By Milos Stehlik
It was the most beautiful Cannes weather, ever, with sunny skies, 70s in the day, mid 50s at night. After the attacks in nearby Nice last year, the security at Cannes was significantly ramped up. Every entrance required at least a double body scan, with intense searches of purses and bags. Naturally, this meant enormous backups and crowds. The very regimented levels of access at Cannes, depending on what kind of pass you have (which in turn determines where you sit and the order in which you are allowed to enter) made this worse. Every movie was pretty much like going through the airport security line. I saw the many-zippered briefcase of Piers Handling, the director of the Toronto Film Festival in front of me deconstructed with having each of multiple eyeglass cases opened and, in a final insult, his bag of nuts confiscated and thrown away — no food or drink is allowed inside.
The beautiful weather seemed to have a drawback for at least some of those arriving to the red carpet, which is now at least partially covered with a clear roof in case of rain. In the midday sun, this makes it even hotter, and if one takes a very long time to pose for the banks of photographers on the way to the red carpeted staircase, this caused problems with makeup.
The jury of the Cannes Film Festival, directed this year by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar and including American actors Will Smith and Jessica Chastain, awarded the Palme D’Or to a film that no one expected to win: The Square by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund. A 2 1/2 hour often-ironic and episodic take on the art world through the story of a divorced director of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, the film got mixed reviews from critics. This is not because it was not original, but because it lacked shape and everyone felt it was too long. So much for critics. Many at Cannes declared its lead actor, the 40-year-old Claes Bang was “hot,” so perhaps this had something to do with it.
The director, Ruben Östlund, who was noticed for Force Majeure, a film shown in Un Certain Regard section (not the competition) of Cannes a few years ago, first said that he was stunned by the great directors in this year’s competition. Don’t they ALL say that? Östlund started to say that he wanted to share his prize with director Michael Haneke’s Happy End, but then changed his mind and said, “No, I don’t want to share it with anyone — it’s mine, all mine!” At least he was honest.
The film which I believe truly deserved to win was Loveless by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. The film is a brilliant look at a disintegrating marriage which exposes the raw emotions of a couple not seen on the screen since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton went at each other in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. When the couple’s only child Alyosha who overhears his parents’ fight and understands that neither parent wants to keep him disappears, the film shifts into a critical look at the state of the Russia: the careless, bureaucratic police, the collusion of the Orthodox church with state power, and the way these affect everyday lives. Loveless received what is technically the Festival’s third prize, “Prix du Jury.”
The Cannes Festival took all the credit for solving its perennial problem with the under-representation of women. The scandals of the fashion police at Cannes at banning flat shoes took second place this year perhaps in reaction to the increased security, and the Best Director prize went to Sofia Coppola for her new film, Beguiled.
Nicole Kidman stars here along with Colin Farrell, Elle Fanning and Kirsten Dunst. Kidman plays the headmistress of an all-girls’ boarding school in Virginia toward the end of the Civil War. Amy, one of the students, finds an injured Union Soldier in the woods while mushroom picking, brings him to the school, and Kidman decides to help heal his injured leg before turning him over to the Confederates. The young girls’ sheltered existence is quickly upset when hormones begin to rage, leading to tension, conflict and ultimately, tragedy.
What attracted Coppola to this theme is hard to know. The novel on which the film is based had been made into a film with Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page in 1971 by Don Siegel, and though Coppola provides a more feminist spin (as she did in her last film at Cannes, Marie Antoinette), it’s hard to know what, if anything, she was trying to say. I was personally irritated throughout the film, not by Kidman’s difficulty in moving her facial muscles in any meaningful expression (we can all guess what brought this on), but by her channeling of the southern accent: weirdly forced and inconsistent. It would have been better if she’d spared us the attempt and been represented as, for example, a Massachusetts governess who had come to the south to set up a school, which would have precluded her having to channel any accent at all.
Kidman, who had already left Cannes for her home in Nashville, delivered a tearful thank you message by video, won the Festival’s special 70th anniversary prize. She was in no less than four films at Cannes — two films in competition – Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer in addition to The Beguiled, as well as the out-of-competition How To Talk to Girls at Parties, a punk sci-fi by James Cameron Mitchell, and an installment of Jane Campion’s TV series, Top of the Lake: China Girl. She had been dubbed the “queen of Cannes” but responded in an interview that she was at Cannes, “just working.” Kidman, who was named the wealthiest Australian entertainer by a financial magazine with estimated assets of $347 million, said that she is now out to take chances in the roles she chooses. That, of course, is a good thing.
Diane Kruger received the Best Actress Prize for her role in Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin’s In the Fade. Kruger had made her name through a modeling and acting career in France, and this was her first film role in her native language, German. She plays the wife of a Turkish immigrant who dies in a racist-inspired bombing of his office in which he, and their 6-year-old son, die. When the Nazi couple who staged the bombing are caught and then acquitted during the trial, the widow decides to take justice into her own hands.
Tilda Swinton makes us re-think what beauty is all about. Is she beautiful? Certainly not in any Hollywood sense. She is pale and lanky, and malleable to be both feminine and androgynous. But no matter what, she is striking. I met her at the Telluride Film Festival a few years back. She is smart, devoted to her native Scotland and to working with interesting filmmakers to become their muse. This started back in the 1980s in the films of the late Derek Jarman.
One of the filmmakers Swinton is devoted to is Bong Joon-Ho. She plays dual roles in his new film, Okja. One of the two films produced by Netflix which showed with a great deal of controversy at Cannes, Okja is essentially a fairy-tale with a humanist/environmentalist theme. A global agri-business, founded by an evil “father” and now run by Lucy Miranda, played by Swinton, has genetically engineered a mega-pig. The pigs are being raised in locations around the world in a contest. Cut to Korea, where an engaging Mija, a 12-year-old girl living with her grandfather in the mountains is bringing up Okja — a pig as big as a rhinoceros and as lovable as Babe. Okja and Mija cuddle and sleep together, and Okja saves Mija’s life. Okja will win the contest, but this means separation for Mija and Okja, since she will be brought to New York for the contest, and, of course, eventually slaughtered. Enter the ninja-like anti-animal-cruelty SWAT team, which will help save Okja from the slaughterhouse. Though structured as a family film, and with a potent anti-GMO message, I think children will be traumatized by seeing it – its final scenes in the stockyards and slaughterhouse are quite graphic and traumatic, computer-generated-imagery notwithstanding.
Swinton, playing both the narcissistic manipulator of the agri-business and greedy arbiter of Okja’s fate but also her even more sinister and evil sister (one of two dual performances in Cannes, the other being Jérémie Renier‘s performance as the twin brothers, the good-brother Paul and the evil-twin Louis in Francois Ozon’s Double Lover), obviously had a good time here.
The simmering Netflix controversy at Cannes was over the fact that Netflix shows films they produce simultaneously on their streaming platforms and in theatres. French law mandates that films are shown in theatres first, giving a window of some months before they can be released in other digital formats or platforms. This theatrical exhibition is obviously very important to the French (and should be important to the rest of the world). Movies should be given the chance to be a group, social experience before becoming a solitary one. The Cannes Film Festival pressured Netflix to commit to releasing Okja (and the other film Netflix produced which was in the Cannes competition, The Meyerowitz Stories by Noah Baumbach with Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman), following the theatrically-window model. Netflix refused. The jury — Pedro Almodovar, Bong Joon-Ho, Will Smith, lined up on opposite sides of the debate. A stand-off. Ultimately the Cannes Festival said no films which do not have a theatrical release in France before going to other platforms will be accepted in subsequent Cannes Film Festivals.
Onto Isabelle Huppert. She was everywhere. In Michael Haneke’s film Happy End, she plays the daughter of a construction-business-family in Calais. This family is dysfunctional, with the 13-year-old Eve, who comes to live in Calais after her mother dies of cancer, having the most sense and the best perspective. The pere, Georges Laurent, played by 86-year old, Jean-Louis Trintignant (who, along with Huppert, appeared in Amour, Haneke’s previous film which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes) is ready to check out of life and just needs some pills to do it. Huppert is at her best here — she is simply great at playing strong, actualized women (she runs the family construction business) who know what they want, are not fooled by anyone, don’t suffer men-as-fools easily, and takes no prisoners. Happy End proves one thing: despite the seriousness of Haneke’s films (the film is shot in Calais, site of “the jungle” camp where immigrants are desperately waiting to make it to England) and his themes of surveillance, he is not without a sense of humor.
The last competing film shown was Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really There, which stars Joaquin Phoenix as an enforcer-for-hire who gets involved in trying to save a young girl from a childhood prostitution ring. Reportedly being re-edited even the week before its premiere, the film was shown without final credits, but won the Best Actor prize for Phoenix. The film is messy, violent, relentless, yet brilliant and powerful with a give-all performance from Phoenix.
(Editor’s Note: Milos Stehlik is the Founder and Artistic Director of Facets which for 41 years has harnessed the power of film to change lives and thus change the world. Facets hosts year-round educational programs and the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the most celebrated children’s film festival in North America. For further information call 773-281-9075, ext. 3052 or visit facets.org)