No amount of Cannes adrenaline rush could ever make me feel super enthusiastic waking up at the crack of morning to catch an 8.30 screening of a major film in competition. Being a film critic on the Croisette means being first in the cinema and the last one out, watching films back-to-back, and typing some coherent critical reaction throughout. First world problems, I know. But those days are over for me. This time, I have chosen to actively enjoy the festival, meaning slowing down and savouring every film and not rushing from one cinema to the next. So forgive me if my output is palpably sluggish and sparse, I’m probably busy napping on the beach in between films, sipping some wine in a bar somewhere and just living. Hard life. Tough shit. I call the shots here.
Day Four: Love, what is it good for?
I consider it unmerciful to stage the world’s greatest film festival in one of the most gorgeous corners of the globe, where the sun shines like a dream, and then compelling everyone here to sit in the dark all day like cultural vampires sucking cinematic blood. Surely it isn’t only me who deems this. Even the most diehard festival cinephiles, who devour four to five films per day, must somehow welcome the thought, isn’t it pleasant out? Two films per day is a realistic target, and anything on top of that is like having the cake and eating it despite being already full.
First on the plate is hot Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, fresh from the critical triumph of Ida, wowing the entire Palais with another bleak, monochrome masterpiece, Cold War. It’s the first film in the festival so far that I unreservedly love. Shot in the same Acamedy ratio and black-and-white aesthetic as Ida, Pawlikowsi has crafted a stunningly realised, time-spanning love story that’s artful, elegiac and ultimately tragic. It evokes the cinematic touchstones from Tarkovsky to Bresson to Demy, even exquisitely reminiscent of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (which, in turn, is a riff on Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg) in its tale of star-crossed lovers and their struggle against time and fate. Cold War adds more weighty resonance by setting its central tentative romance during Europe’s postwar political cholera, that when circumstance isn’t pulling them apart, the couple spends time at war with themselves. There are moments here of such savage beauty your eyes water from both its stunning compositions and emotional devastation, with a final shot that will destroy whatever’s left of your heart and souls.
I could have easily called it a day, and allow Pawlikowski’s cinematic triumph to wash over me. Perhaps a quiet walk on the beach, making sense of life after Cold War. But no. I sneaked early into the Pedro Almodóvar-produced Argentinian true-to-life crime saga L’ange (The Angel), and it turns out to be quite the rollicking surprise. It’s one of those out-of-the-blue stunner, bringing crazysexycool back into the outlaw genre. Director Luis Ortega orchestrates the whole account in Tarantino-meets-Scorcese mode, imbuing this story about a swaggeringly insouciant youth who pulls a part-time gig as a thief, robber and subsequent murderer with dazzling style and wit, and then going the Almodóvar route, throwing some sexual ambiguity for seductive measure. It’s perhaps the most deliberately entertaining film of the festival thus far, unapologetic in its amoral flight and featuring some of the most groovily executed crime sequences in recent memory.
Right after this was Jia Zhangke, currently China’s foremost auteur, returning to the Croisette with this latest artful melodrama Ash is Purest White, featuring his muse, the incomparable Zhao Tao. Expectations are high, especially after his two magnificent preceding outputs A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart. His latest work serves as a companion piece to the latter, reminiscent of its structure and thesis of time’s passage, lost love and the ravages of modernity. What begins as a gangster melodrama deepens and darkens into an aching love story between a mob boss and his girlfriend, who commits an act of sacrifice that will have consequences throughout their lives. Zhangke’s effort isn’t entirely successful, the third act has some aimless longueurs, but as a portrait of China’s fast-changing modernism, it’s deeply saddening to see its characters steadfastly holding onto the once blazing, youthful past out of fear of isolation and loneliness in today’s world. As expected, Tao is exquisite in the central role, masterfully unmasking profound sadness and vulnerability behind a stoic, often ferocious, exterior. Prix d’interprétation féminine for this lady, s’il vous plait.
Day Five: Vacances sur la plage
On the fifth day, I rose again and said, fuck it. The sun was shining, the sky so blue, and the sea was beckoning me. One can’t be on the French Riviera and not be on the beach, so I’ve foregone the festival and indulged in some exquisite me time. I’m cancelling all my interviews, and won’t be taking any more questions for the moment. Please respect my peace and privacy while I’m on vacation. Merci.
Day Six: Channeling my inner cinephile
Back on track by gouging on not one, but four films on a Sunday. How’s that for a comeback. With a darkening tan from yesterday’s beach day and a slightly groggy head from last night’s wine-fuelled antics, I set out to attain cinephile status and pin down as many films as I can fit on my schedule, as much as my pair of eyes can endure and brain can process.
And what better than to start the day with a proper assault of the senses. After a long ass queue at the Director’s Fortnight venue (turns out half of Cannes woke up this goddamn early to get cinematically blowtorched by Gaspar Noé), I’ve subjected myself to a 95-minute piece of French extremism, and it might be the most brutal Sunday morning film screening I’ve participated in my entire life. I’m not saying that’s bad – Noé’s Climax is, for a lack of a better word, incredible. There is nothing quite like watching a “party gone to hell” acid trip at 8:00 AM, but it’s worth the wake-up call. It bears the cinematic hallmarks of Noé – fluid long-takes, electric visual style and unapologetic screen violence present from Irreversible to Enter the Void – but the director has also imbued some ironic, pitch-black humour to his latest, turning a dance corps party into an inevitable descent to Sadean pandemonium. Good that Noé makes you laugh in its first 20 minutes or so, filled with funny interview vignettes of the dance company members, because what unfolds over the remaining film is a work of cinema you won’t likely forget. Without spoiling much, characters go on an impromptu LSD voyage into full Noé nightmare, as we bear witness to the fucked-up things these characters are capable of doing without inhibition.
From the sheer intensity of Climax, I staggered from Marriott to the Grand Théâtre Lumière for Eva Husson’s timely war film Les filles du soleil (Girls of the Sun), expecting a searing feminist film about a bunch of female Kurdistan fighters fighting male ISIS oppression. What I got was neither searing nor feminist, but a pedantic war film so conventionally drawn and clumsily structured that every time it tries to draw emotions, it felt the need to use some overblown orchestral music. Shame, because the film’s premiere had been preceded by a red-carpet protest of female film professionals, including festival juries Cate Blanchett and Kirsten Stewart, showing the imbalance of the film festival’s selection between women and men to the world, and rightly so. Only I wish the film they were trying to boost was near as powerful. Girls of the Sun has all the potential of a potent work of cinema, but it’s undermined by Husson’s conventional direction. Works of feminist cinema should be judged on its artistic, technical merit, and not on the wave movement it’s trying to ride on. I salute those undyingly courageous female Kurdistan fighters, but I feel they deserve a better film than this. There is a redeeming factor here though, and it’s in the form of the Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who gives a credibly heartfelt performance, carrying most of the film’s arc on her shoulders.
Third film of the day was Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro), which turns out to be such a remarkable feature, reminiscent of the golden halcyon days of the poetic Italian neorealism. Hardly do we see these days a film as quietly fascinating as this, portraying a kind of pastoral, Pasolini-esque hymn to rural life whilst subtly siphoning a social drama and a critique of the bourgeoisie in gorgeously grainy 16mm stock. It’s the second film in Competition to feature a fake kidnapping plot, next to Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, but don’t let that fool you. Rohrwacher’s goal is so much more refined, allowing her narrative to grow and swell into a melancholic ode to goodness and innocence, where a bunch of peasants are freed from an exploitative tobacco overlord and left to fend off in a contemporary, industrialised Italia. This is where the Rohrwacher’s film becomes ambitious, if not profound, pulling a leap in time and creating a meta-fable where our naïve protagonist Lazzaro finds himself in urban Italy where the rest have aged and have been ravaged by modern life. The emotions here sneak up on you, and then pulls you into its saddening cinematic poetry, Suddenly life has turned everything upside down, and Lazzaro Felice suggests that there is real nobility in simplicity of living. This is a genuine masterpiece.
Later on, I wrapped up my film-fuelled day with the debut of this hot new Belgian filmmaker, Lukas Dhont’s Girl, a brutal, physically demanding yet ravishing feature that centres on a trans teen’s ordeal in becoming a ballerina and a fully reassigned and operated woman. I thought I’ve seen the most challenging film earlier in Noe’s Climax, but Girl pushes you into utterly exacting levels of audience participation as we bear witness to a person’s gruelling transformation in somewhat Darren Aronofsky boundary-pushing fashion. Black Swan is a clear cinematic precursor, but what’s astounding about Girl is the way Dhont uses realism in the form of docu-fiction. Everything here feels way too real, which conveys a magnificently authentic performance at its core by the newcomer Victor Polster. There’s much hoopla surrounding the casting of a cis gender actor playing a trans character, but it takes only a short look at what Polster does in Girl to realise the stunning commitment this actor put into this young woman’s odyssey. The ending might be too swift and unmitigated as I find, but there’s no question of the real ambition and execution in Dhont’s electrifying and subsequently poignant first feature. He’ll make waves, that’s for sure.
So that’s cinema overload for a day. Do excuse me while I go back to my apartment, crawl into bed and get some good ‘ol dose of narcolepsy.