The most contradictory element of covering Festival des Cannes is trying to probe its politics. The Festival of Festivals welcomes some of the most respected film auteurs of world cinema. This year’s competition alone has seen a return to form of Terrence Malick, Ken Loach, Bong Joon-ho, Pedro Almodóvar, and Céline Sciamma. In some cases, and more often through the sidebars programs like Un Certain Regard, Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and Semaine de la Critique, young talent also finds a world audience here. I’ve come across new talent from Morocco, Ukraine, Brazil, Russia, and Spain that will no doubt be back in Cannes later, perhaps even in a more prominent competition slot.
Most of these films have important things to say. About being young or old, about being from a specific country, class or ethnicity, about being a woman, a man or non-binary, about going to places and breaking with the shackles of an older life. Some of these films are notably angry or upset. They plea to the world to pay attention. Superstars and activists line up at their live-streamed premieres to raise awareness for the relevant issue: filmmakers at risk, gender disparity, racism, rising rightwing pressure, the global climate catastrophe. Just last year, festival director Thierry Fremaux refused to acknowledge this political potential of Cannes. Cannes was a place for film art, not for discourse. Fast forward to 2019 and it seems like the festival has come to terms with being a political message board that happens to screen films.
This tonal shift is best exemplified through Bacurau, a collaboration between Brazilian directors Juliano Dornelles (previously a production designer) and Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighbouring Sounds, Aquarius). Initially, the plan was to make a meta-film about a filmmaker travelling to a small village in the interior of Brazil to shoot a documentary about life in Brazil. A genre twist was already a part of the first screenplay, but then Bolsonaro happened. With the rise of a rightwing, fascist Brazilian president, Filho and Dornelles decided to crank up the rage that was lurking within this project. Now Bacurau is a product of changing times. It literally feels like two-films-in-one: a road movie about Brazil’s inner life, and an action-horror about fighting off Brazil’s real enemies. It’s a bloody, psychedelic mess, in the best possible way. Both a terrific homage to the genre classics of John Carpenter (Escape from New York and They Live come to mind) and a poignant critique on Brazil’s current political state. I don’t want to take away any of the surprises, but do know that this film features Udo Kier as a colonial manhunter raking up a homicidal death count in the Brazilian countryside.
The reactionary stance against the insurgence of right-wing leaders is played out to a totally different effect in Terrence Malick’s brilliant A Hidden Life. Once called Radegund, this film has been in the making for a notoriously long time and was highly anticipated by critics that do appreciate Malick, but weren’t on board with his contemporary trilogy of isolation and loss. To The Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and Song To Song (2017) were received by many (me excluded) as formal exercises that play out like parodies of a Malick film. Think of the countless sweeping digital camera shots of Emmanuel Lubezki, the fragmented voice-overs, the abstract plotting of romances and the unusual pacing of the editing. A Hidden Life contains all of those things. What has changed for many is the fact that this film has an easily discernable plot and point. This film “finally” has something to say.
Based on true correspondence between Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstetter and his wife Franziska in the 1940s, A Hidden Life captures in surprising clarity the life of a Christian objector that refuses to accept the Nazi reign. It’s almost unthinkable that German national socialism even reaches his village of Radegund. It’s a picture perfect place high in the Alps, where daily life consists of collaboratively mowing the field, feeding the animals, and producing the food. It’s the kind of beauty Richard Gere and Brooke Adams escape to in Days of Heaven (1978), the bountiful place the Europeans colonist dream of in The New World(2005) and a form of lifestyle that the modern souls of Knight of Cups are totally incompatible with. It’s sacred, like all the Terrence Malick films are.
But Hitler’s grasp reaches it, through official letters brought by the postman. In the beginning, he’s seen on a bicycle. Later he drives a state of the art moped. Make of that what you will. Thus Franz is drafted in the Nazi army. A big portion of the film consists of him doubting, debating, and considering whether he should go. He decides to do so, but only because he’s forced to and because he might not have to fight anyway. His one principle is that no one can force him to accept Hitler as his ruler. And so a journey begins, from Radegund to army bases, from prison cells to military courts, from confinement to the guillotine. Ultimately from life to death. Underneath all this pain and sorrow flows a current that brings along love, life and the belief in something greater than all of this. It’s easy to dismiss Franz’ martyrdom and moral superiority as a pro-Christian tale. It’s more. It’s the embrace of something that transcends all. It’s not necessarily a Christian god, but just something that’s bigger than us. Because there has to be something that’s greater than this absolute evil, right? As always, Malick finds a space (and with a running time of three hours he’s found plenty of it) to expand on his philosophical inquiries in the nature of men.
Malick made one of his best films with A Hidden Life. So did Ken Loach with Sorry We Missed You and Boon Jong-ho with Parasite. With The Wild Goose Lake, Yi’nan Diao made a film on par with his amazing Black Coal, Thin Ice. As you can read, this edition of Cannes has been pretty great so far, with a generous amount of truly terrific films. And yet, there’s plenty to disagree with. Cannes is mining its political potential, but mostly through the prism of established male auteurs. For a festival that has made the 50/50 by 2020 pledge (meaning it has to eradicate its gender disparity for its 2020 edition), the numbers are still pretty dire. Only 20 female directors are part of the official selection – Semaine de la Critique and Quinzaine des Réalisateurs are officially not part of the festival organization so the numbers change slightly when taking their films into account. As a result, the power of their films (more about this on Sunday) is somewhat mitigated by the presence of certain male directors.
Take for instance the Midi Z helmed and Ke-Xi Wu scripted Nina Wu, which Wu based on some of her own experiences in the wake of #MeToo. It’s an intense and angry film about the traumas of sexual assault and about the hardships of a female actress (played in the film by Wu herself) trying to find better film parts. This is a hauntingly nightmarish reaction to Harvey Weinstein, Luc Besson and other powerful players that abused their position of power in the industry. Simultaneously Nina Wu manages to empower women and condemn their male oppressors. It played out in the Un Certain Regard section a couple of days before the premiere of the new Tarantino film Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. During Tarantino’s awkward press conference a female critic asked why Margot Robbie’s role as Sharon Tate gave her so little lines. “I reject your hypothesis,” was the sole answer by Tarantino. Keep in mind, this is the man who owes his career to Weinstein. Protected by a Marvelesque spoiler ban, he’s found a way to still have his cake and eat it too: to create a film on his own terms, with no interference by actual criticism.
This is the true duality of Cannes: a place where new voices are celebrated, but by the grace from an old, established elite. A place that is willing to improve, but never fast enough. A place where films can change our perspective on the world, but old habits die hard.