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Cannes, and losing it at the movies

THE ASIAN AGE. | SUPARNA SHARMA
Published : May 30, 2019, 5:58 am IST
Updated : May 30, 2019, 6:16 am IST

It has now emerged that director Kechiche pressured the actors to engage in the explicit sex scenes.

A Hidden Life
 A Hidden Life

Cannes: Festival de Cannes’ 72nd edition closed on Sunday to a loud applause for the first South Korean film ever to win the Palme d’Or. Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite, which has been described as “a moving and suspenseful portrait of an impoverished family that resorts to some desperate, dishonest survival tactics”, was cheered wholeheartedly, though a few hearts in the audience did ache for Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

But as the president of the nine-member jury, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, said, the choice of the 49-year-old director, who has also made Snowpiercer and Okja, was “unanimous”, the ache didn’t linger for long.

Another award that was welcomed warmly by most was the best actor trophy to Antonio Banderas who plays an ageing, aching, suffering director in Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory. The Spanish auteur, who mostly makes films expressing and the joy and ecstasy of making films, had this time around devoted himself to putting on screen his own agony, at the age of 69, of making films.

But strange was the choice of Mati Diop’s debut film, Atlantique, which received the Grand Prix, the festival’s second most important award. The film, set in Senegal, tells the story of Ada, 17, who is in love with Souleiman, a young construction worker. But when he, along with other young men waiting for their salaries for over four months, leave the country by sea for Spain in search of jobs and money, strange things begin to happen.

Ada gets married to a rich man, but a burnt wedding bed is the first ominous sign that something is not right.

Magic realism — or what we call in India bhoot-pret/bhatakti aatmas — take hold of the ladies at night.

Diop was the first black female director ever in competition in Cannes, and I do not mind adventurism in films. It’s fun, in fact. But I found it difficult to take Atlantique seriously when several women, in their nighties, their eyes white as snow, walk together in a trance-like state to occupy the living room of the construction magnet and demand from him the pending salaries of the men who have sailed.

Same was the case with Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau (meaning, nighthawk). The film opens with a truck’s load of coffins spilled on to a road en route to a small Brazilian town that, soon after, disappears from the map, literally, after its matriarch Carmelita dies.

Local mayor elections are underway and when the villagers don’t pay much attention to the candidate’s spiel and promises, a group of sharp shooters arrive to take out the villagers.

With militia on hire and on the prowl, drones in the sky and orders over walkie-talkies, Bacurau tells its bizarre story of a village rising to protect itself in the style of a modern Western.

The film has a lot of blood and gore that doesn’t make much sense because the dots of the plot exist as islands unto themselves and it’s for us to join them or not.

The film’s story does somewhat come together in the end, and Bacurau stays with you as an allegorical satire on far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Kind of.

But it still makes you wonder, what, why?

But the worst and most offensive choice this year, in my opinion, was the award for best director going to Belgium’s Dardenne brothers for Young Ahmed. Though very few Western film critics questioned the choice of the film that has a rather banal and superficial take on Islamic radicalisation, and that is, perhaps, because of the daunting reputation of the two brothers who have won two Palme d’Ors in the past.

Angsty 13-year-old Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) is under the spell of his Imam and tells his mother not to drink, his sister to not to dress as a “slut” and refuses to shake his teacher’s hand because a Muslim man doesn’t touch a woman.

This disrespect of the other is taught to him, as is the deep, unquestioning belief in the purity of just one faith.

Portrait of a Lady on FirePortrait of a Lady on Fire

Ahmed, while hating others — especially Jews and Christians — becomes obsessive about ablution, reading the Quran as instructed, praying on time, and when the Iman suggests that he take matters in his hands to set some people right, he plans a stabbing.

The film links the mosque to overt religiousness and a deliberate attempt at radicalising the young without really delving into why Ahmed is drawn to the Imam, Islam or the supremacy of one religion. There is hardly any intelligent dialogue between his Muslim mother and sister and him, just a lot of sad wailing and shock.

Young Ahmed is entirely a white man’s idiotic take on radicalisation, bereft of politics. It doesn’t explore the misplaced sense of persecution, and casts radicalisation as if it were a cold, there one day, gone the next.

The film has some cute scenes when Ahmed is struggling with his attraction to a girl while trying to be a “good Muslim”, and the Dardenne brothers’ craft is, of course, honed, but the film’s story, along with its vapid politics, showcases not just the illiteracy of the white liberal elite about religious extremism, but also their reluctance to try and learn, to go beyond their own silly, concocted notions.

Les Miserables,  BeanpoleLes Miserables, Beanpole

 Festival de Cannes, which has an annual budget of $22 million, has been living on the love of cinema — that of the French public, of course, who provide half of the funding, but also the directors who keep returning with their latest creations to be showcased at the world’s biggest film market, and the 4,500-odd journalists who keep turning up, year after year, to queue up in serpentine lines, rush from one film to another, take notes in the dark and then try to decipher what they scribbled, to put out their comment on films that may or may not eventually play in theatres in their country.

The generosity of film lovers at Cannes, however, is not boundless.

The French audience is neither meek nor flinching. If they don’t like a film they will boo it with gusto, and if they like the film they will slowly circle around the overwhelmed-to-tears cast and crew of the film and applaud till their clapping hands hurt.

These moments, in which a film is celebrated by a rousing, spontaneous applause that feels like it will never end, is what brings directors back to Cannes year after year.

But every year Cannes also picks films to showcase  and celebrate that are almost certain to prompt mass walkouts and near-abusive reviews. These films usually are from Cannes’ old loyalist and established auteurs.

The award for the Needlessly Bizarre & Offensive film this year goes to director Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo which was, for some strange reason, in the festival’s main Competition section.

The ClimbThe Climb

The director had apparently sold his 2013 Palme d’Or he won for Blue Is The Warmest Colour to finance this endless gyration of naked butts that goes on and on and on and then some. Add to that a 13-minute-long unsimulated sex scene (where the actors engage in the real act, and are not just miming or simulating the action), and the walkouts were, well, polite.

It has now emerged that director Kechiche pressured the actors to engage in the explicit sex scenes.

“Kechiche absolutely wanted a non-simulated sex scene, something the actors didn’t want to do. But by the way of insistence, and over time and with alcohol being regularly consumed, he managed to get what he wanted,” a report quoted a crew member as saying.

Thankfully, the film that prompted mass walkouts and scathing reviews didn’t get any award. Luckily, the other auteur-provocateur notorious for prompting mass exodus wasn’t that offensive this time.

Sorry We Missed YouSorry We Missed You

In 2002, about 250 people had walked out during the premiere of Gasper Noe’s hardcore rape drama Irreversible, with reports of some having to be given oxygen by medics.

In 2015, in Noé’s Love, a pornographic film in 3D, a young man ejaculates straight into the audience.

Thankfully, this time around, Noe’s Lux Aeterna, a 51-minute hyper-hectic film, was not designed to shock.

It had a late night screening to a full house that began late as hundreds lined for an hour in the rain to get a seat at the Grand Theatre Lumiere. The film, in French and English, is shot on the sets of a film where two actresses — while waiting for the shoot to begin — are talking about playing the witch, being burnt at the stake, sex, filming sex.

This psychedelic, disjointed essay on “beliefs, the actor’s craft and the art of filmmaking” is riveting in the beginning when the two women, sitting next to each other but in a split screen, talk. But soon the film is a hectic montage of various, varied crisis on the sets and eventually we get to stare at, for the longest time, at three women in chic attire wrapped around a pole at the head of a pyre, looking rather bored while waiting to be burnt.

The plot is irrelevant. The lighting, the camerawork, the din and chaos on a film set is what keeps us engaged, but eventually Lux Aeterna leaves us grappling with many questions.

And that is Noe’s wont.

But it’s not all about shock. Cannes, that describes itself as a film festival which celebrates the best of “arthouse cinema with a wide audience appeal”, always has some exceptional films which, if and when they come to a theatre or a film festival close to you, must not be missed. Here are the seven best films from Cannes, 2019:

Beanpole: Set in Leningrad, 1945, director Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole is an intimate Russian historical drama about two friends, Iya and Masha, who are bound to each other by a child, Pashka, and the tragedy of World War II.

Although the siege is over, Leningrad is still tending to its wounded, looking for the people it lost, trying to find a reason to continue living.

Iva is a very tall nurse in a hospital where she tends to wounded soldiers while taking care of Pashka at home. She suffered a trauma that is not shared with us, but its aftermath is. Suddenly, without a warning even to herself, Iva freezes, lost completely in a moment in the past that vaporises her present.

After one such episode, when she returns to the present she finds herself staring at a tragedy that won’t stop stalking her, and Masha.

The Climb: Friendship knows no boundaries, and some friends like to test them repeatedly. American actor-director Michael Angelo Covino’s The Climb is a buddy comedy that is silly, goofy, joyful, fun and real.

The film stars Covino as Mike, and his real-life best friend Kyle Marvin as Kyle. The two are cycling uphill, and while Kyle is struggling to keep pace with the much fitter Mike, the best man tells his best friend that he has slept with his fiancée, Ava, and that he, in fact, may also be in love with her.

In most films this would be the dramatic beginning to a bitter feud, but not in The Climb. Here the friendship has a staggered growth because one friend just won’t stop testing its boundaries. It feels toxic, and it is, sometimes. But it’s also life-sustaining.

The Climb’s dialogue are written and delivered in a deadpan rhythm, and that makes the film very funny and relatable.

Little Joe: When’s lead, Emily Beecham (who plays Alice), won the best actress award at Cannes, I’m sure I was not the only one who felt that the crimson flower at the centre of this elegant, bizarre, silly but haunting horror film also deserved a mention.

Director Jessica Hausner’s feature film in English is about a plant breeder, Alice, who works for a corporation and creates a gene-edited flower that emits a mood-lifting scent.

The plant needs talking to, some affection, and when happy, it is supposed to make others very happy.

Its commercial potential is immense and Alice ensures that it remains within her control by making the plant sterile. It can’t reproduce on its own. But this, many of her colleagues suspect, may alter its nature.

Alice, against company policy, takes one flower home and names it after her son, calling it “Little Joe”, and then watches in disbelief as all fears come true.

Watching the evil flower at times felt as scary as watching that scary doll, Chucky, with its permanent, creepy smile. Only this one was planted in a pot.

A Hidden Life: Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, a film based on true events, tells the story of an Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) who is called to serve in Hitler’s Army during World War II. But Franz thinks Germany’s war is immoral and while he willing to serve as a paramedic, he refuses to take the Hitler oath.

When he refuses, the “conscientious objector” is accused of Wehrkraftzersetzung (undermining military morale), jailed, and eventually put to death.

Apart from its powerful message at a time of a right-ward drift the world over, A Hidden Life is transcendental in its cinematic aesthetics, beauty and operatic camera work.

It is Terrence Malick’s return after the 2011 Tree of Life that left many bored and slightly irritated.

Sorry We Missed You: English director Ken Loach’s film is set in Newcastle and tells the story of a family of four struggling to survive but repeatedly coming undone under the pressure of what’s come to be known as the “gig economy”.

Sorry We Missed You is an accompanying piece to Loach’s 2016 drama, I, Daniel Blake, but it also very much its own film.

A political, sharp, insightful, empathetic commentary on an economy and a work culture that is exploiting and cheating workers, while serving the masters, Loach’s film shows the impact that work-related stress, fatigue and frustration can have — irreparable damage inflicted at home — but also how it can, in short, happy bursts, bring a family together for such joyful moments that you may actually never jump off the unrelenting wheel.

Sorry We Missed You leaves us with a deeply distressing feeling of being impaled by the promise of having a life, sometime in the future.

Les Miserables: French director Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables is a powerful, political film that shows us how soon and easily the brutalised turn around to brutalise another.

The film’s story is nourished by real events of the 2005 French riots as well as clashes triggered by an incident of police brutality in 2008 that was caught on camera by director Ly, then a 20-year-old resident of Montfermeil.

Montfermeil is an impoverished Paris suburb with a population made almost entirely of migrants of various ethnicities from Africa and West Asia and is mostly in the news for repeated clashes between the residents and the police.

The film is set on a rather routine but particularly hot day in Montfermeil. The police car is patrolling the area, harassing residents, while a drone, operated by a geeky kid, is spying on all that is going on.

The locality is simmering with tensions over rent for stalls and local one-upmanship when bare-chested, tattooed gypsies arrive with sticks and threats demanding that their lion cub be returned.

Everyone is teetering on the edge of a bloody confrontation, and then suddenly, in one burst of a firearm, things tip over.

What follows is a heart-breaking attempt at a coverup by the police, trailed by the cyclic nature of violence where the most vulnerable find power in numbers, and then seek revenge.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Celine Sciamma’s period romance, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was the pick for Palme d’Or of many critics this year. Instead, Sciamma’s fabulous, bold, clever, feminist French film ended up winning the award for the best screenplay. No doubt the story is stunning, but it deserved more.

Set in 1770 France, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) is hired to paint a portrait of young Heloise (Adele Haenel) against her wishes and knowledge.

Heloise’s mother needs the portrait for a suitor, an aristocrat in Milan, keen on marrying her. But Heloise doesn’t want to marry. She wants to go to a convent, learn music.

Thus, Marianne must play the part of Heloise’s companion, observe her in detail and then paint her from memory, in secret.

The film is beautiful, warm and sensuous and invests as much in its plot and story as it does in the art of painting portraiture. We watch Marianne watching Heloise in close-ups, and then watch Marianne as she brings Heloise to life on canvas. When the film ventures outside, the scenes are framed like a painting with vivid colours of the sky, the sea and the sand.

The painting gets completed, but is not to anyone’s satisfaction. So Heloise begins to pose for Marianne, the two women now observing each other and talking about what they like, about “seeing” the other.

The film then brings in the maid, and weaves in the gender politics of its time — how women were not allowed to paint nude men, and women’s sad, comical attempts at abortion.

Imagine Dilwale Dulhaniya… reimagined and remade with two ladies in love.

That’s essentially what Sciamma’s film does. It takes a classic, epic romance — complete with gorgeous people in gowns, a beauteous setting, class politics — and places at its centre a lesbian couple.

The film is so in love with women that it shows men just twice — once in the beginning and then right at the end.

Some movies have the power to change which stories we tell and how we tell them. With skill, finesse and an artist’s delicate aesthetics, Sciamma tells the story that she wants to with confidence, and in doing so mainstreams a story that’s been, till now, dwelling in the fringes. That doesn’t happen often.

Tags: 2019 cannes film festival, parasite, little joe