Love affairs can be enduring. Some are more short-lived than most. Cannes Film Festival, for me, was the one that got away. I thought I’d never be back here again. I popped my festival cherry back in 2013; and after a brief run, just like a passionate spring-summer romance, life whirled me away into different realities and pulled me further from the opportunities to come back to the Croisette. But somehow, just like Jesse and Céline in Before Sunset, some years later, I am reunited with this jilted lover and realised Cannes did not get away. It was always here, waiting for me to return.
Maudlin romanticism aside, after some years of absence, this guy is back in Cannes town, enthused and a touch reassured that despite my lack of festival engagement over the last few editions (no excuse, life happens!), Cannes Film Festival once again reciprocates my love for cinema by welcoming me back with open arms and granting me with a yellow press badge, the lowest of Cannes-kind. But hey, no complaints! I am one of the 4,000 accredited press people around the globe to get premium access to world cinema’s crème de la crème entirely for free, bump into stars and hang out with fellow film lovers while guzzling the best French wine available to humanity. You get my drift. This place fills me with joy and I’m chuffed that my affair with this festival is an enduring one. Hopefully, this will be one of the many glorious, passionate, Cannes-filled years throughout my age.
Cinema and the sea
I’ve inaugurated my official film festival attendance this year with a dip in the Mediterranean Sea. That’s right. Breakfast du jour on la plage and a swim in the azure blue waters of the French Riviera were the first order of the day. I’ve decided that being a press attendee is one thing, and being in Cannes is another. Therefore, with consideration, I am spreading my film consumption evenly throughout the next eight days with beach breaks and hillside walks purely because life is far too short to sit entirely in the dark. As much as I adore cinema, Cote d’Azur is far too beautiful to miss and this guy is getting old, so let me enjoy my moments on the beach and in the sun.
Moving on, after luxuriously laying out on the glittering shores, bathing on the dazzling light, I dried, dressed and caught up with the festival’s Opening Ceremony and Ouverture Film, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows (after being subjected to a relentless hour-long press queue). Luckily I got in and seated for the world’s classiest telenovela unfolding before my eyes. If it weren’t for Farhadi, this would be have been the most melodramatic Cannes opener in years. But thank goodness it’s Farhadi, and for those who know his body of work, he turns soap opera material into Art, ferreting out with detective skill the sociological conflicts of a small Spanish town and its inhabitants, specifically a once-wealthy family and the working class folks that orbit around them. Farhadi delivers his signature narrative style, present from A Separation and About Elly, but this time injecting a whodunit thriller element to the proceedings when one of the family members disappear, after which the film anxiously unspool with all its secrets, deception and small-town gossip.
Like a season dramatist, Farhadi mines complex family fissures and dramatic discord that even despite the film spilling over the somewhat predictable “kidnapping movie” territory, he delivers a fascinating investigation on class conflict, commenting on how wealth and land ownership destroys family relationships. It’s also intriguing to see Farhadi working with established talents, and both Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem are commanding, both bringing the acting panache to their roles. It’s safe to say it’s a decent festival opener, but I’m sure as hell there’ll be more compelling film entries to come.
A free morning, which means stuffing my face with pastries (it’s France, after all), then headed to the Un Certain Regard sidebar, where Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass opens the eclectic section. The big breakfast was a big mistake. The film was hard to stomach. I mean, I should have known better what to expect from Loznitsa. Donbass is a film to make one sick with revulsion, immense in its harrowing, withering, satirical sociopolitical takedown of the perpetual (info)wars in Ukraine, portraying the whole mess to be both farcical and hopelessly tragic. There’s humour, yes, especially the opening gambit, but one that’s drenched steeply in acrid poison, making you feel as thought knives are poking your throat while you laugh. Loznitsa critically attacks all sides of war in Novorussia, from the manipulative Ukrainian nationalist government straight to the pro-Russian militants. Here, he portrays roving vignettes in Eastern Ukraine, sketching terror, fear-mongering, refugee shelters while fiercely swiping at unmitigated nationalism and the dissemination of fake news, all to the expense of the civilians, the real victims of this nightmarish apocalypse. A hard pill to swallow, then, but a necessary look at an ongoing European conflict.
After the intense Donbass, I was off to douse my fiery nerves by checking out the Semaine de la Critique. Sad to say, my first ever attempt at attending this Cannes strand was a failure. There were too many people queueing for Paul Dano’s directorial debut. Hot off from Sundance and garnering raves, that’s why. Better luck tomorrow then!
So, on the second day, I managed to watch a grand total of ONE film. As the French would say, formidable.
I woke up at ungodly hour to get my redemption from yesterday’s Semaine de la Critique initiation fiasco, and thank fuck, I got into Wildlife. Nothing quite like your heart slowly being torn into pieces at 8.30 in the morning. Paul Dano has given us one of the great directorial debut in years with this slice of 1950s Americana, a portrait of family and slow-burn separation that’s appointed with such fine intelligence and subtle nuance. I find it intimate yet quietly epic, charting the crumbling of a family unit as a force of nature.
Some scenes here are so precisely directed that it feels like you’re in the hand of a master, marrying neoclassical cinematography with some great screenwriting. It treads the coming-of-age narrative, set against the backdrop of a deteriorating marriage, one that’s carved so painfully before our eyes. Foremost to this anguish is Carey Mulligan, giving the greatest performance of her career thus far, shoring up the complex character of Jeanette – wife, woman, survivor – into Awards Contender field. Don’t get me wrong, the trio of performances are all soulful (both Jake Gyllenhaal as the aimless father Jerry and Ed Oxenbould’s stoic son Joe are uniformly excellent), but it’s Mulligan that leaves the most heartbreaking note. Her Jeanette is a woman stuck in a suburban nowhere, trying to survive in ways she knows how. First the voice of reason and pragmatism, and then the body of frustration, existential anger and despair the next. Motherhood has left her embattled wits on the edge, fighting her own fire and delusions. It’s a magnificent reminder of the promising talents she first displayed in An Education, and come awards season, expect Mulligan’s name on that nominee list.
With very little time to spare, I proceeded to the outdoor cinema-in-a-tent Salle du Soixantième, wiping tears and snots in-between, thanks to that Wildlife drama, ready for A. B. Shawky’s Yomeddine, and then shell-shocked to find out that it was Krill Serebrennikov’s Leto playing. The actual fuck did you get yourself into, I hear you ask. Well, may I remind you dear reader that prior to this whole festival, I spent approximately two hours planning my screening schedule, only find myself at a wrong cinema. Bravo. So much for my purported impeccable organisational skills.
Fortunately, Leto (Summer) is a veritable blast, and an unexpected surprise. This black-and-white Leningrad-set ’80s rock musical of sorts channels the spirit of the ’60s Nouvelle Vague, by turns playful, vivid, rebellious and thoroughly sustained by some wistful moments and melancholic mood. If you love The Velvet Underground, Bowie and T-Rex blasting through the speakers, this is the film for you. I adored its energy and unpredictability, and Serebrennikov infuses his film with radical kindness, allowing collaboration and harmony in its character leads rather than competition that’s pervasive in other rise-and-fall portraits of rock icons.
Later on, I wrapped up my day by queueing up in the warm rain for Christophe Honoré’s Sorry, Angel (or its infinitely better-sounding French title Plaire, aimer et courir vite). The Cotê d’Azur heavens may have dampened us slightly, but it seemed like Honoré made sure it’s all worth the wait. His latest is endearing, heartfelt and exquisitely honest. Quite possibly his best work to date. Fuelled by frank conversations about love, sex, connections, life’s myriad pleasures and disappointments, Sorry, Angel refuses to be categorised merely as an AIDS drama, despite this being set against the Act Up-era 1993 Paris. There is so much more here, beautifully exploring two men’s contrasting ideologies about romance without being mushy and sentimental; intelligent and funny where it needs to be, and then subsequently poignant where you least expect it. You feel all the feels without Honoré hammering it on you, and Stranger By The Lake breakout Pierre Deladonchamps is a standout as the jaded writer Jacques – a man threatened by his own motality, refusing to believe in romance any longer and yet constantly reminded by an adorable stranger (Vincent Lacoste, giving you insouciant French man-chic) that to be alive is to love and to care.
Colour me moved, as I walked back home to apartment after this rather eventful day at the movies.