London Cinemas And Acquisitions Coordinator Paul Ridd gives us an overview of the best films at the recent Cannes Film Festival.
Cannes got off to something of a shaky start this year, with new revelations over the conduct of Woody Allen coinciding with the premiere of his Café Society, alongside an astonishingly ill-advised rape joke from Elle star Laurent Lafitte at the opening ceremony. That Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved to be a thoughtful, considered and bizarrely funny rumination on abuse and its impact did not prevent its becoming something of a poster child for a festival that was preoccupied with depictions and discussions of sexual violence on screen.
In Laura Poitras’s Directors’ Fortnight entry Risk, Julian Assange speaks of a “feminist conspiracy” over two accusations of assault levelled against him. Later, a supporter at a London protest is shown brushing off the allegations while simultaneously admitting total ignorance as to their validity. Hinting at a kind of doublethink in the WikiLeaks camp, it’s a fascinating moment, and it set up a moral quandary that resonated throughout the festival.
The dilemma continued into Asghar Farhadi’s latest moral thriller, The Salesman, in which the hurt pride of a husband takes centre stage when his wife is assaulted and traumatised. Farhadi’s slow, puzzling film ended on a note of ambiguously cathartic violence in which the real victim was all but drowned out by the noise.
Less direct recriminations take place in Cristian Mungiu’s rather more complex but often remarkably similar Graduation, which follows a corrupt doctor’s efforts to use his contacts to ensure his daughter’s future after a horrific assault. As much a dissection of duplicity at every level of small-town Romanian society as it is a painful discourse on trauma, Mungiu’s beautifully minimal film deliberately marginalises the experience of its central victim, Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus, giving an incredible performance of deadened vulnerability) in order to show adult society collapsing under the weight of its own corruption.
Stifled victimhood of a less physical, more emotional variety is to be found in Xavier Dolan’s claustrophobic but astutely observed chamber piece It’s Only The End Of The World, starring the cream of French acting talent (Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel, Léa Seydoux and Nathalie Baye) as a family competing for attention over one hot afternoon. An almost silent performance from Gaspard Ulliel as a prodigal son returning with a tragic secret forms the emotional core of the film: his silence speaks volumes throughout the escalating conflict.
Warring families and long-held resentments also bubble over in Cristi Puiu’s disarmingly funny Sieranevada, which uses languorous, uninterrupted takes to depict the bickering of a vast Romanian family at a wake. Similarly fraught dynamics were to be seen in Joachim Lafosse’s heartbreaking divorce drama After Love, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s elegant character study After The Storm, and Pedro Almodóvar’s latest slice of gorgeousness, the fraught generational drama Julieta.
The counterpoint to these tales of violence, familial breakdown, crisis and trauma came from two of the more lauded films in the competition: Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan Paterson, and Maren Ade’s out-of-nowhere pop hit, the hilarious comedy of awkwardness Toni Erdmann.
Paterson plays up its own lack of conflict, focusing on the unambiguously harmonious relationship between Paterson (Adam Driver) and his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). A reflection on contentment, stillness and routine, the film is carried by Driver’s laconic portrayal of a bus driver with ambitions as a poet, escaping tweeness and inconsequence in the layers of his complex, often silent and expressive performance. Toni Erdmann, meanwhile, begins as a film about a father and daughter in crisis, but moves to a resolution of heartwarming optimism that is surprisingly moving for a film ostensibly about an embarrassing dad.
Pure silliness was to be found in the prospect of Gérard Depardieu rapping in the terribly well-meaning culture-clash comedy Tour De France, Kristen Stewart exchanging texts with a ghost in Olivier Assayas’s oddly hypnotic Personal Shopper, and much navel-gazing and atrocity porn in Sean Penn’s staggering The Last Face which featured the immortal line, “She’s been split from the vagina to the anus, but she’s still dancing!”
Straightforward genre thrills peaked with a pair of super-stylish horrors. Julia Ducournau’s remarkably assured and gory debut Raw, a film about teen cannibals, evoked the spirit of the new French extremism from Switchblade Romance to Martyrs, while Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent odyssey The Neon Demon ventured into the bankrupt world of LA high fashion with much synth, colour filtering and glossy gore. Hong-jin Na’s expressively weird possession horror The Wailing also dazzled, and Paul Schrader’s trash opus Dog Eat Dog featured a top-form Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe spiralling into enjoyable neo-noir nastiness. But the crowning slice of schlock was Sang-ho Yeon’s zombies-on-a train caper Train To Busan. A kinetic, hyper-violent and stylised romp, the film had something of the mad energy of 2011’s The Raid, moving at breakneck speed towards a magnificently overblown denouement.
In amongst the violence and victimisation, it was also refreshing to see a host of strong female characters in a year when the Best Actress category was the toughest competition to call. In Aquarius, director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s (Neighbouring Sounds) rousing new film, the wonderful Sonia Braga does battle with corrupt landlords to hold onto her beloved family home. A meditation on stoicism and resilience, the film moves to a finale of such stirring anger as to leave audiences breathless. In similarly righteous but more pessimistic mode, Brillante Mendoza’s bleak vision of urban crime and poverty, Ma’ Rosa, also relied on a moving central performance, in this case from Jaclyn Jose as the titular matriarch. Her intensity and occasional ferocity culminated in a closing shot on her expressive face that was one of the most haunting images in the festival.
Leading actresses Min-hee Kim and Tae Ri Kim brought a sensual energy to Chan-wook Park’s elegant, sexually charged mystery thriller The Handmaiden. A moving turn from Ruth Negga powered Jeff Nichols’s old-fashioned but nonetheless powerful historical drama Loving, while a performance of wild fury from Daphne Scoccia in the emotional prison romance Fiore was a highlight of Directors’ Fortnight.
The awards, of course, proved surprising and divisive come festival’s end, but consensus could be found over the consistently high standard of films on offer, many of which should find their way to UK shores in the coming months. An excellent line-up.