As the 2018 Cannes Film Festival enters its final stretch, IndieWire critics Eric Kohn and David Ehrlich trade notes on some of the big takeaways so far.
ERIC: It was a strange feeling, a few hours after watching a Chinese movie that experiments with perceptions of memory and time, to sit down for “Star Wars.” But that’s Cannes: One moment, you’re experiencing a visionary work like Bi Gan’s Un Certain Regard entry “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which turns into a 3D long take in its second half; the next, you’re watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster — in this case, “Solo,” which premiered in the very same theater screening films from around the world all week.
“Solo” may have been the single studio entry in this year’s festival, but if it was there to take the temperature on American commercial cinema, it wasn’t the best sign. As I sat through this unnecessary, bland entry in the ever-expanding “Star Wars” EU, I felt like I was watching some sort of computer simulation designed for financiers to get a sense for what a young Han Solo would look like — a pre-viz version of the real deal. But here’s the upside: This strange, mechanical variation on an iconic movie character reduced to a baby-faced impersonation actually gave me hope for international cinema as a whole. At Cannes, where we watch a range of movies from around the world, “Star Wars” stands out as a very small piece of the overall equation.
I was riveted by Bi Gan’s film, but also quite satisfied with “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s best movie in years and possibly his most commercial in ages, which tackles modern-day bigotry through a historical lens. In another world entirely, the other American film in competition here is “Under the Silver Lake,” David Robert Mitchell’s sophisticated and playful film noir pastiche.
Both movies reflect the idiosyncratic sensibilities of their creators, who hail from different generations and mindsets, but together they offer a striking contrast to the “Star Wars” master narrative of American movies: the idea that the most impactful work must be reduced to formula for mass consumption. Instead, they provide a snapshot of a country that still manages to have a few companies willing to support auteur directors. Focus Features produced “Blackkklansman,” while “Silver Lake” was financed by A24, and both companies are leaving serious dents at this year’s festival.
Focus also bought opening-night entry “Everybody Knows,” a decent if melodramatic thriller from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, while A24 picked up Gaspar Noé’s trippy LSD-gone-wrong dance saga “Climax.” These movies won’t work for everyone, but they reflect the precise intentions of their creators so well that they reinforce the value of celebrating filmmaking as an art form on its own terms, rather than a dated medium shrinking in the shadow of television. That’s to say nothing of “Border,” a wacky fantasy film about a liaison between an immigration agent and a supernatural being too bizarre to spoil here, which was picked up by NEON shortly after its premiere. Despite the general weakness of Hollywood product, and the prevailing sense that Netflix may signal a future for movies very different from the one on display here, Cannes is once again giving me hope.
Of course, the festival really stumbled on the representation front, and the lack of more than three female directors in competition is an oversight that no single rousing screening can rectify. It was a promising start when Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux signed a resolution to move toward gender parity in the programming, because anyone who knows anything about movies knows that there are a ton of qualified films directed by women that deserve maximum exposure each year. Nevertheless, it won’t change that programming misstep this year, or the history of oversights from the past 71 years highlighted at this edition with a dramatic and powerful showing of women directors on the red carpet. So all we can do for now is look at the films that Cannes has given to us this time around, and fortunately, there’s still plenty to appreciate there.
DAVID: I was as disappointed as anyone else not to see Claire Denis’ name on the schedule, and I was really disappointed that Mia Hansen-Løve didn’t have a new film ready to show, as this would have been the perfect time to promote her to her long-deserved Competition status. Beyond the women-director issue, there’s also the whole Netflix brouhaha, which now — after what feels like 359 consecutive of mainlining movies directly into my bloodshot eyeballs — kinda feels like ancient news (really though, “Roma” is the only one of the company’s movies that feels absent).
But here we are in the South of France, watching the finest in contemporary international cinema, and life is pretty good in our little bubble. There may be fewer big names than usual on the Croisette (though let’s not forget new films by Jean-Luc Godard, Lars von Trier, and Jia Zhangke all premiered in a 72-hour period), but is that really such a bad thing? As the world’s most prestigious festival, Cannes is inherently more geared towards exaltation than discovery — more interested in worshipping the old gods than anointing the new — but what’s the point of a film festival if it doesn’t show you something that you’ve never seen before?
This year’s festival has been all about striking a balance between the known and the unknown, and I’ve been loving almost every minute of it. It’s the perfect vibe for a time that is constantly forcing us to look at the world from a new perspective, and to rethink everything it is that we think we know. It’s why one of my most unexpected pleasures of the fest has been Julio Hernández Cordón’s “Buy Me a Revolver”, which distilled Mexico’s cartel violence to its core by recasting it as a post-apocalyptic fable. It’s why I swooned over Romain Gavras’ “The World Is Yours,” a delightful heist comedy that rebukes the “Scarface” mystique from the inside out. And it’s why I was so thrilled (even proud?) to see filmmakers like Alice Rohrwacher (“Happy as Lazzaro”) and Bi Gan push themselves to new heights, using the shining promise of Cannes as motivation to reach for the stars.
Most thrilling of all may have been the opportunity to rediscover some of the world’s most well-established filmmakers. My greatest joy of the fest so far has been watching the great Kore-eda Hirokazu deconstruct the familiar patois of his humane family dramas, as his Palme-tipped “Shoplifters” dissects the bonds that bind people together in order to see what gives them their strength. Ditto “BlacKkKlansman,” which feels like the work of an artist who’s been freshly revitalized by all the horrible things that are happening right now — some people seek shelter in a shitstorm, but Spike runs straight into it with his middle fingers held high.
And then there’s Lars von Trier. Oh, Lars. The Kanye West of Cannes (and some people surely feel like that comparison is mighty unfair to Kanye West). “The House That Jack Built” won’t be winning any audience awards any time soon, but I was deeply taken with this epic serial-killer saga as more than just another trip through the abattoir of the filmmaker’s anxieties. For me, it’s one of the most honest, self-critical, and even backhandedly contrite movies I’ve ever seen — an artist in conversation with the violence and limitations of his own genius. And the whole thing builds to such a devilish glimmer of optimism. If even Lars von Trier can be upbeat about the future — the future of people, the future of film, and the future of the people who make them — who are we to think that we’re reaching the end of the road?