This year’s Cannes Film Festival initiated a degree of change. Twelve months ago, the world’s most famous movie marathon celebrated its 70th birthday – “a venerable age that might foster a degree of immobilism”, as a press release stated before the 71st edition of the festival started. To ward against such stagnation, the Cannes organisers looked to shake things up.
Press screenings now ran parallel with premieres, to ensure that filmmakers weren’t walking the red carpet knowing that their film was reviled by the world’s media. Selfies were banned on the famous Palais steps. And Cannes even set up a sexual harassment hotline in light of the sex scandals that have rocked the film industry over the past six months.
While these steps all showed varying degrees of enlightenment, this year’s Cannes was dogged by articles – largely from the US media – asking if the festival had lost its lustre. With just two American movies in the official competition – Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake – the talk was more about who hadn’t been selected than who had.
Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born remake, for example, was clearly being held back by the studio for a push in the Venice-Telluride-Toronto festival triumvirate that is now widely accepted as the curtain-raiser for the all-important awards season. Meanwhile, expected films – like Mike Leigh’s Peterloo or Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro – were rejected by the festival for a less established line-up of names.
Ironically, the jury – led by an imperious Cate Blanchett – selected a festival favourite director for the Palme d’Or. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has seen five of his films play in competition before, and he previously won the Jury prize for 2013’s Like Father, Like Son. His entry this year, Shoplifters, was a critical favourite, although no-one expected it to lift the top prize.
Set in Tokyo, the film plays like a modern-day Oliver Twist. Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) is a Fagin-like character who heads up a family living in dire poverty, making ends meet largely by stealing food from supermarkets. When he comes across a young girl (Miyu Sasaki) shivering alone one night, he takes her in – with the intention of training her up to steal. It’s just the beginning of a layered and moving story laced with surprises.
Taking the second place Grand Jury Prize, quite deservedly, was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman. Lee hadn’t played in Cannes competition for 27 years, since his interracial romance Jungle Fever, and there was a sense that this prize went some way to repair the snub when Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing was overlooked for the Palme d’Or in favour of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape back in 1989.
A story based on the life of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), it proved to be a wild blend of satire, blaxploitation and police procedural. Stallworth, a black rookie detective in Colorado Springs, infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan by posing on the phone as a prospective member, and then sending a white cop (Adam Driver) in his place. It’s a visceral piece, made more so when Lee blends in footage of the horrifying events of Charlottesville last year.
Taking the Jury Prize was Lebanese-born Nadine Labaki for her touching film Capernaüm. One of only three female directors in competition – a stick that was used repeatedly to beat the Cannes selection committee with – Labaki’s film thoroughly merited a prize. A Beirut-set tale about a young boy named Zain (Zain Alrafeea), it begins as he is seen in a courtroom under trial for a stabbing; he tells the judge he wants to sue his parents for the life he’s been born into.
In many ways, this courtroom sequence, which become a framing device for the film, is something of a red herring. The real drama comes in the flashbacks, as Zain leaves his violent home life; as in Shoplifters, he finds a surrogate family – an Ethiopian refugee mother and her infant. Scenes with Zain and the baby trundling through the shabby streets were mesmerising (although some critics branded it social realist pornography).
Another film that totally split critics was Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake, a comic neo-noir adventure that felt like a modern-day Inherent Vice, as Andrew Garfield’s stoner goes on a journey through Los Angeles’ nightlife to find a missing girl (Riley Keogh) that he all too briefly hooked up with. A film full of signs, symbols and deliberate detours, it’s a fabulous ride if you give into its bizarre and colourful energies.
One of the big events was the return of Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, after he was declared ‘persona non grata’ by the festival following his ill-advised joke about Nazi sympathies in the press conference for 2011’s Melancholia. He returned out of competition with The House That Jack Built, starring Matt Dillon as the eponymous character who charts a twelve-year odyssey in his life as a serial killer.
Originally meant as a TV series, the film caused shockwaves, with walk-outs at the premiere and general outrage at the violence. Indeed, in a year when the #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements were uppermost in people’s minds, a film with so much aggression towards women felt oddly out of place. That said, Von Trier is a filmmaker who simply can’t be ignored; Jack is full of the Dane’s typical mischief and mayhem.
Also, out of competition was Kevin Macdonald’s documentary Whitney, which provided some genuine shocks that far outstripped Von Trier’s faux ones. An authoritative portrait of doomed songstress Whitney Houston, it came with the revelations that Houston was sexually abused as a child by late singer Dee Dee Warwick, sister to Dionne Warwick. It proved to be one of the major news stories to come out of Cannes.
Away from the main competition, in other strands, there were also some excellent films to be found. French filmmakers were back in force this year, particularly in Director’s Fortnight. Romain Gavras’ The World Is Yours received a huge ovation. A tale of a low-level drug dealer François (Karim Leklou) who wants to go straight by opening a Mr. Freeze ice-pop franchise in North Africa, it was an intoxicating gangster comedy – a French Pulp Fiction.
Amongst the eye-catching performances were Isabelle Adjani, who plays François’s nightmare mother, who thinks nothing of cracking safes and stealing designer handbags from department stores. Vincent Cassel, as the simple-minded family friend caught up in the chaos, was also on fine form. And in a year when Eighties music seemed to play on every soundtrack in Cannes, the film’s use of Toto’s ‘Africa’ was utterly glorious.
Also thrilling was Marie Monge’s Treat Me Like Fire, a tale of addiction – both emotional and financial. Set in the underground Parisian gambling world, Tahar Rahim plays a roguish card shark who lures Stacy Martin’s waitress into his universe; at first its seductive – especially when they win – but it becomes clear that this blossoming love story is destined for disaster. A very impressive debut from Monge, who drew two committed performances from her stars.
Closing the festival was Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a film the director has been trying to get made for 25 years. This tale of a commercials director (Adam Driver) who encounters a man (Jonathan Pryce) who thinks he’s Cervantes’ chivalry-questing knight was predictably messy, and struggled under the weight of expectation. Still, nobody could deny Gilliam his moment after spending so long bringing this comic epic to the screen.