Cannes 2019: Parasites and Lighthouses

May 31, 2019
Our writer was on the ground at Cannes to report on what went down at the world cinema’s most prestigious event.

The Cannes Film Festival rolled out its red carpet once again. Elton John played piano at the after-party for Rocketman, the dazzling Dexter Fletcher-directed biopic of Elton’s early career. Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio brought some serious star power as they rocked up to promote Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. And in a moment not to be forgotten, Sand Van Roy – who previously accused French director Luc Besson of rape – unveiled a sizeable tattoo on her back that read: “Stop violence against women”.

Largely, though, it was the films that did the talking. This 72nd edition of the world’s most famous film festival had a pleasing balance of hot tickets, surprise gems and established auteurs doing what they do best. It also had a director-heavy jury, led by Mexican maestro Alejandro González Iñárritu, who – for us at least – chose the best film of the festival for the coveted Palme d’Or.

Two years after playing in competition with his Netflix title Okja, South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho returned with the brilliant Parasite.

The second Asian film in a row to take the top prize, after Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shopkeepers last year, ironically Bong’s film felt like a companion piece, both dealing with inequality through the prism of a poverty-stricken family. Led by Bong’s lucky charm of an actor Song Hang Ko, the innovative bunch worm their way into domestic positions in the household of a wealthy CEO (Lee Sun Kyun). Like a twisted take on Joseph Losey’s The Servant, this heady cocktail of black comedy, farce, satire and social commentary was masterfully handled by Bong.

Predictably, the jury’s decision was criticised on social media for not awarding the Golden Palm to French director Céline Sciamma, one of four female filmmakers in competition, for the much-admired Portrait of a Lady on Fire. An 18th Century-set lesbian love story, concerning a female painter (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel), it ultimately was handed the Best Screenplay prize. It means that New Zealand’s Jane Campion is still the only woman in history to ever claim the Palme d’Or (for The Piano).

At least history was made with actress-turned-filmmaker Mati Diop, who became the first black woman ever to direct a feature in Cannes’ official competition. Her film Atlantiques took the Grand Jury prize – the silver medal, effectively – for what proved to be an ambitious tale set in Senegal that blended hardcore realism with an unexpected supernatural element, as the story of a young woman  (Mame Bineta Sane) engaged to one man but in love with another unfolds. Clever, clever filmmaking.

Mati Diop

With Australian and New Zealand filmmakers absent from the official competition, it was also rather disappointing to see few homegrown actors and actresses on screen. At least there was an appearance by Damon Herriman – as the cult leader Charles Manson – in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Set in 1969, the year Manson inspired his acolytes to commit a series of brutal murders, the film is really (unsurprisingly for the pop-culture-loving Tarantino) a love-letter to movies and television. The film, of course, also features Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate.

Focusing on the relationship between fading actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Manson is more in the shadows in Tarantino’s film. The Adelaide-born Herriman, who makes a considerable impression in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, pitches up briefly as Manson, a role he also curiously plays in the forthcoming season of David Fincher’s serial killer drama Mindhunter. As for Tarantino’s ninth movie, it’s a slow-burn – word is he’s recutting it slightly – until it explodes in the final act. Well worth your time.

While the arrival of a Tarantino movie causing hysteria en masse amongst the press – critics were queuing for two hours to make it into the first screening – the real must-see movie of the festival was The Lighthouse. Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his much-loved The Witch, this black-and-white psychodrama set on an isolated island in the early 20th Century saw Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play out a compelling two-hander as two men tending a lighthouse slipping dangerously towards madness.

Shot in Academy Ratio, it’s the sort of film that shows, right from the very first shots as a boat ominously ploughs through the waves, the director is in absolute control. Scripted with a remarkable ear for period vernacular, it also boasts two remarkable performances. Pattinson adds another daring film to his impressive body-of-work with auteurs, after collaborations with Claire Denis and David Cronenberg, while Dafoe continues his rich vein of form following The Florida Project and At Eternity’s Gate.

Pain and Glory, the latest from Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar is a summation, on some level, of his own illustrious career. It sees Antonio Banderas – who took the Best Actor prize – play Salvador, a director who is suffering from physical ailments and a creative mental block. Plenty of pain, then, and not so much glory. But it’s a brilliantly humoured film, as Salvador contends with a retrospective of his work and voices from his past that still haunt him. Dealing in particular with his own feelings toward his mother, if Almodóvar could be accused of making the same film over and over, this time he’s got it near-perfect.

Another director who delivered exactly what you’d expect – and did it well – was Ken Loach. The 82-year-old director, having bucked the rumour that he was ready for retirement, returned with Sorry We Missed You, a devastating look at the gig economy every bit as powerful as his Palme d’Or-winning I, Daniel Blake. Kris Hitchen and Debbie Honeywood offered cast-iron turns as a married couple struggling to stay afloat in a world of zero-hours contracts and ‘franchisees’. While the film walked away empty-handed, it was yet another fine contribution to an all-round excellent Cannes.

Main Picture Credit: Taron Egerton and Elton John attend the “Rocketman” Photocall during the 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival on May 16, 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Serge Arnal/Paramount)

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