Dennis Broe's final report on the hyperspectacle which is Cannes 2018.
I would like to begin this Cannes Festival wrap up with the opening of At War, a film about the immolation of the French working class, which is an apt quote from Bertolt Brecht for these media-induced apathetic times: “It’s possible to struggle and lose but if you don’t struggle, you’ve already lost.”
Now to the hyperspectacle. The dust has settled, the prizes are bestowed and Cannes 2018 is in the books. The American trade papers subjected the festival to consistent attacks with The Hollywood Reporter suggesting, as one of its “Five Reasons why Cannes is no Longer so Relevant”, that there are not as many billboards along the Croisette or Boardwalk for American blockbusters. The Festival is having problems but lack of billboards championing masterpieces like Cars 12 and Fast and Furious 27 are not among them.
Hollywood boycotted the festival, perhaps figuring that Venice, which is closer to nomination time, works better for highlighting Academy Award fare. On their side, the French cinema owners also closed ranks, threatening to fire the Cannes director Thierry Fremaux if he again allowed Netflix films, which do not open in French cinemas, in the main competition.
Fremaux, whose natural disposition is more ecumenical, then returned the festival to arthouse competition only, but without Amazon and Netflix, two of the main American producers currently of independent fare. The open war that broke out at Cannes is really the expression of a competition between Hollywood/Netflix and the rest of the world. Foreign profits are now more crucial to the Hollywood/Netflix bottom line and when the studios and the streaming services took their toys and went home they wanted to make it seem like the sandbox would then collapse, though both were highly active in snatching up films in the Cannes market.
That aside though, many of the films this year were problematic. They often began well but succumbed to various faults. The Godard film was a milestone, but the Lars von Trier and Jia Zhangke films were both lacking. Two Italian films, Happy As Lazzaro and Dogman have wonderful first halves, then seem to succumb to the same malaise that is afflicting the country as a whole, which this week saw the first far-right party take power in a Western democracy. Blackkklansman, which did win the second prize at the festival, is the best and worst of Spike Lee. Under the Silver Lake begins in Hitchcock/David Lynch ecstasy in its perceptive presentation of capitalism’s compulsion to erase mystery and wonder from the world, but then substitutes lazy Hollywood pseudo-philosophizing for critique.
Nevertheless, there were films to like and a top five in and out of the main competition. They were:
- Yomeddine, an Egyptian road movie that is a tour through a brutal neo-liberalized Egypt;
- Cold War, a unexpected complex examination of both sides of that conflict;
- The Image Book, Godard’s masterful indictment of and paean to European civilization and its troubled relationship with the Arab World;
- The Spy Gone North which begins as a Cold War missive itself then morphs into a revealing look at the powers on the peninsula wanting to maintain the war; and
- At War, Stephane Brize’s penetrating examination of what may be the last stand for French workers losing their place in the globalized capitalist economy.
There were also films not to like. Two of these were: Solo: A Star War’s Story, where we find out how Hans Solo met Chewbacka and a whole lot of other things we didn’t need or want to know in Disney’s attempt to push the franchise well beyond oversaturation, and On the Road in France, a cross country trip by May 68’s Daniel Cohn-Bendit. He is now a Macron backer, and his grilling of the workers he encounters about how they can be more productive and relevant is a very Macroniste take on a French working class which now must justify its very existence.
First the best. Yomaddine is better and more trenchant than most critics here thought. An ageing leper in rural Egypt, whose wife has just died, goes on a quest with the boy he has adopted to find his long lost parents who had dropped him at the colony. What he finds though is an Egypt full of corruption, competition and greed as the police shackle him, fellow travellers steal from him and his family at first shuns him – in short a trip though the American backed Al-Sissi dictatorship which betrayed the Arab Spring.
Hope though comes from social outsiders and outcasts including the Muslim Brotherhood member who escapes from jail with him, three cripples, including one a former truck driver run over by a drunken scion of a wealthy family, who re-instill his confidence, and the boy Obama who will not forsake him. A chilling scene is his watching a cruise ship at night in his first time gazing at the Nile from his perch next to his beat-up mule-drawn wagon with the Egyptian elite streaming by and partying in the face of and oblivious to his misery.
Godard believes in the power of images and in their constant juxtaposition and The Image Book somewhat akin to Elegy of Love, Film Socialisme and his 3-D Goodbye to Language simply overwhelms with his quoting and mixing of films from Johnny Guitar to Vertigo. He also quotes art, Delacroix for example. The film mixes works of creation of Western civilization with footage of napalming and massacres in Vietnam, atomic explosions, and devastation of the Arab World. The overall impact though in this case is not the celebration of the images as in his Histories of Cinema but a sense that the image culture which Godard loves/hates is complicit in the destruction and devastation that the West has unleashed on the rest of the world.
This festival’s other masterpiece is Polish director Pawel Palinowski’s Cold War, an instant Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film. The film, which covers a decade in frayed European relationships because of the Cold War, is shot in resplendent black and white. The monochrome approach catches the drabness of the Eastern bloc, but also in more high contrast the glitter that is not gold of the West, and particularly Paris.
The film explores the way the aspirations of artists – here star-crossed lovers, a singer and an composer/accompanist – were similar in the Second World to the First World, with the performers from the Polish countryside wanting to get to Moscow instead of New York and London, and with divided Berlin as their meeting point. The Cold War of the title also refers to men and women but that conflict between the two leads takes second fiddle by the end to the way they can find no peace on either side of the socialist/capitalist curtain and are eventually consumed by this war among peoples who were more alike than different.
The presentation of Stephane Brize’s At War received a 15 minute ovation at the end. The film details the way that French workers at a factory, who were promised work for five years and who gave back hours and wages after two years, find out that the German owned company, which is making a profit, is going back on its word. It is closing because it can reduce wages even further by moving to Romania.
The film premiered the day after Oxfam announced that of the leading industrialized countries French businesses returned the greatest share of their profits, 68%, to shareholders who simply pocketed the money, a factor which is revealed in the film as also driving the plant closing. The film concentrates solidly on the attempts to resist the firing of the factory workers with little psychologizing of his characters in a way that keeps it focused on their economic plight. The only problem was the overemphasis on one worker, played by Vincent London, one of the only professional actors in the cast, but miscast in a film whose subject was the collective group of workers. This character though does come finally to expresses the near hopelessness of workers caught in the global corporate capitalist vice, and the ovation at the premiere seemed to be as much for French workers themselves as for the cast, crew, and film.
The Spy Gone North, a taut espionage and suspense thriller, begins in promoting the Cold War itself as a South Korean spy dressed up as an entrepreneur attempts to ferret out in the 1990s whether the North is constructing atomic weapons. Strangely, that task is forgotten in the film’s much stronger second half, as it details the ways that military men on both sides want the buildup to continue and in the South the way the intelligence service was used to attempt to sabotage the election of a peace candidate. The films feelgood ending affirms a friendship between the spy from the South and his corresponding contact in the North validating the will of the people on both sides for peace.
Not so good
Now to the problem films. Blackkklansman, like its bombastic title, is a narrative that too often stays at the level of style in this story of a black police officer in Colorado in the 1980s who helped infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan. The presentation of Stokely Carmichael and the black liberation rebels is superficial sloganeering and the celebration of police informants, here both black and white, hews too closely to the current Democratic Party strategy of celebrating the FBI’s investigation of Trump. Be careful what you wish for and who you are celebrating.
The strengths here are Spike’s mixing of materials and use of documentary including:
- the magnetic presence of Harry Belafonte telling a story of a 1916 lynching intercut with the Klan’s watching of the film The Birth of a Nation;
- Alex Baldwin’s impersonation of a Grand Klan wizard in the opening using Trump phraseology;
- the closing montage which highlights the resurgence of right wing street violence at Charlottsville; and
- a transcendent dance sequence in a black club to the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose’s “It’s too late to turn back now.”
Jie Zhangke’s Ash is Pure as White has another miraculous performance by his muse Zhao Tao in a film about three phases of contemporary China’s transformation into a freewheeling, profitable, but less communal, economy and society. Her performance recalls first her role as ingénue gangster's moll in Unknown Pleasures at the moment of the country’s initial capitalization, then as female action figure from A Touch of Sin as here she saves her gangster boyfriend and takes the rap for him, as wronged wife in Still Life in its critique of vast expansions such as the Three Gorges Project which shows up in the film as a place. Here, she is swindled by a would-be entrepreneur, and finally as gambling parlour elder which recalls her struggles to triumph over a hard life in Mountains May Depart. The problem is we have seen it all before and though this adds to Zhao’s luster as perhaps the greatest actress in the modern cinema it does not add so much to Jie’s work or deepen his concerns.
Two films which initially appear promising but then end up vacant are Lars von Trier’s House That Jack Built and the actually more ambitious and penetrating film by It Follows director David Robert Mitchell, Under the Silver Lake. House was von Trier’s return to Cannes after being ousted for a previous provocation.
The film begins as a characterization of the American male as that of a serial killer. It’s an orgy of male violence against women and the kind of film, even as critique, that perhaps the MeToo movement will change so that we get the other side of this violence, and indeed 100 people are said to have walked out at the premiere.
It then descends into a parable of the artist as serial killer with Matt Dylan/von Trier as Dante visiting hell accompanied by Bruno Ganz’s Virgil, and at this point becomes simple, meaningless and offensive provocation, citing Albert Speer as tortured artist. It’s a far cry from von Trier’s better work, which had cast a penetrating gaze on the American psyche. House is the violent companion piece to the equally lifeless Nymphomaniac – von Trier has managed to make two boring films about sex and violence.
Under the Silver Lake begins very promisingly with hints of a mystery in this gentrified capital of Los Angeles hipdom, as an out-of-work slacker attempts to solve the disappearance of a girl who lives next door, as in Rear Window. He follows her friend in lush travelling shots via Vertigo, only this time as farce in a paddle boat; acts like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet in his claim that there is a mystery he is trying to uncover; and watches at one of the numerous parties he attends a whispered version of “To Sir With Love” that recalls the “Crying” sequence in Mulholland Drive.
The film’s enlightened conceit though, is that while Lynch and Hitchcock explored genuine social and psychic mysteries, late capitalism has destroyed the idea of mystery and replaced it with nothing but brands. The slacker Sam in a conversation with his nominal girlfriend after having sex, during which they watch celebrity news, talks about the first magazine he masturbated to and then asks his actress-friend what was her first – not her first lover or first person she had sex with, but the first image she masturbated to. She answers that it was a character, a logo, on a tube of tooth paste, a double remove from human experience. Where Hitchcock had the Raymond Burr character in Rear Window as a murderer, Sam spies instead in the window of the missing girl, the landlord looking for the rent. The film does eventually dissolve into a haze of ramblings about pop culture, as the so-called solutions to the mysteries become more and more trivial, actually unintentionally illustrating its thesis that what is meaningful in culture has been destroyed by profit mongers, unfortunately that includes the latter half of this film. The real secret of Silver Lake - the gentrification that has moved Hispanic peoples out of the area and replaced them with hipsters - is elided in these pseudo-solutions.
Problems also beset two Italian films, both about the contemporary issues plaguing that country. Dogman has an astounding performance by Marcello Fonte as a dog groomer in a forgotten, left-for-dead, suburban wasteland somewhere in Italy. Fonte is the new Dino Risi, the Italian everyman actor of the 1950s. Only where Risi was a conformist who somehow managed to do the right thing, Fonte’s character is a decent man who is drawn into a net of violence as his way out of the poverty facing the country’s small business class. The opening sequence where he is gingerly washing a vicious bulldog is recapitulated in the film with his relationship with a local thug Simone, who is Mussolini-like in his brute violence. The film though in the end succumbs to that violence and can find no other way out.
Happy As Lazzaro exhibits director Alice Rohrwacher’s gift for recalling the ‘50s golden age of Italian social comedy, especially in its opening serenading of a young girl by a villager, seen not from his perspective but from the jaded view of the girl’s older sister. The film is about the village enslaved and in debt to a contessa who does not inform them that their medieval sharecropping relationship has been outlawed in modern Italy and who claims they are better off enslaved.
The second half purports to be a fable about how these times continue in the present but by the bumbling of the peasants in the modern world instead simply illustrates that what the contessa claimed about them needing their own domination is true.
A similar problem besets the Japanese film Shoplifting, which won the Palme d’Or as best film. A gang of loving misfits live by pilfering but form what the film contends is a better family unit than the more traditional one, adopting a girl who is beaten in her supposedly more loving, upwardly mobile family structure. Ultimately though the film does not sustain its critique and ends up taking it back, by showing that the outsider family is as morally bankrupt as those it seems to oppose. Wonderful performances highlighted by Ando Sakuro, the wife of the lead character, who is alternately carefree, seductive and maternal.
Patriarchal capitalist culture
Finally there is the documentary Whitney, which opens with shots of the Newark Riots and places its subject Whitney Houston in the middle of the riots where she grew up. The film details her rough schooling and abandonment by her mother Cissy Houston, who was on the road with Aretha Franklin, her father stealing from her, and her husband Bobby Brown beating her and leading her further down the path of drugs. It also details her remarkable vocal ability nurtured in her gospel background, her energy, and the way her voice and the famous kiss at the end of The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner, a relationship with a white man in which the black woman has the upper hand, was a point of pride for the black community.
Unfortunately, this type of tell-all film can easily degenerate into its own form of exploitation. The moment where a friend reveals that Whitney was molested – and then pauses and reveals by whom and we find it’s a celebrity molestation – feels simply designed to sell the film rather than to get to an inner truth about the singer. Her desperation was indeed there from the beginning in her first mega hit “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” where the next line is “with somebody who loves me.” She searched her whole life to find that somebody, did not find them, and the search in all the wrong places and her pumping up by the male dominated, profit-seeking celebrity machine, combined to kill her. Like so many other black female singers, she was a victim of patriarchal capitalist culture.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.
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