Cannes may be the most glamorous of all film festivals, but all that glitter shouldn’t distract from the movies themselves. More so than Sundance, Toronto, and Venice, every year Cannes presents the world’s most interesting art films (with the odd Star Wars and Rocketman here and there) by renowned or up-and-coming directors from across the world. This week, Manuela Lazic saw several of the most intriguing features on the Croisette. Here are five—only one of them by an American filmmaker—to look out for.
Pain and Glory
Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
The Cannes Film Festival loves cinema masters, yet Spanish icon Almodóvar has never won the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or. Perhaps the sixth time will be the charm: Pain and Glory, his latest effort, has been warmly received by critics and feels like a director’s masterwork, of the kind that festivals love to reward as a way to belatedly recognize a filmmaker’s talent.
When in one scene the protagonist Salvador (Antonio Banderas), a respected and aging Spanish filmmaker à la Almodóvar himself, sits on his couch and waits for his old friend and collaborator Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) to hand him some heroin, a DVD of Pasolini’s 1962 film Mamma Roma can be seen on his coffee table. Much like Anna Magnani’s character in this classic of Italian Neorealism, Salvador’s own mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), worked hard to extricate her son from the poverty he was born into. When Salvador snorts the opioid, the middle-aged filmmaker has visions of her and his happy childhood, full of both hardships and promise.
This subtle nod to one of the greatest European directors is indicative of Almodóvar’s mission with his 22nd feature: to make an autobiographical film about his filmmaker self that nevertheless isn’t so self-centered as to ignore all the films that came before his own. His personal approach remains humble, cinephilic, and generous. His character’s story, although somewhat autobiographical, becomes a tribute to cinema at large.
Yet another Italian master has clearly inspired Almodóvar here, but unlike Fellini’s surreal portrait of a tortured director, 8 ½, Pain and Glory finds the melodramatic in the simple events of a life. Salvador’s reckoning with his past begins when the Madrid cinematheque asks him to come talk about his masterpiece Sabor, released some 20 years prior, with Alberto as its star. The two had grown apart then because Alberto’s performance hadn’t pleased the director, but having rewatched his film for the first time since then, Salvador found himself finally understanding his friend’s artistic choices. He used to dislike the heaviness of Alberto’s drug-addicted character, but all these years later, the performance makes sense to him.
The pair’s reconciliation comes as a simple conversation without grandiose gestures, but it belies a revolution within Salvador that is as much mental as it is physical. Almodóvar’s fascination with bodies and how they are unavoidably tied to one’s sense of identity (the thriller The Skin I Live In made this correlation literal and oppressive) is here explored through Salvador’s crippling back pains and migraines as he gets older. Animated images show in a scientific yet colorful way each and every ailment that has rendered the man barely able to leave his house, and incapable of making another movie.
Yet Almodóvar doesn’t have pity for his surrogate; as his laments pile up, Salvador’s desolation becomes irritating even to himself and he begins to take action, not only by getting medical help but, first and foremost, by soothing his soul. His sore muscles make him appreciate the pain of others and push him to right moral wrongs. Lying hopelessly awake or numbing aches with drugs, he drifts into memories, and if meditating on his mother’s past sacrifices doesn’t make her seem more loving now, it does alleviate his resentment. Almodóvar is optimistic that pain, whether mental or physical, can, once addressed, lead to genuine glory.
A Hidden Life
Directed by Terrence Malick
The new opus from the ever-elusive American filmmaker Malick was one of the most hotly anticipated films in Cannes despite its nearly three-hour running time, a huge dent into the tight schedule of any festivalgoer. After a series of divisive, ultrapoetic, and whispery films such as Song to Song, the promise of a scripted historical drama from the man who long ago brought us Badlands was just too much to resist. The resulting film has satisfied plenty of people and was quickly bought for $14 million (more than the total domestic gross of The Tree of Life) by newly Disney-owned Fox Searchlight, guaranteeing it will be widely released and potentially generate Oscar buzz.
As odd as it may seem, A Hidden Life does indeed have mainstream potential. Based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for Hitler during World War II, the film is clearly meant to be read not only as a personal historical document, but also as a parable for our troubled times. Franz (played by August Diehl, speaking in an accented English like all the other Austrian characters) doesn’t resist in an active way, instead letting himself be arrested for his disobedience. In his written correspondence from jail to his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), they talk of their faith in human goodness and in God’s protection: What motivates their mutual sacrifice—his incarceration and her loneliness—is their refusal to kill, taught to them by their religion. Malick celebrates the pure and essential value of thou shall not kill so as to critique those other Christians who forgot their core beliefs as soon as the going got tough—a pointed attack on today’s far-right believers, who live a contradiction with impunity.
But when Franz and, by extension, Malick address the fascists themselves, his simple if demanding principles come up short. If the film’s pacifist angle remains evidently valid and relatable, it also feels uncomfortably, sadly, and unavoidably naive and apolitical. Despite Malick’s many comparisons of Nazis with the Antichrist, the former group’s motivations were not only bloodthirsty, although that should have been reason enough to resist them. Malick goes further: Over archival footage of Hitler, Franz talks of the possibility of there being a man who “maybe [would] like to go back, but he can’t,” giving the führer a share of his Christian generosity. Malick not only dares suppose that perhaps Hitler himself felt guilt for his murders, but also has Franz feel sorry for his eventual executioner. It is a puzzling moment for all involved, as the values upheld by Franz seem to undermine themselves, offering solace to the very person who has dared defy them, and for no gain. Transposed to the present day, this type of resistance doesn’t seem any more effective, yet its foundation in immaculate belief hasn’t lost any of its compelling power.
Although in some ways akin to his older work, A Hidden Life has the same swift, dynamic style as Malick’s more recent output, the images giving a vivid shape to the lyricism of Franz and Fanni’s voice-over observations. With the camera catching their faces in quick close-ups and in-between movements, the couple and their children’s idyllic existence feels whole and real, yet seems to be everlastingly slipping away into an uncertain future. Even as their lives unravel, God seems to be watching, a hidden but suddenly disquieting presence, for it has proved either unwilling or unable to help the Jägerstätter family live in peace and harmony. But Malick didn’t make a film about living comfortably—only in accordance with what is right.
Directed by Bertrand Bonello
This year at Cannes, arthouse filmmakers were particularly drawn to the fantastical and metaphorical potential of the zombie film, from Jim Jarmusch’s all-star victims of capitalism in The Dead Don’t Die to the possessive spirits in Mati Diop’s Atlantique. The filmmaker who has best adapted this genre to his tastes while paying homage to its tradition, however, is French director Bonello, whose film Zombi Child premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight program to great reviews.
As its title indicates, Zombi Child marries Bonello’s curiosity about youth—evidenced in his tremendous previous film Nocturama, about rebellious teenagers in Paris—and the zombi-without-an-e, as it was originally spelled in Caribbean voodoo culture. In contemporary Paris, Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat), a Haitian teen, struggles to fit in at her new elite school. Unlike the rest of her class, Fanny (Louise Labeque) is intrigued by the weird newcomer, and it is through her eyes and her letters to Pablo, her long-distance boyfriend, that Bonello offers glimpses at Mélissa’s experience. If this perspective can seem suspect—a white girl fascinated by a black girl’s life—Fanny’s missives to her lover, together with the atmosphere created by images of sunlight streaking through the vaporous gymnasium and the Twin Peaks–esque score, already hint at a gothic underpinning. Fanny is a descendant of the typically virginal belle longing for her beloved’s return, stuck in her gloomy and castlelike school.
Mélissa, meanwhile, descends from a voodoo lineage. Bonello cuts back and forth between the girls’ experiences and episodes in the life and afterlife of Clairvius (Mackenson Bijou), a man in 1962 Haiti who, after his murder, became a zombi-slave, condemned to labor in the sugarcane fields. (In a way, the film is Bonello’s Candyman.) The zombi’s wordless journey is translated purely visually: accustomed to always keeping his head low—a zombi here moves much like your regular, slow, dangly zombie—Clairvius one day looks up to the sky, as though remembering his time among the living and the free. Subtly, Bonello gives humanity to this mythical and unsettling creature, and this moment, as surreal as it is, becomes transcendentally beautiful, as well as politically charged.
It is with a similar sensitivity that the filmmaker unravels Mélissa’s family history. Even as her young white classmates are evidently privileged and arrogant about their bogus sorority, they are not maliciously curious about her. Bonello truly believes in the goodness of the still-uncorrupted youth and never mocks their slang, teenage angst, and misguided passions, instead taking his audience into their inner circle. Open to the world, they patiently then eagerly listen to Mélissa narrate her history of rites and murders, exploitation and love beyond the grave. Rather than taking possession of or demystifying voodooism, Bonello grants Mélissa the mastery of her own story and traditions.
Yet Bonello isn’t using zombie tropes only for their abstract significance—the dead and the living reuniting as an illustration of grief—as so many art filmmakers do. Zombi Child explores the thrilling potential of the genre in a slow progression to reach a terrifying and heartbreaking climax. Even as he acknowledges his borrowing of a cultural tradition, Bonello doesn’t think himself above the visceral pleasures of the cinematic genre that came out of it; Zombi Child has its brains and eats them too.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Directed by Céline Sciamma
After two impressive features outside the competition (including the tremendous, Rihanna-soundtracked Girlhood), French writer-director Céline Sciamma finally enters the competition with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Set in 18th-century Brittany, this delicate and thoughtful love story was the talk of the festival and has many hoping that a French, female, gay filmmaker could win the Palme d’Or this year.
It just so happens that the film itself centers on two women whose lives have been limited by patriarchal society. Painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant) makes a living either teaching her skills or crafting stately portraits for the social elite, and only occasionally creating personal work—a rare situation for a woman at the time. Her new subject, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), is having her picture painted, without her knowing, for a potential suitor to decide whether she is pretty enough to become his wife.
As Marianne acquaints herself with Héloïse over a week to secretly study her features, Héloïse, too smart for her circumstances, uses the artist as a witness to her own steadily burning anger. Unknowingly, she awakens Marianne to her own limiting circumstances: Just as Héloïse can feel free only when she’s alone, so it is for the artist at her canvas. But in this case, even painting can’t bring Marianne a relief from oppression: to paint Héloïse freely would mean to depict her as she truly sees her, through her helplessly infatuated eyes. If Marianne seems more liberated with her artistic, celibate lifestyle, it is Héloïse, the kept woman, who isn’t afraid to feel what she isn’t allowed to.
Héloïse is more perceptive than Marianne, and notices her new friend abiding by conventions when she should be honest. “I didn’t know you were an art critic!” retorts an angry Marianne; “I didn’t know you were a painter,” replies a heartbroken Héloïse, who, realizing her companion had ulterior motives for her visit, expected to at least see some truth in her portrait. Sciamma’s writing is always to the point, and in a period setting, her characters’ incisive lines become effortlessly poetic and unexpectedly, shockingly poignant. Haenel brings her turbulent presence to Héloïse, but with a degree of era-appropriate restraint that makes her moments of vulnerability and rebellion all the more distressing.
With her big, dark eyes and aquiline features, Merlant portrays Héloïse as an attentive observer, but the camera is more often on her than on Haenel, as though both Sciamma and Héloïse were scrutinizing her face for signs of buried feelings, rather than the other way around—Héloïse isn’t simply Marianne’s muse. Even if only one of them were painting, they are both carefully collecting details of the other’s body and gestures.
Héloïse and Marianne’s relationship brings together love and art, and Sciamma makes each the solution for—or the gateway—to the other. To give presence to her utilitarian, ID-picture-like portrait of Héloïse, the painter must imbue her brushes with the tenderness she feels for her subject. And to discreetly preserve their forbidden passion, both women resort to art, be it images of each other or a piece of music that will remind them of their love. For Sciamma, to love is to create something together. When love is impossible, it expresses itself through poetry—creativity and passion being of equal essence. For although it isn’t quite like love, art can be its memory.
Directed by Quentin Dupieux
In Deerskin, French filmmaker Dupieux (a.k.a. eletronica artist Mr Oizo) exposes his filmmaking impulse for what it is: an attempt at hiding in plain sight through more or less autobiographical work. That’s the way barmaid and amateur film editor Denise (Adèle Haenel in her second Cannes appearance this year) describes the deerskin jacket that Georges (Jean Dujardin) is making a film around. The ridiculous fringed item is clearly a shell behind which Georges’s “character” protects himself. This is a lesson about how to make a movie meta without making it embarrassing: have the character go through the very same identity crisis that you, the director, are going through by virtue of simply making your film.
Georges isn’t really a director, however, despite his claim that anyone who films anything has to be one by definition. When he spends all his savings on this absurd jacket, he gets a DV camcorder as a bonus and starts aimlessly recording his picturesque mountainous surroundings as well as his new attire. But that’s often how one stumbles into a new and gratifying hobby: It starts as a meaningless joke, and snowballs into an overwhelming priority. Dupieux doesn’t miss the tossed-off absurdity of this turn of events; his compositions speak more than Georges himself—unsurprisingly given Deerskin’s scenario, the filmmaker wrote, directed, photographed, and edited the film himself—and give a window into his surrogate’s escalating thought process: Out-of-focus shots of Georges translate his feelings of invisibility, and later, the jacket becomes a character in its own right (just like the talking tire in Dupieux’s earlier Rubber). And yet, seeing this lonely man (as well as Denise) find an outlet for his emotions, or at least something to do with his time, feels at once hopeful and unsettling: If utter desolation can open someone up to new beginnings and new friendships, it could also push them too far.
Dupieux films the dull town where Georges ends up staying in equally dull colors—the skin of the film is as soft and smooth as that of his hero’s beloved new armor, and as misleading. Georges’s excessive indulgences become excuses for him to revel in his seclusion. Soon enough, the jacket wants to be “the only jacket in the world” because Georges longs to be someone of importance again—just as any filmmaker is always making the greatest movie ever. Fortunately, its weirdly earnest tone keeps Deerskin grounded and coherent even as Georges turns murderous, taking the film to genre territory. Instead of belaboring the gore, Dupieux shows artistic discernment by keeping his attention on Georges’s growing obsessions; rather than cheap thrills, he offers more deeply unsettling shivers because Georges’s liberating “killer style,” as he refers to it, comes at too high a price. The great ridiculousness of the whole enterprise, however, makes Deerskin light on its feet and hilarious throughout. Just as Denise calls Georges’s film a mockumentary, Deerskin could be a filmmaker’s mockobiography.