I’ve been going to the Cannes Festival for over thirty years, and there are two things that are certain. It’s totally changed from the old days when you could meet someone like Joe Losey on the Croisette and take a coffee with him unencumbered by three or four PRs anxious that he didn’t say anything unwise. Nowadays, if he was still alive, you could only meet him within the company of six or seven others at a roundtable somewhere private where one of the assembled keeps on asking: “when are you coming to Jerusalem, Mr Losey?”
The other certainty is that every Cannes is different from the last. It’s not just a matter of the films, good bad or indifferent. It’s also the weather, which can be awful or wonderful, and the people too who can be awful or wonderful too. I remember walking the Croisette on my way to interview Nick Nolte and I looked up at the Windows of the Carlton Hotel, where huge adverts for films like Killer Lobsters from Mars are draped across the front windows, and this time spied, hanging out of the third floor, two large human arses. They belonged to Nolte and Gerard Depardieu who had apparently had a fun night together. Not surprisingly, my interview was cancelled. On another occasion, the French director Maurice Pialat, having been roundly booed for winning the Palme D’Or, passed by me in his limo with the window open.”Don’t worry” I said, “You deserved it!” Having little or no English, he shouted back: “Fuck off!” Ah, the old days…
This year was a quiet year. No arses hanging out of the Carlton Windows, good weather, at least while I was there, and films which were very much of the art variety. Added to that, few American stars, hotel bookings down some 30 percent and only a dozen or so parties where something like food was offered to wash down the local rose. Shocking! But if all this was slightly odd, there was Kate Blanchett leading several dozen women up the celebrated red carpet in a MeToo demo which pointed out that only one woman director had ever won the Festival’s main prize. And there was a stir when, for some unspecified reason, the man who had organised the opening and closing shows for years, was summarily dismissed by a testy Festival Director.
As for the films, Asia proved the victor, with excellent work from Lee Chang-dong, Bi Gan, Koreeda Hirokazu and Jia Zhangke. It was Hirokazu who won the Palme D’Or for Shoplifters, a naturalistic portrayal of a family who took in a stray little girl and taught her to steal along with them. The point of the film was the sheer niceness of the thieves, and the way they managed to defeat the world at large with charm and courage. Hirokazu has never made anything better but there were some who thought that Korean Lee Chang-dong should have won with Burning, a vivid thriller and love triangle about a romance between a delivery man and a beautiful girl he first met at school. When she goes to Africa, asking her to feed her cat, and returns with a rich smoothie in tow, the thriller element begins. It’s a wonderful movie which got nothing from the jury but will probably be regarded as a classic in the future because it is poetic as well as deeply sympathetic and exciting. Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night gives you 3D glasses but abjures you not to put them on until the protagonist wears his. He is a man on a quest who drifts into a nightmarish darkness of murder and betrayal which develops into an extraordinarily choreographed single take over its last three-quarters of an hour. I suppose you either love or hate it. But whatever you think, here is another real filmmaker to cherish.
Ash is the Purist White by Jia Zhanke is a gangster movie which eschews the usual signs and symptoms of the genre in favour of a character study of a small-time crook and the gambling den hostess he is obsessed with and who in the end goes to prison to save him. There is a political theme running through the film, but in the main it is about the interaction of the main characters within a self- destructive world.
Few films matched this clutch of brilliant productions. But Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War did. Made in black and white, and one of the mercifully shortest of all the competition films at just under 90 minutes, it is set in post-war Poland where a pianist-composer tours villages and small halls with his lover, a music teacher. They search for local folk talent. The film is two things above all. The first is a musical and the second a wonderfully apt portrayal of the period during which hope combines with despair to fire its characters lives. Great performances too from Joanna Kulig and Agata Kuleska, as the two women in the composer’s life. Another which struck a decent blow for Europe was The Wild Pear Tree by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. But if Pawlikowski managed to tell his tale in under 90 minutes, the prolix Ceylan takes three hours, and talk dominates its story of a novelist who returns home to his rural retreat only to find his father’s gambling is ruining the family. Will the rebellious novelist ever break free? As usual with this director, there are plenty of resonant visuals and a rich tapestry of meaning beyond them. But two hours would also have been enough for a film which resonates in the mind but not necessarily In the heart.
Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman, which won the second prize of the jury and was lucky to do so, is set in seventies Colorado Springs where the counties first black policeman is part of an undercover unit trying to infiltrate the KKK. Based on a real case, Lee flavours it with humour and a kind of Tarantino-like energy. It is, of course, a political and polemical film but it’s raucous tone soon tires despite the fact that Lee has made a film that’s certainly relevant to now, as it was to then.
From Ukraine came Donbass, in which Sergei Loznitsa turns the awful war on the Ukrainian border into a bloody farce. But his film is also a fully fledged tragedy as sleazy politicians, brutal Russian soldiers and a population taunted by the awful nature of their lives mix the film’s 13 segments into a whirl of devastation and hopelessness. Some amazing moments. What to say about Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book? Well, he was awarded a special prize and, being Godard, probably deserved it. But the film, with its images and texts sometimes contradicting each other, has brilliant and infinitely tiring moments as if the great man deliberately wants to provoke the watcher with the slightest of smiles before kicking him or her up the backside.
Lastly, Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built is more or less a bleak black comedy, in which Matt Dillon bravely plays a serial killer. Some of its scenes have its press audience screaming with anger, or possibly disgust. I won’t describe them since I don’t want to end on a sour note. But though von Trier is still an exceptional director, his return to Cannes after several years of persona non grata was soon forgotten amidst the Festival’s more simple blood and thunder. You can’t defeat Cannes, even if you’d like to sometimes. It is still the greatest film jamboree there is and a good measure of the year’s quality, even without American stars hogging the limelight.