Critic's Notebook: The Year Cannes Couldn't

The Square, Faces Places and The Rider Still - Split - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

It was a weak year for the competition, THR's chief film critic writes, as A-list auteurs stumbled and festivalgoers were left to hunt for treasure outside the main slate.

About halfway through the 70th Cannes Film Festival, I began to feel sorry for Thierry Fremaux and his programmers, because at some point along the way in the selection process it must have become clear that the good-to-great films just weren’t there this year. Somehow the festival would have to muddle through as best it could.

And so it was, day after day, night after night, one somewhat-to-seriously disappointing film after another, with perhaps just two or three you could genuinely say were worthy of inclusion in the main competition. Every artist has ups and down; it’s just that most of them seemed to have their downs at the same time — this year.

The curious irony of Cannes 2017 is that the two most vital creative works I saw were made by directors with illustrious histories at the festival but were not, in fact, films at all: former Palme d’Or winner Jane Campion’s second season in her excellent Top of the Lake miniseries, which will be broadcast this fall on Sundance TV, and the ever-eminent Alejandro G. Inarritu's stunning breakthrough in virtual reality filmmaking, Carne y Arena, a six-and-a-half-minute total immersion experience that will be presented at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art beginning in July (as well as at the Tlatelolo Museum in Mexico City).

The biggest rush I got from an actual film on the Cote d’Azur this month was not from a competition title but from a special sidebar (Midnight Screenings) entry, an insanely violent and, from a technical and mise-en-scene point of view, extraordinary South Korean action film, Jung Byung-Gil’s The Villainess.

And the loveliest, most enchanting work on the Croisette this year was another non-competition title (perhaps it should have been competing), Agnes Varda’s travel and social documentary Faces Places (Visages Villages), a trip to various French backwaters she made with a visual artist named JR. It’s something close to sublime.

Okay, there were two or three films in the competition that were pretty good, but maybe not worth the long trip to France, especially when some of them are going to pop up on Netflix anytime now without the benefit of theatrical engagements. Something new to Cannes this year was the guaranteed round of hearty booing and hooting whenever the Netflix logo appeared on the front of a film, as it did in competition with Noah Baumbach's engaging The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) — featuring a trio of award-worthy performances by Dustin Hoffman, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller — and Bong Joon Ho’s ghastly big animal fantasy outing Okja

My favorite film in competition was Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s The Square, which deservedly won the Palme d'Or. Stylish, provocative and perhaps 20 minutes too long, this is a challenging piece of work with a lot on its mind relating to racism, who has money and what they do with it, and degrees of guilt and lack of the same over social awareness and responsibility. Every scene pulses with ideas, impulses and elements that put you off balance and sometimes ill at ease. Ostlund just can’t restrain himself, so he goes on too long, and to diminishing effect toward the end, but it’s a bold and substantial satire.

The same could be said of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, another thoroughly depressing and penetrating exploration of modern Russian moral rot from the director of Leviathan, the greatest Cannes entry in recent years not to have won the Palme d’Or. Loveless is not on the same level as that more all-encompassing work, but it’s still weighty, severe and quite thoroughly devoid of optimism on any level. It took home the jury prize (third place).

It was a slippery slope down from there for competition titles. Worthy auteurs who underperformed this season include Todd Haynes with his nicely crafted Wonderstruck, which never achieves lift-off; Yorgis Lanthimos with The Killing of the Sacred Deer, which carefully builds an intriguingly sinister mood until, even more than his previous The Lobster, it is ruined by third-act ludicrousness, resulting in something resembling bargain-basement Stephen King (it won best screenplay, in a tie with the even less deserving You Were Never Really Here, from Lynne Ramsay); Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo, whose White God was such a great surprise three years ago but who really blows it here with the fantastical immigrant allegory Jupiter’s Moon; Sofia Coppola with The Beguiled, a lackluster rehash of a very good 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film that really has nothing new to add (though that didn't stop the jury from giving Coppola their best director prize); and Josh and Benny Safdie’s relentlessly and exhaustingly energized Good Time, the main attribute of which is a surprisingly fine turn by Robert Pattinson in an unexpected role.

Other established auteurs who delivered middling 2017 efforts include Michael Haneke with the biting but familiar-feeling Happy EndArnaud Desplechin with the vigorous but hasty opener Ismael's Ghosts and Michel Hazanavicius with the hit-or-miss Jean-Luc Godard character study Redoubtable. The prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s The Day After is amusing and his best in a while, but exceedingly modest.

A highlight in the Directors' Fortnight was Chloe Zhao’s small second film, The Rider, a beautiful and true drama about a young South Dakota rodeo rider’s slow recovery from a seemingly career-ending injury.

The most repellent impression made by anyone onscreen this year was that of untouchable French intellectual and maker of ShoahClaude Lanzmann. At 91, he would seem to have made his latest documentary, Napalm, for the express reason of taking the opportunity to brag, at staggering and increasingly exasperating length, about how he seduced a Korean Red Cross nurse back in the 1950s. Lanzmann here exudes the air of a man of limitless ego who may not be reproached under any circumstances, someone who has surpassed the status of living legend to become an imperishable statue.