Séamas McSwiney previews the delights on offer at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
If Art is a noble quest and Entertainment a cut-throat commercial competition, Le Festival de Cannes is one of the more attractive venues for these natural forces to meet, mate and procreate. For better and for worse, innovation ensues. Both ends of the film equation need each other and each innovation alters the balance of this duality. In former days, the tug-of-war arrangement was between the artists and the studios. Nowadays, with technological innovation, new heavy-hitting players, like Netflix and Amazon, enter the lucrative cinema game and the classic model of production-distribution-
Ever since the Lumière brothers sold the first ever cinema ticket in Paris in 1895, France’s film industry model has been savvily perfected to protect both art and commerce, to enhance creativity and optimise profit, but this also means the French resistance to modify the status quo and change the windows of exploitation is greatest. Cannes, the true crossroads of international cinema, is the ideal place for this discussion.
The eighteen films selected to compete for the Palme d’Or this year — from 1,930 hopefuls — as usual will raise questions, ranging from artistic merit to nepotism and politics, before and after their premieres, as to why they were chosen. The two Netflix films selected are Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Korean Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. The former tells a tale of a family reunion to celebrate the artistic work of the father. It stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen, while Okja tells a tale of a young Korean girl’s struggle to stop a powerful, multi-national company from kidnapping her best friend — a massive animal named Okja. Apart from its Korean cast, it stars Tilda Swinton, Jake Gylenhall, Paul Dano and others. In short, both casts seem algorithmically designed for google-search optimisation. In the end, the most important thing is that the films themselves amount to more than the sum of their strategic packaging parts.
Irish presence in the competition is again assured by Ed Guiney’s Element pictures and reinforced by the charm of Colin Farrell. As with the Cannes prize-winner, The Lobster (2015), also starring Colin Farrell, Element are the lead producer of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, a European coproduction set in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is a psychological thriller involving a troubled teenager’s manipulation of a brilliant surgeon. Farrell appears alongside Nicole Kidman in a film that promises to be anything but predictable. He also appears alongside Kidman in another competition film that promises to be entirely predictable. This is The Beguiled, directed by Sofia Coppola, an American Civil War drama, involving a fleeing Union soldier who finds haven in a prim girls’ boarding school, adapted from the novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan, but more famously known as a troublingly brilliant film from 1971 by Don Siegel, starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. Coppola has set the comparison bar high for herself, and discussion will surely also focus on the claim that it is not a remake but a new adaptation. Will the female cinematic gaze onto this sexually perverse tale justify the re-adaptation? If not, why is it in Cannes? Watch this space. It also stars Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning.
Other observations include the fact that of the four French films in competition, two are biopics, Jacques Doillon’s Rodin stars Vincent Lindon as the celebrated father of modern sculpture, which suggests a classic treatment for the story. An odder prospect is Michel Hazanavicius’ Le Redoutable about Jean-Luc Godard’s love affair with 17-year old actress Anne Wiazemsky on the set of La Chinoise (1967) and their subsequent marriage. Louis Garrel stars in the mimicry,and the early trailers seem to support Godard’s reaction to it all as being a “very, very, stupid idea.” After Hazanavicius’ clunky dud, The Search, in Cannes 2013, it’s hard to think of a director so opposite to Godard in artistic terms. But then irreverence is a mainstay of everything to do with JLG. So, let’s just wait and see, with managed pessimism.
Another famous French artist biopic opens the Un Certain Regard Official selection. It is Mathieu Amalric’s Barbara about one of France’s most loved singers, known simply by her first name. She is played by Jeanne Balibar, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Barbara, both in appearance and in her otherworldly mannerisms and style.
After many years of abandoned American projects, Scottish director Lynne Ramsey comes with You Were Never Really Here, a tale promising to revisit Ramsey’s dark edginess, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a war veteran who gets involved in saving a young girl from a sex-trafficking ring and where things get radically out of hand.
The third woman director in competition is Naomi Kawase, with Hikari. The Japanese director seems to have a lifetime subscription to Cannes for her trademark themes of ponderous intimacy wrapped in melancholy musings. Stimulatingly soothing for some, tediously boring for others.
Aus Dem Nichts
The German-Turkish director Fatih Akin will bring Aus Dem Nichts (In The Fade) a Hamburg-located revenge thriller, starring Diane Kruger in her first German-language role. Shot in Hamburg’s red-light district and based on a bombing incident, it promises a broad menu of pyrotechnics and action.
Returning regulars include Todd Haynes with Wonderstruck, telling two connected stories of children, one of a Midwestern boy and another of a little girl in New York from fifty years previously, allowing Haynes to further explore his penchant for preciously enhanced period detail.
Austrian director Michel Haneke will be hoping for a third Palme d’Or with his new French film Happy End. Set in Calais, it stars Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant and juxtaposes a bourgeois family’s life against the contemporary plight of refugees. Knowing the skill of Haneke’s scalpel, is there hope in the title or bitter irony?
In the Special Screenings section there is a documentary by Vanessa Redgrave, whose title Sea Sorrow suggests it probably goes directly to the bone on the subject.
Because Cannes 2017 is also the 70th, there are a number of anniversary events. Two of them involve TV series, justified by both the need to be modern and the fact that they are made by true-blue Cannes-tested cineastes. Jane Campion brings Top of the Lake, season 2, which gives Nicole Kidman yet another good reason to grace the red carpet and enhance its value. Expect fanfares for David Lynch, who will be in town with the very long awaited and wildly anticipated follow up to Twin Peaks.
In the same 70th anniversary bonus category Kristen Steward arrives with Come Swim, her 17-minute short film that evokes, in various guises, her exes and surely encapsulates whatever word currently means what zeitgeist used to mean.
A most poignant piece of programming will be the late Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames, an experimental film completed before his death in July 2016 and based on his photography. “It began with musings on epochal paintings and evolved with the photographs I had taken over the years,” said Kiarostami, “Each of these frames is in essence 4 minutes and 30 seconds of what I imagine to have transpired before and after a single image”. Often present in the official selection in Cannes, Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or for Taste of Cherry in 1997. A rounded artist, he was celebrated by many, and disputed by a few, for his modernity and lack of inhibition in embracing digital technology in his filmmaking and in his quest for innovation in expressing ideas and perception.
Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris