Cannes: A Fest of Few Lows, But Only One Real High

Elle Film Still - 2016 - H
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

A sluggish Cannes competition closed on a triumphant note with Paul Verhoeven's brilliant dark comedy about a rape victim, while American entries ranged from strong (early Oscar contender 'Loving') to embarrassing (why, Sean Penn?).

The Cannes Film Festival went out with a literal and figurative bang over the weekend in the form of Paul Verhoeven’s sensationally good Elle, supplying those still left on the Croisette with the sort of thing they’d been missing for the previous 10 days: a movie to get all worked up about.

Filming with immaculate elegance and sharp wit, the 77-year-old Dutch director showed that he has not mellowed with age; if anything, he has sharpened his subversive edges in this story about a mature woman’s complex reactions to being raped. It was, in retrospect, perhaps predictable that Elle proved too hot for the jury to touch (the movie went home empty-handed).

Verhoeven, who reliably got a rise out of audiences with the likes of Turkish Delight, The 4th Man, RoboCop, Basic Instinct and, it must be mentioned, Showgirls, eats controversy for breakfast and will definitely find it in the U.S., where he originally intended to make this film — until he concluded that no American actress was likely to take the title role. Instead, he improved his French, set up the production in France and guided Isabelle Huppert to as fine a screen performance as she’s ever given.

What will upset many people about the film’s approach is that it does not conform to the conventional notion that there is just one way to react to this extreme violation. For various reasons that involve her past experiences and current status, the response of Huppert’s character is highly ambiguous.

The arrival of this ultra-stylish and beautifully modulated film at the very end of the festival was quite a surprise, given that nothing had yet appeared that flipped everyone’s switches to such an extent. To be sure, there had been outrage and plenty of it, but mostly over the preponderance of unworthy films, not their subject matter.

Other than Elle, only two other competition features rang the bell for me, both father-daughter stories: Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s outstanding, metaphorical portrait of the complete moral rot of a society, Baccalaureat (Graduation), which revolves around a doctor who goes to unsettling lengths to secure his high-schooler daughter's future; and German director Maren Ade’s third feature Toni Erdmann, the humorous, wonderfully nuanced look at a female German executive and her daddy trouble. The former won Mungiu a directing prize (shared with France's Olivier Assayas for his Kristen Stewart-starring ghost story, Personal Shopper), while the latter was entirely snubbed by the jury.

The American entries were a mixed bag, with two tasty apples and two rotten ones. On the positive side were Jeff Nichols’ appealingly measured and understated Loving, about a real-life couple’s struggle to break Virginia’s law against interracial marriage in the 1950s and 1960s, and Jim Jarmusch’s modest and amusing Paterson, about a poetry-writing New Jersey bus driver (Adam Driver).

But the less said the better about British director Andrea Arnold’s first U.S.-set outing, the superficial and one-hour-overlong indulgence of teen behavior, American Honey (undeserving winner of the third-place Jury Prize) — not to mention Sean Penn’s sanctimonious pageant about aid workers in Africa, The Last Face.

Danish by virtue of its director, Nicolas Winding Refn, but American in its Los Angeles setting and cast, The Neon Demon, starring Elle Fanning, is a gorgeous but completely ridiculous take on the vampiric nature of the fashion industry. Other films that hardly seemed worthy of inclusion in competition at the most prestigious festival in the world were French director Alain Guiraudie’s lame portrait of a would-be screenwriter’s descent into uselessness, Staying Vertical, and, especially, Canadian boy wonder Xavier Dolan’s insufferable look at a toxic family, It’s Only the End of the World (despite its great cast of beautiful French thespians). In a move almost unanimously deplored by critics, the jury gave Dolan its second-place Grand Prize.

Better, but hardly pulse-quickening, were Romanian helmer Cristi Puiu’s punishing close-up of family strife in Sieranevada; French filmmaker Bruno Dumont’s highly stylized look at the class divide in northern France, circa 1910, in Slack Bay (Ma Loute); Ken Loach’s somewhat effective but predictable portrait of contemporary working-class powerlessness in I, Daniel Blake (an underwhelming Palme d'Or winner); South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook’s gorgeous and slow The Handmaiden (much discussed for its lesbian sex scenes); Nicole Garcia’s slack soap opera From the Land of the Moon, which at least has Marion Cotillard; Pedro Almodovar’s sharply made but unremarkable adaptation of three Alice Munro stories, Julieta; Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s involving but undisciplined and overlong second feature, Aquarius, in which an excellent Sonia Braga plays a last hold-out in an old Recife apartment building; the Dardenne brothers' involving but uncharacteristically pat The Unknown Girl, about a young female doctor who gets caught up in the investigation of a missing woman; Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza’s Ma Rosa, about a Manila family’s brush with drug dealing (leading lady Jaclyn Jose was a surprise best actress winner); and Iranian master Asghar Farhadi’s latest, The Salesman, a drama of ultimately significant power that also is notably unlikable (the film snagged both best screenplay and best actor honors for Shahab Hosseini, who plays a husband who unravels after his wife is attacked).

One film in Cannes towered over all the rest: Bertrand Tavernier’s exceptional three-hour documentary A Journey Through French Cinema, which screened in the Cannes Classics sidebar. Tavernier, a first-class French director since the 1970s, knows film history like few others, and here has created a survey that is deep, insightful, extremely entertaining and personal without being too personal.

The documentary’s structure also is notable in that rather than proceeding chronologically or by subject matter or any other normal principle, it zigzags from topic to topic — 1930s and 1940s, directors to screenwriters, actors, other directors, composers, cinematographers and, ultimately, filmmakers Tavernier worked with or knew well, like Melville and Godard — in a way that creates a great mosaic. Tavernier is planning to expand this into a 10-hour series. In the meantime, he has created one of the very greatest documentaries about the history of cinema.

The top prizes for the main selection will be awarded Sunday night during the closing ceremony at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes.