Ruben Ostlund squares up

Séamas McSwiney wraps up his reports from Cannes 2017.

There was a refreshing touch of Cannes self-mockery in this year’s Palme d’Or, or at least it would be nice to think awarding top nod to a poke at art elitism was deliberate. Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s sweetly satirical The Square took gold and most would not argue the choice, for The Square delivered laughs, discomfort and insight, in equal measure.

Claes Bang plays Christian, the amiably debonair curator of a modern art museum in Stockholm. He’s a young Pierce Brosnan with a whiff of Cary Grant about him, as he shows an endearing capacity to bumble while wearing his elitist privilege casually. The two starting points to the intrigue are an in-house debate around a new art installation, a luminous square, in search of a media gimmick to augment the museum’s inclusive profile (and please donors) and a more personal one that involves a street scam, which sees Christian’s wallet and phone… plus his heirloom cufflinks, stolen through an impressively contrived drama that could even be considered street art for its ingenious execution. His strategy to recover his essential personal pieces interweaves with the preparation for the keynote art installation and his public duties in promoting it, leading to an almost sitcom spiral that finds him stumbling to ruination as the YouTube teaser goes viral for all the wrong reasons.

An Artistic Pluralist Hat (The Square)

In retrospect, the story itself has a well-constructed narrative direction, but at first reading it seems a mere sequence of anecdotes and unexpected episodes specifically designed to prick and prod at pretentiousness in the art world, delivering well-nuanced boho barbs as it saunters through the storyline.

Adding cosmopolitan flair to the setting, the cast also includes Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West; she a journalist who awkwardly beds the classy Christian, only to unleash a neo-feminist inquisition the following day when he appears to have forgotten her name; and West, an esoteric artist whose sympathetic personality masks a deep conviction of self-importance that unravels in the film’s over-the-top ‘performance art’ set piece, involving a human anthropoid, programmed to conclude an important black tie donors’ dinner, a set-up where Marx brothers jiggery-pokery meets the cruelty of Lars von Trier.

Though the inclusive sociology of Scandinavia brings modernity to a classic theme combining art, elitism and money, it carries extra critical voltage when contrasted to the same industrial scale, real-life phenomenon of hype, fawning enthusiasm and dubious bling that plays out annually, and personifies Cannes itself. Despite first appearances, The Square’s episodic narrative is more than the sum of its parts and a worthy winner in what was widely held to be a weak field.

The two other unexpected political guests at Le Festival this year were the Netflix debate and the extra, if not excessive, levels of security that was necessary to show that everything was being done to protect guests and stars alike. For attendees, with its ubiquitous metal detectors and electronic frisks, it was akin to boarding ten flights a day; still, remarkably, only a few screenings were delayed at the beginning of the festival and only one unattended bag panic incident shut down the Palais for an hour midway through.

The Netflix dilemma veered from implacable industry logic to an existential appeal for the soul of cinema. Jury President Pedro Almodóvar and member Will Smith locked horns at the opening jury press conference on the subject, after Cannes had already announced that no future internet media produced movies would be programmed in the future unless also assured of a French theatrical release. Other prestigious festivals rowed in with contrasting declarations and the debate is now fully on. Meanwhile, luckily Netflix competition entries Okja andThe Meyerowitz Stories didn’t really merit a prize, giving Pedro the arguments he needed.

Time to act (120 Beats Per Minute)

The Grand Prix or second prize went to Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute, the biopic of an organisation, the French Act Up association that fought, sometimes controversially, for a massive increase in research and investment to resolve the HIV-Aids crisis as it emerged in the 1980s. It captures well the urgency of the cause, giving detailed scientific debate and does not shy from evoking the internal debates that took place within Act Up regarding its methods and aims. Nor does it exclude the individual suffering of some, and bareback casualness of others, in pursuing their desires and romantic passions, thus offering a metaphor for the emphatic embrace of a cause that still stokes controversy. Just as Act Up in its time divided even those that shared its aims, the film also appears to have divided the jury. President Almodóvar did not deny that this film was his choice for the Palme. So democracy prevailed.

Irlandais (The Beguiled)

Speaking of democracy, on the gender politics scale, the now predicable comments were frequent throughout the festival regarding the low level of representation of women in the festival and in the industry at large. This can unfortunately create the critical collateral damage of anything by a woman being heaped with exaggerated praise to appease the legitimate protest. Thus, perhaps, Sofia Coppola won the best director for The Beguiled, a pale copy of the Don Siegel movie of the same name, with the claim that this imitation is from a feminist perspective. Gelded of the Siegel-Clint Eastwood raw predatory sexuality, even Colin Farrell is not half the bad man he could be. On the bright side, this can provide gender-in-film academics an opportunity to comment whether or not the Siegel’s macho character indictment and comeuppance from 1971 is not ultimately more feminist in its offerings and outcomes.

Nishelism (Jeune femme (Montparnasse Bienvenüe)

On the optimistic side, a higher proportion of young women filmmakers were in contention for the Camera d’Or, which rewards the best first film. Contenders here often find their way to the Competiion as their career rolls out. This year Jeune femme (Montparnassev Bienvenüe) by French director Léonor Serraille, won the Camera d’Or for a fractured parable of a 30-something woman on the verge of self-annihilation. It is a careening Parisian odyssey into the destitution of a young woman who shows herself to be unlikeable in the extreme, before impressing with the depth of her desire to be unshackled by an unloving mother, unsuitable lover and society at large.

Bloody kids (The Beguiled)

Nicole Kidman picked up a special 70th anniversary prize for the fact that she appeared in 4 red carpet offerings this year, two in competition (both alongside Colin Farrell), The Beguiled and Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and John Cameron Mitchell’s special screening punk sci-fi flick How to Talk to Girls at Parties. She also featured in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake TV series, which premiered in Cannes, sharing TV honours with David Lynch’s much admired new season of Twin Peaks.

Really hair (You Were Never Really Here)

Lanthimos’s Sacred Deer shared a screenwriting award with Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here, which also garnered Joaquin Phoenix the Best Actor Award. Diane Kruger got Best Actress for Fatih Akin’s In The Fade, her first role in her native German, where, in a workaday film, she controversially learns bomb-making skills.

MBV (Loveless)

Loveless, a Russian broken-family fable by Andrey Zvyagintsev, was a favourite with many from its first day outing, managed to only pick up the Jury Prize, a story that both indicts selfishness in today’s materialistic Russia while exemplifying a sense of community in the quest for a lost boy. If we were playing an art publicist in The Square, we might say that the lost boy is Russia, but we are not, so he probably isn’t.

As the intense schedule of screenings drifts into the past, the individual films glow greener like receding hills, just as next year’s already approaching —hopefully richer — menu does.


Séamas McSwiney is an Irish writer-producer based in Paris  

This year’s Cannes Festival takes place 17 – 28 May 2017

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