By Patrick McGavin
The 67th edition of this year’s film festival is roughly one-third over, and the early signs are pretty ecstatic. The competition has been tightly slotted, with just 18 features, three or four fewer than most years. It means the films get to breathe and live on their own.
In the first three days of the festival, three superb movies—one I think that will be seen in time as one of the greatest of its era—have already jolted the festival, defusing already the criticism of the festival selection committee playing it safe and familiar. (By the way my feeling has always been the people who criticize the programming most severely are the ones who rarely actually attend the festival.)
Cannes is the festival by which all others are judged. The competition titles are a kind of artistic referendum on the savvy, taste and ambition of the curators’ range, daring and originality. It’s early, but so far they have been vindicated. In turn it is the vast assembly here—of critics, writers, programmers and cinephiles—who get to viscerally experience the deep pleasures. (And that is with new works by Jean-Luc Godard, the Dardenne brothers, Olivier Assayas and David Cronenberg still unseen.)
The Mauritanian-born Abderrahmane Sissako is, I think, the finest director at work in Africa today. His disturbing, powerful new work, Timbuktu, was the first competition film shown and it is altogether stunning. The movie is angry and mournful, visually expressive and bound together by a sense of outrage and horror that gathers a tremendous cumulative power.The movie opens with an act of Taliban-like act of cultural desecration of militant Islamic jihadists spraying automatic rifle fire and laying waste to a series of culturally invaluable artifacts and statues.
The horror only escalates from there. Sissako was inspired by a horrifying episode from two years of a young couple stoned to death for having two children without being married. The movie conveys the severe social restriction and cultural coercion by the imposition, through force, of Sharia law as dancing, music and soccer are banned and women are ordered covered.
The jihadists are significantly primarily Arab, not black, unable to speak the local dialect and enforce a totalitarian stranglehold that bleeds the vitality and beauty of the village culture. The jihadists are solemn, reactionary and primitive (the leader arrives there unable to drive a car). The tightly regulated social behavior gives way to an annihilating form of sexual subjugation, the jihadist leader is constantly prowling around the dedicated, forceful Satima (Toulou Kiki). The story turns on a violent encounter between her husband, a cattle herder, Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), and a fisherman.
Sissako has a poetic feel for landscapes, and his velvety, sinister black imagery is haunting.It contrasts brilliantly with the open, lunar-shaped surfaces of the desert landscapes. Timbuktu weaves a spellbinding arabesque combining the lyrical (a group of young dissidents partake in an invisible game of soccer to protest the crackdown) and the absurdist (a former “rapper,” drafted to make a propaganda video to atone for his “sins,” proves incapable of carrying out the assignment).
Mike Leigh’s enthralling Mr. Turner is, principally, a fragmented, impressionistic study of the last 25 years of the life and art of the visionary Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). Leigh has been talking about making this movie for at least a decade, and his passion fortunately never suffocates the material. It’s enlivening and provides a bracing perspective of the painter whose abstracted landscape works is regarded in some circles as an antecedent of Impressionism.
Leigh regular Timothy Spall plays (or, more accurately, incarnates) the eponymous Joseph Mallord William Turner, prickly and self-contained, a man of enormous appetites and needs. There’s a ferocious pas a deux with his housekeeper Hannah (the superb Dorothy Atkinson), and his arm grabbing hold of her is like a tentacle drawn to its prey. Turner’s harsh discipline and majestic solitude grants him a commanding solidity and shapes his intuitive grasp of nature.
Like most of Leigh’s players, Spall has always been an eccentric performer. He threw himself into the part with a manic gusto, practicing sketching and painting for more than two years before Leigh even commenced his patented rehearsal process. Mr. Turner excels in the way that fits Leigh’s own strengths, his extraordinary rapport with actors. The byplay between Turner and his father (the fantastic Paul Jesson), gruff and tender, and the widow, Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he carried out a serious clandestine affair, are absolutely entrancing, skillfully teasing out aspects of character, reflection and mood that color the portraiture.
The most exciting part of the film, elevating it beyond the restrictions of the biographical form, is Leigh’s acumen and skill with the camera. Leigh is a colossus on the international art film scene. It has been a revelation to chart his almost radical evolution as a filmmaker, from the early actor-driven, plaintive style of his 16mm works to the deeper range and subtlety of Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake. Dick Pope is his cinematographer, and also the camera operator.
From the majestic opening shot of a long pan in which two Dutch women slowly walk into the frame and cross the line of Turner, who’s furiously sketching, Mr. Turner is tactile and diaphanous. The cutting is also very bracing, like a sharp movement in closeup of Turner examining one of his own paintings to a jump cut of the solitary figure standing in the vast space of the interlaced rock formations and pock-marked landscapes. The man who started as a playwright, his dominant influence the work of John Cassavetes, and who cut his teeth making television commissions is now a certifiable master in his own right.
Mr. Turner is the most emphatic evidence yet.
The towering achievement, for me, is Winter Sleep, the 196-minute work by the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It deserves its own time and space, and I will return to this space soon with more.