Dennis Broe has offered to undertake the arduous task of reporting on the Cannes Film Festival this year for Culture Matters. Here is his first report.....
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 counrties including here in France are going directly to Netflix just after the festival closes and will never open in theatres. Thierry Fremaux, the festival director, choosing simply on what films would make an interesting selection, chose 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 arthouse 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 theatres 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 theatres. It should be said that Okja, the better of the two Netflix films, will open in theatres 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 theatres as worldwide on Netflix. Again, these openings are not about getting the film seen in theatres 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 equalled 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 theatres is not the answer, since it will not stop the company. The answer, as the French ingeniously realised 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 to 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 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 sanitised 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 analysing 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 colonisation 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.
An astonishing film that details the leaving behind of the Chinese workforce as that country struggles towards manoeuvering 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 Gainsborough 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 Meyerowitz 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.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.