We live in interesting times. Sadly. Many of the titles at this year’s Cannes Film Festival seemed understandably preoccupied with the role of the artist in a changing world — be it through stories of writers and filmmakers wrestling with the political and economic realities around them, or through allegorical tales that asked whether goodness and beauty could be found amid madness and horror. It was an unusually introspective Cannes, and maybe that’s one reason there were so few “buzz” titles — not a lot of big deals or chatter-inducing breakout hits or even bait for Oscar prognosticators.
What there was instead: a number of excellent films, many of which will probably make their way to theatrical release and struggle to find viewers in a marketplace obsessed with the big and shiny. Promise me you’ll take a long, hard look at these pictures when they finally hit screens near you. I didn’t see everything — I couldn’t, even if I had wanted to — but here’s the best of what I saw.
Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv)
Jia Zhangke’s expansive, exhausting love story is set in China during the first decade and a half of the 21st century. Qiao (the riveting Zhao Tao) is the tough but loyal companion to small-time gangster Bin (Liao Fan), who runs a small mah-jongg parlor in the dying coal mining town of Datong. When Bin is attacked, Qiao fires off a gun and winds up in prison for five years. After she gets out, she embarks on a long, picaresque journey to reunite with him. But Bin himself has been stripped of the power he once had and is now a sad, embittered shell of his former self. It’s a relationship whose true nature remains elusive: Bin never quite seems worthy of Qiao’s loyalty and affection, and the latter often seems too headstrong, too independent-minded, to remain so obsessed with him. Both of them are adrift in a China that’s supposedly changing dramatically, with towns being laid to waste by a rapidly shifting economy. What we’re seeing, however, is not an actual transformation, but a kind of escalating repetitive cycle. The technology and the landscape may be changing; the people, not so much. There’s a timeless quality to Qiao and Bin’s relationship, to its elemental cycles of loyalty, power, and humiliation.
Despite being at times impenetrably dense, Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book also makes for one of his more engaging, maybe even “entertaining” recent works. The film carries you along in part because it consists largely of other film images — you can lose yourself in the dexterity and texture of Godard’s editing, in the way he matches compositions, gestures, subject matter. Along the way, he cuts in surveillance footage of ISIS attacks, sometimes directly brutal, sometimes merely ominous, alongside images from American and Russian and European movies (including some of his own). It feels as if, true to the title, Godard is creating a compendium of images, an encyclopedia of visual references for the Western mind; the marvelous final section ends up in the Middle East, where Godard includes footage from a variety of surprisingly obscure films from the region. Is he perhaps asking us to take a step back and see many of the images he’s presenting not as memorable moments from beloved movies but as part of a cultural discourse that, for all its artistic bounties, is still used to marginalize, to terrify, to manipulate?
Three Faces (Se Rokh)
Jafar Panahi was one of Iran’s leading cinematic lights when the government banned him from filmmaking a few years ago. Since then, he has become perhaps the country’s most important director, creating powerfully personal, intimate tales of artistic stasis and what it means to create. This is the fourth film he’s made since his ban, and it might be his most ambitious. Here, Panahi again plays himself, as he and acclaimed actress Behnaz Jafari (also playing herself) travel to a remote Turkic village to investigate a mysterious video they’ve received in which a teenage girl with dreams of showbiz appears to commit suicide. As fascinating as it may be, the mystery is something of a red herring: Panahi is interested more in exploring the subtle dynamic between himself and Jafari, and looking at his own role as a filmmaker and manipulator in a remorselessly patriarchal society. In some ways, he’s more critical and introspective of his own work and persona than the Iranian government could ever be.
Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)
The winner of this year’s Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle drama about a made-up “family” of thieves living on the margins of society is shot through with the director’s trademark generosity and attention to behavior. The setup feels like a fable, but it’s based on a real news item, and Kore-eda leans into the paradoxes of the story. These people steal and cheat, but some also have jobs. They are not actually related, but they often share the intimacy and loyalty of a real family. The director has always been good at showing love manifest itself in surprising ways, and his ability to tell this story with a minimum of sensationalism and judgment feels like a small miracle.
Woman at War (Kona Fer I Strid)
Mild-mannered, fortysomething Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) has single-handedly declared war against the massive new power plant being built near her town, creatively disrupting it any way she can. At the same time, an application she made years ago to adopt a Ukrainian child is finally coming to fruition. Does she continue on her course as a resolute eco-warrior, or does she cool things down and prepare to become a mother? Should one cancel the other out? Benedikt Erlingsson’s droll comedy-drama looks at first like it’s charting a fairly basic conflict (something something can she have it all something), but the director plays a sly little game here, effectively interrogating both the protagonist and the audience about our reasons for seeking a better world. Beneath the playful surfaces — musical interludes, quirky neighbors, happy smiley eco-terrorists, Rube Goldbergian sabotage attempts — lie some uncomfortable truths about citizenship, family, and privilege.
To some, Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s gritty tale about a young Syrian runaway’s journey through Lebanon’s slums and refugee communities was just another manipulative wallow in miserabilism, milking easy tears out of the spectacle of a tyke put in extreme circumstances. But I was struck by how unsentimental Labaki’s film is. Twelve-year-old Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), who runs away from home after his impoverished parents decide to marry off his beloved eleven-year-old sister for a few chickens, is a rough, angry kid with a chip on his shoulder, and the director makes very few appeals to our pity. The story is carried by Zain’s practical-minded efforts to survive; his resourcefulness, not to mention his twisted sense of right and wrong, can be quite gripping. Labaki has done her homework, and the film carries a tough-minded authenticity. And in presenting us with a protagonist who, despite his age, is unusually hardened and at times even ruthless, the director does something surprising: She allows us to enter into the boy’s mind. We watch this movie not as concerned adults but as complicit secret-sharers, and that makes all the difference. Despite an awkwardly didactic climax, the results are grueling and powerful.
Terry Gilliam has been trying to make this film for three decades, and frankly, it was worth the wait. Adam Driver plays a cynical commercial director who discovers someone selling a bootleg DVD of his student thesis film, and seeks to reconnect with the idealism and passion of his youth. Meanwhile, the aging Spanish shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) he once got to play Don Quixote in his film still thinks he’s Cervantes’s legendary faux-knight errant. Their absurdist misadventures combine a medieval quest with contemporary topicality. The movie’s a madhouse, by design: Gilliam loves the sweet delirium of a story that runs on images, impulses, and manic energy instead of on characters and logic. If you feel a little lost, that’s because he wants you to. And it all ties into the great theme of the director’s career: that the world needs dreamers, however wrong or deluded or doomed to failure those dreamers may be.
The notion of imagination powering the world and how that fits into the creative life runs through Burning, Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s demented love triangle about class, jealousy, and creation. A shy, hardworking small town boy reconnects with a girl he once knew, but their burgeoning relationship is interrupted by her hooking up with a rich, smooth-talking playboy whose calm, rational manner seems to hide something darker. The filmmaker’s dexterity with the telling minutiae of human interactions makes this emotionally gripping — even if the finale feels more convenient than convincing. Even so, this is a compelling look at how we imagine ourselves in the world, and all the ways that class, family, and desire can come to complicate that.
Spike Lee’s neutron bomb of a movie is also a tonal roller coaster, and therein lies much of its unique power. It’s alternatingly comic, heroic, tragic, horrifying, ridiculous, dead serious, clear-eyed, and confused; it shifts into moments of documentary and even essay film, but it’s also one of Lee’s more entertaining and vibrantly constructed works. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully. Based on a crazy true story (or, as an opening title puts it, “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”), BlacKkKlansman follows the efforts of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African American detective in the Colorado Springs police force who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the mid 1970s, passing as white over the phone, with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as Stallworth’s white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging that have always fueled his work. He also adopts contrasting styles for each of the tribes that Ron moves through in the movie — the police, black activists, and the Klan, with the latter usually shown as a bunch of bozos, a dangerous but also often hilariously incompetent collection of ignorant brutes and slack-jawed yokels. In some ways, it’s a brilliant trap: Laugh all you want, Lee seems to say; you laughed at Trump, too, and look where that got us.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War begins in 1949, as Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), an urbane, educated musician, travels the Polish countryside with colleagues, putting together a folk ensemble. During auditions, he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a provincial girl with a striking voice and a no-bullshit attitude. Soon, they’re entangled with each other, but there’s a sublimated quality to their passion: She is preternaturally calm in his presence, while his intent, seductive glances rarely edge into outward emotion. This is, after all, Communist Poland, and sincere feelings, one suspects, are best kept under the surface. As the years pass, and their relationship becomes ever more complicated, music becomes Wiktor and Zula’s bond — an emotional space they’ve created in which they’re able, to some extent, to be themselves. In effect, the music does the feeling for them — and the music, like their relationship, changes. We have folk chorals that speak of lost loves, sweetly wounded jazz twinkling in French cafés, and the furious, overpowering charge of rock ’n’ roll. Meanwhile, the “cold war” of the title may refer to more than the geopolitical struggles of the twentieth century. Wiktor and Zula’s relationship is a war of sorts as well — one in which they battle each other and the world. This may be something more than mere love: It’s a compulsion, a codependence, a mutual assured self-destruction. The more we see this relationship, the more its mystery grows.
“This never happened,” is a recurring refrain in Kirill Serebrennikov’s explosive pop musical about the legendary Soviet musician Viktor Tsoi and the Leningrad underground rock scene of the 1980s. It’s a line usually uttered after yet another exuberant musical sequence in which the streets and halls of Soviet Russia are transformed into utopian visions of creativity, rebellion, and wild choirs of ordinary citizens singing international post-punk hits. This never happened: It’s both a confrontation and a lament. This film was initially billed as something of a biopic, but with its languid, freewheeling narrative, its constant blurring of fantasy and reality, its mixing of Soviet garage rock with better-known pieces from around the world, Summer proves a lot more than that: an ode to a world without boundaries. Serebrennikov, not unlike Iran’s Jafar Panahi, is currently under house arrest in Russia, having run afoul of Vladimir Putin’s goons. But ironically, more than any other film I saw at Cannes, this felt the most like the work of a free man.
In the first half of The Wild Pear Tree, Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan delivers what might be his funniest, most politically poignant work yet, with a series of extended, tense, and often hilarious conversations about literature, popularity, love, modernity — issues central to the role of an artist today, especially in a place like Turkey. But gradually, this absorbing tale of a young, aspiring writer shuttling between city and town, between ambition and family, becomes a dreamy meditation on belonging — filled with imagery that combines apocalyptic portent and languid poetry. In some ways, it’s Ceylan’s most personal work yet. And despite being the longest movie he’s ever made, it’s mesmerizing and impossible to let go.
Building on the work of Italian forebears such as Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Taviani brothers, Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice is an escalating parable, a film that starts in a somewhat realist vein and then gradually becomes more unreal, gathering symbolic force along the way. It begins on an Italian farm that’s being worked by sharecropping peasants, with generations living on top of one another, bonded to the land — slaves, kept in perpetual penury by the ruthlessly creative bookkeeping of the landowner. Amid the peasants, Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) is a special case. A kind of innocent whose understanding of the world is simple and generous, he is used by the others for his strength and perseverance. You might say he’s being exploited by the peasants in a way not dissimilar to the way they’re being exploited by the landowner. But Lazzaro’s symbolic value and his human-ness are not at odds, and his goodness is recognizable because it feels rooted in character. The fabulist turns of the story eventually build into a portrait of a society founded at every level on exploitation — of workers, immigrants, consumers, the poor, the gullible, the unfortunate. Rohrwacher’s most impressive feat here might be her ability to find just the right narrative and emotional distance for each section of the story, as it moves from rustic drama to picaresque journey to more pointed social allegory. But for all the metaphoric power of her film, Rohrwacher always complicates what she shows us: This is a society where people’s understanding of right and wrong is forever changing, where being a truly good human is an impossibility not because the world is evil but because each person’s world is different.
Probably my favorite film at Cannes this year, Gaspar Noé’s mind-melting musical is essentially a series of increasingly disturbing dance sequences depicting the initial glory and eventual destruction of an inclusive, exuberant community that may or may not represent the dream of a vibrant, multicultural France. The story, loosely based on real events, unfolds over one night. In front of a giant French flag, an ethnically, sexually diverse group of voguers, krumpers, waackers, contortionists, and others puts the finishing touches on an absolutely blistering dance. Their performance is a barrage of styles, of posing and strutting and encouragement, moving between controlled chaos and perfect unison — democracy and power expressed as a rhythmic, sensuous experience. But soon, the dancers all start to feel a little sick, and things go haywire. Someone’s spiked the sangria with an unknown drug, and recriminations and retaliations ensue, as buried secrets and desires and resentments rise to the surface. Noé wisely doesn’t aim for anything resembling realism, opting instead to lean into a surreal physicality. This is a cast made up of dancers, so he lets them dance their psychic disintegration: Now, what was once a constellation of individuated movements working together fractures into wayward particles of gyrations and gestures. Each person, it seems, malfunctions in his or her own way.
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