Dennis Broe presents a round-up of Cannes 2019
Everyone else has gone home but here I am still walking or haunting the Croisette, the Cannes boardwalk. I’m watching the films that in world cinema will be released, or more likely dumped, later in the year in the Anglo world: and alerting you to films to keep a look out for before they quickly disappear. I wish I was joking about this, but it’s true. Three years ago Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, about the inhumanity of applying a privatized ethos to public services, won the Palme d’Or, the top prize in cinema at Cannes and in Europe. The film, whose subject could not be more relevant, barely got an opening in the US, was only marginally reviewed, and lasted in cinemas only about a week. Things have only gotten worse as the country becomes more insular and as Hollywood by contrast extends its tentacles across the world, in the form of streaming services.
First, some unfinished business from the main competition. Two French films, the first by each director, both caused a stir, and both were prized. Both are also promising and in certain ways also disappointing, or at least not quite the film they’re cracked up to be.
Les Miserables by Ladj Ly has a sensational opening which presents a truly multicultural France with a multitude of black, Arab and white faces, led by one black teenager, streaming into Paris to celebrate the country’s win in the World Soccer tournament last year. This is alas a utopian moment, as the film proper instead reveals the level of deterioration in the banlieues, the areas that ring Paris comparable to the US inner cities, as every day is a battle between cops and especially the teenage inhabitants of this particular area. This is where Hugo set his novel, and which exploded in 2005 in a rebellion that was a cry for help that in the film’s strongest moment is described as having changed nothing.
Unfortunately, the film is predominantly told from the eyes of the police, who late in the film find themselves in possession of a tape showing their own violence as one cop tells another to ‘Do the Right Thing,’ one of the models for this film, and publicize the tape. The director came to prominence for having documented police violence and made it public, but the film takes a tamer approach and contradicts itself as we see the police incapable of doing the right thing, though the film hopes they will.
The last confrontation scene between the cops and local teenagers is a direct copy, or steal, from the far better La Haine, (The Hate), an earlier film about the banlieues. Amazon grabbed the film as an early attempt to duplicate Netflix’s Oscar success with Roma, but the comparison in quality is slight.
Also prized and in many ways a better film was Atlantics by female director Mati Diop, a relative of deceased Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambetty whose Hyenas was one of the landmarks of African cinema. Diop is from France, but she sets her film in Senegal, in the Dakar suburb of Thiaroye. This is the site of a famous massacre by the French of the Senegalese, recounted in the other most famous Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s Camp Thiaroye.
Diop’s film is about a modern massacre, but one that occurs daily as again a very promising opening details how workers at a construction site, not paid for four months, make a hasty decision to board a large canoe for Spain. The film is a love story between the woman who one of them leaves behind and a worker; and the second half has a number of these women haunted by the disappearance of the men, with one retelling their inevitable demise in a powerful zombie recreation and imagining of their canoe being engulfed, just as they are about to reach Europe.
The switch from almost documentary realism to horror is an effective way of dramatizing the capsize of the canoe, but leaves the story nowhere to go, and the entry of a cop who investigates the deaths and the burning of a wedding bed, to add a noirish touch, fails completely. Still, the film has some powerful moments in recounting this love affair and the woman’s rejection of the more western, materialist fiancée she is supposed to marry, whose wedding gift of an iPhone she sells to gain her independence. All this bodes well for Diop’s future projects. This one was grabbed by Amazon competitor Netflix in a duelling Oscar bid.
A film of nothing but powerful effects was Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ follow-up to his marvellous debut The Witch, about how Salem trials exposed the moralistic, puritan strain which endures in American thought. This film, about an epic 19th century duel between a salty dog, an Ahab-like lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and the debutant who comes to assist him (Robert Pattison), begins as a class examination of power, a master-slave dialectic between boss and apprentice. Unfortunately it evolves instead into yet another display of fractured masculinity, which at this point seems like just another excuse to do an all-male film.
The expressionist black and white cinematography, recalling early cinema, is stunning as is the performance, yet again after last year’s Van Gogh, by William Dafoe, delivering Melville-like sea monologues that might be entirely from his own imagination. The screenplay, the cinematography and Dafoe will be remembered at Oscar time but since the performance is all effect, what looked like a great seafaring adventure in the end only amounts to Moby Schtick.
Much better in its destination is Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernals’ Chicuarotes, a look at a left-for-dead area on the outskirts of Mexico City. Much of the film is about the stifling male power in this area, where the inhabitants seem to be trapped as if in a miniature bottle. The film not just takes its cue but is almost an exact duplication of Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, with the surreal touches, like the opening clown sequence, falling flat. However, the last third of the film takes a turn for the better as the female members of the community, a battered wife and a girlfriend – who is watching herself being remade into the wife – assert themselves and overcome this male power. It is at this point that the film comes alive and generates its own, original, energy.
Three of the best films in the other competitions were from Latin America; all will have difficult times finding North American audiences but all are worth searching out. Philippine director Lav Diaz’ The Halt, like Brazil’s Bucarau and The Dead Don’t Die from the US, describe the three legs of the real axis of evil – the US under Trump, Brazil under Bolsonaro and the Philippines under Dutarte.
Diaz’ film, which views the Philippines as part of a coming wave of repression in Southeast Asia, is shot, like many films in this year’s festival, in creepy, gloomy black and white which forecasts a bleak future. Diaz sees Dutarte as the reappearance of the former dictator Marcos, and describes a fascist future where drones appear like fireflies to search the populace. It’s actually, a lot like the present – as in Bucarau, first world technology is used as surveillance on the third world. ‘A halt’ is the way Diaz describes life under Dutarte who has legalized death squads to wage a war against drugs, the only economy left to the poor in Manila.
A psychoanalyst is disappeared by the military, a female militia member must execute her lesbian lover, and the mysterious “Model 37” lives a double life as a high-class prostitute and a history teacher, with history all but forgotten under this regime. Diaz’s imaginative dystopia resembles not only life under Duterte, but also under the Bolsonaro regime, which has now authorized a so-called “war against delinquency,” that is, open season on gunning down teenagers in the favela where snipers now hover on the roofs and a family fleeing the chaos was recently executed with 200 bullets.
Diaz’ dystopia is a protest, whereas the other most prominent Philippine director Brillante Mendoza, whose recent film Alpha, The Right to Kill while exposing corruption on the police force also validates the basis for this slaughter which is called a war on drugs. It was Mendoza who was selected by Netflix to tell the story of this ‘war’ in its new series Amo.
Peru’s Song Without a Name, another film shot in grainy, unpolished, black and white, is set in a dark period in that country when the right came to power to combat The Shining Path (1988) is all about illustrating a single phrase. An Indian woman falls prey to a baby-snatching agency and begs a journalist to help her find the newborn that was taken from her. The journalist exposes the company but when he demands the baby be returned, a senator tells him the baby is better off elsewhere, meaning being spirited-off and sold in the North. The film is then a refutation of that statement, illustrating through the indigenous woman’s agony at losing her child, and the rituals of the vibrant indigenous culture, that the baby was born into the falsity of the claim.
The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao
Finally, there is the prized Brazilian film The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, billed as a ‘Tropical Melodrama’ and delivering on that claim. This lushly shot recounting of male dominance over two sisters in Brazil in the 1950s summons up the ghost of Douglas Sirk and the still-active Todd Haynes, in its flurries of music at emotional moments, its tale of a female friendship broken up under patriarchy, and its deliberately weepie scenes.
Euridice, as the Greek goddess before her, is enraptured with the power of music, a power her husband feels is dangerous. Her sister Guida falls for a sailor who leaves her and is then exiled from her middle-class, Portuguese, white home by an unforgiving father who keeps the two sisters apart. She finds an actual family in the African quarters of Rio, where she is loved and taken into the home of a black woman, recalling but reversing the black, white structure of Imitation of Life.
The film at first seems like just a recollection in time, but with the Alabama attack on abortion, and a protest at Cannes around a documentary highlighting a similar attack in Argentina, there is an attempt – a backlash response to metoo# – to reinstall the repressive male regime of the 1950s and so, alas, the film couldn’t be more topical.
Fire Will Come
Best environmental film of the festival was not the documentary Ice on Fire but rather the fiction film titled literally Fire Will Come, but which should be titled more poetically Comes The Fire. The film opens with a massive and terrifying bulldozing of a section of forest in what was once a remote section of Spain, rural Galicia, but which is now being invaded by profiteers. The film concludes by putting the spectator in the middle of a horrifying conflagration as a fire consumes all around it. We are reminded of the recent devastation of California and the way we are made to feel the awesome power of this tragedy, magnified by global warming, recalls the pounding of the earth as violent transgression in the Hollywood eco-disaster film Deepwater Horizon.
The fictional component of the film details how rural life is being devastated for a mother, son and their three cattle while the son’s reaction to it all was to become an arsonist. This disintegration of the region is highlighted by the remaking of one of the monuments of the area, the bell in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the endpoint of a famous pilgrimage.
Three films about the US each present jaundiced takes on the country from the foreign perspective of their directors, though none are totally successful. The best of the three, Give Me Liberty by the Russian Kyrill Mikhanovsky, is a presentation of the disabled and poor in Milwaukee which also includes its Russian population. It’s Gorki’s Lower Depths as Americana, with a hopeful core of a budding love story between the Russian driver of the disabled van, and a jilted but proud African-American caregiver for this population.
Lillian, produced by Ulrike Seidel, the Austrian wry commentator on the capitalist leisure industry, is a trip across a devastated America by a young woman whose initial gambit to stay in the country is to get work in porn, but who is turned down because of her passport problems. She’s a sort of hot Huck Finn character, who wanders across the countryside and meets a woman in Jersey who recounts how after 2008 she was forced to close her restaurant and now has put all the articles of her life up for sale. The film is an odd combination of Frederic Wiseman-type documentary of America, though better and sharper than his recent Morovia, Indiana, and a voyeuristic spotlighting of this waif/model that doesn’t quite gel.
More problematic still is Netflix’ Wounds, a horror film set in Nawleans, as the just deceased Doctor John would say, though the horrific imaginings haunting its going-nowhere-bartender spring entirely from digital devices with the horror itself driven more by the sounds from those devices than images.
It’s Tennessee Williams meets Black Mirror, the flagship series from Netflix, supposedly about technological dystopia which Netflix presents itself as the antidote to, that is, the inoffensive use of technology. In the end the bartender gives over his body to the haunting, but we can’t help thinking that we are being asked to do the same by Netflix itself, whose algorithms now program our sub-conscious through its series. So the dystopia, as in Black Mirror, becomes only a glorified and gleaming way of wallowing in our own submission.
Blow It to Bits
I’ll conclude with a documentary titled in French On Va Tout Peter and in English Blow It to Bits, which is the companion piece to the out-of-competition market documentary Capital in the 21st Century. That film detailed the new vast accumulation of wealth by the few – the one percent. This film by Lech Kowalski, most known for his punk doc D.O.A., details the life of the 99%, the many, those left for dead by capital.
The GM&S automobile parts plant in the Creuse, in the middle of France, is made up of workers who have been together for 25 to 30 years and for whom the plant is their family. When we pick up the tale, the plant is closed and the film details the workers in the process of trying to find a new owner, and in their desperation threatening to blow up the plant.
In his commentary Kowalski mentions revolution. But this is not revolution, it is barely hanging on and battling for subsistence, by a community that has simply had their life-blood drained and whose threat rings hollow. A busload of workers attempt to shut down the local Renault and Peugeot plants and petition the state, part owner of both companies, to help them save the plant.
Macron famously made an appearance at the plant, as an attempt to appeal in his campaign to working people but quickly retreated when the workers confronted him and his minister for the economy is shown stalling the workers. The eventual buyer strips the plant, employing only 120 of 277 workers and we watch in a very sad moment as one worker begs the owner to hire all of them and another gets his pink slip and says his goodbyes.
The film also details how the now-jailed Renault CEO Carlos Ghosn, in contrast, had an annual salary of over $15 million. Blow It To Bits is a companion piece to Comes the Fire, tracking rural and industrial ruin in the wake of an unfeeling economic system which produces profit at the expense of people.
Best 5 Films outside the main competition:
Fire Will Come
Blow It to Bits
Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao
You can find all the titles mentioned here at the James Agee Cinema website under Bro on the World Film Beat.
Dennis Broe is a culture critic whose latest work is Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure. His art and architecture criticism appear on Arts Express on the Pacifica Network in the US, on Breaking Glass on Art District Radio in Paris and at Culture Matters and People’s World.