Cannes 2018: No Miraculous Conversions

Happy as Lazzaro. Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival.

After the critical bashing suffered by last year’s Cannes selection, the consensus on this year’s edition was more positive, a perplexing conclusion given that the festival’s by-now well-worn curatorial recipe was once again followed more or less to the letter. For all the handwringing about Netflix withdrawing its titles after a spat with artistic director Thierry Frémaux over theatrical distribution, the competition slate offered yet another stolid blend of Cannes stalwarts, established names, and newer faces of questionable merit, with only the latter suggesting that slots needed to be filled. And if there were perhaps fewer all-out disasters than in 2017, the selection was still plagued by the same ongoing problem: a chronic lack of surprise. As always, anyone going into the Jean-Luc Godard, Jia Zhangke or Lee Chang-dong films already convinced of their filmmakers’ virtues would leave the auditorium happy, just as no one already wary of the work of Nadine Labaki, Hirokazu Kore-eda or Stéphane Brizé was going to experience some miraculous conversion. For better or worse, Cannes provides exactly what is expected and nothing more; expectations are to be upheld, never upended.

By Competition standards at least, Alice Rohrwacher’s third feature Happy as Lazzaro demonstrated a surprising degree of ambition, pushing the bucolic atmosphere of her 2014 Grand Prix-winning The Wonders further towards fable while folding in such new, theoretically incompatible ideas as time travel and social realism with supple assurance. The young, open-faced Lazzaro lives with his sprawling family on a cramped farmstead in some idyllic corner of central Italy, where they toil processing tobacco to line the pockets of their upper-class boss, the domineering Marquesa. His guilelessness is such that he’s happy to befriend the Marquesa’s rebellious son Tancredi, with their burgeoning relationship hovering between brotherhood, homoeroticism, and servitude before the greens, yellows, and browns of the surrounding landscape, all forested peaks and hedgerows, dried grass, and expanses of bare rock. 

Rohrwacher shows considerable command of atmosphere in the film’s first half, carefully parceling out information piece by piece to maintain the setting’s mysterious timelessness, while also avoiding the temptation to luxuriate in its beauty or that of its inhabitants. Yet the second half of the film, which catapults Lazzaro and the viewer alike into grey urban cheerlessness via a daring narrative maneuver, lacks the same lightness of touch, as all the previous seductive indeterminacy gives way to greater obviousness, even clumsiness at times, with some problematic clichés being employed in the process. Fables may rest on archetypes, but do the working class always need to be reduced to their heart of gold and banks to a lazy shorthand for coldness?

The landscape on display in Three Faces, Jafar Panahi’s first trip to Competition, is reminiscent of both rural Italy as well as the setting of a celebrated film by his compatriot, Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us. Yet this is not the only echo of the dead master’s 1999 classic, as Three Faces also sends Tehrani urbanites to a village in rural Iran and has them mingle with the local population, a process again punctuated by problems with phone reception and unexpected poetry recitals. This time, a famous actress has recruited a film director to help her track down a girl from the village so frustrated at being prevented from attending a drama conservatory that she has apparently filmed her own suicide, with the resultant video opening the film. The fact that the director is none other than Panahi himself and the actress is Iranian screen legend Behnaz Jafari represents just one more mischievous intertwining of reality and its staging.

Such metafictional shenanigans have long been a way for Panahi to explore the limits of the filmmaking ban handed down to him in 2011, with this now the fourth film in a row to riff on his own persona and the nature of filmmaking. Perhaps that’s why the conceit already feels tired in Three Faces, especially because much of the opening exchange between the two protagonists spells out all the accompanying questions of reality and construction as if they were being addressed for the first time. The same tendency towards telling rather than showing plagues the film as a whole, as everyone is unusually fond of saying exactly what’s on their mind and commenting on what’s currently happening, with merely the closing stretches allowing the images to begin to speak for themselves. It’s only then that the Kiarostami parallels start to feel earned rather than merely unflattering.

Three Faces does at least exude playfulness and energy, which can hardly be said of Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski’s own graduation to Competition status, a lifeless slab of cinema of the very highest quality that feels precision-tooled to follow in the footsteps of his previous film, Ida (2013), all the way to the Kodak Theater come next February. Each of its elements appears to have been chosen for maximum prestige impact, rather than their ability to form an organic whole, with the protracted, perpetually troubled love story between Zula and Viktor designed to generate swoons, the continent-spanning Cold War setting providing de rigueur historical significance, and the musicological developments of 20th-century Poland traced out in passing a unique selling point (and an excuse to mount showy, yet tellingly staid musical numbers at will). 

With all three boxes needing to be ticked simultaneously, none of their respective throughlines generate the necessary momentum to engage, let alone captivate, a problem compounded by the film’s over-restrained framings and bizarrely staccato approach to editing, as if the camera itself were worried that lingering too long on each lavishly crafted image might cause distraction. The script seems equally petrified of allowing any of the individual scenes to properly breathe, ever ready to slide into another on-the-nose line of dialogue in case anyone in the audience doesn’t know exactly what Zula and Viktor are feeling at any given time or where they are on the historical timeline. Judging by its rapturous reception among certain critics, Cold War’s many calculations look to have paid off, which doesn’t stop it from being one of the most incongruously static films about love and music in a long time. 

As usual, the more inventive work at the festival was kept outside the Competition, such as Diamantino, the first feature by Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, which screened in the Critics’ Week sidebar. The film boasts as wacky a premise as their previous shorts, telling the story of the titular Diamantino, a simpleminded soccer superstar with distinct shades of Cristiano Ronaldo who has several life changes thrust on him at once: the end of his football career after missing the all-important penalty for Portugal at the World Cup, the death of his father, and the arrival of his new adopted son, who is actually a lesbian posing as a refugee and trying to expose his alleged tax irregularities. But even bigger changes are also afoot, after Diamantino is corralled into participating in an experiment to extract the essence of his footballing talent, which pumps him full of female hormones in return. 

Diamantino’s view of the world is at once utterly ridiculous and an entirely apt depiction of the current moment, a parade of over-the-top computer graphics, meme-ready moments, and surreal linkages which grasps that politics, entertainment, and the real world outside feed off one another to such an extent that they are almost indivisible. Yet the prescience of this idea is undermined by both repetition and occasional jarring simplicity, most glaringly in terms of gender. For all the many jokes that land, several become dulled by sheer overuse, as if the directors only had enough good material to fill forty minutes rather than ninety, while a punchline involving a man growing breasts would feel more of its time in 1970 than 2018. In a brave new world, the old-fashioned stands out.

The strangeness of Ulrich Köhler’s In My Room is far more filigree, an appealingly inscrutable look at what the end of the world, or rather one world in particular, might actually produce. Like many in Berlin, washed-up forty-something Armin works in the media and isn’t actually from the city, coming instead from Germany’s affluent, ordered south, to where he’s forced to return when his grandmother dies. Without even having seen the whole family, he wakes up one typically hungover morning to find he’s apparently the only person still in existence, as all other human beings have seemingly vanished without trace, leaving motorbikes lying on the highway, a party boat circling in the river, and dogs to fend for themselves. Disbelief is followed by despair, before the action jumps forward in time via a wonderfully handled transition, a sudden, seamless movement from grays to greens, the suburban to the rural, hopelessness to possibility. Armin now leads a new, perfectly organic life in the country, which is soon under threat once it’s clear he’s no longer alone.

Köhler devotes the same attention to nuance and detail to each of the genres he riffs on, whether character study, post-apocalyptic drama, or love story, and moves between them with consummate ease, while injecting enough openness into their respective scenarios such that several, equally intriguing interpretations are always possible. Is Armin to be scoffed at or identified with, is this end of the world literal, figurative, or somewhere in between, and is his newly idyllic set-up a paradise rediscovered or simply the trite manifestation of decades of German bourgeois aspiration? Of all the readings In My Room permits, the bleakest is the most provocative: when handed the opportunity for a new start, can anyone really step outside themselves? Perhaps the path from banality to opportunity is necessarily circular.

Contributor

James Lattimer

JAMES LATTIMER is a film critic, festival programmer, and filmmaker based in Berlin.

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