he self-financed his first feature, “I Killed my Mother”, in 2009. While it’s puerile and could charitably be called uneven, it does show a striking talent.
His breakthrough was “Mommy” (Do we see an obsession here?) in 2014, which shared the jury prize with Godard’s playful 3D movie “Goodbye to Language”. “Mommy” is the very intense story of a single mother and her violent son. The film was shot in the rarely used and extremely oppressive 1:1 aspect ratio, a perfect square. It is oppressive because it is so narrow. You are stuck right there with the characters. There is no escape to the negative space at the sides of the frame. There is no negative space. This heightens the intensity.
Late in the film, in a moment of pure joy the aspect ratio widens to 1.85:1. The boy literally grabs onto the sides of the frame and pulls it open. This moment is both a crescendo and a release.
Dolan is back at Cannes with “It’s Only the End of The World” about a terminally ill writer who returns home after a long absence to announce his impending death to his family. The film based on an extremely talky play by Jean-Luc Lagarce, and has an all star cast including Gaspard Ulliel (so good in “Hannibal Rising” and “Saint Laurant”), Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux (who in a controversial move in 2014 shared the Palme d’Or with her director for the extremely sexually explicit “Blue is the Warmest Color” [I think now that time has passed, it should be stated that the center-piece sex scene really is porn], and Vincent Cassel (“Eastern Promises”).
Reviews have been mixed but generally not kind. It’s been observed that silences speak louder than the generally vacuous dialogue. Vanity Fair posits that “It’s Only the End of the World” is “the most disappointing film at Cannes.” Peter Bradshaw, on the other hand, writes, “The claustrophobia of family has rarely been so well- wrought as in [this] highly stylized…drama.”
“Julieta” – Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)
Pedro Almodóvar is the high priest of gay Spanish cinema. Almodóvar is self-taught because Franco closed the National School of Cinema in Madrid. After working for a telephone company for thirteen years he made his first film, “Pepi, Luci, Bom”, in 1980. The film was well known for its campiness and explicit sexuality, which became trademarks of his signature brand of filmmaking.
His major critical success came in 1989 with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” The film was inspired by ‘woman’s film’ directors like George Cukor, but far more explicit. The film is about a woman who becomes hysterical when her married boyfriend leaves her. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
The prolific director’s first Academy award win came in 1999 for “All About My Mother”. This film was a melodrama (an Almodóvar specialty) about a woman dealing with the death of her son. This is not to say that the film is not comedic, it is heavily occupied with sick sex jokes mainly revolving around transgenderism.
In 2009 he screened his third film in the Official Selection of the Cannes film festival – “Broken Embraces”. Another melodrama, the films has been commended for its use of music, and features an acclaimed turn from A-list Spanish actress Penelope Cruz (“Vanilla Sky”).
After a departure into psychological terror, Almodóvar returned to his roots in campy comedy with 2013’s “I’m So Excited”. The film, set almost entirely on an airplane, garnered mixed reviews.
Almodóvar returns to Cannes with “Julieta”, his twentieth feature, an adaptation of three Alice Munro stories. The film tells the story of “Julieta”, whose daughter runs away. As she searches for her daughter she begins to realize she doesn’t really know the girl, and worse their relationship may be meaningless.
Critics have been mixed in their reaction to this ‘woman’s film’. While there is general agreement that the film is well acted, well directed, and even elegant, Eric Kohn at Indiewire calls the film “conventional”, an unusual criticism for an Almodóvar joint. The Telegraph was more in line with the usual critical refrains for one of Almodóvar’s movies, calling it a “guilt-soaked pleasure”, nonetheless Peter Bradshaw asserting a fractured narrative, stamped “Julieta” “a minor work”.
“The Last Face” – Sean Penn (US)
Oh! To be a celebrity! Sean Penn as a director, even at his best, has never been in the league of the other directors in the Official Selection. Yet, he slides in on name recognition alone. He can make a good film – “The Pledge” (2001), “The Crossing Guard” (1995). If he sticks with hardboiled B material, he’s capable. When he tries harder (“Into the Wild”) he still can be decent. Now it seems that if he tries to make a grand statement film, like “Out of Africa” (1985) for the NGO years, he ends up pretentious and cloying, and falling flat on his face.
It seems like working with Terrance Malick may have been the worst thing that ever happened to him. And talking about Sean Penn, gee wiz, that’s saying a lot. It looks like the two main things he took away from his Malick experience (arguably one of cinema’s great poets) is that grass blowing in the wind is arty, and a lack of establishing shots is lyrical. Uh, no. If you are anything less than one of cinema’s great masters, you are just going to confuse the audience, and a confused audience is an angry audience. Just look at the critical reaction to this would be opus about aid workers in Africa starring Charlize Theron. First the film was savaged on Twitter:
“An extended Band Aid video, shoddily assembled to be screened at galas filled with the guilty elite sipping champagne while frowning at close-ups of tearful orphans.”
“I joined in the booing for my first time today for ‘The Last Face.’ It was so bad that I laughed [out] loud at times.”
“”THE LAST FACE”: A transcendently bad movie about aid workers and African suffering. But to its credit, the romance is actually worse.”
Then came the actual reviews.
From the Guardian:
“The warning signs arrive from the very first frame that we’re in for a rough ride, with text on-screen likening the “impossible brutality” of the conflict in Africa to that of the love between a man and a woman. “
“Nothing about the film comes close to authenticity and it’s largely down to Penn’s remarkably amateurish direction. He makes the odd stylistic choice to play with focus throughout, attaching a mistiness to certain shots that gives it the feel of a first-time student film.”
THEN THERE’S VARIETY:
“’The Last Face’ is Sean Penn’s version of an Angelina Jolie movie: It keeps advertising its compassion, yet it’s really a drama about two beautiful movie stars trying to save the world.”
“There are no establishing shots, so the handheld vérité stuff leaves the spatial dynamics of each setting a bit vague, and the whole film is stitched together by voiceover, with Wren and Miguel [the two main characters] pouring out their overly mournful thoughts to us.”
THIS IS A TOTAL BOMB.
“Loving” – Jeff Nichols (US)
Jeff Nichols is a real honest to goodness Southern Director. He’s from Little Rock, Arkansas. His first three movies “Shotgun Stories” (2007), “Take Shelter” (2011), and “Mud” (2012) were all terrific. Real Southern Grotesques that got all the little details right. You should run out and rent each and every one. Then he slipped. “Midnight Special” (2016) was supposed to be an homage to John Carpenter. It’s basically a loose remake of “Starman” (1984) with a kid instead of Jeff Bridges, except Nichols is no longer particularly interested in plot, only tone. He’s admitted as much.Well, it didn’t work, without a carefully coiled narrative, audience interest dies out, and the third act is extremely anticlimactic.
Now Nichols wants awards. So he’s gone and made a movie about the civil rights court case Loving v. Virginia. But it’s a movie without passion. Because he doesn’t care. It’s all just about tone. While the movie is a shoe-in for an Academy Award nomination because of February ‘s big racial kerfuffle, critical reaction was surprisingly mixed.
Vanity Fair claims that Loving’s “avoidance of sappiness combined with its “terseness and sparse characterizations” made it appear somewhat lacking in heft.” Nonetheless, Focus Features has snapped up the rights.
“Ma’ Rosa” – Brillante Mendoza (Philippines)
Brillante Mendoza is the greatest Filipino director. “Ma’ Rosa” is his third film to compete for the Palme d’Or. His films have neo-realist narratives but oneiric atmospheres. Director Quentin Tarantino can be counted among the fans of Mendoza’s “Kinatay” (2009), which won the directing prize at Cannes.
Tarantino applauded Mendoza’s unusual directing style. “Kinatay” is less interested in narrative and Hitchcockian suspense, than capturing the natural and chaotic human response to violence. Writing around major events can be called a Mendoza trademark.
On the other hand, Roger Ebert hated the film calling it worse than Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny.” Interestingly, in 2003 when “The Brown Bunny” (2003) premiered at Cannes, Ebert called it the worst film he had ever seen at the festival. In retaliation Vincent Gallo called Ebert “a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader”, and placed a voodoo hex on the critic. A recut of “The Brown Bunny” is worth seeing if you’re not offended by a graphic unsimulated blowjob.
Mendoza’s new film, “Ma’ Rosa”, is a vérité examination of extreme poverty and police corruption in the Philippines. It has garnered mixed to positive reviews. Mike D’Angelo of the AV Club calls it a rare misstep for Mendoza and complains about the muddy visuals, which, in his opinion, may be the least of the film’s problems. “Not that a sharper image would much improve this chaotic portrait of police corruption, which seeks to engender empathy for small-time drug dealers by demonstrating that the cops who arrest them are even worse.”
The general consensus is that the film’s chief problem is its failure to give the audience a reason to care about any of the grim happenings.
“The Neon Demon” – Nicholas Winding Refn (US)
Nicholas Winding Refn has once again divided the Cannes audiences. I’m sure he’s absolutely gleeful. There were boos, there were jeers, there were screams of profanity, there were walkouts, and even a smattering of applause. The Danish director’s last film at Cannes, “Only God Forgives” (2013), was widely booed and for good reason. The would-be Muay Thai epic was a nonsensical wallow in extreme depravity. He is capable of better. Remarkably, Refn is colorblind, so he splashes the frame with hot pink and fluorescent colors.
Discussing Refn’s newest, “The Neon Demon”, Cliff Martinez, who composed the film’s synth score, tantalizingly states, “the first half resembles a melodrama like “Valley of the Dolls”, and the second half is like the “Texas Chain Saw Massacre”.”
The film stars the very talented Elle Fanning as a young model. Newly arrived to Los Angeles, she discovers the other models are vampiric and prey on her youthful vitality. So, it looks like Refn has served up another outré transgression. His films at their best can be a shock to the system.
It looks like he’s already gotten the tabloids and the mainstream media all riled up. I’ve already seen headlines about LESBIAN NECROPHILIA! Not surprisingly critic opinion is divided. Over at the Hollywood Reporter, chief critic Todd McCarthey huffs that the Neon Demon is “a stultifyingly vapid, ponderously paced allegorical critique of the modeling world whose seethingly jealous inhabitants can’t wait to literally chew each other up and spit each other out” that will only appeal to “jaded scenesters”.
Across the pond, the Telegraph loved it. Their headline blares “The Neon Demon’s jaw dropping depravity leaves Cannes reeling.” They continue, “Refn just keeps pushing, and eventually lands on a sequence so jaw-dropping – almost certainly a sly, glossy-magazine refashioning of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s groundbreaking surrealist short “Un Chien Andalou” – that all you can do is howl or cheer.”
The Neon Demon hits theaters at the end of June courtesy of Amazon.
“Paterson” – Jim Jarmusch (US)
Jim Jarmusch is American independent cinema. The man almost single handedly created the downtown New York indie scene. Forget my other recommendations. (No, not really. Just bear with me) If you haven’t seen “The Third Man”. That’s still your first choice. Otherwise, run out and watch “Stranger Than Paradise” and “Mystery Train”. They’re that good. Really.
A little background. After being thrown out of Northwestern, Jarmusch attended Columbia, hoping to become a poet. He spent almost a year in France, mostly attending the Cinémathèque Française, where he learned the same way Godard and Truffaut did, back when they skipped school to watch films. The Cinémathèque would show the complete filmography of a director. Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray were favorites of the Cinémathèque. Jarmusch would later work as Ray’s assistant while attending Tisch. While Ray enjoyed Jarmusch’s independent streak, the school did not and refused to grant him a diploma.
While at NYU, Jarmusch became ensconced in the Downtown punk culture and became a regular at CBGB’s. Jarmusch’s first major film “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984) was also his critical breakthrough. It won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. The low budget black and white film is the story of two guys and girl as they travel down to Florida.
His films are instantly recognizable. Jarmusch is an auteur (A French theory I doubt he puts much stock in). His films vary from prison film, to western, to ghetto samurai film, to vampire film. They all share that ineffable Jarmusch deadpan.
His new film “Paterson” stars Adam Driver (“Star Wars: Episode VII”) as a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver named Paterson, who is a secret poet. The reviews all point to it being another super hip Jarmusch flick.
While no one is calling for it to get the Palme d’Or, they’re all pretty positive. The Guardian tags the film “A quiet delight”, which really sums up most Jarmusch films.
“Personal Shopper” – Olivier Assayas (France)
“Personal Shopper” was the first film to be booed at Cannes this year. At the press screening anyway. The international film press can be very obnoxious. The premiere screening, with industry professionals, and the usual rich folk in attendance, was supposedly much smoother, but all signs point to “Personal Shopper”, Olivier Assayas’ first horror film, being very divisive.
Assayas began his career writing for France’s most influential film journal, Cahier du Cinéma. This journal founded by André Bazin has a history of critics turned filmmakers including Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Claude Chabrol. Assayas started directing shorts in the late 1970s, but did not have a critical breakthrough until 1994’s “Cold Water” was accepted into Un Certain Regard. The rock music saturated film about two rebellious teenagers in love was a good fit for the trends of new 90’s world cinema.
Two years later he was back at Cannes with the well-received “Irma Vep” (1996) that examined the French film industry from the point of view of a Chinese actress played by Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung. Assayas’ films no matter the genre, be it action thriller (Asia Argento vehicle “Boarding Gate”, 2007), five and half hour bio-pic (“Carlos”, 2010) or youthful nostalgia (“Something in the Air”, 2012) always continue to explore the formal radicalism of the French New Wave.
As the New York Times writes, “Assayas has emerged as a mainstay of what might be called the middle generation of post-New Wave French auteurs — filmmakers who still labor in the shadow of a heroic band of ancient young rebels”. His new film, Personal Shopper, is his second straight film in the Official Selection, following “Clouds of Sils Maria”, a back stage drama.
The two films share a star – American Kristen Stewart. In “Personal Shopper”, Stewart plays the put-upon assistant of a demanding fashion designer. She is also a medium. The film follows her efforts to contact her dead brother.
As I said before, the film is divisive. Over at The Hollywood Reporter Todd McCarthey who hasn’t especially liked anything from the year’s festival, (he’s on record saying that Cannes has been weak this year), calls Personal Shopper an “aggravatingly empty would-be suspense piece [with] a vapid, undeveloped screenplay.” He continues, “…this is spooky hokum from start to finish, not the sort of thing art house followers have ever expected from the intellectually venturesome Assayas.”
On the other hand, Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian gives the film five stars. He gushes “With his reckless, audacious Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas has brought excitement to the festival.”
The Salesman – Asghar Farhadi (Iran)
Asghar Farhadi is one of Iran’s best and most important directors. He is also one of the few of the Iranian masters who actually shoots most of his films in Iran. Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami has long since abandoned shooting in Iran, filming his last two films in France and Japan respectively.
So far, unlike his compatriot Jafar Panahi, Farhadi has escaped both prison time and filmmaking bans. This is because of his subtlety with subtext. He did get in trouble for voicing support for those involved with the Green Revolution in 2009, but was luckily given a public condemnation rather than a filmmaking ban.
His first feature was the neorealist “Dancing in the Dust” in 2003. His breakthrough came with “About Elly” in 2013. The film concerning the disappearance of a young woman on a beach retreat was compared to Antonioni’s “L’Avventura”, which has a similar narrative. A film of true depth, “About Elly” shows just how much a filmmaker can get away with subtextually, when cloaking their film in genre trappings. “About Elly” won the Silver Bear at Venice.
His 2013 film “The Past” was his first film shot outside of Iran. His new film, “The Salesman”, is ostensibly a revenge film about a man searching Tehran for his wife’s attacker, but the early word from critics is that it’s much more than a thriller.
Over at Variety, Owen Gleiberman writes, “In “The Salesman,” the psychology of vengeance is almost metaphysical in its complexity.”
In a still highly positive review Deborah Young for the Hollywood Reporter compares it unfavorably to his earlier film “A Separation”, writing “…here the gears are not so hidden and a sense of contrived drama leads to some tedious sections. But all is forgiven when the final punches are delivered in a knock-out finale that leaves the viewer tense and breathless.”
Staying Vertical – Alain Guiraudie (France)
Alain Guiraudie has been on the edges of French cinema since directing his first film in 2001. His debut, “That Old Dream that Moves”, won Prix Jean Vigo, a prize for stylistically original first films. He claims Georges Bataille, the transgressive literary figure, as a major influence.
Bataille, a philosopher by trade, was best known for the pornographic 1928 novella “Story of the Eye”, about a teenage couple attempting to push the boundaries of perversity. Keanu Reeves is a well known fan of the book. Bataille was a major influence on post-structuralist film theorists Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, which may explain his influence on Guiraudie.
Guiraudie’s breakthrough was in 2013 with “Stranger by The Lake”, a thriller, which premiered in Un Certain Regard. Village Voice critic Melissa Anderson wrote regarding “Stranger by the Lake”, that Guiraudie’s “…attention to the anarchic pull of lust, simultaneously celebrated and reproved here, is sharper than ever.”
American writer Brett Easton Ellis was even more effusive, “Alain Guiraudie’s STRANGER BY THE LAKE [sic] is the most interesting, provocative and unsettling European movie to open in the US in over a year.” Guiraudie’s new film, “Staying Vertical” has not been anywhere near as well received.
Variety writes that ““Staying Vertical,” is a film that defies common sense in a way that audiences will not take kindly to.”
The Hollywood Reporter was a bit kinder, reporting that “Arthouse audiences who are only familiar with “Stranger” might initially be thrown, as that film’s suspense element and single location made for a much more compact and easily readable package. But more adventurous viewers will nonetheless be charmed by this delightful oddity”
“Sieranevada” – Cristi Puiu (Romania)
Of the two Romanian directors in this year’s selection – Christian Mungiu and Christi Puiu – Puiu is definitely the more stylistically adventurous. Puiu released his first film, “Stuff and Dough”, in 2001. It competed in the Cannes Director’s Fortnight. His second and third films, both screened at Cannes, are his first and second entries in what he expects to be a six film series called “Six Stories from Outside Bucharest”. The first is a dark comedy, the second a crime film. Both were critical darlings and commercial disappointments.
His films tend to be long. His newest, “Sieranevada”, is a few minutes shy of three hours. The film, about a family gathering after a terrorist attack, is not part of the fore mentioned series.
Critics have compared the film’s content to that of a stage play, yet Puiu’s formal playfulness enlivens what is at its core a conventional family funeral drama. Peter Bradshaw calls the film “claustrophobic, intense and alienated – often brilliant, sometimes slightly redundant.”
Peter Debruge of Variety says the film will reward patient viewers, a euphemism for saying that “the vast majority of moviegoers would be bored silly by being locked up in a Romanian apartment for three hours, watching as characters whose names and connections to one another are barely given shuffle from room to room, alternately avoiding and stirring trouble.”
Trailer for Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension”. An example of ‘New French Extremity.”
“Slack Bay” – Bruno Dumont (France)
Bruno Dumont is one of cinema’s ultimate misanthropes. His films may vary from realism to surrealism, but they always contain images of graphic violence and degradation, usually filmed in oppressive close-ups. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Dumont hates his audience. It is no wonder that he cites “Saló” director Pier Paolo Pasoloni as an influence. “Salo” may be the most punishingly sadistic film ever made.
Many critics group Dumont in a relatively new genre called New French Extremity, along with Gaspar Noé and François Ozon. Critic James Quandt, of Artforum describes New French Extremity as “Bava as much as Bataille, “Saló” no less than Sade [the New French Extremity directors] seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”
While hyperbolic this is a good description of this filmmaker’s intent. Dumont’s breakthrough film “Flandres” (2006) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. “Slack Bay” is his first film to compete for the Palme d’Or. It is also his second comedy after “Li’l Quinquin” (2014).
Many critics feel that “Slack Bay” is weird for weird’s sake. It is a loose lightly plotted film exploring class differences in a small town. Variety writes that the film is “…a nice alternative to the griminess of Dumont’s previous regional portraits, even if he has yet to perfect this loony new tone.”
Many critics find his tone just too self-consciously wacky. Talia Soghomonian of Collider complains “The cartoonish characters may seem endearing at first, but their idiosyncrasies soon become tiresome and all humor is lost.”
“Toni Erdmann” – Maren Ade (Germany)
“Toni Erdmann” has been tipped by many critics to be the favorite for the Palme d’Or. Maren Ade broke through to international audiences with her first professionally produced film, “Everyone Else”, in 2009. The film won the Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film is a break up movie, but not in the American style, it’s chasing truth, and thus catches all manner of unpleasant behavior.
The AV Club’s Mike D’Angelo beautifully describes Ade’s directing style, she “begins with a fairly simple dynamic and then proceeds to tease out every possible facet, taking her characters to truly unexpected places and ending on a note of disarming irresolution.” Her newest film “Toni Erdmann” follows that dynamic. The film is long, clocking in at over two and a half hours, but, nonetheless has been hailed as a vivid comedy.
Guy Lodge at Variety enthuses that the film is “A stunningly singular third feature by German writer-director Maren Ade that transports the intricately magnified human observation of her previous work to a rich, unexpected comic realm.”
The Hollywood Reporter wasn’t quite as effusive, writing “…here is the world’s first genuinely funny, 162-minute German comedy of embarrassment.”
“The Unknown Girl” – The Dardenne Brothers (Belgium)
It seems like the Dardenne Brothers may have finally missed. Since bursting onto the international film stage with “The Promise” (1996), The Dardenne Brothers have arguably become Belgium’s strongest and most famous filmmakers.
The Dardennes are cinemas most singular portrayers of working class naturalism. Their films “Rosetta” (1999) and “The Child” (2005) have both won the Palme d’Or. They tend to cast unknown actors to enhance expressive naturalism. In “Two Days, One Night” (2014) they cast Marion Cotillard. The film was hailed as naturalistic and humanistic.
They return to Cannes with “The Unknown Girl”, which critics deem a minor work and a rare misfire. Guy Lodge of Variety explains, it may be a minor work and not particularly surprising, but “what we get is largely exemplary: a simple but urgent objective threaded with needling observations of social imbalance, a camera that gazes with steady intent into story-bearing faces, and an especially riveting example of one in their gifted, toughly tranquil leading [ladies], actress Adèle Haenel.”
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian disagrees. He writes that “The Unknown Girl” is an, “odd, dramatically stilted and passionless quasi-procedural concerning a mysterious death; it depends on a series of unconvincing, and in fact borderline-preposterous, encounters and features a bafflingly inert performance from Adèle Haenel, whose usual spark appears to have been doused by self-consciousness.”
AND THE AWARDS GO TO…
“Mad Max” director Dr. George Miller led the 2016 Festival de Cannes Jury. His former leading man, Mel Gibson, presented the awards.
Palme d’Honneur – Jean-Pierre Léaud.
The honorary award was bestowed upon this 72 year old actor in recognition of his performance as the charismatic Antoine Doinel, the lead role in François Truffaut’s debut, “The 400 Blows” (1959). [It took them long enough!]
Screenplay – Asghar Farhadi “The Salesman”.
Actress – Jaclyn Jose “Ma’ Rosa”
This was one of the jury’s many surprise choices. Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s film seemed to be lost in the shuffle with very little critical support. Cannes juries tend to be quite independent, rarely following critical consensus. Nevertheless, this is a surprising nod considering the high caliber performances from better-known actresses Kristin Stewart and Isabelle Huppert. Jury member Mads Mikkelsen explains, “We found (Jaclyn Jose) to be a wonderful leading actress, a master of her skills.”
Actor – Shahab Hosseini “The Salesman”
Hosseini went through an emotional wringer in Farhadi’s intense thriller.
Director – (Tie) Olivier Assayas, “Personal Shopper”, and Cristian Mungiu, “Graduation”
Ties are not especially unusual at Cannes. While “Personal Shopper” was booed at its press screening, Assayas is a Cannes favorite and risky decisive films tend to do well with the Director’s honors.
[The next three prizes are for third, runner-up, and best picture]
Jury Prize: Andrea Arnold, “American Honey”
I had a feeling the jury prize was going either to this or “The Handmaiden”. “American Honey” is a big risky messy film. This is the kind of film the Jury prize was made for. “American Honey” is just the type of broad-spectrum effervescent filmmaking that makes a great consensus choice.
Grand Prix: Xavier Dolan, “It’s Only the End of the World”
Boos erupted in the theater when it was announced that the runner-up prize was going to Dolan’s heavily derided very talky homecoming story. Dolan claims that “It’s Only the End of the World” is his best film. Not many agree.
Palme d’Or: Ken Loach, “I, Daniel Blake”
Score one for social realism. Kidding. Call this the sentimental pick. Ken Loach is about to turn eighty. This may be his last film. He has been one of the world’s most consistent directors since bursting onto the international scene with “Kes” in 1969. While reviews were highly positive “I, Daniel Blake” traveled under the radar, because critics were distracted by its flashier brethren. Word from Cannes is that during the initial screening of “I, Daniel Blake” there was not a dry eye in the room.
Now that the awards show is over, the festival-goers, champagne flutes in hand, cross the Promenade de la Croisette, lie on the beach, board yachts, sip cocktails, and deliberate on the inanity of the jury’s decisions.