Cannes Rankings

01

Only Lovers Left Alive

By Patrick Z. McGavin

My Cannes started this year with the cooly suggestive image of a beautiful young woman under surveillance, as captured in the viewfinder of a pair of binoculars, in French director Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, and ended with probably the most famous fall in the history of cinema, that one that concludes Alfred Hitchcock’s magisterial Vertigo.

The Ozon was part of the official competition selection, the Hitchcock, preceded by a terrific introduction from Kim Novak, the concluding work of the Cannes Classics program. All told, I saw 37 films: 20 in the official competition, two in official selection, out of competition, seven in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, three in the Directors’ Fortnight and five in the Cannes Classics.

Every festival is an object lesson in frustration and thwarted ambition. I especially regret not being able to see more of the Un Certain Regard program, because I was largely impressed by what I did sample. I also heard or read about especially encouraging reports of Lav Diaz’s reportedly extraordinary 250-minute long Norte, the End of History, Rithy Panh’s prize-winner The Missing Picture, Hany Abu-Assad’s Omar, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Diego Quemada-Diez’s La Jaula de Oro and Hiner Saleem’s My Sweet Pepper Land.

The competition is what excites and infuriates the critics, writers and assembled press. These are the also titles most likely to dominate the art-house release schedule and also turn up at other festivals, like Telluride, Toronto and New York, in the fall. Many of the key works have already been acquired for American distribution, and new deals are still being announced.

What follows are my own rankings, if you will, with corresponding grades, of the films of this year’s competition. Let the arguments begin.

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (A)

Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch of Sin (A-)

Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (A-)

James Gray’s The Immigrant (A-)

Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) [A-]

The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (A-)

Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (B+)

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (B+)

Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra (B)

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska (B)

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (B)

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s A Castle in Italy (B-)

Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Grigris (B-)

Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son (B-)

Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful (C+)

Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman (C+)

Arnaud des Pallieres’ Michael Kolhaas (C)

Amat Escalante’s Heli (C)

Takashi Miike’s Shield of Straw (C)

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives (D)

Cannes Awards

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Blue is the Warmest Color

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Cannes is as much of an endurance test as a film festival. The organizers have their own peculiar way of how to slot the 20 competition titles. After a less than audacious start and a permeating sense of disappoint, Cannes accelerated to another gear down the stretch, the propulsive finishing kick providing a jolt of excitement.

More so than any of the other 18 previous festivals I’ve covered, this year’s edition was marked by the absence of a consensus.

I left Cannes on Sunday morning and I was traveling when the jury, headed by Steven Spielberg, announced their awards of the 66th Festival de Cannes. After the first couple of days, the prevailing assumption was that Spielberg, politically liberal, artistically conservative, would opt for something fairly safe and accommodating. To that end, the betting money swirled around Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son, shown fairly early, on just the second full day of the festival.

The movie, about the severe disruptions and moral confusions of two children switched at birth, was problematic on a number of levels, artistically and intellectually. The director, so skilled and deft with the young performers, annihilated at pretty much every turn my resistance.

Of course, not every title is treated the same. The palace intrigue that surrounds all things Cannes is never more perverse than the morning screening of the festival’s final Wednesday. This is the acknowledged showcase of the festival. A couple of years ago, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds premiered there; last year, it was Walter Salles’s On the Road.

This year, Only God Forgives, the much-hyped new feature by Danish stylist Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive), was unveiled there. My friend Robert Koehler, writing here at Film Journey, thought it the favorite for the Palme d’Or, before the festival started. It was obvious, about ten minutes in, that the pretentious and lugubrious Thai-set thriller, featuring an inchoate Ryan Gosling and an overwrought Kristen Scott Thomas, was destined for the festival’s junk heap.

Where to go from there.

The breakthrough did indeed unfold that day with the first evening press screening of Abdellatif Kechiche’s extraordinary Blue is the Warmest Color. The Tunisian-born, French-based director turned heads with his exhilarating fifth feature, adapted from a highly-regarded French graphic novel, charting the emotional tumult and bracing sexual experimentation of a young woman whom, introduced as a fifteen-year old high school student, becomes enthralled with a slightly older college art student (in blue hair).

The remarkable young actress Adele Exarchopoulos is sensational, incarnating a sexual abandon and emotional fragility she makes terribly vivid and lucid. She has beautifully expressive eyes and lovely face, but it’s what she connotes through her body, power, pain, thrill and liberation, that carries the work. As her slightly older lover, Lea Seydoux achieves a glancing, wounding quality, the emotional result of spending so much of her life going against the tide of what is popular or easy. The scenes between the two are electrifying, tense and moody.

The movie’s French title, The Life of Adele – Parts 1 and 2, is preferable to the English. The movie secured American distribution, through Sundance Selects, a division of IFC FIlms, before the conclusion of the first press screening. The dissident crowd was complaining about the running time and some prominent women critics raised sharp objections to the alleged sexual objectification of the material. As is widely known, the film has three knockout graphic sex scenes, the first a 12-minute stunner that is volatile, intense and nervy. At the first public screening, some people fled the theater; otherwise, the crowd erupted in sustained applause. The limpid cinematography by Sofian el Fani is attuned to feeling, colors and shape. Some were calling for more discipline and order on the three-hour film. For me, the 179-minutes were just the beginning.

I never wanted it to end.

Spierlberg’s own movies I’ve always felt almost painfully ambivalent about, his intelligence and knowledge I’ve always been wowed by. His jury made the nervy, right and admirable choice of awarding the Kechiche the Palme d’Or.

The Coen Brothers won the Grand Prix, or second prize, with their new film about the bourgeoning folk scene in Greenwich Village, Inside Llewn Davis. Every jury produces one indefensible prize, and this year’s was the directing prize to the talented Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante for his Heli. It’s a shock film, artistically negligible. C’est la vie. Kore-eda captured the jury prize. The great Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke won the screenwriting prize for his A Touch of Sin.

The American James Gray, a highly-regarded figure in France, was thought the wild card with his excellent The Immigrant, with the superb Marion Cotillard as a Polish emigre trapped between a theater impressario (Joaquin Phoenix) and his cousin, a magician (Jeremy Renner), as she stakes out all manner of freedom, sexual and social, in 1921 New York. Cotillard speaks excellent Polish in several crucial scenes, and produces arguably the finest moment of the festival, her shattering confession. She deserved the best actres prize; the Spielberg jury went with Berenice Bejo (The Artist) for her role in The Past, the French-debut of emerging Iranian master Asghar Farhadi (A Separation).

The craggy, deeply enjoyable Bruce Dern scored something of an upset with his lead acting prize in Alexander Payne’s wistful road movie, Nebraska. When I suggested the scenario the night before, one of my dinner companions and friends, violently rejected the possibility.

That’s the kind of year it was.

Chinese Cinema at Cannes

touch

By Patrick Z. McGavin

As the world’s most important festival, Cannes is composed in many parts and layers. Yet one inescapable aspect, seemingly more acute with each year, is how much of the programming—thematically, formally—dovetails.

The narrative at the festival follows a fairly predictable trajectory: the festival slots its weaker titles at the start and then, slowly, starts to introduce the stronger material, probably as to not induce people to leave the festival early but also build a certain momentum leading up to the final weekend and the awards.

Two Chinese films meditate on national identity, representation and the moral and personal consequences of the society’s transformative shift from Maoism to an unbridled capitalism. A Touch of Sin, the new work by China’s greatest contemporary director, Jia Zhang-ke, is the most daunting, rigorous and stylistically impressive of any competition film shown the first week.

The director’s most impressive achievement since Still Life (2006) won the top prize at Venice, the new work is suffused with a blistering, tragic intensity and palpable anger illustrating the moral rot and social despair resulting from the country’s willful and energetic Randian obedience to new wealth.

Jia has collected four stories, each dealing with death and personal tumult, and drawn from recent fact-based incidents in China to address issues of inequality and corruption, whether the soul-crushing marginalization of the poor to the perverse and appalling greed, cynicism and avarice of the country’s new social elite. “I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China,” he said in the accompanying filmmaker’s notes.

The ideas and concerns are familiar from the director’s previous work (Platform, The World), but the violent sense of loss and interruption contributes to a grave and wounding tone. Jia intertwines all manner of influences, of East and West, the movie’s English title is a play on King Hu’s iconic A Touch of Zen, to the extraordinary opening chapter, which opens like a Chinese Once Upon a Time in the West and by its chilling conclusion feels like Crime and Punishment.

In the opening, set in the province of Shanxi, where Jia was born, a ruffian and agitate miner (Jiang Wu), dismissed by most of the community as a village idiot, takes extreme action in his violent protest of what he regards as the graft, corruption and self-dealing of the business and social leaders. In Chongqing, a southwestern city on the Yangtze river, an enigmatic young man (Wang Baoqiang), the same one seen at the beginning, draws on the innate power and authority conferred on him from a handgun to reverse his social marginalization. In the third piece, unfolding in Hubei, in central China, a woman (Zhao Tao), already flouting traditional values by carrying an illicit affair, strikes back at a man who arrogantly believes his wealth entitles him to unfettered sexual aggression. In the final chapter, a young man (Luo Lanshan), living on the southern coast and desperate for his own brand of social mobility, lights out from his provincial village but tragically finds just a continuation of his thwarted and circumscribed life.

This is not Intolerance; the stories never exactly interweave, but they definitely exist in relation to one another. The great Yu Lik-wai, Jia’s regular cinematographer, working in in the unusual format ratio of 1:2.4, weaves together one dazzling, immersive image after another, to the point they collate and dance in the imagination. The use of color, especially red in the first chapter, is expressive and suggestive,  binding shape and color and movement.

If anything, the first two pieces are so sharp and precise and wounding in what they have to say that sustaining that was almost impossible. The third and fourth pieces are not at the same level. As an arabesque, the four parts cohere. Jia’s preoccupations remain central, but what’s different, even shocking, about the new work is the violence, but it is grounded in the film’s carefully considered psychological register.

The most eruptive change is the sudden onset of snow in the dusty landscapes of the first chapter. Jia also, I suspect, realized the need to reinvigorate his own art, and change the tone and tempo of his work and try out new ideas and modes of being. A Touch of Sin is the work of an angry man, but it has a throbbing acuity and tension. The New York distributor Kino Lorber completed a deal to acquire American theatrical rights.

bend

Flora Lau’s Bends, a first feature that debuted in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, is also concerned with the country’s extreme social stratification. The lines of demarcation are not just about money, but also the fault lines—historic, cultural—between Hong Kong and the mainland. In the generation now passed since the handover of British control, Hong Kong cinema remains fixated on themes of cultural dislocation and assimilation, moving rather uneasily as a imperial subject shaped by exile to a now coercive body of a vast empire.

In Hong Kong cinema, especially the films of Wong Kar-wai, loneliness and impermanence are a constant, his characters often caught in the growing disconnect between what they long for and what is realistically available. Love stories that were continuously unconsummated became the director’s trademark. Flora Law is a child of the cinema of Wong—significantly, she works with his key collaborators, the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the production designer and art director William Chang Suk Ping and actress Carina Lau.

Flora Lau has made a movie slippery and ethereal, her vertiginous mise-en-scene giving shape and feeling to its dominant theme of concealment in relating the story of Anna (Carina Lau), a wealthy woman whose carefully maintained life of comfort and privilege is decimated, incrementally and then devastatingly, by her husband’s malfeasance. Lau entwines the story of Anna with that of her young chauffeur (Chen Kun).

The young man is engaged with his own form of subterfuge. He is hiding his Chinese-born wife, pregnant with their second child, in the border town of Shenzhen as he desperately tries circumvent China’s single-child policy and secure her a private facility in the expensive (and overcrowded) Hong Kong.

Flora Lau’s relative inexperience as a storyteller produces the occasional awkward moment, the too spot-on linking of the two characters, but she finds her rhythm relatively early and demonstrates a sureness of mood and feeling. Doyle’s evocative and moody imagery casts a deep hold, from the thrilling use of the subjective camera from inside the high-end Mercedes to a recurrent sense of enclosure and confinement.

A Touch of Sin reiterates a master. Bends uncovers a bright and thrilling new voice.

Looking Forward to Cannes

ryan-gosling-only-god-forgives

Only God Forgives

Heading to Cannes tomorrow, and here’s the list of films I’m looking forward to:

Heli (Escalante) Comp
Jimmy P (Desplechin) Comp
Grisgris (Haroun) Comp
A Touch of Sin (Jia) Comp
Like Father, Like Son (Kore-eda) Comp
Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche) Comp
Jeune et Jolie (Ozon) Comp
Venus in Fur (Polanski) Comp
Only God Forgives (Refn) Comp
Death March (Alix) UCR
Les Salauds (Denis) UCR
Notre, the End of History (Lav D) UCR
L’inconnu du lac (Guiraudie) UCR
L’image Manquante (Panh) UCR
La Jaula de Oro (Quemada-Diaz) UCR
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof) UCR
My Sweet Pepper Land (Saleem) UCR
Grand Central (Zlotowski) UCR
The Last of the Unjust (Lanzmann) Non-Comp
Blind Detective (To) Midnight
Seduced and Abandoned (Toback) Spec Screenings
Goha (Baratier) Cannes Classics
Manila in the Claws of Light (Brocka) Classics
Plein Soleil (Clement) Classics
A Story of Children and Film (Cousins) Classics
Le Joli mai (Lhomme/Marker) Classics
Charulata (Ray) Classics
Borom Sarret (Sembene) Classics
The Summer of Flying Fish (Said) Quinzaine
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Pavich) Quinz
The Dance of Reality (Jodorowsky) Quinz
Magic Magic (Silva) Quinz
Tip Top (Bozon) Quinz
Un Voyageur (Ophuls) Quinz
Shadow of a Cloud (Jude–short) Quinz
Solecito (Navia–short) Quinz
Swimmer (Ramsey–short) Quinz
The Dismantlement (Pilote) Semaine
3X3D (Greenaway/Godard) Semaine

With almost all of the Camera d’Or films, who knows? But many of those will be a primary focus of my daily blogs for Film Comment. I didn’t plan it this way, but I just noticed that I have exactly nine each in the Competition, UCR and Quinzaine. For the first time maybe ever, there are a whole bunch of French films that have me excited. That almost never happens, and that seems to be fairly overlooked in the pre-festival prognostications and coverage.

What’s your Palme prediction? Mine is Refn’s Only God Forgives, all things (Jury especially) considered. But though I love Refn’s cinema, I really want to see Jia win for A Touch of Sin. (A nice word pun on King Hu’s A Touch of Zen.) But that would be a miracle on a Spielberg Jury. And wouldn’t it be something if Polanski’s Venus in Fur wins? He’s the last one the Jury will see…

TCM Classic Film Festival

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Try and Get Me (The Sound of Fury) (1951)

It has been about a year since Film Journey has been updated, but I’ve been hard at work publishing a variety of print pieces, particularly for the LA Weekly.  The site is freshly rebooted now, and you can check out some of my writing from the past year on the More Publications page at top.

This past weekend was the fourth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. I often remark that I have a love/hate relationship with the Festival.  On the one hand, it’s a pass-driven festival promoted to out-of-towners who can afford to spend a weekend in Hollywood watching mostly standard repertory, and as such, it’s either too expensive or too mundane to attract local cinephiles. On the other hand, it always includes a handful of restorations and true rarities. Would it hurt TCM to offer a discounted three- or five-film package for cash-strapped moviegoers in the Festival’s host town?

In addition to the usual celebrities, TCM brings in important figures for introductions, panels and Q&A’s. Some of the people I wanted to see this year included filmmakers John Boorman, Albert Maysles and Haskell Wexler; author and filmmaker Susan Ray; actors Norman Lloyd and Max Von Sydow; historian Kevin Brownlow; Film Forum/Rialto programmer Bruce Goldstein; and the Alloy Orchestra. You can watch clips of many of these folks on TCM’s video page.

By chance, most of the screenings I attended were extremely good films noir, all of them must-sees:

• It Always Rains on Sunday (1947)

Postwar French critics may have focused on wartime American films they termed “noir,” but this blend of social realism and psychological isolation from Britain’s Ealing Studios is clearly cut from the same cloth. Beginning with a flurry of character introductions and a couple of flashbacks, the film takes a while to build steam, though Douglas Slocombe’s vivid cinematography pinpoints the rundown housing and rain-soaked streets with precision. Director Robert Hamer paints a portrait of London’s East Side in the course of a day that more or less revolves around a fugitive from the law (John McCallum) and his ex-flame (Googie Withers), now the dissatisfied mother of a squabbling family. Strong performances and an even stronger sense of place make this an unusually compelling drama from a studio typically known for its comedies.

• They Live By Night (1948)

Seeing Nicholas Ray’s first film on a large screen made its fatal romanticism seem especially intense, and it was nice to hear presenter Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation (see below) describe this film as every bit an audacious ’40s debut as Citizen Kane. The youngest member (Farley Granger) of a criminal trio on the run falls in love with the guileless daughter (Cathy O’Donnell) of a corrupt farmer. One of the most deeply felt of films noir, pivoting on ideals of innocence verses loyalty and fate. You really care about these characters.

• The Tall Target (1951)

This Anthony Mann thriller has been on my radar for a long time, but it nevertheless exceeded my   expectations. For one, it’s based on a fascinating but little-known historical anecdote about an assassination attempt on Lincoln after he was elected and en route to his inauguration. Virtually the entire film takes place on a train, one of the great claustrophobic settings for any thriller, and Mann not only orchestrates the action suspensefully, he fills his cars with finely drawn characters representing a cross-section of a country on the verge of civil war. We may not be there again yet, but the echoes of today’s political partisanship are potent.

• Try and Get Me (The Sound of Fury) (1951)

This rarely seen picture, based on the 1933 lynching that inspired Fritz Lang’s first American film, Fury (1936), has been showing around L.A. as a beautiful new restoration funded by the Film Noir Foundation. (According to Glenn Erickson, its only home video release was a 1990 VHS.) It’s a masterpiece of emotional intensity, telling the story of a desperately unemployed family man (Frank Lovejoy) who falls in with a hoodlum (Lloyd Bridges) who turns increasingly sadistic. Bridges gives a wild, expressionist performance that starts off dandyish and comic but soon becomes a flailing nightmare. Cy Enfield directed, and the film’s acute sense of social anger, implicating capitalist whims and the media alike, went a long way to tragically sealing his blacklist. If the new restoration comes your way, don’t miss it.