Cannes 2016

Ron Swanson on the best – and some of the worst– of this year’s festival.

I, Daniel Blake

As the sun sets on another Cannes Film Festival it’s a good time to reflect on what was an excellent year for cinephiles on the Croisette. To be honest, once the Official Competition lineup was announced, it certainly suggested an exciting festival. It had films from old favourites like the Dardenne brothers, Ken Loach and Pedro Almodovar competing against some of the brightest young filmmaking talent like Brillante Mendoza, Maren Ade and Kleber Mendonca Filho.

One of the consequences of an event like Cannes, where you’re forced to watch so many (putatively) important films in such a short period of time is that you can’t avoid seeing links between them – and that link this year was the sense that this was one of the greatest years for roles for, and performances by, women in the festival’s history. There were probably 10 or more performances that were worthy of intensive consideration for the festival’s Best Actress prize.

Unfortunately  the one that won, Jaclyn José’s turn as the titular character in Mendoza’s Ma’Rosa was probably not one of them. José is absolutely fine as the matriarch of a family business in the heart of Manila – the family business being a convenience store, with a sideline in selling meth. When her business is raided she finds herself in the teeth of police corruption, she and her addict husband tasked with sourcing the money to buy off the detectives who’ve arrested her. The film is fine, but aside from Mendoza’s trademark grubby, unglamorous camera work doesn’t offer anything new, although it may put some people off visiting Manila. The main issue with José’s win comes from the fact that she’s hardly in the middle section of the film, and even when on screen her performance lacks some of the depth of her rivals.

The performance that I felt was the best of the Competition was given by Sonia Braga in Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius. Braga plays a widowed music writer who is the last resident in a beachfront apartment block after all of her neighbours have sold to a property developer. As she comes under pressure from the developers, her former neighbours and her family you can see her resolve growing. It’s a fine film, elevated to near-greatness by a monumental performance, one of immense force and magnetism, a performance for the ages and one that could see Braga rewarded with a richly deserved Oscar nomination.

Sonia Braga in Aquarius
Sonia Braga in Aquarius

There’s an outstanding performance from Adele Haenel at the heart of the Dardennes’ La Fille Inconnue, but unfortunately the rest of the film marks a low point in these two storied filmmakers’ careers, it’s simply an otherwise unremarkable procedural drama with none of the cinematic verve or vitality that graced their greatest works, and lacking the heart-rending emotion of their more recent, patchier films such as Two Days One Night.

Meanwhile, Ruth Negga gives a performance of great compassion and grace in Jeff Nichols’ Loving, one of the few films in competition that could have some wide ranging and serious awards potential at next year’s ceremony. It’s the story of the Lovings, an interracial couple in 1960s Virginia, who are banished from the state when their marriage is reported to the authorities. Negga, alongside Joel Edgerton as her husband imbues her character with great dignity and infinite patience, but the film, for me, needed a little more righteous anger and passion. It’s a film about very well-mannered and patient people that could have used a little bit of temper.

The films of Pedro Almódóvar have never lacked that little spark of wickedness, and Julieta is no exception. It’s very much an example of the filmmaker working in a palette and genre in which he’s extremely comfortable, but after the misfire of I’m So Excited, I’m pleased to see him back somewhere near the top of his game. It’s the story of a woman (played at various times by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez), and her family, leading to the wilful disappearance of her daughter and the attempt to rebuild her life afterwards. Almódóvar used the work of Alice Munro as inspiration, but the film on screen is quintessentially his. Both Ugarte and Suarez are terrific, in a film that asks questions about the fundamental disposability of women in a society that doesn’t value them highly.

Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, which saw the director win the Jury Prize (3rd place prize, essentially) for the third time in her career, has a whole cast of characters that are painfully aware that society barely notices them, let alone values them highly. It’s the story of a group of teenagers and young adults in their early twenties who travel from state to state selling magazine subscriptions door to door. Arnold has assembled a largely unknown cast (aside from Shia Leboeuf and Riley Keough) and she, once more, inspires outstanding performances and a palpable sense of (dis)location. There’s an outstanding breakthrough turn at the film’s centre from Sasha Lane, as the most recent addition to the group, but the star turn comes from Robbie Ryan’s camera, which shoots the film in Arnold’s signature Academy ratio and does so with his customary excellence and delivers one of the best-shot films in many years.

Sasha Lane in American Honey
Sasha Lane in American Honey

Another beautifully shot film is Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden, a gorgeously filthy adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. This is Park back to his very best, having an inordinate amount of fun with the story, and showcasing a pair of terrific lead performances by Kim Min-Hee and Kim Tae Ri. There is a palpable confidence to Park’s work, as he manipulates the audience to his heart’s content, delivering a sexy, surprising and lugubrious thriller which will be a real crowd-pleaser if it gets the opportunity.

Kristen Stewart, for the second time in three years, delivers a knockout performance in an Olivier Assayas film. With Personal Shopper Assayas has made an accomplished film about grief, which he manipulated into a pretty scary, slightly kinky ghost story. Stewart plays an American in Paris, trying to receive a sign from her recently deceased twin brother while working as a personal shopper for one of the world’s biggest stars. What follows is normally very classy, and sometimes very corny, but both tendencies are somehow meshed into a compelling whole. Assayas remains one of the most brilliant, reliable and fascinating filmmaking voices, and in Stewart, he has found a worthy muse.

One final outstanding lead actress performance comes from Sandra Hüller in the rapturously received Toni Erdmann. The new film from German filmmaker Maren Ade is a staggeringly confident, well made comedy, which tackles all sorts of non-comedic subjects such as depression, grief and familial isolation. It’s the story of a successful consultant whose job is causing her a lot of stress. She has a strained relationship with her father, who takes almost nothing seriously, and who travels to Romania, unannounced, to see her after the death of his beloved dog. When he arrives, their relationship is not saved, mended or improved, so after saying goodbye, he decides to hang around, as a fake-buck toothed alter-ego (the title ‘character’) and drop in on his daughter’s life and cause chaos wherever possible, to try and shake her out of what he sees as her career-related depression.

For the first couple of hours, the film presents the characters as irreparably at odds. It’s only in the last 45 minutes, or so, when each have been stretched close to breaking point that a tumult of laughs is unleashed on the audience. Credit should go to Peter Simonischek, who plays the father, but everyone should bow their heads in the presence of Hüller, who confirms her status as a great actress of this, or any other era.

There were some great films in the competition that weren’t anchored by superb female lead performances, films such as Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada. Puiu’s film is a three hour family drama set almost entirely in one flat in Bucharest, as an extended family gather to remember their patriarch. Throughout the film, we see the small tensions, petty arguments, political disputes and age-old bitterness that are part of lots of families and their gatherings. What Puiu does is imbue the film with a rhythm and sense of purpose – I could have watched this family walk around this tiny flat opening and closing doors for hours longer. It’s a funny and powerful drama, one of two Romanian films that played as part of the competition.

Mimi Branescu and Catalina Moga in Sieranevada
Mimi Branescu and Catalina Moga in Sieranevada

The other was Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, which was a lot of people’s tip to win the Palme D’Or. Mungiu is a tremendous filmmaker, as shown by his last two efforts, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills. Graduation is clearly the work of an exceedingly skilful director, following a man and his family’s descent into a murky, amoral world of corruption as he attempts to give his daughter the best opportunity to pass her exams and claim a scholarship to an English university, thereby getting out of the town of Cluj. Cluj is presented as a hell-hole, a place which is almost impossible to escape cleanly, and as our protagonist exposes his daughter, makes her complicit in his barters for her benefit we see the huge moral weight on his shoulders. It’s a powerful concept and a powerful film, but occasionally Mungiu mixes things up with a Haneke-esque flourish – there’s a motif of someone throwing bricks through the main character’s windows, which is presented as a mystery like the videotapes in Hidden. These detracted from the central story for me, and were a real surprise, as Mungiu’s previous work shows him to be almost psychotically focused.

Another strong contender, throughout the festival, for the Palme D’Or was eventual winner I, Daniel Blake, the new film by Ken Loach, and for my money, the best of his career. It’s a polemic, a guttural screaming screed against the austerity measures carried out by the government of the UK, and their impacts on people who need state assistance. Stand-up comic Dave Johns is superb as Blake, a carpenter signed off work by a litany of doctors as he recuperates from a heart attack. In spite of such rigorous medical support, the Department of Work and Pensions assessors decide he should be back at work and cut his benefits. As he attempts to get the decision appealed, he starts to discover the true horrors of complacency, bureaucracy and malevolence at the heart of the benefits policy. It’s a superb film, an angry shout about injustice in the plainest terms. It should make audiences everywhere angry, guilty and sad, and as such it’s a terrific swansong for Loach, one of our most resilient and determined directors.

Something that was nowhere near any awards, I think, was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon. That’s only right and fair, because his previous film, Only God Forgives, was so bad that it should have disqualified him from any awards consideration anywhere in the world. However, his new film is much better; while still not being much good it is thoroughly entertaining, a kind of Giallo take on Hollywood, the fashion industry and the cannibalistic impulses of both. Not for the faint of heart, but a beautifully shot and soundtracked frenzy of masturbatory excess, and a thoroughly compelling one.

A couple of the highly touted films coming into competition (and indeed, two of the award-winning features) came from two of my favourite filmmakers – Xavier Dolan and Asghar Farhadi. The Farhadi film, The Salesman, won two awards – for Best Actor (Shahab Hosseini) and Best Screenplay for Farhadi himself. I was, however, pretty disappointed. I’ve come to expect peerless greatness from Farhadi, on the back of four outstanding films in a row (Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly, A Separation and The Past), but The Salesman doesn’t have the serrated edge of his best films. He works in a similar tone here, with good people put in positions they can scarcely believe due to circumstances largely beyond their control, but the characters are not well-enough drawn; the subplot involving a performance of Death of a Salesman doesn’t quite sit with the rest of the film and the emotionally charged ending doesn’t deliver. I hold him to a very high standard, but this misses by a considerable amount.

The same can be said for Juste La Fin Du Monde, which is not quite as bad as you’ve probably read it is. In fact, the film is exceptionally well made, it’s just very unpleasant to watch. Xavier Dolan shared the Grand Prix two years ago with Jean-Luc Godard for Mommy, this year he won it all to himself for my least favourite of his films. It’s an adaptation of a play about a Frenchman who travels home for the first time in a dozen years to tell his family about his illness and fairly imminent death. Dolan assembled a terrific cast, including Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux and Vincent Cassel, but made the conscious decision to shoot the film in extreme close-ups and have the dialogue be, essentially, screamed by each character in anger at someone else. It’s a sensory overload, and for surprisingly little pay-off. Dolan remains a filmmaker of unbridled talent, but this is likely to be one of his most divisive movies.

It’s hard to think of a less divisive film than Sean Penn’s The Last Face. It’s a film so earnestly and spectacularly misjudged that it demands more than a moment of consideration to try and decide whether it’s actually a parody. It is a film so pompous, so convinced of its own insight and worth that it seems to basically suggest that the ten years of almost constant civil war in Africa’s greatest cost was the fact that two exceedingly attractive westerners had an argument about the level of intervention needed, and, as such, stopped fucking. It’s a film that contains one of the worst South African accents ever put to film. By Charlize Theron. Who is South African. It’s a film that has a spectacularly misjudged love scene, a thrownaway HIV subplot which is used only to showcase that our hero doctor may have a bit of a past. It’s a film that believes in the profundity of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and a film that is so bad, you have to wonder if the relationship between director and lead actress ended as soon as she’d finished watching the damn thing. 

I’ve saved my favourite competition film until last. Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is the story of a poet/bus driver, played with great calmness and magnetism by Adam Driver. His character lives within a routine – every day, there are only tiny variations to it – and the audience is sucked into the rhythm of his life. It’s an oddly zen-like experience watching his interactions with the world, and it’s impossible not to be calmed and reassured by his character’s kindness and patience. It’s one of those films that can exist best in the bubble of a festival, but in the right context it’s both a breath of fresh air and a knock-out blast of love and affection. Like Loach, Jarmusch has, late in his career, made his best film.

Adam Driver in Paterson
Adam Driver in Paterson

Outside of the official competition, three films stood out – the first of which is David MacKenzie’s Hell or High Water, a western/crime thriller starring Jeff Bridges (so good it’s easy to forget Seventh Son, RIPD et al), Chris Pine and Ben Foster. There’s nothing surprising or new here, just an exceedingly entertaining and well-made thriller.

Hong Jin-na’s follow up to The Yellow Sea, Goksung (The Wailing)is like nothing else I’ve seen in a long time: a horror film meets a bloodily violent police procedural meets a family comedy. It’s highly disturbing and hugely funny, and thrilling throughout. I think the best way to describe it is as The Host, crossed with Mother (no better influence than Bong Joon-Ho, after all), crossed with Ringu and sprinkled with a bit of Home Alone. It’s extraordinary, and in a very special way.

As for the best film there – well step forward, Hirokazu Kore-eda, who once again is painting on the canvas of a family drama with After the Storm, and once more delivers a film of great humanity, lovely understated laughs, palpable pain and enormous emotional weight. There’s simply no filmmaker anywhere in the world as prolific, great and consistent as Kore-eda right now, and long may this streak of success continue. After the Storm is a film that once again shows his mastery of the small moments that make up a family’s entire history, seemingly. It’s tempting to call his work ‘minor’ masterpieces, but in actuality, he’ll be remembered as one of this generation’s greatest talents.

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