So the curtain has come down on the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival, which also happened to be my own 30th Cannes. Before it began, I wrote here about some of my own most memorable movies and experiences and how the festival had changed over the years. It now seems fitting to offer a few reflections on the 70th edition itself.
Apart from a few special celebratory events – which included the publication of Ces années-là, a compendium of essays, each dealing with a particular year of the festival, to which Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, Sight & Sound editor Nick James and I were invited to contribute (I wrote about 1996) – the 70th was in most respects pretty much par for the course. That said, due to the heightened security, queues moved even more slowly than usual, and as a result people tended to turn up even earlier for screenings. That would have made it a more tiring ordeal anyway, but the fact that it was, by general consensus, a rather underwhelming year in terms of the main competition films also contributed to widespread feelings of weariness during the event’s second half. Happily, the final competition movie, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which was backed by National Lottery funding through the BFI Film Fund, turned out to be so breathtakingly bold and brisk that it immediately dispelled any such fatigue.
Still, at least this year (unlike last) we were able to take some consolation from the fact that Pedro Almodóvar’s jury had generally made wise choices for the awards. Mostly, the right movies were rewarded, and I was very pleased that the Palme d’Or went to Ruben Östlund’s The Square, as it was my preference for the top prize, too.
My only regret was that Michael Haneke’s Happy End was completely passed over by the jury, though with two Palmes d’Or to his name for The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012), and a clutch of other major Cannes prizes for his earlier work, the great Austrian auteur is unlikely to feel too miffed by the results. Indeed, I was privileged to lunch with him and his star Isabelle Huppert a couple of days after Happy End had screened, and he seemed in very good spirits, despite a number of critics – the French, especially, it appeared – having complained that it was just another Haneke film. “What do they expect?” he laughed. “After all, I’m not someone else. I’ve been Michael Haneke for many years, and I don’t imagine that what I do is going to change very much now!”
Nor should it. Happy End is a characteristically brilliant film, and if it isn’t as emotionally affecting as his last two films, that’s because it’s not intended to be. Ingeniously reworking and updating the various themes of all his previous films in one relatively brief movie, the film is also notable for introducing a vein of absurdist-satirical humour. Perhaps those lazily complaining that this is merely more of the same could tell us which of Haneke’s earlier movies ended in such a way that the audience broke into laughter?
I won’t go into further detail about the main competition. While it’s true that the standard was perhaps less impressive than usual, that’s not the fault of the festival, merely a reflection of what was available to them. Where Thierry Frémaux and his team might have done a little better is in their positioning of a number of titles. For example, some of us were left wondering why Valeska Grisebach’s wonderful Western (in the Un Certain Regard strand) or Claire Denis’s likewise superior Un beau soleil intérieur (over in the Directors’ Fortnight) had not been invited to compete for the main prizes.
Indeed, for this writer at least, with the exception of the films by Östlund, Haneke, Ramsay and Andrey Zvyagintsev (whose Loveless was rightly an early favourite), quite a few of the finest films were out of competition. Both Visages Villages, Agnès Varda’s collaboration with photographer JR, and 12 Days, by Raymond Depardon, are superb examples of documentary filmmaking. The former, a chronicle of Varda and JR’s trips together around France, is a lovely, light-hearted celebration of community and creativity, lent depth by its reflections on age, mortality and loss, while the latter is a heartbreakingly sad and compassionate contemplation of mental illness. Perhaps the selectors felt the veteran directors had made films that were too straightforward and modest, even televisual, for the glare of competition, but the simplicity of each work was deceptive, yielding emotional, intellectual, philosophical and cinematic riches galore.
The same could probably also be said of another fine out-of-competition documentary – Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W, an account of the horrendous atrocities committed against Burma’s Muslim population by extremist Buddhist monks, particularly the titular demagogue Wirathu – and of the aforementioned films by Denis and Grisebach. Though Denis is now in her 70s, like her elders Varda, Depardon and Schroeder she is in no sense past her best, and Un beau soleil intérieur (the English title, Bright Sunshine In, doesn’t really convey much) is one of her very finest achievements, right up there with Beau Travail (1999) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008). An assembly of episodes from the frustrating love-life of an artist (Juliette Binoche, quite superb) who’s fearful that it may be coming to an end, the film is witty, warm, ironic, touching and packed with thought-provoking ambiguities. At times reminiscent of Eric Rohmer or the Abbas Kiarostami of Certified Copy (2010), it’s nevertheless distinctively Denis in terms of its tone, interests and visual beauty.
There were, in fact, many fine films by women – I also rather enjoyed Sofia Coppola’s competition entry The Beguiled, though it felt less satisfying in various ways than Don Siegel’s original – and I’ve kept my last recommendation for Western, by the comparatively unknown (since far from prolific) German writer-director Valeska Grisebach. (Her 2001 graduation film, Mein Stern, was so good that I programmed it for a week at BFI Southbank, and her first feature, 2006’s enormously impressive Longing, was acquired and released by the BFI after its premiere in the Berlinale competition.)
Grisebach likes to work in close collaboration with non-professional actors, which may or may not explain the lengthy gaps between films. Certainly, it helps to explain her films’ rare authenticity, be it emotional, social, political or simply dramaturgical. Western is a terrific example. About the interactions of a motley group of German construction workers, both with each other and with the inhabitants of a remote Bulgarian village where they’re working for the summer, the film is an utterly credible, brilliantly insightful study of a certain kind of masculinity. The competitiveness, the aggression, the suspicions, insecurity and pride may at times give rise to situations evocative of the classic western, but Grisebach is more interested in life than in movie convention, and the ending of her quiet, consistently engrossing, beautifully shot and acted film rings wondrously true.
Maybe Western was left out of the main competition because it was deemed too ‘small’. But it was considerably more rewarding than many of the ‘bigger’ films on view, and perhaps Frémaux and co should have taken a gamble as they did with last year’s Toni Erdmann (on which Grisebach was a script consultant). This year, after all, they had a jury that actually understood and welcomed intelligent, relevant, original and adventurous filmmaking. And Western is undoubtedly all of those things.