Cannes Report

Ron Swanson watched a lot of films at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Here’s what he thought.
I’ve been coming to the Cannes Film Festival for nearly 10 years, and it would be fair to say that the 2017 vintage will probably not go down as a great year. That being the case, there were still a number of outstanding films on display. Here are 13 of the best.

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My favourite film of the festival was Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a worthy follow-up to Baker’s breakthrough indie-hit Tangerine. Like that film, Baker is working here with a cast made up largely of non-actors, and once again that proves a masterstroke. His canvas has moved from downtown LA to a poverty-riddled area of Florida in the shadow of Disney world, and this time around his lead characters are young children.

The film follows the adventures of Moonie, a young girl who lives with her (young and single) mum in a motel, but spends most of her days bumming around with her best friend Scooty (who lives downstairs). Knowing anything about the plot of the film would be a disadvantage when watching it, but it’s hardly the most important thing about the film.  What Baker deals in here are emotions, and he does so in grand fashion. The film boasts a career-best performance by Willem Dafoe, who plays off his inexperienced castmates with beautiful, measured restraint and an easy charisma.

Tangerine was a bold calling card for Baker’s talent, but The Florida Project more than delivers on that film’s promise. In a festival where lots of great directors delivered excellent movies that nevertheless failed to improve on what they had made before, Baker bucks that trend in fine fashion.

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One of those great directors is Andriy Zvyagintsev, whose Loveless would have been my choice to win the coveted Palme D’Or, and in fact won the (third place) Jury Prize. Zvyagintsev’s last film, Leviathan is one of the very best films of the century so far, but on a first watch Loveless doesn’t quite reach those heights.

Like Leviathan, this is an unflinching, brutal film that asks the question of how broken Russia and its people are. It’s a relentlessly downbeat film, which focuses on the disappearance of a young boy, whose parents are going through a remarkably vicious divorce. Loveless is a relentlessly bleak film, absent of the streak of (admittedly jet-black) humour that added some levity to Leviathan, but it delivers an airlessly powerful climax with extraordinary clarity.

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The actual winner of the Palme D’Or was Ruben Ostlund’s The Square, a thoroughly entertaining and hilarious comedy about the world of high art in Sweden, which doesn’t miss a beat when it breaks out of that world and turns its eye to class, race and sex. It’s a refreshing choice as in a festival of unremitting grimness, Ostlund is at least as interested in making his audience laugh as he is in making them think.

Ostlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, had a laser-like focus on the chinks in machismo that can lead to a full-blown crisis of masculinity, and that’s at least part of his target this time, too. The film is centred on the curator of Sweden’s foremost museum (a brilliant Claes Bang), and focuses on his response to being mugged, which happens while he’s preparing for a new exhibit to be installed. There’s a superb supporting performance by Elisabeth Moss, and a number of scenes and sequences that will be considered classics for years to come.

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Another well-received competition film was Ruben Campillo’s BPM, a moving, thrilling and sexy film about a group of AIDS activists in 1990s Paris, which won the Grand Prix (2nd place prize). Campillo’s probably best known as the co-writer of several Laurent Cantet films (including Palme D’Or winning The Class and this year’s The Workshop, which was one of the highlights of the Un Certain Regard programme).

Campillo’s film certainly has a fair amount in common with The Class, particularly during the scenes in which the Act Up group discuss their procedures and priorities, scenes of impassioned debate which have a beautifully loose and authentic feel. Where the film excels, however, is in its staging of the protests the group carry out; and in its framing of a love story between two of the group’s members as the key component in the second half of the film.

Campillo has made a superb film, one which has an enormous amount of love and affection for its characters, one which never allows the audience to lose sight of what the characters are fighting for – the normality for these characters outside the illness is one I’ve never seen essayed on screen before. Campillo has made a film which celebrates love and sex between gay men, and portrays both as boons for the body and for the soul. All of the cast are terrific (including a particularly unshowy Adele Haenel) but the lead performances by Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Arnaud Valois will break your heart.

Bong Joon Ho, one of the greatest working filmmakers made a splash at the festival, largely because of the fact that his new film was produced by, and will be released on, Netflix. The lack of a traditional cinema release in France meant that cinema owners were up in arms over its placement in the Official Competition. Indeed in the UK and the US, the film will get the bare minimum theatrical release in order to be eligible for Oscar and BAFTA consideration.

In all honesty, Okja isn’t likely to receive such consideration. It’s a beautiful and challenging film, but one which suffers slightly from some tonal difficulties. Bong has made a film for families with an environmental message, but one with scenes of animal cruelty that are so distressing it’s almost impossible to imagine any child could watch it. It’s an important film, and for the majority of its running time a brilliant one. But one element of the story almost detracted from the message and is a misstep in my opinion. The film still bursts with invention, and Bong’s eye is as sharply trained in creating flawless action sequences as ever (the opening sequence in Korea is an absolute delight).

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Joaquin Phoenix gives a brilliant performance as the lead character in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. He plays a private contractor who rescues young girls from sexual slavery, in what is a serious, challenging and frequently brilliant film. This is Ramsay’s best work since her debut, Ratcatcher. Phoenix was rewarded with the Best Actor prize, and Ramsay with the Best Screenplay award, which she shared with Yorgos Lanthimos.

Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer, sees him team up once more with his The Lobster star Colin Farrell. Farrell plays a surgeon in Cincinatti, who seems to have an idyllic life – beautiful wife (Nicole Kidman) and two photogenic kids. However, he also frequently meets up with a slightly odd-seeming young boy (a brilliant, mesmerising Barry Keoghan) for reasons that won’t become clear until the end of the film. Like The Lobster, the film has a stilted rhythm, especially in the dialogue, and Lanthimos uses this to create unease at first, and obtuseness in his characters later in the film. It’s a brilliant, cold-blooded piece of work, but lacks the beautiful weirdness of The Lobster or the deranged sensibility of his brilliant breakthrough film Dogtooth.

The other major award went to Sofia Coppola, who won Best Director for The Beguiled. Set in the dying days of the American Civil War with Farrell and Kidman teaming up again; this time Farrell plays a wounded Yankee soldier who is found at Kidman’s girls school in Virginia. With no men around, Farrell’s presence in the house amongst seven women of different ages is at first uneasy, but restrained.  But Coppola is quick to alert us to the many ways in which things could go terribly wrong. It’s a quick and slick film, one which Coppola absolutely directs the hell out of, but I found myself wishing she would have taken a bit more time to get us to the undeniably very satisfying denouement.
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Robert Pattinson is absolutely phenomenal in the Safdie brothers’ Good Time, a kinetic, fast-paced thriller set in New York about a bank-robbery gone wrong and the aftermath as a brother tries to free his younger sibling from prison. The film is very entertaining, and has some of the energy and atmosphere of a (very minor) John Cassavetes film. It’s a significant step-up for the filmmaking brothers, and suggests that the next stage of Pattinson’s career could rival that of his former co-star Kristen Stewart for variety and critical acclaim (his next films will be directed by Olivier Assayas, Joanna Hogg and Claire Denis!)

Michael Haneke has made what might be the quintessential Michael Haneke film in Happy End. It’s as brilliantly made as all of his films are, but feels like a distinct step backwards after the jump forward of The White Ribbon and Amour. The film is funnier than vintage Haneke, but otherwise revisits many of the same themes as Code Unknown or Hidden, in its concerns with digital surveillance and the unending terribleness of humanity.

I’m going to end with a couple of films in the Un Certain Regard section. The Workshop (see above) is a return to form for Laurent Cantet – a talky drama for its first half, set in a creative writing workshop in which the students are discussing how to create a perfect thriller with their successful novelist teacher. The film then becomes something very different in the second half. Cantet’s mastery of the switch in tone/genre is astonishing, and the film would certainly have merited an in Competition spot ahead of the likes of Rodin, Redoutable, The Meyerowitz Stories or Radiance (which were the worst films in the section).

Wind River is the directorial debut of Taylor Sheridan, the screenwriter of Sicario and Hell or High Water. The film definitely feels like it’s cut from the same cloth as Sheridan’s other films: a highly competent, thoughtful thriller which is the sort of film you really hope could connect with an audience. In this Jeremy Renner plays a hunter in rural Wyoming, who lives near to the Wind River Indian Reservation. When he finds a young Native American girl dead in the snow in circumstances that strongly suggest foul play, he’s enlisted by an out-of-town FBI Agent (Elizabeth Olsen) to help her solve the case. Both leads give very strong performances, as do two of my favourite character actors – Graham Greene and Jon Bernthal in small roles. Sheridan won the Best Director in Un Certain Regard prize for his work.

This wasn’t a truly vintage year for the festival. Last year’s programme was definitely stronger, and there was a muted atmosphere around the Croisette. Even so, there were more than a dozen films that premiered in Cannes that should help to light up cinephiles’ lives for the next 12 months or so.

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