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Film & Television

Cannes Film Festival 2018 (part two)

By Shane Danielsen
Despite an off-key start, this year’s event ended on a high

After an unusually rocky start, this year’s Cannes Film Festival actually proved to be one of the better editions in recent memory – its last six days back-loaded with such terrific movies, you wondered why they didn’t spread the love a little more evenly across the program. (A German buyer I know suggested that the strategy was deliberate: “They know they have a limited amount of really good films – not enough for the whole 10 days – so they put the best ones at the end. That way, people leave the festival on a high, having forgotten the early failures.”)

Thus, South Korea’s Lee Chang-dong (Secret Sunshine) made a triumphant return to Competition with his first feature since 2010’s magnificent Poetry. Ostensibly adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story, Burning was actually much closer to vintage Patricia Highsmith: a meticulous, chilling study of class resentment and sociopathy, with Yoo Ah-in playing Lee Jong-soo, a farm-dwelling Tom Ripley with literary aspirations, and The Walking Dead’s Stephen Yuen as “Ben”, the Gangnam-dwelling playboy who both fascinates and disgusts him. This unlikely pair are bought together by pretty, troubled Shin Hae-mi (screen debutante Jong-seo Jeon), who seems to be Jong-soo’s girlfriend, until she returns from a holiday in Kenya with Ben in tow (“We were the only Koreans there!”) and with a sudden, newfound yearning for oblivion; she wants, she says, to disappear utterly from the Earth, “like smoke”.

And then, one day, she does just that. So, did Ben kill her? Lee teases the possibility but ultimately withholds judgment, in favour of a wry, almost existential ambiguity, a tone neatly encapsulated in the mystery of Hae-mi’s cat – an animal that may or may not exist. His script explores its themes skilfully: Hae-mi’s explanation of her mime studies (you don’t have to pretend that you’re holding an object, she explains, you just have to forget that you’re not) becomes the presiding metaphor of the entire film. And Lee’s measured visual style amplifies the tension, the sense that matters could at any moment lurch into violence and chaos. After almost two-and-a-half hours, the film’s climactic scene felt at once inevitable and entirely right. A slow-burner – if you’ll pardon the expression – it’s also one of the best films of the year, by one of contemporary cinema’s masters.

With Dogman, Italy’s Mateo Garrone offered a different but equally potent kind of crime drama. A pooch-groomer in the slums outside Naples, diminutive Marcello deals a little coke on the side – partly to shore up his popularity in his neighbourhood, but mostly to finance the diving holidays on which he takes his beloved daughter Sofia. One of his best customers is local tough Simoncino, a shaven-headed pile of muscle whose appetite for blow and hair-trigger temper make Jake LaMotta look like a model of self-restraint. With no one prepared to stand up to him, Simoncino has long since stopped paying for his drugs, and Marcello knows he should say something. But he’s also quietly in awe of his loose-cannon amico. A little man, Marcello both craves and fears Simoncino’s attentions – aware all the while that he’ll never earn his respect. And so these co-dependent mutts, the pit bull and the lapdog, descend into a hell of their own making.

Garrone made his name with the mafia drama Gomorrah (2008), but this one is even better, I think: more concise and less diffuse, set among provincial bottom-feeders and wannabes – low-rent, perpetually broke thugs in filthy tracksuits, for whom even an entry-level career in the real mob represents some distant, impossible dream. The setting, a dismal backwater of concrete and weeds (it was filmed in the slums of Castel Volturno), is grim in the style of architect Ernő Goldfinger, and cinematographer Nicolai Brüel frames it magnificently, in long shots of parched, brutalist grandeur. The three leads, meanwhile – Marcello Fonte as the titular “dogman”, Edoardo Pesce as Simoncino, and nine-year-old newcomer Alida Baldari Calabria as Sofia – are nothing short of extraordinary. (To no one’s surprise, Fonte walked away with the prize for Best Actor.)

The Un Certain Regard section, meanwhile, included my favourite film of the festival – and probably of the year: Chinese auteur Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. (For the record, it has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name, nor with the Roberto Bolaño novel – Last Evenings on Earth – whose name it stole for its Chinese title. I found it closer to Bolaño’s writing, though, to stories like “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” and “The Return”, than to Patrick Modiano’s, which Bi cited in his press notes as an influence.)

To call it (as someone I overheard did) “the best film Wong Kar-wai never made” is to undersell both its achievement and its influences. The lush, shadowy visuals recall Wong’s, sure – but there’s some Tarkovsky in there too, the ruined, drowned-world aesthetics of Stalker, as well as the recursive nightmares of David Lynch. And there’s also a healthy dose of Alain Resnais, its fractured time-scheme recalling both Muriel and Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Set in the director’s hometown, the southern city of Kaili, it opens with Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) sitting in a seedy hotel room remembering his romance 10 years earlier with Wan Qiwen, the girlfriend of a notorious gangster. Did the boyfriend murder her, having discovered their affair? Or (it’s hinted) could Luo perhaps have killed her himself? For some reason, he now can’t recall. Haunted, he journeys back to Kaili – but instead finds himself stuck in a ruined village in the hills outside the town, a labyrinth of alleyways and staircases that he wanders in vain, encountering people who seem vaguely familiar, some of whom vaguely seem to know him, before finally entering a cinema. Once inside, he dons a pair of 3D glasses – and so do we, having been given them at the door and told to wait for the appropriate moment to put them on.

What follows is a single, 50-minute Steadicam take of astounding complexity and daring, involving drones, zip-lines, a dozen different locations, about a hundred extras, a motorcycle ride, miscellaneous animals, a little flying, two musical numbers, a revolving set, and, just as an extra fuck you to low expectations, an almost defiantly audacious game of pool, in which one character’s failure to sink a shot will doom the entire sequence … All in 3D, with no digital trickery to hide the joins, and all looking like the most ravishingly beautiful movie you’ve ever seen. It’s incredible, there’s no other word for it. It defies belief.

“Fragmented memories”, muses Luo in the film’s opening seconds. “Are they real or not?” This question reverberates through the entirety of what follows, making us uncertain whether we’re watching something that’s past or present, real or imagined. Images of stopped clocks and watches abound, as Bi lays sophisticated traps involving time and structure. Elusive and oneiric, I also found it incredibly moving: the story of a man trying in vain to hold onto something precious to him, even as its memory slips like sand between his fingers. The following day I accompanied a friend to watch it again, and found it even richer on a second viewing, though scarcely more comprehensible. But it’s a dream I would gladly have again and again, one from which I have no desire to wake.

Twenty-two minutes into Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm I checked my watch, wanting to note the precise moment at which it occurred to me that it would win the Palme d’Or. Directed by a woman – reportedly important to the Cate Blanchett-chaired jury in this most egalitarian of years – and about impoverished children, asylum-seekers and slum-dwellers, with a cast comprising African and Syrian refugees, it only had to be competent to claim the prize. Instead, to my surprise, it was rather good, if perhaps a little too long and strident – proceeding from a frankly unbelievable premise (a child suing his parents in a Beirut court for bringing him into the world) into a portrait of a shattered region, and its devastating effect upon the weakest of its inhabitants.

None of the factors listed above, incidentally, are bad things; I remark on them only because they seemed to hit several desirable marks. All through the festival, word was that the jury wanted to send a political message. Which meant that there was a far greater likelihood that a female director would take the top prize, for only the second time in the festival’s history – a state of affairs not so much depressing as disgraceful. But there were only three women in Competition this year, and the Eva Husson film (Girls of the Sun) was exploitative rubbish, a study of female Kurdish freedom-fighters that cheapened everything it touched. Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazarro Felice, by contrast, began intriguingly, as a kind of pastoral folktale, but soon descended into whimsical irrelevance. (I realise, three features into her career, that Rohrwacher is like an Italian Shirley Barrett: someone with whose films I just do not get along.)

To give the Palme to one of these two would have diminished both the recipient and the message being sent; it smacked of condescension. What was needed was something whose virtues were apparent, if not quite to every taste. Something well crafted and relevant, and which (ideally) packed an emotional punch. Labaki’s film looked a lot like it.

Yet when the awards were announced, on Saturday, the film earned only a Jury Prize – a decision greeted with boos in the press room. The Grand Prix du Jury, the festival’s second prize, went to Spike Lee for the ham-fisted, overly didactic BlacKkKlansman, a supposedly “provocative” dissection of US race relations that proved about as nuanced as a Li’l Abner cartoon – notwithstanding an excellent performance from Adam Driver. Note to Spike Lee: most of the time, racists don’t say overtly racist shit. They don’t have to: racism operates via coded language and a set of assumptions. (For proof, look at your current US attorney-general – or your president.) A truly insightful film would examine that: how the discourse has been deformed by a privilege that enshrines white culture as a fixed and absolute signifier, instead of settling, as here, on the softest of targets: a bunch of redneck caricatures who drop “nigger” into every second sentence. That’s too easy.

In the end, the Palme d’Or wound up going to Hirokazu Kore-eda, for the touching, excellent drama Shoplifters – a harsh but compassionate study of an impoverished family living on the margins of society and the law. Beautifully observed, and faultlessly acted (Kore-eda is one of cinema’s great directors of children), it felt like a deserving winner, and attested to Blanchett’s stated aim of considering the works purely on their artistic merits, divorced from questions of gender or nationality – a statement few of us had taken seriously, but which proved to be exactly the case.

Finally, congratulations must go to Australian director Charles Williams, whose film All These Creatures won the Short Film Palme d’Or – a remarkable, commendable achievement.

Shane Danielsen

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

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