Dennis Broe in Cannes reports on migrants dying at the festival, heavy and stifling security, female warriors and the Golden Age of African Cinema.
This is Bro on the World Film Beat Once Again “Breaking Glass” at the Cannes Film Festival.
The prizes are in at the festival and first prize, the Palme d’Or, goes to The Square, a Swedish film about the persistence of big money in the art world. Meanwhile, the continuing breaking story at Cannes concerned migrants, two of whom turned up dead in Cannes during the festival while onscreen the Hungarian film Jupiter’s Moon opens with a unarmed Syrian migrant gunned down by the local police, who then acquires the power of, no pun intended, flight in a kind of crossing of the Marvel comics series Legion with the starkest European social reality.
Elsewhere French director Michael Toesca brought four migrants to Cannes to call attention to their plight as the police forbid them from taking their place on the red carpet with the director. This famous tapis rouge on which Nicole Kidman, in four films and honoured by the festival, was a fashion sensation was in a way mocked in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks where agent Cooper seems to be trapped in a red velour curtain, like the carpet, and cannot find his way back to reality as so much of the event seems to both want to embrace the social ills of contemporary Europe and to at the same time deny them, subsuming then in a wash of consumerist glamour.
The order of the day in week two was television, as Cannes screened what was claimed as its first, not one but two, television series: the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake in its entire six episodes and the sequel to Twin Peaks with episodes one and two screened days after opening on Showtime in the U.S. Footnote, this is not the first series screened at Cannes, that honour goes to Bruno Dumont’s P’tite Quinquin, a four episode series which screened in 2014 but was not a high profile American series and even earlier to 2010s Carlos by Olivier Assayas.
The Top of the Lake screening was unique. We were sitting in a Cannes theatre watching TV for six hours with director Campion and her actors and crew and snacking after every two episodes with candy and granola bars supplied by the screeners. I consider these two series along with Cannes bad boy Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom the three crucial series for the establishment of a more committed and critical form of serial television, the most dynamic contemporary narrative form, which Cannes by holding the screenings was acknowledging.
Top of the Lake season two began well, with the first two episodes, this season with the female detective Robin Griffin now back in her workplace of Sydney Australia investigating the death of a Chinese sex worker and as well the middle class exploitation of migrants as baby incubators, surrogates, with both somehow tied to a frustrated philosophy professor/pimp who initially holds the place of the drug lord patriarch of the first season. A very promising start but the series then dissolves into a haze of ambiguity and confusion as the patriarch himself becomes a fractured truth teller and the upper middle class Nicole Kidman character instead of being evil as is hinted in her earlier appearances in the series becomes instead merely obnoxious, weakening what was a very 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 to the Twin Peaks characters but also in a South Dakota story involving a seemingly innocent high school principle, his lawyer and his wife. The second episode though remains consumed in the 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 they are initially grounded in the social world and episode two disdains that grounding.
The series does explore two crucial questions. One is, given the series’ consciousness of itself as aging 25 years, does the unconscious or how does the unconscious age? The second is, what is the impact of the digital age on the unconscious, or rather, do we have any unconscious left or are we all simply preordained images mixed in a consumer morass that is now our minds? 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 perhaps awaiting our comeuppance.
Though Top of the Lake attempts to map the battlefield of contemporary male-female relations three other films at the festival do it better and with less ambiguity. First is Sophia Coppola’s remake of the Clint Eastwood film The Beguiled with wounded Union soldier Colin Ferrell rescued by a Girl’s School near the end of the Civil War and which we heard a clip from in the opening of the show. Four different ages of women within the school all become enamored with the soldier with this remake told not through his eyes, as is the Don Siegel original, but through theirs.
This is a coming-of-age film for director Coppola, awarded the best director prize at the festival, where the past as in Marie Antoinette is still not really the past, but a screen on which to project post-feminist struggles, but here those struggles and the women’s ability to fight back and to form a collective is what is emphasized in a deepening of the post-feminist position.
Second in this fight-back line is the remarkable Indonesian film Marlina, The Murderer in Four Acts by Mouly Surya, a combination of the rich heritage of Indonesian folk tale 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 The Beguiled but that is only the beginning of her tale which features equally the awakening of a pregnant companion along the way, all 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 betray the majesty of a director emerging onto the world stage.
Finally, there is the wondrous bloodletting of the South Korean epic, screened as a midnight film, The Villainess, which first depicts the savage fighting skills of its gang-trained female assassin, then tames and domesticates her 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 before being taken by the police as the last shot closes in on her smile as she is cuffed, the smile seemingly her excitement at the power she wields rather than the more simplified satisfaction of revenge.
I would like to continue my coverage of Cannes 70 with a tribute to the range of films the festival screens. In one day I first saw An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore’s follow-up 10 years later to his Academy Award winning doc on climate change. In the decade between, Gore has become, not embittered, but sharper and more direct in his message, pointing out that there are now places in Africa where because of the increased pestilence caused by the heat which promotes the Zika virus women are being told to wait two years to have babies while in the U.S. for the same reason pregnant women are warned not to visit Miami where Gore explains the flooding coming from the melting of Greenland may sink that city faster than Venice. He identifies the fossil fuel industry as the villain and though still guilty of consorting with known Democrats like Chuck Schumer does point out that his heritage, where his father opposed LBJ’s War in Vietnam, is from a time when Democrats had both a heart and a spine.
Next, on the same day, I saw in the Cannes Classic Section African director Med Hondo’s Soleil O, the first restoration by The African Project, partially funded by George Lucas and introduced onscreen by Martin Scorsese which will eventually restore 50 African films from the Golden Period of the 1970s and 1980s. Hondo one of the key African directors in that cinema’s revolutionary period was a student in France and the film observes French racism firsthand in its main narrative while a remarkably prescient opening pantomime has African warriors fighting each other for the approval of a European general. They all collapse in a heap in front of the wily brigadier and he smiles as divide and conquer, employed now more stridently than ever on the continent, works wonders.
Finally, my day concluded with the already discussed Villainess, which begins with an opening montage in subjective camera, that is, we see not her but only what she sees, of her blades mowing over the gang of men who oppose and mock her. The first time we see that this talented assassin is a woman is when she looks in a mirror, echoing The Lady in the Lake, a Hollywood 1940s noir which uses this technique. The audience claps at the carnage she exacts similar to a male assassin who becomes known as the killer of 100 in Tashio Mike’s Blade of the Assassin also screened at the festival. This time though, the destruction is engineered by a woman as a tour-de-force settling of accounts for a whole cinematic and actual history of male violence against women. A truly remarkable day at a festival which really did contain multitudes.
In the griping section though I will say that security which last year in the wake of the Bateclan Paris attacks was spectacular and showy, this year was omnipresent and constantly invasive. A team of experts managed to detect and deactivate the threat posed at one point by my double chocolate muffin, instructing me that I could not go into the Palais with a weapon like that, and so I had to eat it outside. And of course, as in the wider uses of the security state, fighting terrorism could conceal and rationalize any number of other restrictions which cannot be questioned. I was told I could not take my computer into a screening which seemed to have much more to do with piratage and recording than with a security threat. Even The Hollywood Reporter could not but be struck by the way the heavy presence of the police in what has become an armed state contrasted sharply with the supposed “freedoms” being lauded on the red carpet of filmmakers to pursue their personal whims and fantasies.
I will conclude with three French films that were in various ways less than meets the eye. The first was Rodin which like five years ago’s Renoir falls into the stultifying genre of the French Heritage film, which as opposed to its British cousin validating empire, validates the Republic through its artistic preoccupations. This film has a bit more going for it than Renoir with Vincent London, so good in 2015’s The Law of the Market, as the brooding 40-year old sculptor about to embark on his grandest creation, The Gates of Hell. Unfortunately, it often dissolves into Rodin’s sexcapades and historical myth as when he tells “Paul”, Cezanne that is, to stay true to himself and Cezanne falls to his knees and kisses Rodin’s ring which even if true has a very false ring to it, substituting artist star-finking for a socially complex recounting of the events.
Francois Ozon’s L’Amant Double, on the surface a Hitchcockian tale of a woman who falls for two opposite psychoanalyst brothers, is unfortunately really just 100 Shades of Grey, more erratic than erotic thriller which doesn’t ultimately make much sense even as the tortured images of its obsessed heroine. Fleshy, fashion photography disguised as psychoanalytic fable.
More insidious but also more interesting was Markala, a documentary shot in the Congo about a charbonnier, that is a villager who cuts down the mighty baobab tree and turns it into charcoal briquettes which he loads on his bicycle to make and make us feel the long and arduous trip to town to sell at an African market, part of the oldest market system in the world. The cutting down of the tree and the journey in a neo-realist style are well told, but there is a tendency by the French director to fetishize the African customs with the film ending in a religious frenzy which the French camera observes somewhat disdainfully with the film unable to penetrate the culture or to view it as anything but exotic. At the screening the director Emmanuel Gras called his five white French compatriots onstage where he celebrated his filmmaking and finally got around to thanking his Congolese lead, not at Cannes, “without whom this film would not have been possible.”
Duh! That’s like Elvis Presley “thanking” Chuck Berry and Little Richard without whom his ripping off of a more authentic culture would also not have been possible.
This is Bro the World Film Beat Breaking Glass and signing off from Cannes 2017. I’ll be back with a recap of best of the films in the festival beyond the main competition.
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.