Cannes 2017: Loveless, Wonderstruck, Sea Sorrow, & Barbara

They say this will be the best Cannes Festival for years, and it does look good on paper, what with a bevy of Hollywood stars due to turn up (Nicole Kidman, for instance, is in no less than five different movies) and for once more women than men among them.

But so far there has been a lack of outstanding movies and some fairly dire fare from directors we were all looking forward to cheering. Todd Haynes, maker of the much admired Carol, produced a weird film in Wonderstruck, taken from Brian Selznick’s critically acclaimed novel about two children from different eras who secretly wish their lives were better. It looks fine, but is hardly as mesmerising as the book. The children each set out on quests to discover what is missing from their existences.

Haynes goes backwards and forwards in time in some puzzling ways and veers between heavy sentiment and abstruse imaginings so that audiences may be puzzled as to what sort of film he is actually making. Is it partly a children’s tale, or an art movie for adults? Maybe both, but neither strikes home with anything like maximum effect.

The best film so far has been from Russia. Loveless, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, who made the wonderful The Return and the even better Leviathan, is the sad tale of divorcing couple in the process of selling their apartment who neglect their 12-year-old son and quarrel continuously. They are brought up very short when he suddenly disappears. The acting from Maryana Spivak and Alexey Rozin is superb and the film is unlikely to infuriate the Russian government as much as Leviathan. But, though a powerful film, Loveless is not as outstanding as most of the director’s other work and a little too long for comfort at over two hours.

It’s impossible not to admire Vanessa Redgrave’s directorial debut Sea Sorrow, which comes a full 51 years after her Cannes best actress award for Morgan– a suitable case for treatment. She is now 80, and says she doesn’t think she has much time left after a heart attack two years ago. If so, Sea Sorrow may prove a fine epitaph for a woman who is not only a great actress but also a powerful political activist. The film is no masterpiece but its feeling for the refugees who are its subject matter is often very moving. Filmed mostly in Europe, the film is only a few minutes over an hour long. But, as it intends, is a personal and completely sincere statement about one of the worst features of our present-day world. A modest Redgrave was cheered to the echo each time she appeared.

Barbara, the film by Mathieu Amalric which opened the section Un Certain Regard (which means not quite good enough for competition but still worth seeing) is about an actress and singer who inhabits her new part so thoroughly that the character grows inside her until even her lover doesn’t know who she really is. A neat idea, but Jeanne Balibar’s performance doesn’t let you care much whether she is Brigitte the actress or Barbara, the character she is playing. So the film lacks punch and real interest.

The chief controversy at Cannes this year has little to do with the films on display but the worry that powerful new players like Netflix do not intend often to premiere their product in movie theatres. Pedro Almodovar, president of the main jury, is clearly worried about this and read out a lengthy statement whose main point was that the size of the screen should never be smaller than the chair on which we are sitting. But Will Smith, also on the jury, disagreed. He said that his three children go to the movies and watch films at home as well. “There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching Netflix at home”. It’s an argument that will pursue across the Festival until the final day, and beyond. But the future of the cinema is bound up with it, and the fact that Cannes is showing Netflix movies is all part of the controversy.