One of my favorite things in the Village Voice archive is Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris’s coverage from the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, wherein they recount the breathless, will-he-make-it anticipation for the arrival of Francis Ford Coppola’s decade-in-the-works Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now. That year’s other fest titles, as Haskell notes, were met with a combination of disappointment and praise, adding to a general, gathering sense of malaise, as everyone waited for “the Ayatollah Coppola” to swoop in and save the proceedings.
As it happens, Apocalypse Now did win the Palme d’Or, but that allegedly disappointing year also had (deep breath) Days of Heaven, The Tin Drum, The China Syndrome, My Brilliant Career, The Brontë Sisters, and, playing out of competition, Manhattan and Christ Stopped at Eboli! There were also three Fassbinder titles that year, including The Marriage of Maria Braun and In a Year of 13 Moons. So, you know, hindsight and all that. But 1979 will forever go into the books as “The Apocalypse Now Cannes.”
But that sort of thing happens here: An adored filmmaker, we’re told, is desperately rushing his magnum opus to the finish line, as the whole place buzzes with anticipation and trepidation — for both masterworks and catastrophes have a tendency to arrive messily and bloodily, trailing unfinished credits and temporary sound mixes. In 2004, Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 showed up wet from the lab, with the final reels rushed to the projection booth as the first were already unspooling. (It won no awards, and the Waiting for Wong through-line was ultimately upstaged by the spectacle of Quentin Tarantino’s jury handing Michael Moore the Palme for Fahrenheit 9/11. Hey, remember Fahrenheit 9/11?)
Which brings us to 2017, and Lynne Ramsay. We’d already heard, even before it all started, that Thierry Frémaux’s programming committee had viewed Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here in incomplete form but had still included it in competition because they saw “the potential of an artist, a poet, and an author.” All fest long, there were rumors that Jonny Greenwood was still finishing his score, that the film was due to arrive right before the premiere. Would the screening even happen? Would we all show up at the Salle Debussy and be confronted with a tie-askew Frémaux tearfully streaming a trailer and reading an apology letter? Would Last-Minute Lynne make it in time?
She absolutely did. You Were Never Really Here not only turned out to be the best film in the official competition, this 88-minute nervous breakdown of a movie provided just the jolt this Cannes needed. Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel (loosely, I’m gonna guess), it follows the agitated, fragmented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a kind of vigilante for hire who finds missing people. The plot ostensibly concerns his search for the daughter of a local politician who’s involved in a child sex-trafficking ring. But as depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.
We see glimpses of his childhood with an abusive father and feel his impotence at not being able to help his mother. We glimpse footage of a girl killed in Iraq (is it Iraq?) and we understand that somewhere along the way, Joe wasn’t there for her as well. His world is a kaleidoscope of failures both real and imagined: Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?
Some have compared You Were Never Really Here to Taxi Driver, some to Taken — both understandable references. The film it reminded me most of is John Boorman’s Lee Marvin–starring genre deconstruction Point Blank, which also disposes of the particulars of its standard-issue crime story and opts to create meaning through style. But another film it closely resembles is Ramsay’s own We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which Tilda Swinton’s character’s overwhelming sense of maternal guilt cast her in a kind of surreal waking hell, as she repeatedly replayed her recollections (some clearly unreliable) of a failed parenthood. In Ramsay’s cinema, emotion is memory, and it feeds the present and the future.
So, in You Were Never Really Here, Joe’s absence is both his great shame and his great skill: When he infiltrates a bad guy’s compound, he vanishes. The film’s action scenes…well, the film has no action scenes, that’s the whole point. When we catch up to a confrontation, whatever has to happen has already happened — we catch a glimpse of a bloodied head, a slit throat, a shot of our hero stepping away from the camera. Because he disappears; that’s what he does, for better and for worse. He’s like a superhero whose special powers are self-loathing and self-negation. As much as he needs to break free of his demons, his demons are also partly the reason why he’s able to do what he does. He could even be a stand-in for an artist, come to think of it.
It would have been quite a story if Ramsay’s buzzer-beating masterpiece had wound up snatching the Palme d’Or at Sunday’s ceremony. Alas, it had to settle for two awards: Best Screenplay (huh?) and Best Actor, the only two prizes at Cannes that can go to one film, which suggests that some on Pedro Almodóvar’s jury genuinely adored it. Instead, the Palme went to The Square, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s very funny and cutting exploration of utopianism and class, and the Grand Jury Prize to Robin Campillo’s powerful ACT UP drama, 120 BPM. (I reviewed both films here.) Best Director went to Sofia Coppola, the Ayatollah’s own daughter, for her excellent The Beguiled, and another Best Screenplay award went to Yórgos Lánthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (Those reviews are here.)
Meanwhile, the Jury Prize went to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, which many felt would have been a natural for the Palme. And I was also gratified to see a Best Actress award for Fatih Akin’s In the Fade, a movie which most critics here seemed to detest but which I found quite moving. Almodóvar promised us some surprises early in the evening, but his jury delivered a slate of winners that seemed pretty close to what everyone had predicted — which was something of a relief, perhaps, after last year’s calamitously bizarre list of awardees. Good for them. And who knows? Maybe this lackluster competition year will one day look like a mind-blowing feast of cinematic riches. But in my mind, I’ll probably remember Cannes 2017 as the time when Lynne Ramsay held many of us rapt with anticipation — and then delivered a film for the ages.