The two most prominent stories at the 70th iteration of the Cannes Film Festival, the ultimate competition and market for cinema, were the increased presence of the streaming cable service Netflix, which seldom even opens films in theaters, and Serial Television and the continuing challenge it poses to auteur and mid-level film production. Netflix was represented in the main competition by two films, the better of which was Okja by the South Korean genre director Boon Joon Ho (the seminal serial killer film Memories of Murder). Joon Ho’s characteristic streak of social activism this time expresses itself as a children’s anti-corporate fable about an agribusiness growing a superpig, a pignocerous, that manages to cross ET with Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s examination of the psychological damage the everyday grind of a slaughterhouse inflicts. Serial Television, at least in its Anglo variety, made its first appearance at the festival in two follow-up works by auteur directors: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl. Given that the series were screened at Cannes, both raise the question of whether what we were watching television second seasons or cinematic sequels. If it appears that the traditional art house and commercial cinema may be under attack, this is indeed the case yet there was still at Cannes a healthy outpouring of films that combined a of social realism heightened by genre cinema influences either by Hollywood directly (the occasionally Tarentino-esque Bulgarian film Directions and the Martin Scorsese executive produced Italian migrant film A Ciambra) or by global cinema genres (the 70’s spaghetti Western look and feel of the Indonesian Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts). The dominant pattern then for Cannes noir, circa 2017, a pattern that despite Netflix and television still has life in it, is a foundation of Belgium filmmakers the Dardenne Brothers (multiply screened and honored at Cannes with such films as Rosetta, The Promise, and Two Days, One Night) up-close following of down-and-out characters with crime and mystery genre elements enhancing the mood. Indeed the Dardennes produced one of the most unclassifiable and critical films of the festival Western, whose title is less a genre indication than a social implication about the global and economic power of the West in Europe to obliterate the East.
Posoki is the Bulgarian word for this film about the breakdown of social relations in Sofia, the capital, in the post-Soviet, post-capitalist era. The directions are the traversing of the capital by cab drivers whose series of mostly nocturnal encounters collectively describe a society in turmoil where fellow-feeling has collapsed. The film begins with a besieged driver, who has just lost his business and is indebted to the banks, dropping off his daughter at her high school and picking up another teen who claims to be going to see her grandmother but who is actually a “working girl” at a luxury hotel, where she makes far more than the cabdriver. He shoos the girl out of the cab and then assaults the banker who has just doubled his debt in what is just the opening gambit of a series of humiliating encounters between bedraggled, worldweary but still basically honest drivers and the customers in the classes above who prey on them. A reversal of how the business is usually perceived, more Daniel Blake in the way that the drivers, as everymen and women of a society on the brink are exploited than Taxi Driver.
- Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts
Feminine fight-back was a subtheme of the festival in this summer of Wonder Woman. This Indonesian film by Mouly Surya fuses the rich heritage of Indonesian folk tale–detailed so vividly in last year’s Beauty Is A Wound, Ika Kurniawan’s novel about a prostitute surviving Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian militias–and the visual and iconographic heritage of the 1970s Sergio Leone Italian Spaghetti Western. The landscape for this tale of a woman set upon by thieves who steal her property is the flat arid Old West plains of the island of Sumba, far from the usual tropical rainforest that is the image of the country. Marlina triumphs over the men in a way similar to that of the triumph of the Girl’s School in Sophia Coppola’s competition film The Beguiled but that is only the beginning of her tale which features equally the awakening of a pregnant companion along the way. This struggle takes place in the face of the inert figure of Marlina’s mummified husband, no help in confronting wanton male energy in a cruel landscape where the human scale is reduced to a single horizon line in shots that signal the majesty of a major director emerging onto the world stage.
- A Ciambra/Cuori Puri
While the headlines are grabbed by fawning and innocuous directors like Paolo Sorrentino (the Academy Award-winning The Great Beauty and HBO’s The Young Pope), there is in the belly of the Italian Cinema a more socially conscious movement which knows that in a society with high unemployment and increasing social tensions crime, as John Huston proclaimed, is just “a left-handed form of human endeavor.” We’ve seen Gomorrah, the film and television series, and last year’s Cannes entry Fiore or Flower; Romeo in Juliet set in a Milanese prison. This year we have 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. It details his relation with a Ghanian, Khoudas Seihan from the previous film, who befriends the boy Pio but whose friendship Pio 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. A Ciambra, the title derived from the name of a tiny town in impoverished Southern Italy, is a kind of multicultural updating of Scorsese’s own Mean Streets featuring a preadolescent De Niro. More in line with Fiori is Pure Hearts, Cuori Puri, which opens with its male and female youths pursuing each other in what we learn is one of them trying to catch the shoplifting other but which seems to simply be their passion which in the course of the film will triumph over the mixed backgrounds of working class born-again Catholic, underclass petty criminality, and Roma caught between the two. Another Cannes irruption of a movement worth celebrating.
- Wind River
The rape and murder of an 18-year-old girl on a Wyoming Indian Reservation is the occasion for an examination of the inner lives of those caught on the res and a socially interesting and relevant indictment of contemporary outside forces which perpetuate that historical misery. The trail of the murder lead expert hunter Jeremy Renner and inexperienced but committed FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen (paired previously as Hawkeye and The Scarlet Witch in The Avengers), apropos the Pine Ridge protests, to an energy company whose shadowy army of mercenaries impose themselves on the natives. First directing effort by Taylor Sheridan who wrote the script for last year’s Cannes entry Hell and High Water about righteous bank robbers in the impoverished Texas Panhandle. Concluding sequence of Wind River with two Native American fathers, one in warpaint, attempting to assuage their sorrow and guilt proves this again to be more than just a capable crime film though it is certainly that in spades.
An excellent examination of the global and the local from New German director Valeska Grisebach. The film 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 construction crew 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, and somewhat 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. The undercurrent of violence in the film is promoted not by the natives, as in say Straw Dogs, but rather by the modern colonialists who fly the German flag as a sign of their economic dominance.
Out of Competition But Not Out of Mind
Top of the Lake/Twin Peaks
Both ultimately a bit disappointing. The better of the two Top of the Lake, began well with
the female detective Robin Griffin now back in her workplace of Sydney Australia investigating both the death of a Chinese sex worker and middle class exploitation of migrants as baby incubators, surrogates. Both investigations are somehow tied to a frustrated philosophy professor/pimp who initially holds the place of the drug lord patriarch of the first season. The series though dissolves into a haze of ambiguity and confusion as the patriarch becomes a fractured truth teller and the upper middle class Nicole Kidman character instead of being evil becomes is instead merely obnoxious, weakening what was a promising beginning.
Twin Peaks unfortunately has a similar trajectory. The question here was, would the series return to a refashioning of the “Who Killed Laura Palmer” framework which made it the best and most influential series ever on the air or would it languish in the Demon Bob aftermath of the mess that was the final episodes post the revelation of the incest behind and at the root of the American experience and that carried over into the experimental but nonsensical Fire Walk With Me. There is more than the germ of a great series here, not only in the return of many of the Twin Peaks characters but also in a South Dakota story involving a seemingly innocent high school principle, his lawyer, and his wife. But, there is also too much Demon Bob taking over agent Cooper nonsensical skullduggery. Lynch’s explorations of the unconscious are always best (in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive) when initially grounded in the social world. Still much to like here though as a New York section quotes Andy Warhol’s Empire as a watcher of the now digital skyline of the city is then punished for his watching in a way that suggests we are all now couch potatoes awaiting our comeuppance.
There is some wondrous bloodletting in this South Korean epic, screened as a midnight film, whose subjective camera opening, recalling the ‘40s noir Lady in the Lake, depicts the savage fighting skills of its gang-trained female assassin. She is then tamed and domesticated as she moves to a legitimate position inside a government security agency and falls for one of its operatives. Finally though, betrayed by both the agency and the gang, she exacts her revenge in a death-defying armored car sequence that, along with the opening, is a tour-de-force settling of accounts for a whole cinematic and actual history of male violence against women. As she is cuffed by the police, the camera closes in on her and we watch a smile slowly cross her face; the smile seemingly her excitement at the power she is capable of wielding rather than the more simplified satisfaction in male action films of revenge.