There was a lot of head-scratching (and complaining) when the Cannes 2018 lineup was first announced. A lot of major auteurs (e.g. Mike Leigh, Terrence Malick, Claire Denis) were nowhere to be found, while the Competition roster — generally accepted as the world’s most prestigious slate of new films — was littered with unfamiliar names. And though sidebars like Director’s Fortnight and Un Certain Regard are known for turning up the volume on unheralded voices, even those sections seemed to be unusually lacking in star power.
So what? Festivals are all about the joy of discovery, and it’s been a mighty long time since Cannes has provided attendees so many chances for attendees to find (and help coronate) their new favorite filmmakers. That being said, this is still Cannes, and the directors whose work has been included in the program aren’t coming from nowhere. They may not possess the pedigree of Jean-Luc Godard (or boast the infamy of Lars von Trier), but nobody gets invited to the Croisette by accident. Each of the comparatively unknown auteurs at this year’s edition have earned their spot on the strength of previous work — even the Egyptian director whose debut feature is premiering on Cannes’ biggest stage.
Here are seven films by the less famous members of the Cannes class of 2018 (although there’s no telling how famous they might be by this time next week). These earlier efforts should introduce you to who these filmmakers are, and point forward to where they might be taking us next.
“Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story” (2015)
Directed by: Eva Husson
2018 Cannes Film: “Girls of the Sun”
Welcome to every parent’s worst nightmare, a rare entry in that smallest of sub-genres: Movies that don’t punish teens for fucking their brains out (surprise, surprise: it’s French). A fully erect middle finger to the idea of abstinence-only education, Eva Husson’s “Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story” is the opposite of a cautionary tale — it’s a soft-core movie about the upside of indiscriminate teen sex. Which isn’t to say the kids get off without any consequences, but rather that their libidos don’t sentence them to an after-school special. They learn from their experiences, even the bad ones. They encourage you to make mistakes of your own, especially if you can make them with friends.
Opening with a scene that feels like the orgy sequence from “Eyes Wide Shut” as reimagined by Terry Richardson, “Bang Gang” doesn’t waste any time getting down to business. The characters take it from there, as the film centers on a foursome of introspective kids whose feelings knot as their bodies entangle. Sensitive but salacious, Husson’s debut is too derivative of forebears like “Kids” and “The Rules of Attraction” to earn a spot alongside them, but it nevertheless moves along on the strength of its slyly transgressive undertow. Moreover, the film’s harrowing physical immediacy bodes well for Husson’s “Girls of the Sun,” which finds the director retraining her gaze on an all-female battalion of Kurdish soldiers.
“Bang Gang” is available to stream on Netflix.
Directed by: Nadine Labaki
2018 Cannes Film: “Capernaum”
On its surface, Nadine Labaki’s debut vaguely resembles one of those anodyne foreign movies that Miramax used to import by the bushel in the late ’90s and early aughts — some zesty international flavor, a little sex appeal, but nothing that might risk scaring off the blue-haired crowd. But it isn’t long before “Caramel” establishes itself as something a bit more textured than that; sweeter than “Chocolat,” and fuller than “Malèna.”
The rare Lebanese film that refuses to focus on war (or even so much as acknowledge it), “Caramel” could reasonably be classified as a comedy. Labaki stars as Layale, a beauty technician whose salon is a social hotspot for a diverse cluster of women who are all struggling for their own lost measure of social acceptance and/or personal happiness. The movie hinges on Layale’s affair with a married man, but it also makes time for her closeted co-worker, her aging client, and even the old seamstress next door who’s forced to care for her troubled sister. Sitcom set-ups give way to moments of deep feeling, as Labaki never shies away from the complex realities she creates for her characters; their stories are told with a specificity that gives way to universal truths.
Labaki’s new film, “Capernaum,” sounds like a much chewier confection: It’s a 150-minute social drama about a kid who sues his parents for bringing him into this hellscape of a world. And who could blame him? Still, “Caramel” gives us reason to hope that it won’t be the unforgiving endurance test its premise might suggest — Labaki’s breakthrough is nothing if not the work of someone who loves this place a little too much to write it off completely.
“Caramel” is available to rent or buy on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.
“Happy Hour” (2015)
Director: Ryusuke Hamaguchi
2018 Cannes Film: “Asako I & II”
“Happy Hour” is five hours long, but that only sounds like a lot until you start watching it. Launching 39-year-old writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi onto the world stage, this gentle domestic opus eases into the lives of four middle-aged women in Kobe, Japan, criss-crossing their daily trivialities into a rich mosaic that stretches out like the kind of thing that Mikio Naruse would make if he were alive in the limitless age of digital video.
The film is absorbing from the moment it starts, Hamaguchi’s exquisite cast of actresses forging a palpable bond that immediately convinces you of their 25-year history. Each one of them makes the others more believable. These characters are all working through their own stuff (one is seeking a divorce, another is struggling to accommodate her mother-in-law, and so on), but they’re working through it in the same way we all do: Quietly, as if trying to put on a show while keeping most of themselves hidden behind a curtain. Ambling from one tremendous setpiece to another, “Happy Hour” gives us the time to suss out the difference between feeling and expression. By the end of it, even the most fleeting and ordinary moments seem to contain entire worlds.
Hamaguchi’s “Asako I & II” runs a far more traditional 120 minutes, but the premise — two years after her partner disappears, a woman meets his perfect double — is ripe for the same degree of human drama the director mined from “Happy Hour.”
“Happy Hour” is available to rent or buy in three parts on iTunes.
“The Lure” (2016)
Director: Agnieszka Smoczynska
2018 Cannes Film: “Fugue”
Imagine if Gaspar Noé and (the late) Andrzej Zulawski collaborated on a remake of “The Little Mermaid” and you’ll have a faint idea of what to expect from Agnieszka Smoczynska’s “The Lure,” a demented musical that bridges the gap between Hans Christian Andersen and Nine Inch Nails. The fun begins in Communist-era Poland, where a mopey young musician named Mietek (Jakub Gierszal) stands by the waters of Warsaw and strums a folksy lament. If Mietek doesn’t seem all that surprised when two comely sea sirens pop their heads out of the surf and sing a reply (promising not to eat him, natch), perhaps that’s because he’s a little tipsy — given the strange energy that pumps through Smoczynska’s film from start to finish, it won’t be long before you know just how he feels.
Their names are Golden (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek), and they’re nearly always naked. The mermaids’ bodies are a source of constant fascination, though most of the men who leer or look too closely are made to regret the error. Their music is irresistible as well, the sisters forming a rock band that feels like it fell out of a (very Grimm) fairy tale. Needless to say, “The Lure” is on a very different wavelength than anything you’ve seen before, and all the more enjoyable for that.
Premiering in the Critics’ Week sidebar, Smoczynska’s follow-up tells the story of a frigid amnesiac who returns to her family two years after disappearing. It may not seem to be quite as strange or unclassifiable as her debut, but one should expect “Fugue” will wring a few new twists from its familiar premise.
“The Lure” is available to stream on FilmStruck, and also on DVD & Blu-Ray through the Criterion Collection.
“Secret Sunshine” (2007)
Director: Lee Chang-dong
2018 Cannes Film: “Burning”
The details of “Secret Sunshine” have gotten a little fuzzy over the years. This critic has only seen Lee Chang-dong’s novelistic study of loss once, and that was at a New York Film Festival almost a decade ago. And yet, once was enough. The particulars may have faded from memory, but the sheer force of Lee’s harrowing masterpiece — and that of the peerlessly intense Jeon Do-yeon performance at its broken heart — hasn’t dulled a bit.
Unfolding like a Lars von Trier melodrama (minus all of the grime and ugliness), “Secret Sunshine” tells the story of the young widow Lee Shin-ae who moves her young son to a quiet town in South Gyeongsang Province after the death of her husband. It doesn’t go all that great. What begins as a portrait of a woman starting from scratch is soon revealed to be something far more severe, as Shin-ae is visited by a second tragedy that twists this gentle character study into a profoundly harrowing examination of faith and hopelessness. Few films put you through the wringer like this one, and even fewer make it so worth your while.
Lee’s latest film is loosely adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, and “Secret Sunshine” makes it hard to imagine a filmmaker who’s better equipped to imbue an unshakeable degree of pathos into the numb introspection of the author’s writing.
“Secret Sunshine” is available to rent or buy on iTunes.
“Things I Heard on Wednesdays” (2012)
Director: Abu Bakr Shawky
Cannes 2018 Film: “Judgement Day”
“The Shawky family has always posed for pictures. No matter how far back you go, they drop everything when they see a camera.” Those are the first words you hear in Abu Bakr Shawky’s “Things I Heard on Wednesdays,” and the rest of this shattering nine-minute short makes good on their claim. Collected from decades upon decades of family photographs (in addition to archival news footage and the director’s own home video of the 2011 Egyptian revolution), the film unfolds like a time-lapse of one man’s entire family tree. Shawky reels through the years as he narrates more than a century of personal histories. Alone, each of these stories is remarkable. Cut together — and set to the strains of Philip Glass’ “Violin Concerto No. 2” — they form a hugely moving tapestry of love and death, as Shawky’s monotone voice emphasizes the personal toll of political upheaval.
Now, that family history is in for a new twist, and a nice one at that: Shawky is about to become one of the few filmmakers to premiere a debut feature in Competition at Cannes. A road movie about two young outcasts who break free from the leper colony where they’ve spent their entire lives, “Judgement Day” may not sound like much of a crowdpleaser, but Shawky’s previous work — and the festival’s confidence in what he’s made here — suggests that we might be in store for something special.
“Things I Heard on Wednesdays” is available to stream on Vimeo.
“The Wonders” (2014)
Directed by: Alice Rohrwacher
2018 Cannes Film: “Happy as Lazzaro”
Alice Rohrwacher’s films have always been caught in time, these rustic coming-of-age stories revolving around young girls who are wracked between the past and the present, the old world and the new. Gelsomina, the protagonist of “The Wonders,” is the prototypical Rohrwacher heroine. She’s young, headstrong, and burdened with more responsibility than any girl her age can shoulder alone; she lives on a ramshackle honey farm with her nomadic family somewhere in the Etruscan countryside, but can’t shake off the call of the modern world. That siren song grows deafening after Gelsomina stumbles upon a promo hosted by the dreamlike vision of Monica Bellucci, a fairy tale queen in living color. She’s advertising a (pretty condescending) television show on which local farmers will compete to hock their wares over the airwaves, an opportunity that grips Gelsomina’s imagination and never lets go.
Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Helen Louvart (whose intimate handheld style lends the film a lived-in authenticity) and featuring a ruggedly maternal performance by Rohrwacher’s sister, Alba (whose turn in the recent “Daughter of Mine” represents the Platonic ideal of that type), “The Wonders” looks at the tectonic shifts of an eternal country through the eyes of a little girl who’s being pulled in two directions at once. Everyone feels like they were born too early or too late, but Rohrwacher’s salt of the earth immediacy laces that sense of dislocation into the basic fabric of Gelsomina’s life, the writer-director tying this sad and enchanting film together with her exquisite attention to detail.
Rohrwacher’s latest Cannes premiere is another portrait of temporal dislocation, but one that promises to lean even further into fantasy. Described as the story of a simple peasant who escapes his isolated village and magically finds himself transported to “the big city,” “Happy as Lazzaro” sounds like it might draw from Pasolini or the Taviani brothers as much as “The Wonders” did from the Dardennes.
“The Wonders” is available to stream on Netflix.