My last two days at the film festival were nothing but mellow (what, no wild parties in Cannes?), and have completely resigned to seeing one film per day. Which means missing out on the new Spike Lee joint, the new Star Wars, the new Robert Mitchell, the latest Chang-dong, Gonzalez and Ceylan. Reading back that sentence alone sounds like I’m missing the best part, but hey, we all have to make sacrifices. I’ve cut down my usual twelve-day festival attendance down to a measly eight this year, but nonetheless, I’ve seen fourteen films in total, which isn’t bad considering the amount of beach naps I’ve had, the number of films I’ve skipped and the utter disregard for over-performance at the Palais. I’ve figured that being very selective with the films I watch was a reasonable approach, if not humane, as I find there’s more enjoyment to be had in the festival rather than allowing the whole thing to be an endurance test. Watching films can be exhausting, mind. It requires a lot of attention, brainpower, some psychological and emotional commitment, plus the sheer patience and energy to process a cinematic work in one’s gut and conscience. Participating in art is not a walk in the park, I tell you.
In the end, I left Côte d’Azur on a high and flew back to good old Lisbon town. Cannes occupies such a special place in the chambers of my heart. It’s a place where a true cinephile could engage and connect with the artform in such a glorious milieu. In my experience, the films I see in Cannes usually end up in my Best of the Year list, and that’s certainly accurate throughout the years. I will always be grateful whenever I land my modest pair of feet on those red-carpeted stairs, the gleaming Croisette boulevard, prop myself on the dazzling beach and place my humble bum on those seats in the Palais, as Cannes still remains the most prestigious film festival in the world with nary any doubt.
Give me Kore-eda any day
Cannes can take the wind out of your sails. Anyone participating in this mad film marathon will have you know about the creeping exhaustion slowly building behind you, and then suddenly knock you out when you least expect it. On the sixth day, I failed to wake up for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku). Feeling no guilt whatsoever (no one’s paying me dough to see these films and write about it!), I took my sweet time and grabbed a late breakfast around centre ville, as the Côte d’Azur heavens poured relentlessly, and then slogged my way to the Palais only to completely miss another film, Etienne Kallos’s Die Stropers (The Harvesters). Turns out this Monday vibe wasn’t working for me. I retreated from the rain, back to the Palais and chugged down cups of Velozios to commiserate. Fortunately, Nespresso has been pouring caffeine on press throats for the entire festival duration for free, so there’s something to keep my adrenaline pumping.
But then later on, like some blissful work of fate as the sky clears up over Cannes, I got into a re-run of the Kore-eda at the Soixantième tent and it couldn’t be any more perfect. Shoplifters is, without fanfare or hyperbole, a divine work of art. I’ve been a fan of Kore-eda from Still Walking to After the Storm, but his latest social drama is undoubtedly his best effort, patiently portraying the careful dynamics of a makeshift family in its first half with trademark Kore-eda nuances, and then completely destroyed me in its latter half, pulling apart this social structure with all its political, philosophical and emotional resonance. One would argue that Kore-eda have been doing films like this for over a decade, but the final scenes in Shoplifters are some of the angriest, most emotionally explosive moments he’s ever directed. He blows away all our preconceived notions of what “family” means, building this cinematic portrait of stowaways, forming a unit against life’s myriad cruelties, to show what it really means to care and look after each other, without judgement and mistreatment, despite being unrelated by blood. I wept by the end of this film, as Shoplifters pulled the figurative rug of my feet. There is an Ozu kind of greatness here, and Kore-eda is quietly giving it to us. It’s our responsibility to take notice. This is filmmaking as an act of compassion, of kindness, a way to show humanity and empathy to those around us. I stepped out of the Palais, my faith in the goodness of cinema fully restored. Thank you, Kore-eda, thank you.
Lars von Trier, to hell and back
I dedicated my last day in Cannes with none other than Lars von Trier’s latest opus The House That Jack Built. Save the best (or worst) for last, as they say. Well, dull it certainly isn’t. News of walkouts have already been flurrying from the previous night’s premiere (apparently there was about a hundred, as though someone was actually counting the number of people flying from the Grand Théâtre Lumière like it was the job of their lives). For those well-acquainted with Cannes, these claim of such walkouts have always been some kind of grand exaggeration, a media-fuelled frenzy for headline-ready baits for next day’s
churnjournalism. Sure, von Trier’s film isn’t exactly an easy watch, but what did these people exactly expect from the man who gave us clitoridectomy in Antichrist and an odyssey of fucking in Nymphomaniac? Nice group hugs?
The House That Jack Built, for starters, is told from the perspective of a serial killer and his warped mind, so prizes for those who expected it to be gruesome. Of course it’s going to be gruesome and hellish and bloody and inhumane and immoral. No one wants your moral sermon in a Lars von Trier film. He gives us epic ordeals, and if you know his body of work, playing safe isn’t his game. He will push your buttons, blow your judgements, and certainly doesn’t give a damn about your moral high ground. Those calling his latest “an empty provocation” hasn’t been paying much attention, ready to condemn rather than understand.
This isn’t von Trier’s best film, but it’s definitely one of his most fascinating. It shares the cognitive brunt and philosophical burden of Nymphomaniac, structured and styled like his previous film, along with its intellectual digressions and contradictory meta-conversations. Along with it, bodies are piled up, people are mutilated, children are killed, breasts are sliced, and this engineer-cum-architect-cum-serial-killer contemplates that murder is a form of art, the killer as an artist, and compares the work of Albert Speer, Hitler, the Holocaust to the “Noble Rot” winemaking. It is your choice whether to howl or stay for the film, but you’re dumb enough if you believe Lars von Trier genuinely wanted you to empathise the mind of a fucked-up psycho killer. Jonathan Demme (and the writer Thomas Harris) didn’t ask you to feel sorry for Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs when he was on a killing spree, did they? And this notorious breast-slicing scene is as comparably horrifying as when Luis Buñuel cut up an eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, so would you protest on that one, too?
I am glad a film like this exist in this too politically correct world, as though filmmakers and artists are almost banned to explore the most excruciatingly difficult concepts. In The House That Jack Built, von Trier dedicates his mad, frenzied intelligence to gaze into the most debased, darkest, blackest abyss, a kind of nightmarish hell where the male artistic ego swirls unfathomably into its depths, a terrible journey with no return. If you only listen and look closely, especially in the film’s Dantean finale, here is a mad genius willing to expel his most repulsive thoughts, fantasies and predilections into the inferno, sending his dark arts into a private underworld. It’s a romantic way of saying that all those who consider beauty and art in killing deserves the deepest ninth circle of hell. Film festivals should be grateful they have someone like von Trier who’s willing to converse about things we deem as taboos. Morality should not precede Art. Tell that to your Marquis de Sades, Oscar Wildes, D. H. Lawrences, Pier Paolo Pasolinis, Bernardo Bertoluccis and Gaspar Noés of this world.