I, Ken Loach
Séamas McSwiney looks back over this year’s Cannes Film Festival and finds gold in them thar hills.
Alchemy is — dictionary.com tells us— “a form of chemistry and speculative philosophy practiced in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and concerned principally with discovering methods for transmuting baser metals into gold and with finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.” This becomes a facetiously accurate allegory when attempting to fathom the mysteries of cinema in general and Cannes and its jury in particular. One wonders why such a flamboyant discipline as alchemy ever became so discredited. Perhaps it was simply reborn and renamed: the pictures.
As the eternal Cannes triangulation of films selected for competition, out of the 1800 candidates, why this 20?; the Jury of 9 eminent talents, led by George Miller this year, where the promising whole became less than the sum of the parts; and, thirdly, the 4000 press and critics on the ground, who have seen the former two get it all wrong before. This scalene standoff will never be entirely resolved and this year it carried extra layers of plot points.
Amongst the razzle and dazzle, the caviar and champagne, Citizen Ken conquered the Croisette with a condemnation of working class woes in neo-Thatcherite England. A delightfully incongruous sight to see: between the militant fist raised, the snappy tux and the sparkling Palme d’Or he had just been awarded, he launched into what amounted to a social politics stump speech. Pure Ken Loach, for his cinema always has a political purpose. His new film, I, Daniel Blake was a surprise winner for many, though accepted by most.
It tells the troubling tale of a prickly 59-year old carpenter in Newcastle having difficulty juggling between doctor’s orders on one hand, having had a minor heart attack, and dealing with the programmed heartlessness of social services underlings on the other. They are clearly instructed to obstruct applicants for benefits so as to curb unemployment statistics. Dan Blake finds common cause with Katie, a single mother with two kids transposed from London and all at sea among the Geordies. It’s a strong, necessary and deserving film of the need to resist being ground down. It’s a film about the ills of austerity and about its victims. In his speech Citizen Ken spoke of a better world possible, one that is better than the food-bank shopping that is pitifully becoming more and more necessary for too many.
Throughout the 12 days of Cannes, early screener I, Daniel Blake wasn’t high on critics’ lists to take a top prize and, though most appreciate the work, some also feel that Loach promotes a singular perspective rather than a nuanced cinema, that he puts his politics before his art. In any case, for a man who said he made his last film two years ago, it was a spectacular return from retirement for the 79-year old auteur.
Neither alchemy nor cinema is an exact discipline. Erratic or random would seem the more appropriate description when we get to this year’s second prize, or the Grand Prix du Jury, which went to the youngest candidate, 27-year old Quebecois, Xavier Dolan (pictured below), with a French opus adapted from a theatre piece called It’s Only the End of the World. It’s a frantic family reunion around a returned young son who has come home announcing his imminent death.
It’s Only the Grand Prix du Jury
Hitting the second lowest score on Screen’s prestigious critics grid, it was derided by many since its screening early in the week. Even some usual Dolan fans felt it was too shouty and hysterical. However, it did garner some of the unconditional love Xavier craves. And this in the most important place possible – among a Jury that looks like an ideal dinner party, Mad Max’s Dad, George Miller, French cutting-edge auteur, Arnaud Desplechin, sassy Kirsten Dunst and alluring actress-helmer Valeria Golino, handsome cannibal Mads Mikkelsen, Hungary’s youthful father of Son of Saul, László Nemes, French actor-singer and proud Mum in Cannes, Vanessa Paradis, elegantly veiled Iranian producer Katayoon Shahabi, and the grumpily avuncular grandee, Donald Sutherland.
In Cannes, all of the major US and European trades publish daily news magazines, and some create their own juries tracking favourites for the completion as the festival rolls on at the rate of two competition films a day. This is Screen International’s closing Jury Grid, with comments that largely reflects the evolving vox pop exchanged in the Croisette trenches:
As other weaker films picked up prizes, notably Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, many were struck, if not shocked, by the hot tips that were forgotten, notably Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson and even the last day’s black-comedy crime cum social satire, Elle, by Paul Verhoeven, which turned into a perfectly boisterous way to conclude a selection that, inevitably, contained principally grim fare.
Double Your Sales
Asghar Farhadi (pictured above) returned and picked up two prizes, best actor and best screenplay, for a not-quite-up-to-his best Forushande/The Salesman, a post-earthquake tale whose tremors reverberate and imbalance an artsy couple playing in a Persian version of Arthur Miller’s play.
Also, just a tad less inspired than with previous Cannes favourites, Cristian Mungiu, who shared the Director’s prize with Assayas, returned with Bacalaureat, a father-daughter story, he a doctor and she on the cusp of a scholarship to Oxford. Unexpected events deftly reveal endemic day-to-day corruption in a provincial city in Romania.
Another fascinating analysis, this time of street level corruption, is demonstrated in Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa. Jaclyn Jose picked up best actress for playing the mother of four grown kids running a small store in a poor area of Manila and dealing a little meth on the side. A betrayal leads to a shakedown and rival cops seek to line their pockets by threatening the family with a long stretch inside. Just another day and night cataloguing the inevitability of this vice. And, this time, Mendoza’s ramshackle style captured perfectly his subject and story. And, while Jose gave a great performance as the acerbic matriarch, many would have preferred Sonia Braga in Aquarius, Sandra Huller in Toni Erdmann or, indeed, a special turn by Isabelle Huppert in Elle, where she takes her deadpan style Isabelle-ness, to a whole new level.
Michèle et un chat
Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (pictured above) will unfortunately be misunderstood, starting as it does with Michèle’s (Huppert) politically inappropriate response to a brutal rape she endures in the first minute of the film. She’s an extremely hard-nosed entrepreneur running a successful video games company. Her favourite register is sarcasm. She’s also a divorced mother with a sweet but inept son, a struggling ex-husband and a lubricious mother. There is also a very sinister childhood past with a dying dad in jail. But the whole thing is a hilarious social satire adapted from Philippe Djian’s novel Oh. It’s an absurdist self-parodying film about the French, adapted by an American, directed by a Dutchman, produced by a Tunisian (who also did Aquarius), that is almost Wildean in its caricatures, possibly inventing some brand new French clichés along the way. It’s not meant to be taken seriously; in fact, spontaneous (i.e. non-ironic) laughter peppered the entire early morning press screening. See it first, for if we are to get stuck on a one-note issue, we miss the almost masculine female phantasmagoria of this flick. Michèle is in control and she has no desire for things to be otherwise. One of the many interesting things that cropped up in the Elle press conference was when Verhoeven railed against the Hollywood scenaristic diktat that a character must change. Nonsense, he said, people stay the same (press conference and all Cannes videos at : http://www.festival-cannes.com/en/video).
Where is my prize?
In a strange way, as there was such consensus around Toni Erdmann (pictured above), it’s possibly better that it did not get some minor consolation prize like a shared director’s award. Sure-handed director Maren Ade, also the film’s producer and writer, takes her time (2h42) in telling a shaggy-dog father-daughter tale of multiple misunderstandings that starts in Germany and then 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 for her German bosses.
The result is often bittersweet, often hilarious, as jokester, music teacher Dad ambles into town, dons fake chops and wig, and poses as a life-style coach re-monikered as Toni Erdmann. Not unlike Ade’s own vater, she says. He wants to save his only child from her seriousness and, with his muddling efforts, he (and Ines) also provided the Cannes audiences with some of the biggest and most unexpected laughs in the festival.
So, for once the top gong could easily have gone to a woman and no tokenism would have been suspected. Maybe “the film that should have won the Palme” will give it even more momentum.
Print the legend. Alchemy producing marketing gold.
In any case, long live a cinema that provokes debate and controversy, for whatever reason, long live cultural diversity and —therefore— long live Cannes!
Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris
The 2016 Cannes Film Festival took place 11 – 22 May