Known Quantities: Cannes 2017by James Lattimer
They say familiarity breeds contempt, which might explain why this year’s Cannes program was one of the worst received in recent memory. The sort of polite innovation that lifted such established, but still nominally edgy names as Maren Ade, Alain Guiraudie, Albert Serra, and Kleber Mendonça Filho into last year’s Official Selection was notable by its absence this time round, with only the inclusion of Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time in the main competition standing out among the parade of big, predictable names. Yet while watching Robert Pattinson stride purposely through a fashionable wash of red tones, electronic pulses, and re-jigged heist-movie tropes is agreeable enough, the film would have needed to be a full-on masterpiece to blow away the cobwebs left behind by auteur after auteur delivering exactly what’s expected from them. If nothing else, this year revealed that basing one’s programming around having known quantities deliver makes for a pretty flimsy strategy.
Cannes perennial Ruben Östlund’s The Square did at least boast one of the more striking scenes of the festival, a sustained, unusually opaque sequence showing a bare-chested man performing as an ape whose increasing savagery pulls the besuited Stockholm cultural set way out of their comfort zone: a comment on the limits of contemporary art, of respectability, or of understanding in general? Östlund otherwise replicates much the same structure as his Force Majeure without that film’s narrative economy, allowing a hip curator’s act of moral cowardice to snowball out of control before a by-now familiar backdrop of excruciation, cynicism, and antiseptic surfaces.
Bong Joon-ho also mined familiar territory to mixed effect in Okja, which brings Snowpiercer’s blend of South Korean and Hollywood stars to bear on a slyly satirical monster movie à la The Host. Aside from Tilda Swinton’s hyperactive appeal and some flickers of visual invention (a giggling schoolgirl filming herself being chased through a department store by the titular giant pig), Bong’s predictable tale of corporate hubris and animal rights ambivalence feels itself like a talented director submitting to commerce, as Netflix, which funded the film, seemingly frowns on the rough edges of his past.
Outside the main competition, the inclusion of other big names apparently hinged on past glories. Thirty-something artist and photographer JR proved a pernicious influence on Agnès Varda in their film Faces Places, as she accompanies him on his journey through a relentlessly chirpy version of France, taking mammoth photos of members of the public and expressing precisely the necessary amount of interest in them to get the reaction shot needed after said photos are hung up on some big building. Those insights there are about Varda’s career and her generation must be dug out from under a thick layer of mugging about just how darn unlikely Varda and JR’s friendship really is.
It’s always hard to know how much of a posthumously completed film can be attributed to its original maker, but only the central concept of Abbas Kiarostami’s 24 Frames is reminiscent of the work of the lost master—the idea of trying to fill in the before and after of twenty-three photographs and one Bruegel painting to ascertain what makes up a frame. Yet the gimmicks employed to heighten the impact of these images and bring them to life feel beamed in from another universe entirely—CGI snow, all manner of saturating filters, lachrymose music, animated bird after animated bird—which turn the act of looking into less of a conceptual experience than a test of how much muted chintz one can endure. In a career full of such magnificent frames, it’s all the harder to stomach that these are the last.
At least some filmmakers were still able to deliver excellent work by sticking to what they know. The two films by Hong Sang-soo showcased different virtues of his recent output. Claire’s Camera demonstrates the Korean master’s unwavering ability to shoot on the fly and still capture any number of pleasing ambiguities. Shot the previous year in Cannes itself, the droll tale traces the fleeting friendship struck up between Kim Min-hee’s sales agent and Isabelle Huppert’s first time festival visitor, an encounter punctuated by photos that document it and accentuate its ellipses in equal measure. Kim Min-hee also plays the lead in The Day After, which pushes the director’s minimalist tendencies yet further: four characters, three locations and the ephemeral spaces in between, minimal surplus information, an almost total focus on claustrophobically framed conversations and their undulations of resentment and regret. Hong’s endlessly varying relationship dramas have always been cousins to the work of Éric Rohmer; this story of free-thinking women instrumentalized by oblivious men might just be his Love in the Afternoon.
Some of Hong’s gleaming black and white shots of nighttime metro stations or sunlit car interiors could have stemmed from Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day, which screened in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar. The French veteran spins an equally economical tale around the shifting bonds formed between a young woman spurned, her academic father, and his new girlfriend of the same age, the luminous camerawork picking out windows and doors, sliding down facades and along buildings and corridors, and alighting on bodies—dancing, naked, wracked by emotion. The way Garrel positions love between the anguished and the matter of fact may be entirely familiar by now, but is ravishing all the same.
With the Fortnight’s program increasingly peppered with the big names likely rejected by the Official Selection, which this year included Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Amos Gitai, and Abel Ferrera, the potential voices of the future have an ever-harder time being heard. Yet there was at least one fiction debut that pointed in some interestingly messy new directions. Pedro Pinho’s The Factory of Nothing stares into the void left behind when a factory goes into administration. Faced with divisive payoffs and an uncertain future, the workers try in various ways to fill this now blank space—occupation, left-wing discourse, self-organization, song and dance, silence—with each new suggestion also triggering a shift in the mode of the film itself, from social realism to talking heads to full-on musical. While some shifts are more graceful than others and the wackier moments can appear somewhat strained, Pinho’s film feels as unusual and unpredictable as its final reel message, particularly in this Riviera setting: in a world of restless uncertainty, continuing to apply the same old categories won’t get you anywhere.
JAMES LATTIMER is a film critic, festival programmer and filmmaker based in Berlin.