Ahead of the Palme d’Or award on Sunday, Séamas McSwiney checks out the goods (and bads) on offer at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
As the Cannes aristocrats, the Dardennes, Almodóvar and Loach, slip into ‘apparatchikery’ and variously deliver short on their promise and plans of quality, the newer competition blood come to the rescue with some unlikely and pleasant surprises. Toni Erdmann, the least likely of the three femmes cineastes in competition, is the early favourite (along with Jarmusch) among the audiences at the Grand Theatre Lumiere. She takes her time (2h 42min) in telling a shaggy-dog father-daughter tale of multiple misunderstandings that starts in Germany and mostly takes place in Bucharest, making it a de facto third Romanian film in competition. There, Ines is a somewhat ruthless management consultant downsizing a struggling oil company. The result is often bittersweet, often hilarious, as jokester Dad ambles into town, dons fake chops and wig, and poses as a corporate coach re-monikered as Toni Erdmann. He wants to save his only child from her seriousness and, with his muddling efforts, he saves the Cannes audiences from complete disappointment. Disappointments that included Andrea Arnold’s road-movie American Honey , normally a rigorous cineaste but, here, seemingly all at sea and wide-eyed like a teenager. Then from Olivier Assayas, with Personal Shopper, committing the error of thinking that filming his ambiguous muse, Kristen Stewart, is enough for an insightful art film involving Chanel product placement and upmarket mumblecoring. And from Jeff Nichols going all didactic and pulling punches in a ’50s America racial drama, Loving, a sensitive and challenging subject of miscegenation that called for much stronger treatment.
Along with Toni Erdmann, another unexpected pleasure was Aquarius, by Kleber Mendonça Filho from Brazil. Sonia Braga quickly became a hot tip for best actress —unless Aquarius gets a better prize, as there can only one gong per film. She is Clara, an elegant, feisty and beautiful 65 year-old, and she carries the film throughout. Former music critic and now a lone upper-middle-class widow who is being pressured to sell her character apartment in a classic Recife beachfront building, named Aquarius. Developers want to replace it with a luxury holiday apartment tower. Between family debates and underhand pressures on this last tenant to hold out, the film ends by becoming a metaphor for Brazil today. Though written and shot before the current crisis and the recent putsch-like ousting of Dilma, the film aptly describes and captures the parasites/oligarchs in the building/Brazil. Thus, unintentionally, Aquarius became a protest film, a weapon even, for saving Brazilian democracy on the red carpet in Cannes, an art film that duly became front-page news back home in the land of the telenovella.
Another sweet surprise was La Danseuse/The Dancer, a bio-pic by Stephanie Di Giusto, with strong Camera d’Or (for first films) potential. It takes liberties telling the heroic story of Loïe Fuller, a late 19th century Franco-American godmother of modern dance, taking us from the rustic rodeos in the mid west to the stage of the Paris Opera of the Belle Epoque. Who better to play her than actress-indie singer Soko, whose own determination-driven trajectory is not so far from Loïe’s. In Paris, Loïe mentors, to her cost in the end, a budding Isadora Duncan, played by none other than lovely Lily-Rose Depp, who does her mother, Vanessa Paradis, proud. Not to mention her dog-loving dad. It played in the Un Certain Regard, so no direct conflict of interest for Paradis, who is on the competition jury. In the same section, Soko reappears in a lead role in French military drama Voir du pays (The Stopover), made by sisters Delphine and Muriel Colin from Lorient in Brittany, an army town. The Stopover tells of a planeload of French soldiers, men and women, returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. They have three days in Cyprus on the return for debriefing and decompression after having harrowing battle experiences. Childhood friends from Lorient, Marine (Soko) and Aurore (Ariane Labed) deal with their and their fellow combatants varying levels of PTSD, but also with the hair-trigger machismo of their fellow, principally, male soldiers and the attentions of some local Cypriots. Hard questions are asked and give suitably open answers.
La Danseuse/The Dancer
There were also the usual and necessary stream of conferences and debates about the state of cinema, mostly the mysterious and conflicting economics provoked by digital distribution, though also now an annual series of panels about women in film, notably the key conference organised by the Swedish Film Institute, entitled 50:50 by 2020, based on the Swedish policy that by 2020, half of all public funding for film should go to women. Swedish Culture Minister, Alice Bah Kuhnke, invited French Culture Minister, Audrey Azoulay, to give the opening speech. Among others, the Irish are considering this affirmative action policy seriously. It’s unlikely that this will become a workable solution for cinema’s woes in particular (most films are not good, European cinema underperforms, etc.) or even for women’s causes in general. But, so far, some excellent female acting and some insightful storytelling has eased the dipping quality barometer in Cannes this year.
Swedish Culture Minister, Alice Bah Kuhnke, and French Culture Minister, Audrey Azoulay
Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris