Cannes 2018 Reviews: Everybody Knows, Ash Is Purest White, The House That Jack Built, The Dead and the Others, The Gentle Indifference of the World
Martyn Conterio | On 18, May 2018
The 71st Cannes Film Festival may have lacked the big guns of previous years, but the official selection has been consistently strong, whether In Competition, the Un Certain Regard sidebar or Out of Competition. With Netflix trying to snap up the opening film, Everybody Knows, and MUBI acquiring Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book, the Croisette remains the place to be for streaming services seeking the next acclaimed world cinema gem. We head to the French Riviera to bring you five of our favourites from this year:
Asghar Farhadi’s latest film, selected to open the 71st Cannes Film Festival, is another of the Iranian director’s studies in troubled families and fractured relationships. Filmed in Spain and in Spanish, the filmmaker drafted in Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz and Argentine actor Ricardo Darin to headline his peculiar and not altogether successful take on the psycho-thriller.
Ash Is Purest White
Jia Zhang-ke’s Ash Is Purest White is fronted by a sensational performance from regular collaborator Zhao Tao. If the third act knocks the wind out of the dramatic sails, and can feel dissatisfactory at a glance, the ending adroitly mirrors the characters’ sorry fortunes, their disappointed lives. Yes, the movie peters out, rather than end on a grand melodramatic finish, but it’s deliberate on Zhang-ke’s part and worth keeping in mind, because the ending is cleverer and more considered than a case of the director simply running out of steam and not knowing how to end his film.
Set over 10 years – from the mid-noughties to 2018 – Ash Is Purest White is the story of Qiao (Tao) and her lowlife gangster beau, Bin, who runs underground gambling dens. They love disco-dancing and live for the moment, but when Bin gets beaten severely during a fistfight with a rival crew, fearing for her boyfriend’s life, Qiao takes a course of action that dooms them both. Thanks to an illegal firearm, Qiao does 5 years inside and is split apart from her lover. When she gets out of prison, everybody has moved on and her romantic notion – that Bin would wait for her – is soon revealed for the delusion it is. The rest of the film follows Qiao on her epic journey back home and what she thinks will be an emotional reckoning day.
The second act is masterfully crafted. Unfolding on the Yangzte River, where abandoned cities and towns await to be swallowed by the Three Gorges dam project, Quiao finds herself lost, in a jam after her money is stolen and forced to rely on all the crooked skills taught by Bin. It is a powerful and riveting sequence of symbolic transition, not just in terms of China’s economic rise as a superpower and rebuilding infrastructure, but its depiction of Qiao drowning in disappointment and trying to stay afloat.
The House That Jack Built
Lars von Trier is one of cinema’s great jokers and provocateurs. He baits audiences and critics time and time again and, right on cue, they bite then act appalled at the taste. After a seven-year ban for making dumb comments at the press conference for Melancholia, the Danish auteur is back with a metaphysical serial-killer flick set in the evergreen state of Washington, starring Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Riley Keough and Uma Thurman.
Dillon has rarely been better as engineer Jack in what is, frankly, the role of a lifetime. As the glib but supremely evil aesthete – he considers murder to be an art–form – Jack is searching for the sublime in wicked acts, but he is constantly thwarted by creative dissatisfaction.
A monster protagonist, scenes of sickening violence, a loopy finale and von Trier goading us all into recognizing our own complicity in enjoying violent imagery will mean this film gets a very mixed reception and labelled ‘controversial’, but horror hounds will have seen gore like it before, in 1980s Italian, zombie and cannibal movies. Those not au fait with trickster von Trier will no doubt check out long before the finale and audibly register their disgust, but The House That Jack Built is a fascinating look at a director – who has long battled depression in real life – committing some kind of spiritual cleanse, or is an act of artistic annihilation? His world view has always been bleak and misanthropic, for sure, but there’s something about its very final moment which feels redemptive somehow. Certainly not for Jack, maybe not even for von Trier, but there’s the idea put forth that those who sin will get their comeuppance. Put it this way: it’s a very Catholic movie.
The Dead and the Others
Co-directed by João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora, The Dead and the Others is unlike any other coming-of-age film out there. That sounds like big talk, but how many other teenage dramas have you seen, which have as their main character not some valley girl obsessing over prom dates or a dweeb lusting after the unobtainable hottie, but an indigenous boy about to begin his training to be a shaman in the Amazon jungle, and is beset by depression, anxiety and identity issues?
Shot on 16mm film and delivering sumptuous and mysterious impressionistic images, The Dead and the Others is paced like a tired sloth, but don’t let that put you off. For life in the Amazon does not move at the same speed and beats as western society. Here, people consider questions before they give an answer, they await guidance from forest spirits and omens. A work of extraordinary ambience, wide shots of jungles and hills look like Monet painting in motion. It might take some getting used to, but if you surrender to its rhymes, the pay-off is huge.
The Gentle Indifference of the World
In the brilliant first 20 minutes or so of Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s The Gentle Indifference of the World, which screened in the Un Certain Regard selection, there is breathtaking use of widescreen composition and natural light. The scenery twinkles and glows like sunshine hitting stained glass. The effect is delirious, beguiling and, most of all, cinematic.
But the rural idyll and harmony doesn’t last long.
Yerzhanov has set out to remake FW Murnau’s masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, giving it a downbeat, existentialist twist. Instead of melodrama and romance, we’re served fatalism and sorrow. Dinara Batkybayeva is excellent in the lead role, too. Saltanat, a young woman and university graduate with English as a second language, is forced to give up her dreams when her debt-ridden father kills himself. Heading off to the big city, she and her friend – and love interest Kuandyk (Kuandyk Dussenbaev) – find life there unbearable.
As masterful and beautiful as the opening segment is, Yerzhanov commits to a dour and increasingly bleak story, which might not prove to be everybody’s cup of tea. Saltanat is a great beauty and therefore predatory men begin to dream up ways to ensnare and corrupt her, while Kuandyk gets caught up in a murderous scheme with a local supermarket king and mobster.
At 1hr and 40 mins, this Kazakhstani production doesn’t out stay its welcome, but it’s perhaps one for those who like their arthouse cinema especially dark and melancholic. It does, however, deserve an audience.
From acquisitions to reviews of Amazon and HBO’s latest, catch up with our Cannes 2018 coverage here.