Todd McCarthy: Despite Doubts and Doldrums, Cannes Comes Through

Cannes - IN COMPETITION – FEATURE FILMS - Burning Still 1 - Publicity -H 2018
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

After a sluggish start, this year's fest shone through the cloud of pessimism with some strong, timely, provocative films — suggesting that those proclaiming Cannes "over" had spoken too soon.

Does anyone remember what everyone was saying during the first days of this year's Cannes Film Festival? That it was the worst Cannes ever, a festival in obvious decline, antiquated, outdated by its fixation on tuxedoes and heels, low on blow-out parties and star wattage? Was Cannes even going to be worth the trip in coming years? With only two films in the competition this year, were the Americans shunning the festival? Is Hollywood too fixated on awards-season timing to bother anymore with the Cannes-Cannes?

Spirits were more than low at the outset. Was the late-in-the-game yanking of all the Netflix titles, notably Alfonso Cuaron's Roma and Orson Welles' "finished" The Other Side of the Wind after nearly a half-century along with its companion-piece documentary, just another sign of Cannes being stuck in the past? Had Cannes' clout with the big studios diminished so much that it had to go along with Disney staging the big world premiere of Solo: A Star Wars Story in Los Angeles the week before its splashy debut on the Croisette?

On a more personal and human note, the fact that Pierre Rissient, "Monsieur Cannes" if there ever was one, passed away two days before the opening, after having just finished supervising the subtitling of Lee Chang-dong’s competition entry Burning, cast a most unwelcome pall over the festival for many attendees.

But it's amazing what a few good films can do. Like a heavy fog dissipating to give way to sunny skies, the 2018 Cannes Film Festival shed its shroud, started coming to life and ended up delivering what people come here for: a surprisingly strong range of films, some from well-established auteurs but others that didn't exactly inspire you to jump out of bed and race to 8:30 a.m. screenings to catch.


A precious few highs brightened the early days. Pawel Pawlikowski, whose previous Ida won a best foreign-language film Oscar in 2015, followed with another terrific black-and-white evocation of damp political times in Cold War, a tale of a doomed passionate love affair in communist Poland and jazzy France during the 1950s; it turned out to be based on his parents' own tumultuous story (and won its maker the fest's Best Director prize). Kirill Serebrennikov's Leto also took a look back at a politically fraught period behind the Iron Curtain in an intermittently beguiling take (also in gorgeous monochrome) on the nascent rock 'n roll scene in the Soviet Union's end-times.

Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book (which received a "special Palme d'Or" from Cate Blanchett's jury) is a massive intellectual doodle, the result of innumerable combinations, manipulations and tinkerings with pre-existing movie and historical footage, working toward ends that are at once obvious and elusive. More playful and engaging than most of his recent work, such as Film Socialisme and Goodbye to Language, it nonetheless remains intended for die-hard Godardians only.

The hot ticket of the first half of the Directors' Fortnight was indisputably Gaspar Noe's Climax, an intoxicating experience that takes you from paradise to the inferno in the course of 90 minutes spent with a sexy and druggy group of vibrant dancers. It is, to use an apt word, a trip. The other widely praised Fortnight entry was Birds of Passage, a crime epic about the drug trade among an indigenous Colombian clan from Embrace of the Serpent director Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego.

Relative disappointments in the early days of the competition included Asghar Farhadi's ho-hum opening nighter, the Spanish-language kidnap drama Everybody Knows with the stellar lead duo of Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz; Christophe Honore's AIDS-era drama Sorry Angel, which some critics loved but I found draggy and unmodulated; banned-by-Iran filmmaker Jafar Panahi's lukewarm 3 Faces (which nevertheless had corners of vocal support and won a best screenplay prize); Ryusuke Hamaguchi's uncompelling Asako I & II; A.B. Shawky's exceedingly modest Egyptian two-hander Yomeddine; and Jia Zhang-ke's gangsters-on-the-skids drama Ash Is Purest White, which I didn't like as much as some, but would nevertheless recommend for its portrait of dying Chinese industrial outposts and Zhao Tao's sensational performance as a crime boss' girlfriend.

Two films shared the honors for least deserving to have won a place on the Palais screen. Wannabe Robert Altman/David Lynch/Paul Thomas Anderson clone David Robert Mitchell's undeservedly self-satisfied mystery Under the Silver Lake (starring Andrew Garfield) tiresomely makes everyone in Los Angeles seem like a space cadet and just can't get over how smart-alecky and clever it believes itself to be. Then there was French director Eva Husson's insufferably noble and self-congratulatory Kurdish resistance drama Girls of the Sun, the thickness of which was compounded by its unbearably intrusive musical score.

At this still-soft point in the festival, attention was able to be grabbed for a night by back-from-Cannes-exile provocateur Lars von Trier. In our tweety, news-flash, sound-bite culture, what the world knew as soon as the fancy-dress premiere was over was that there were catcalls and maybe a hundred walkouts due to the brutal and torturous killings of women in the film by a prolific serial killer portrayed by Matt Dillon.

But at the reprise screening the next morning, there were no walkouts or verbal hostilities. Rather, there was somber silence and, it seemed, an intent by the audience to see the film for what it is: an upsetting and, at moments, hard-to-watch story of an unquenchable compulsion to kill on the part of a psychopath.

A couple of better-to-look-away moments aside, The House That Jack Built is probably no more violent than a lot of the trashy horror films that have recently — and are about to — come out. There's no doubt that von Trier was digging way, way down into his deeply disturbed psyche when he wrote this, and the result is both repellent and fascinating, especially the last act, in which Bruno Ganz, in 19th-century-voyaging-intellectual-tour-guide garb, leads the guilty soul down to the brink of the underworld.

It's impossible to issue a blanket endorsement of the film — it's genuinely objectionable for the images you really don't want implanted in your brain — but it's also a serious work to be grappled with intellectually even if you then reject it.

As the festival passed its mid-point, while some critical grumbling could still be heard, the films were getting better and better. These included my favorite, Lee Chang-dong's dazzling and mysterious romantic drama Burning; Matteo Garrone's fierce crime tale Dogman (which scooped up best actor honors for its star Marcello Fonte); Spike Lee's best in quite a few years, the lively, sharp-minded and occasionally overdone let's-get-the-KKK comedy-drama BlacKkKlansman (winner of the second-place Grand Prize); Alice Rohrwacher's magical realist allegory Happy as Lazzaro, which shared best screenplay honors with 3 Faces; Nadine Labaki's Lebanese slumdog tear-jerking Jury Prize winner Capharnaum; and the eventual Palme d'Or winner, festival veteran Hirokazu Kore-eda's rapturously received tale of a small-time crime family, Shoplifters.

Cannes elder statesmen Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Terry Gilliam, with the three-hour-plus The Wild Pear Tree and The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, respectively, closed out the festival, which ultimately had the feel of many Cannes before it: weighty, predictable, eye-opening, exhausting, exhilarating and, in the end, essential as a very special window on the cinema for the year. Social issues were clearly at the fore, both onscreen and off, and the festival somehow reflected the uncertainty and percolating tumult of the age.

Cannes is still very much in the game.