It's always interesting to go through the competition lineup at Cannes, especially if, like me, you’ve been attending the fest for quite a few years now. The stakes are always high for world cinema whenever this film fest-to-end-all-film fests kicks off. A good chunk of the European film industry counts on Cannes to produce a fair number of successes with every passing edition, but sometimes it doesn’t pan out. More recently, in 2017, Cannes had a mediocre lineup, which was a hint at the terrible year in foreign language cinema to come. During that year, the best films in competition, The Safdies’ “Good Time,” and Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square,” barely made a dent at the international box-office.
Not just cinephiles, but the Cannes committee as well, were most likely biting their fingernails when Jim Jarmusch's "The Dead Don't Die" kicked off the festival with a thud. It wasn’t that Jarmusch’s zombie movie was necessarily a sign of things to come, but it represented a bewildering start from a filmmaker who had been on such a hot streak of late, with “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Paterson,” two of his very best films.
Mediocre movies were very much present all over this year’s competition lineup. With the aforementioned Jarmusch, there was also “Little Joe,” “Oh Mercy,” “Matthias & Maxime,” “Frankie,” “Sibyl,” “The Traitor” and, despite my tentative liking of it, Abdelatif Kechiche’s ill-received “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo.” That’s almost half of the competition being relegated to mediocre, if not worse, status.
Despite last years' edition giving us highlights such as "Burning," "Cold War," "BlackKklansman," “Shoplifters," “Capernaum,” “Ash is Purest White,” “Happy as Lazzaro,” and “Dogman,” you would be hard pressed to find films from this year’s comp that reached the potential of those excellent movies.
Sure, there was Celine Sciamma's “Portait of a Lady on Fire,” one of the few competition entries that managed to have me use the M word. It’s such a simple film, yet so masterfully made. Nobody expected this from Sciamma, but it represented a career-changing achievement for her, one that will likely put her on the short list of the best and most exciting filmmakers currently working, not just in France but in the world.
Quentin Tarantino ended up giving us such a bold statement. The first 2 hours of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” are damn-near plotless. It was all about character, which rendered it the closest he's ever come to the mosaic narratives of “Pulp Fiction”/ “Jackie Brown.”
Palme D’or winner Boon Joon-ho’s “Parasite”, on the other hand, felt like, as I put it in my review, “Kore-eda on steroids.” By that point in the festival we needed a great movie, and really, “Parasite” had a knockout first hour which felt like Bong’s most mature and accomplished work to date. However, in its second hour, the film eventually succumbed to a lack of subtlety and resorted to cheap shocks and fanboy-dom.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne were taken for granted by many with their Islamic radicalist tale “Young Ahmed” and yet, to my eyes at least, it represented a major return to form for the directors after 2016’s “The Unknown Girl,” which turned out to be the first mediocre effort of their careers.
The one title being underestimated, not for prizes but for artistic merit, is Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Bacurau,” a film which starts off as an art film exercise in tribalist dissection of a Brazil knee-deep in the isolation of its people, but turns, rather quickly, into the kind of grindhouse cinema Tarantino would more than likely celebrate in his own right. It didn’t break the mold, but was a welcome surprise in a festival that rather wholesomely decided to celebrate genre cinema in its lineup this year.
Filho’s film ended up sharing the Jury Prize with Ladj Ly’s “Les Miserables,” an entertaining, but mainstream-driven affair that, much like last year’s “Capernaum,” stood a very good chance at being nominated for next year’s foreign language Oscar. Also, in its own entertainment-driven way, it made the case for Antoine Fuqua’s brand of testosterone-fueled cinema to be considered “art.” The film shares more than a few passing similarities to Fuqua’s “Training Day,” but with an added dosage of socio-political realness.
People were just so desperate for this to be Pedro Almodovar‘s year, but guess what? “Pain and Glory” wasn’t as unanimously acclaimed as some may have hoped it to be. I liked it, but a masterpiece? I just couldn’t abide by that opinion. At least not until I watch it a second time later this year with a fresh new set of eyes uncompromised by festival fatigue.
Critics were a tad too overexcited that we finally got a Terrence Malick film with an actual story. “A Hidden Life” has its champions, but it's not even in the same league as the 5 or so great movies of Terrence Malick‘s career. I mean, if you liked the last three self-indulgent works from the filmmaker then you would maybe love “A Hidden Life,” but the rest of us were, yet again, disappointed by this latest statement from the legendary director. A film which was, curiously, bought by Fox Searchlight for $14M. The film doesn’t stand much of a chance in making more than a couple of million when it is released later this fall.
Yes, she was the first black female director to make it into official competition and I highly respect that, but I just couldn't get on-board the Mati Diop train. Sorry, but “Atlantiques” felt amateurish from its very first frame. In other news, Ken Loach made a Ken Loach movie (“Sorry We Missed You”) and it actually turned out half-decent. Who'da thunk it? Whereas efforts such as Yiao Dinan’s “The Wild Goose Lake,” and Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Whistlers” came and went without much impact.
Maybe after all this we needed Gaspar Noe to shake up the festival with “Lux Aeterna,” the latest provocation from the French cinematic bad-boy, a film which, unlike much of this year’s competition, dared to break the rules of convention and soar by its own invented creative juices. It may not have been perfect, but it shook up enough people to be politely booed at its next-day press screening. The only film, it turns out, to be heckled at this year’s edition. A badge of honor if you ask me.