May 16, 2018

Film & Television

Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part one)

By Shane Danielsen

Cold War

An ever-so-slightly off-key event

For most of the first week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the question on everybody’s lips was What the hell is going on? Typically sovereign and serene, the event this time seemed ever-so-slightly off-key, beset by difficulties in planning (of which, more below) and execution. There seemed fewer attendees, and notably less buzz than usual, and so pundits, as they’re wont to do, lost no time in declaring a crisis. “Cannes: 5 Signs of a Festival in Decline”, read the headline of a piece in The Hollywood Reporter, citing a dearth of stars on the red carpet and a conspicuous lack of Hollywood signage along the Croisette as conclusive proof that the fest’s best days were behind it.

I had my own sense of this when on Thursday, two days into the festival, I received an email from the Majestic Hotel, reminding me that it not only still had rooms available – astonishing in itself – but “breathtaking and enchanting” spaces to host parties, should I be so inclined. A Parisian friend confirmed, via a publicist who worked for another of the grand seaside hotels, that this year they had booked fewer than half the number of events that they’d hosted in 2017. People simply weren’t spending the money they used to. Or, worse, weren’t coming at all.

Why not? Well, for one reason, the industry is changing. Awards season – which runs, roughly speaking, from late October to February – has become more and more essential to certain films’ release strategies, and for most Hollywood studios, there’s a feeling that Cannes simply occurs too early in the calendar to properly commence a successful Oscar campaign. Whatever heat is generated at Cannes (and given the fickleness of its audiences, and the unpredictability of its juries, that’s by no means a given) will inevitably fade in a few months, and have to be rekindled later in the year. So why make the effort, and spend all that money, when the fall festivals – Telluride, Venice and Toronto – can better serve the same purpose?

Then there was the question of programming. A much-publicised feud with Netflix over in-cinema releases (the French industry demands it; Netflix, unsurprisingly, rejects it) did neither party any favours, and removed from contention a number of Netflix-funded productions, among them Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and Paul Greengrass’ Norway. In addition, a surprisingly large number of Cannes regulars were passed over for selection: Mike Leigh’s historical drama Peterloo, Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel The Sisters Brothers (his first English-language film) and Paolo Sorrentino’s Silvio Berlusconi biopic Loro. Zhang Yimou, Brian De Palma, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas … all tipped, and all missing. Indeed, until an 11th-hour reprieve, it seemed that Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan – a Palme d’Or winner for 2014’s Winter Sleep and a Competition perennial – would not make the cut.

There were, admittedly, some familiar names in the line-up: Jean-Luc Godard, Spike Lee, Jia Zhangke. But there was also a distinct sense of generational shift, with younger talents like Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher, Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov and France’s Eva Husson all featuring in the Official Selection. Likewise, America’s David Robert Mitchell, whose thriller It Follows was part of the Critics’ Week sidebar four years ago, now found himself promoted to Competition for his third feature, the LA-set noir Under the Silver Lake.

This search for new blood makes sense: many Cannes veterans are now in their 70s and 80s, and that generation is simply dying out; in the past few weeks alone, we’ve lost Ermanno Olmi, Miloš Forman and Vittorio Taviani. But it also led to howls of outrage from the press. Journalists who’d complained for years about the predictability of the Official Selection – likening it to an unofficial “club” of old white men, selected whether their new work merited inclusion or not – were suddenly whining that they were being denied the “big” titles they’d expected. Festival director Thierry Frémaux confessed his exasperation (“in Cannes, [journalists are] always looking for the negative”), and it was hard not to sympathise with his position. Damned when he did, he’s now damned because he didn’t.

Even so, his life might have been easier had the selection been stronger right out of the gate. Instead, the opening night film, Iranian director Asghar (A Separation) Farhadi’s Spanish-language Everybody Knows, starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem, was deemed a flop, the first real misstep in the Oscar-winner’s career. And the first Competition titles to screen – Egyptian first-timer A.B. Shawky’s Yomeddine, Serebrennikov’s black and white Soviet rock drama Leto – proved badly underwhelming. Word was little better from the sidebar sections Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight. “It’s just a shitty year,” sighed one buyer, as we waited in line. She claimed to be looking forward to Venice (“I’ve already booked my hotel”), and I paused for a moment to ponder the irony. Just four years ago, Venice looked to be a festival on its last legs, abandoned by the US industry and deserted by the press. This year, it’s an essential destination once again.

But then, on Friday, came Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War – the first undeniable find of the festival, and one of the finest films of the year. A spare, devastating love story, chronicling an intermittent, long-term romance between a musician and the young female singer he discovers and nurtures (Joanna Kulig in a star-making performance), it was reportedly inspired by the contentious relationship of Pawlikowski’s own parents (the lead characters share their names: Wiktor and Zula), but transcends its source to become a parable of doomed love. Though running just 82 minutes, it somehow manages to sound the depths of a 15-year relationship, marrying an admirable economy of style (there’s not a wasted frame or superfluous beat) with astonishing depth of feeling.

As with most great love stories, the tale is largely an unhappy one: the two lovers are doomed – in part by history and its demands upon them, but mostly by dint of their own, fundamental incompatibility. As unhappy when together as when they are apart, they’re at once unable to move forward and unwilling to truly separate. The narrative – and indeed, time itself – seems to loop around them, each cut to a black screen signalling a new year and a shift in location, as the story moves from rural Poland to East Berlin, to Paris, but finally, inevitably, back to Poland once more.

The result seems of a piece with Pawlikowski’s last film, the Oscar-winning novitiate drama Ida, both in its Communist-era setting and its immaculate, rather antique aesthetic: the high-contrast black and white images, the boxy, Academy Ratio framing. But it’s also a rare treat for the ears: its soundtrack is beguiling and glorious, ranging from ethnic folk songs (reminiscent of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares) to smoky Parisian jazz. And its final shot is little short of perfect, a heartbreaking coda to a short, sad song.

At lunch two days later, a young sales agent asked my opinion: should she go see the latest documentary from Wim Wenders (Pope Francis: A Man of His Word), or the new film from Gaspar (Irreversible) Noé? “Wow,” I deadpanned. “Talk about a dialectic.” And yet, in a sense, the question felt fair, even right, since of all contemporary filmmakers, Noé is the most purely infernal, the most interested in depicting images of Heaven and Hell, states of exaltation and damnation, transcendence and abjection. And considered in this sense, Climax marks the apogee of his career to date.

The story is slight – it’s 1996, and a group of Parisian dancers, of wildly different genders, races and sexual orientations, have gathered in a vast, warehouse-like space to perform. We watch their dance-off unfold in a single, continuous take that’s the most purely joyous, thrilling sequence of the year. Later they hang out to celebrate and flirt and talk shit, only to succumb to visions and madness courtesy of some LSD-spiked sangria.

The result feels like a long night at Berghain crossed with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”. It never moves quite the way you expect it to (is it wrong to say I wanted more fucking?), but it consistently astonishes, as Noé interrupts the action with almost subliminal onscreen texts (“Existence is a fleeting illusion”, “Death can be an interesting experience”); opens with the closing credits (a shrewd choice, since it primes us to anticipate the tracks it will feature, from M|A|R|R|S to Aphex Twin); and provides the opening credits about 40 minutes in, via a rapid-fire string of neon-lit emojis. A FRENCH FILM AND PROUD OF IT, reads one title card. “Fuck, yeah!” shouted someone a few rows ahead of me.

The aesthetic is one of deliberate overload, but it’s also incredible fun: no other filmmaker I can think of, with the possible exception of his countryman Leos Carax, takes such conspicuous pleasure in their medium. Noé’s technical mastery is almost matchless – there are long tracking shots here that dazzle with their fluency and elegance, and his framing is consistently revelatory – but he’s also the most playful working director. He’s boyishly delighted by making movies, and wants us to share that excitement: to be horrified, awed, terrified, amused – and never bored. At the first screening Noé stood in the street, gazing at the line of eager audience members as we filed in (all bafflingly unaware that the filmmaker they revered was standing less than 10 feet away from them); in the cinema, he hung at the back of the room, taking pictures of the packed theatre and then watching his film screen, grinning with pride and dancing a little to a Daft Punk banger. I sat a few rows away, nodding my head to the beat. Like its maker, I was having the time of my life.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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