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Cannes 2017 Breaking Glass (Bro on the World Film Beat)

Bon­jour from Cannes 70. The ven­er­a­ble film fes­ti­val, the largest in the world, turned 70 this year and per­haps is show­ing some signs of age, since not only is the fes­ti­val chang­ing but the whole pat­tern of film dis­tri­b­u­tion, of which the fes­ti­val is a part, is chang­ing as well. That fact was high­light­ed by this year’s Cannes Cri­sis, and the festival’s biggest sto­ry. No it’s not that Nicole Kid­man is in four films this year. It’s that Net­flix, the evil stream­ing ser­vice, the red dev­il from Los Gatos, its Cal­i­for­nia head­quar­ters, has two films in the main com­pe­ti­tion; films which in most coun­ties includ­ing here in France are going direct­ly to Net­flix just after the fes­ti­val clos­es and will nev­er open in the­aters. Thier­ry Fre­maux, the fes­ti­val direc­tor, choos­ing sim­ply on what films would make an inter­est­ing selec­tion, choose Boon Joon Ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Sto­ries as eli­gi­ble to win the Palme D’Or, the Cannes first prize, the most pres­ti­gious award in the world for art house and auteur cinema.

The choice then cre­at­ed a sen­sa­tion. French the­atre own­ers launched a protest against the two films being includ­ed on a plat­form that cir­cum­vent­ed the­atri­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion and in response Fre­maux then said that nev­er again would films that will not have the­atri­cal dis­tri­b­u­tion be part of the Cannes main com­pe­ti­tion. This year’s jury pres­i­dent, the Span­ish direc­tor Pedro Almod­ovar, then announced at his Cannes press con­fer­ence that he did not think it appro­pri­ate that films that do not open in the­aters win the Cannes prize, essen­tial­ly dis­qual­i­fy­ing the two Net­flix entries.

Will this posi­tion hold? It’s doubt­ful, Ama­zon also has a film in the com­pe­ti­tion, Todd Haynes Won­der­struck but that is get­ting a pass because it will have a lim­it­ed, just to qual­i­fy for awards, open­ing in the­aters. It should be said that Okja, the bet­ter of the two Net­flix films, will open in the­aters in the U.S., Britain and its home coun­ty South Korea, but these are most­ly day and date open­ings, that is, the film will open the same time in the the­aters as world­wide on Net­flix. Again, these open­ings are not about get­ting the film seen in the­aters but rather about hav­ing it qual­i­fy at awards time in the three coun­tries; the idea being that a lim­it­ed the­atri­cal run, though a bit cost­ly, could pay off lat­er in the movie sea­son by gen­er­at­ing increased cul­tur­al cap­i­tal for the com­pa­ny through these awards.

Is Net­flix tru­ly evil? Well, they are part of FANG, the infa­mous quar­tet of Face­book, Ama­zon, Net­flix and Google whose prof­its in the last quar­ter have them­selves equaled the prof­its of the remain­ing 496 mem­bers of the For­tune 500. Ama­zon is doing to retail­ers what Net­flix is attempt­ing to do to local film indus­tries: lev­el them. How­ev­er, the approach tak­en at Cannes seems short­sight­ed. Pun­ish­ing Net­flix for dis­trib­ut­ing world­wide across their net­work and not open­ing in the­aters is not the answer, since it will not stop the com­pa­ny. The answer, as the French inge­nious­ly real­ized with Canal Plus decades ago, is to tax Net­flix or require it to pay a fee for show­ing its con­tent. Canal Plus, the French pay per view ser­vice, has a deal with the French gov­ern­ment which allows it to be able to show films in a reduced win­dow of 10 months after they open instead of the usu­al 3 years. In return for that con­ces­sion the com­pa­ny pays 15 per­cent of its prof­its to sub­si­dize French and glob­al cin­e­ma. Its film pro­duc­ing arm Stu­dio Canal is respon­si­ble not only in France but around the world for pro­duc­ing some of the most pro­gres­sive films on the mar­ket. A deal like that needs to be worked out with Net­flix where some part of their prof­its can be rein­vest­ed local­ly, here in French film, in return for them oper­at­ing in the coun­try. Instead we have the Star­bucks phe­nom­e­non where Amer­i­can com­pa­nies make huge prof­its in the Euro­pean mar­kets and quar­ter them­selves in places where tax­es are the low­est, in Star­bucks case in Hol­land, sim­ply tak­ing and not returning.

That said, the Net­flix entry Okja is the best film I’ve seen at the fes­ti­val, a kid’s eco­log­i­cal­ly mind­ed, anti-cap­i­tal­ist fable by in my mind the world’s lead­ing direc­tor, the South Kore­an Boon Joon Ho who has already giv­en us one of the most social­ly sit­u­at­ed ser­i­al killer films, Mem­o­ries of Mur­der, the anti-impe­ri­al­ist hor­ror film about South Korea threat­ened by a virus hatched in Amer­i­can labs The Host and the impas­sioned plea locat­ing social strat­i­fi­ca­tion and hier­ar­chi­aza­tion at the heart of glob­al warm­ing in the action thriller Snow­piercer. Okja co-pro­duced by Til­da Swin­ton, in a true blend­ing of East and West, opens with Swinton’s tour-de-force on stage pre­sen­ta­tion as cor­po­rate inher­i­tor Lucy Miran­do of her sup­posed rewrit­ing of the sins of her fac­to­ry belch­ing father on the site of the fac­to­ry as she announces her company’s new image as clean agribusi­ness pro­po­nent man­u­fac­tur­ing a super­pig, that under her breath she con­cludes, bet­ter taste pret­ty f—ing good. The pigs are dis­trib­uted across the world and we meet the lit­tle girl Mija who raised the now full grown Kore­an pig­no­cer­ous a cud­dly being that is a mir­a­cle com­bi­na­tion of CGI and full-scale suit designed by the cre­ator of the crea­ture in The Host. There fol­lows two excit­ing action sequences one involv­ing Mija on a cliff and the oth­er with her track­ing Okja to Seoul and hang­ing off the top of the truck the Miran­do cor­po­ra­tion is using to reclaim her pet. In the finale though Boon Joon Ho fore­goes the King Kong run­ning wild in New York sequence to instead focus on the slaugh­ter and muti­la­tion of the genet­i­cal­ly altered ani­mals in a way that dialec­ti­cal­ly merges ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s indie film about the psy­cho­log­i­cal dam­age the every­day grind of a slaugh­ter­house inflicts.

Okja is a hyper­s­mart com­bi­na­tion of glob­al and local mov­ing from the moun­tains of South Korea to the dig­i­tal mec­ca of New York which nev­er­the­less dis­dains the Dream­works and Dis­ney media show­ing off con­sist­ing of hyper-ref­er­en­tial and unsat­is­fy­ing cul­tur­al jibes in place of actu­al heart and social pol­i­tics which Okja has aplen­ty. It is also in its respect for the lit­tle girl’s rela­tion with the ani­mal and her peas­ant upbring­ing which allows her to remain hon­est in the world of New York media which is every­where about cor­rupt­ing her local affil­i­a­tions and which also affects her grand­fa­ther, a com­ment on the rela­tion between Net­flix and local cin­e­ma. The Miran­do cor­po­ra­tion, which first seems benign in the form of Lucy, but which then turns much harsh­er in Lucy’s oust­ing by her total­ly bot­tom line ori­ent­ed sis­ter, also played this time by a tight-lipped Swin­ton, is itself a kind of Net­flix sell­ing a benign ver­sion of enter­tain­ment and con­ceal­ing a lust for prof­it and slaugh­ter, in this case of local artists, who it is every­day sup­plant­i­ng. So, Boon Joon Ho is sub­tly bit­ing the hand that feeds and dis­trib­utes him.

The Net­flix logo was booed ini­tial­ly at the press screen­ing and the boo­ing con­tin­ued not at Net­flix but because the screen was only about two-thirds vis­i­ble to the bal­cony audi­ence which hoot­ed until the film restart­ed. Asked if this might be delib­er­ate sab­o­tage of the Net­flix screen­ing, Boon Joon Ho remarked instead that the tech­ni­cal glitch allowed the audi­ence to re-see the first 10 min­utes which is jam packed with a recount­ing of the for­mer evils of the Miran­do Cor­po­ra­tion which are the past evils which have led to the now san­i­tized cor­po­rate image of tech com­pa­nies. He was very hap­py the audi­ence got to see it again. Asked what he thought of Almodovar’s state­ment elim­i­nat­ing the film from win­ning the Cannes top prize, he sim­ply pro­claimed him­self in awe that Almod­ovar would be watch­ing his film. Co-pro­duc­er Swin­ton replied that they did not come to Cannes to win prizes but to deliv­er a very can­ny and ulti­mate­ly sav­age crit­i­cism of cor­po­rate destruc­tion of the envi­ron­ment in this case of ani­mals that might have a larg­er impact if it opened world­wide on the Net­flix plat­form. In sum, an alto­geth­er win­ning per­for­mance both on and off-screen by Boon, Swin­ton and the film­mak­ing crew which in the end val­ued the film’s social mes­sage above what along­side it looked almost like pet­ty gripes by a film indus­try cling­ing to its estab­lished pat­terns of profit.

Joon Ho’s and Swinton’s clear-eyed anti-cap­i­tal­ist com­mit­ment stood in sharp con­trast to anoth­er film direct­ed by the usu­al­ly equal­ly clear-eyed Vanes­sa Red­grave called Sea Sor­row about the refugee cri­sis in Europe. The film starts out strong­ly, inter­view­ing an Afghani who explains he start­ed cry­ing when Amer­i­can sol­diers entered his home and in response they killed both his moth­er and father. But then the film drops all ques­tion­ing of what cre­at­ed the cri­sis, where refugees are pri­mar­i­ly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syr­ia, all coun­tries which the West­ern pow­ers have dec­i­mat­ed and instead becomes a mute plea to let a few more refugees into Britain. The film seems to go out of its way to offend no one but in so doing becomes a fair­ly mun­dane lib­er­al hand-wring­ing exer­cise about an issue that West­ern media give a good deal of preachy lip ser­vice to while nev­er ana­lyz­ing the prob­lem at its West­ern colo­nial core and thus nev­er sug­gest­ing what actu­al­ly might be done about it.

Far bet­ter by the way is the Mar­tin Scors­ese exec-pro­duced A Ciambra direct­ed by Jonas Carpig­nano who was at Cannes two years ago with Mediter­ranea, a dis­tinc­tive immi­grant film which focused not on the African trip across that sea but on the dif­fi­cult inter­ac­tion, once arrived, with Ital­ian locals. This film, shot and con­ceived in a stark­ly real­is­tic style, con­cerns a Roma, a gyp­sy boy’s bit­ter com­ing of age and his rela­tion with a Ghan­ian, Khoudas Sei­han from the pre­vi­ous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friend­ship he must bal­ance with the demands of his own clan, a rung just above the Africans, and the pres­sures of the dom­i­nant Ital­ians who police the eth­nic hier­ar­chi­cal struc­ture. It’s a kind of mul­ti­cul­tur­al updat­ing of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets with a pread­o­les­cent De Niro.

The sec­ond best film in the fes­ti­val I have seen is Russ­ian direc­tor Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Love­less, a fair­ly scathing cri­tique of Russ­ian and indeed cap­i­tal­ist con­sumer soci­ety as it plays out in a post-social­ist, post-gang­ster econ­o­my Rus­sia where the cor­po­rate ethos has become nor­mal­ized. Like his acad­e­my award win­ning last film Leviathan, this film opens with des­o­late coun­try shots of a bleak Moscow win­ter. The film traces the self-absorp­tion of a father who wor­ries that his break­ing up with his wife will affect his sales and mar­ket­ing job and the wife whose Cal­i­for­nia-obses­sion with fit­ness leaves lit­tle room in their life for their son who sub­se­quent­ly dis­ap­pears. They return to the wife’s moth­er, a sig­ni­fi­er of old Rus­sia, referred to by the hus­band as “Stal­in-in-a-skirt,” but that road is closed. This is a new take on the dis­ap­pear­ing child, the favorite trope of ser­i­al TV series these days, where the focus is only mild­ly on find­ing the child and more deter­mined­ly on how the con­sumerist hedo­nist and com­pet­i­tive lifestyle of the par­ents has engi­neered the boy out of their lives. A shot of him con­cealed behind a door in tears as the adults claim he is bet­ter off in board­ing school is an extreme­ly strik­ing depic­tion of their own cal­lous­ness as is the ulti­mate lack of res­o­lu­tion of the dra­mat­ic ques­tion and the reap­pear­ance of the ini­tial bleak win­ter land­scape which is the actu­al emo­tion­al con­tent of the lives of the par­ents now with oth­er part­ners who have sub­sti­tut­ed mate­r­i­al com­fort for gen­uine satisfaction.

Anoth­er excel­lent exam­i­na­tion of the glob­al and the local is West­ern from Ger­man direc­tor Vales­ka Grise­bach, which details the spir­it of col­o­niza­tion with which a Ger­man crew and espe­cial­ly the fore­man, build­ing a hydro­elec­tric dam, treats the Bul­gar­i­an inhab­i­tants of the near­by vil­lage. The main pro­tag­o­nist is an ex-mer­ce­nary, as he says a Legion­naire, who, hav­ing served in Iraq and Afghanistan, dis­dains vio­lence and con­quer­ing and attempts to forge rela­tions with the vil­lagers. The fore­man on the oth­er hand projects con­tem­po­rary Ger­man eco­nom­ic might as in direct rela­tion to its Nazi past, claim­ing that “we were here 70 years ago, and now we’re back.” The film in deal­ing with the inhab­i­tants of Europe’s poor­est coun­try refus­es the easy labelling of their peas­ant orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture as “mafia” and instead high­lights their col­lec­tive cus­toms. The legion­naire ulti­mate­ly him­self and despite him­self begins to exhib­it a more dom­i­neer­ing man­ner and the film leaves open the ques­tion as to whether these cul­tur­al pat­terns can be transcended.

A frame from “West­ern”.

An aston­ish­ing film that details the leav­ing behind of the Chi­nese work­force as that coun­try strug­gles towards maneu­ver­ing its econ­o­my toward a more high tech ori­en­ta­tion is Walk­ing Past the Future about a fam­i­ly of peas­ants liv­ing and hav­ing helped build the mod­ern coastal indus­tri­al city of Shen­zun with its new gleam­ing cor­po­rate sky­line. The par­ents of the young woman Yang Yaot­ing are get­ting old and are both told their ser­vices are no longer required in their fac­to­ry jobs. They move back to the coun­try­side in a reverse migra­tion that is not unlike that of African-Amer­i­cans in the last decade mov­ing back to the South. But there they find their vil­lage com­mu­nal land has been con­fis­cat­ed by an agribusi­ness boss who claims it is all legal because he has the cor­rect papers and who quick­ly fires the fam­i­ly for again work­ing too slow. Yang returns to Shen­zun where she is the sub­ject of a new kind of 21st cen­tu­ry human traf­fick­ing. To earn mon­ey to pro­vide her par­ents with an apart­ment for their retire­ment, she takes part in med­ical tests which pay bet­ter than her equal­ly dan­ger­ous job in a microchip fac­to­ry which requires that she wear a blue suit and face­mask to deal with the radioac­tive mate­ri­als. In this new form of pros­ti­tu­tion, she, after her best friend has died try­ing to per­fect her­self with plas­tic surgery, falls in love with the pro­cur­er of the test vic­tims, essen­tial­ly, in the sce­nario of this new form of bio­med­ical exploita­tion ben­e­fit­ting big phar­ma, her pimp. He also hides behind the legal cha­rade of sign­ing away con­sent since Yang des­per­ate to save her fam­i­ly has lit­tle choice but to con­cede. The film is a bit­ter indict­ment of the lengths this new econ­o­my will go to exploit and then to dis­card its workers.

Worst film of the fes­ti­val so far was the out-of-com­pe­ti­tion open­ing Arnaud Deplichin’s Ismael’s Phan­toms, a misog­y­nist, colo­nial­ist hyper-indul­gent piece about a French direc­tor, Matthew Almar­ic, and the two women who inhab­it his life but who for him func­tion mere­ly as muse’s for his so-called art. Char­lotte Gains­bourgh is under­used as the direc­tor Ismael’s cur­rent lover while the always won­der­ful Mar­i­on Cotil­lard returns from the dead to briefly breathe life into a film that ret­ro­gres­sive­ly cel­e­brates the director’s Peter Pan syn­drome as a mark of genius. The director’s film with­in a film, nom­i­nal­ly an espi­onage thriller, has the look of a much bet­ter film than that about the child­ish artist but it too then suc­cumbs to being, as are the two women, essen­tial­ly fig­ments of his artis­tic imag­i­na­tion. The espi­onage film begins by remind­ing us of the kind of skill­ful quot­ing of Hol­ly­wood the French New Wave direc­tors used to do, being unable them­selves to man­age a block­buster bud­get. How­ev­er, it ends up as a pro­jec­tion of the director’s ulti­mate­ly mun­dane prob­lems and fin­ished by being far less instead of the intend­ed far more than what at least in tele­vi­sion sto­ry­telling has achieved a high­er, mean­ing more com­pli­cat­ed, intri­cate and social, lev­el of sto­ry­telling than this film can even imag­ine. By the way sprin­kling ref­er­ences to James Joyce, Melville and Hitch­cock, rather than deep­en­ing the exam­i­na­tion of cre­ative genius, in this con­text, sim­ply shows us what less­er com­pa­ny we’re in at the moment.

The oth­er Net­flix film The Meyerow­tiz Sto­ries is an attempt by direc­tor Noah Baum­bach to claim the man­tle, in detail­ing the lives, loves and gen­er­al­ly lack of pas­sion of New York’s cul­tur­al elite, of a new Woody Allen. Alas, he suc­ceeds. The film is a well observed but ulti­mate­ly point­less depic­tion of one of Baumbach’s failed artists, this time a declin­ing patri­arch, Dustin Hoff­man, an unsuc­cess­ful sculp­tor who has vis­it­ed his resent­ments on his two sons, Adam San­dler and Ben Stiller. What has hap­pened as Baum­bach approach­es Woody sta­tus is that the satire, which in say The Squid and the Whale could be dev­as­tat­ing, is now set­tled into a kind of nos­tal­gic rec­ol­lec­tion in tran­quil­i­ty that blunts the humor to the point that even delayed entry of the almost always fun­ny Ben Stiller can­not save it from its tepid heart which like its lead char­ac­ter often fails to beat.

Back next week with more from Cannes 70.

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