In Cannes’ 70th year, the world’s pre-eminent film festival has an official selection of hugely promising titles – the kind of titles that streaming services Netflix, Amazon and MUBI will be bidding fiercely to acquire for their own content roster. Hot off the Croisette, after Netflix’s Okja and Amazon’s Wonderstruck, our man on the ground checks out some of the films competing for attention.
The 2017 Cannes Film Festival kicked off with Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts, starring the director’s preferred leading man, Mathieu Almaric, as a movie director undergoing a profound life crisis and being forced to confront some terrible truths about his past and present.
When Carlotta (Marion Cotillard) reappears after 21 years missing (presumed dead), her now middle-aged husband, settled down with girlfriend Sylvie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), finds himself struggling to cope. Desplechin does not deal with the theme of loss and bereavement in what you’d call ‘realistic’ fashion, but it’s all very French.
In between scenes of shouting and standard-issue poetic talk about love, existence and the agonies of the creative process, Carlotta attempts to woo back Ismael with her smoking hot body and mysterious charm. And if all that carrying on wasn’t enough, there’s another plot unfolding featuring Ismael’s brother, a guileless diplomat/spy played by Louis Garrel. The spy thriller is wedged into Ismael’s Ghost, under the pretext that Ismael is working on a project inspired by his brother’s exciting international escapades (or so he imagines).
An auteurist indulgence peppered with genuinely dazzling sequences and shots – Desplechin is a master of cinematic technique – Ismael’s Ghosts is not the sum of its parts and smacks of a filmmaker letting his imagination run riot and perhaps taking his eye off the ball a little bit. All said, it’s nice to see the festival open with such an eccentric, if unruly, piece of work.
Giant of modern Russian cinema Andrey Zvyavgintsev is back with another corker. A portrayal of Mother Russia without a maternal bone in her body, Loveless is both bitter divorce saga (one which makes Kramer vs. Kramer look like the most amicable separation ever) and a biting allegory of Russia’s aspirational class as individuals so wrapped up in themselves that a callous monstrousness begins to seep in.
Leviathan (2015) was about state and church corruption, how it crushed the working man. Whereas that was a tragedy, Loveless is a more caustic take on society and selfishness. When 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) vanishes into thin air one day, divorcing couple Zhenya (Maryann Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Robin) must work together to find him. Only, they’re not that bothered about their lad’s disappearance, as it presents the opportunity for a fresh start and a final severing of ties. It’s as if their animosity and hatred has spirited the poor kid away to some unknown fate.
A bitter and, at times, deeply unpleasant movie featuring two of the shittiest parents ever, jaws will drop as a 30-something, materialistic, social-media obsessed mother, in the middle of what would be a profound crisis for anybody else (complete with sleepless nights and nervous breakdowns), admits to having never really loved anybody. The husband’s a total charmer, too. In one scene, he picks up a toddler and practically throws the poor thing into a cot in the bedroom.
Loveless – the title really isn’t kidding – shows us love shot to death, covered in quicklime and left to rot. As an allegory, it’s bruising, leaving deep purple marks on the mind. As a dissection of a rising class in post-communist free market Russia, it stings like salt poured into an open wound.
A Prayer Before Dawn
Based on the best-selling memoir by boxer Billy Moore (Joe Cole), an expat Liverpudlian junkie and street fighter sent away for a term in a Bangkok hellhole (for illegal gun and drug possession), Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s ferocious boxing saga wants to be ‘Midnight Express meets Raging Bull’. Instead, we get Raging Dull. While lofty heights are aimed for, Moore’s struggles to get clean and learn Thai boxing fall flat in Round 1, because the guy elicits zero sympathy. It’s like his very being has been subsumed by the Big H he’s always smoking. Yet Billy’s quick temper and incredibly violent responses to any provocation is meant to peg him as a spiritual cousin to Jake La Motta. In your dreams, mate.
All prison-movie cliches are on parade: the gang rapes; the spirit-breaking fortnight in an isolation cell; corrupt screws who turn a blind eye; the kind warden and bullying psychos, who Moore ends up befriending – because that’s what has to happen in prison movies. But there’s absolutely nothing to explain why he’s so hellbent on self-destruction, which would at least make him a bit interesting. Moore isn’t Rocky doing Porridge; he’s a thoroughly unlikeable wild animal lashing out at everybody who bothers him. (Warning: you do not get up in this guy’s grill.) But after the third or four time he’s smacked somebody about, it gets repetitive. As the plot progresses, Billy realises he can find a form of redemption through stage-controlled violence (boxing), as opposed to random assaults on others doing time. Like Van Damme in Kickboxer (1987), he learns a martial art, not to defeat a Tong Po baddie, but to defeat the demons (whatever they may be) and the addiction to junk.
The boxing scenes go for visceral energy over balletic wide shots and slow-motion. The predominant use of handheld camera work doesn’t sit well with the editing, though. Sequences are cut like Paul Greengrass’s Bourne movies having an epileptic fit. If it hurts the eyes, it’s not enjoyable, no matter the aesthetic intent. The sound design, too, is hugely influenced by the films of Nicolas Winding Refn, and Sauvaire’s often wordless film attempts to craft mood from the production design, stylised lighting and Moore’s sheer physical menace. But A Prayer Before Dawn ultimately lacks a personality. And as John Travolta said in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way.
April’s Daughter, much like Michel Franco’s previous Cannes-contender, Chronic (2015), is another quietly menacing portrait of a strange individual. Tim Roth was lauded for his role as a creepy private nurse in Chronic and Spanish actress Emma Suarez, seen last year in Pedro Almodovar’s award-winning Julieta, is equally outstanding as a middle-aged mother turning up at the home of her daughters and slowly exhibits telltale signs that spell trouble with a capital ‘T’.
Mexico’s Franco is a quintessential arthouse filmmaker. He uses static camera, long takes in medium or medium-long shot and scenes are languorously paced. The effect intended is to draw the viewer in and let the story and events tightly coils around the viewer like an anaconda’s squeeze.
When 17-year-old Valeria (Ana Valeria Becerril) gets pregnant, older sister Clara (Joanna Larequi) telephones mum April and asks her to come stay with them at their beachside home in Puerto Vallarta. April is helpful at first, but her criticisms – Clara’s a bit of a frump and is trying to lose weight – begin to rankle, and when she takes charge of looking after Valeria’s baby, April’s maternal instincts methods become increasingly unsound and move way past ‘control freak’. Suarez dominates the film but co-star Becerril is also very good as feisty Valeria, who takes on her mum when the going gets loco. Fans of contemporary world cinema will definitely want to check this out. Franco is a rising star.
Pastiche is what Michel Hazanavicius does well. Before the Oscar-winning silent-era homage The Artist (2010) made him a director of clout, he was working with Jean Dujardin on a series of 1960s spy movie spoofs. He’s in his element creating worlds modelled on fashionable genres and periods and his take on the pivotal moment in the life of Jean-Luc Godard (the Mai 1968 student riots and his marriage to 19-year-old Anne Wiazemsky) is as entertaining and aesthetically lively as a French New Wave classic.
French star Louis Garrel’s performance as the lisping director-turned-political agitator is a delight and Redoubtable certainly doesn’t go for hagiography. Godard is by turns a crushing bore praying for a revolution that’ll never come, a jealous and controlling husband, and somebody wholly intent on destroying his reputation as a master of cinema, because movies – at least, in his myopic Marxist-Leninist vision of the world – are nothing but wastes of time. Godard’s stance is countered by a fine running joke, in which members of the public come up to JLG and ask him if he’ll make any more movies such as Breathless (1960) or Contempt (1964), because everybody loves them and his more recent, didactic output has sent most folk to sleep. While trying to be polite – and sometimes opting to be rude – Godard has no intention whatsoever of playing the organ grinder to the masses. He wants the working class to rise up and take society, not spend their free time watching mainstream tripe.
As pastiche, Hazanavicius nails Nouvelle Vague counter-cinema techniques and the playfulness that marked so much of Godard’s early – and still very popular – masterpiece. Redoubtable is a surprisingly fun flick about the time a genius filmmaker turned his back on popularity to grow further and experiment with the medium, but it’s also a work of little dramatic weight or impact. Yet Garrel’s dominant, often highly amusing performance and Hazanavicius’s keen handling of the material make their collaboration a cut above most routine biopics.
For more on this year’s Cannes Film Festival, from acquisitions and Netflix news to reviews of Amazon Studios’ latest, check out dedicated Cannes channel.