Cannes 2022. Black and White
Ever since the visual concept of this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival has been unveiled, I’ve constantly been mulling over it. There are two main types of images that the world’s most important film festival has been using in recent years – either the image of an actor or actress (like Sophia Loren, for example, whose waist was Photoshopped and, as such, caused a scandal) or of a filmmaker (like in 2019, when Agnes Varda became the first female filmmaker in history to become the image of Cannes, a few weeks after her passing); the other type is a still from an iconic film: such as the one used in 2016, from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963). If in some years, the image is a homage or the marker of an anniversary, in others, it also seems to be a subtle commentary on current events: like it was last year, when the poster donned Spike Lee as Mars Blackmon, subtly hinting at the massive racial equality protests that took place throughout the summer of 2020.
To come back to the present, this year we have the famous closing shot of Peter Weir’s 1998 The Truman Show, in which titular character Truman Burbank, played by Jim Carrey, escapes the film set on which he unwittingly spent his entire life, by using a hatch in the fake sky. The film is indeed turning 25 this year, but it’s still a very young age when it comes to classics; this means that it’s an explanation that I’m not fully satisfied with. One could take it as a commentary on social media, this new-age panopticon that has swallowed our lives whole, but, to be fair, it sounds a bit boomer. It might be something positive – like escaping the clutches of the pandemic era, which led to the cancellation of the 2020 edition, the first time the festival didn’t take place since 1968. Or it might be something bleak – such as the (illusion of) peace on the European continent coming to an end after Russia invaded Ukraine, thus opening the door to an unknowable future. Maybe I’m overthinking this.
Echoes of the invasion could also be heard on the Croisette, where official delegations of the Russian state were banned from participating by the festival’s committee, which also decided to reject accreditation requests coming in from journalists working for Russian state media – with dissidents like Anton Dolin duly receiving their badges. A Russian film did feature in the competition, the latest offering by dissident director Kiril Serebrennikov, who presented Tchaikovsky’s Wife after being released from house arrest in Moscow and joining the diaspora of Russian artists that have left their country behind to avoid the repressive regime of Vladimir Putin (amongst them, Kantemir Balagov, winner of the Un Certain Regard directing award in 2019, with Dîlda/Beanpole). The decision to include the film was controversial – such as the choice of Michel Hazvanicius’s Z comme Z as the festival’s opening film, leading to near-unanimous condemnation of social media, seeing as the last letter of the Latin alphabet has been adopted by the invading forces (and their supporters) as their symbol. Meanwhile, Hazvanicius has renamed his B-movie homage to Coupez! (Cut!).
I don’t see either film – both are screened long before I arrive in Cannes on the 22nd of May. Another film that screens before my arrival is Mariupolis II, cobbled together from the raw footage shot by Lithuanian documentary filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius, who returned to Mariupol after his multi-award-winning first feature on the city to document the war’s effects on the city – and was executed there by the Russian occupation forces. The film, with a runtime of an hour, was a last-minute addition to Cannes’ program, having been edited by Kverdavicius’ partner in the last few weeks after she managed to escape the hellscape on the Azov Sea after his killing (and which she recounts in a heart-wrenching diary). But, even if I had had the chance to see the film, I have no idea whether I would have had the stomach to do so.
What I do manage to catch is the latest by another controversial filmmaker, Serghei Loznitsa (caught in a scandal that was explained in detail by Alexandru Solomon and Victor Morozov), present in Cannes with a very appropriate title, in context: The Natural History of Destruction, inspired by W.G. Sebald’s eponymous collection of essays. A film that might lend itself to the voices that are criticizing the filmmaker for his recent ambiguous stances, even if his approach is largely identical to the one he’s constructed in his larger artistic project: to recover modern history and its image at times of heightened tension in the 20th century, without (almost any) explanations, as the footage is left to speak for itself (and also with the help of his painstakingly detailed process of audio reconstruction via foley). Documentary images with a sound that is, yet, closer to the truth than their originally preserved ones, which are most likely propagandistic voice-overs or nothing at all. In The Natural History, the images at hand come from various archives belonging to the Allied Powers in the Second World War, split into two main categories: the first consists of footage from the bombing of Germany during the counteroffensive against the Nazis, of German towns completely annihilated by air warfare; the second is made up of propaganda imagery of pilots, airships, bombs, and the factories that produce them. The message is as clear as can be – under the horrifying (plastic) beauty of these images, made to celebrate the destruction of the enemy (Nazi Germany), there lies infinite suffering and destruction, along with an obscene, unquestioned impulse to provoke them, which are all hard to put into words, this confirming Sebald’s central thesis. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the director’s refusal to offer more context to these images, as faithful as it may be to his artistic approach, doesn’t in fact render them anonymous, too heavily abstract – if by leaving so much up to the spectator’s capacity for interpretation and offering so much autonomy to the images themselves, one doesn’t, in fact, erase what truly renders them exceptional.
It’s not the only film that was screened this year in Cannes that raises questions about how a filmmaker put his good intentions into practice. Another such film is Close, ex-aequo winner of the Official Competition’s Grand Prix. (Spoilers ahead.) Focused on two boys that have just hit puberty, Léo and Rémi, shot in the same candid and intimate style (based on close-ups, fluid handheld camerawork, and a small depth of field) that we could see in Girl (2018), Dhont’s debut, Close is another exploration of teenaged queerness. Only this time, a tragedy derails the story: Remi commits suicide halfway through the film. He does so after he and Léo become the target of homophobic bullying at school, to which Leo responds by distancing himself – he starts ignoring his best friend and hanging out with the bullies in order to survive on a social level, which drives the other to take his life; the second half of the film is focused on Léo’s feelings of grief and guilt. At a surface level, the film might sound like a condemnation of bullying and homophobia, a narrative that exemplifies the incredibly painful statistics regarding suicide amongst queer youth (18% of which have attempted at least once) – but Close prefers to create a story underpinned by banal explanations, designed in order to milk as many tears as it can from its audience, not to understand why these tragic things happen in society. In Dhont’s universe, bullying and homophobia are simply a given. And it’s a shame, considering the film’s first act, which so tenderly captures the ambiguous, suave, and sweaty moments of one’s first erotic impulses: a thread that could have been much more fortunate and appealing from a narrative point of view, had the director chosen to fully go down its path.
But thank goodness that there were other representations of queerness present on the Croisette – amongst them, João Pedro Rodrigues’ absolutely delicious Fogo Fátuo (Will O’ The Wisp) – and the only tear the filmmaker is trying to jerk from his spectators is one of laughter. Indeed, his 67-minute-long social satire swings between the profane and the sublime: the film is centered on the prince of a fictional royal family, Alfredo, who decides to leave the comfortable confines of his dusty villa in order to become… a firefighter. (What a roaring scene, the one in which he recites the entirety of Greta Thunberg’s famous “How dare you!” speech!) Bullied for his mild manners in the profoundly macho (yet homoerotic) environment of the fire station, the prince strikes up an affair with Afonso, a young man of color that is everything that Alfredo isn’t: a man guided by vital force and primary intuition, a cross-generational victim of colonialism that is socially vulnerable. But Rodrigues is not interested in the theoretical elements of this relationship: what he cares about are the sparks that result from this clash – often flying about rhythmically, in dances and highly choreographed scenes, doubled by a rigorous composition and eclectic lighting. And one of the sparks? A slideshow of dick pics.
Also, thank goodness that there were other representations of teens on the Croisette – like the one in Metronom, the debut feature that won Alexandru Belc the award for Best Director in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Borrowing its title from the legendary music show that aired on Radio Free Europe during the seventies, helmed by DJ Cornel Chiriac, Metronom is a Romanian film that, at long last, actually shows people actually making love instead of awkward sex (at best), while Mara Bugarin’s stellar performance puts her at the forefront of young Romanian cinema. The film – shot in Academy format and saturated colors by Tudor Panduru – takes place over the course of two days and the night between them, during which protagonist Ana (Bugarin) is mourning the sudden end of her relationship with Sorin (Șerban Lazarovici), who is going to leave the country soon. A house party thrown by Ana’s best friend is used by Belc as a context to explore the small hippie subculture in early seventies Romania, living in the long shadow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s 1971 “July Theses”, which marked an abrupt and untimely end to the country’s burgeoning liberalization. The lack of an image of this generation, that embraced liberalism and grew up listening to Hendrix and Joplin in secret (and one of the film’s finest scenes is set to The Doors’ Light My Fire – finally, a Romanian film with an actual soundtrack!), was a huge gap in modern Romanian cinema. Of course, the film does slip in some parts (I’m pretty sure I spotted an IKEA glass in there, at one point), and the fact that it simply feels the need to involve the Secret Police (Securitate) in the plot is excusable up to a certain point – but it does so because, of course, a communist-era film must have something going wrong, right? Even when they do end up going wrong, Belc has the tact to not pass his characters through grueling torture once they get into trouble; things are bad, really bad, but they could be worse.
With regard to the main competition – and five days and a half on the Croisette were certainly not enough for me to cover it all –, I can’t help but notice that its enormous roster of awards (covering almost half of the selection itself!) avoided some of the edition’s critical favorites: Cristian Mungiu with R.M.N., David Cronenberg with his surprisingly Brechtian Crimes of the Future, Kelly Reichtard with her subtle drama work in Showing Up, or Albert Serra with his monumental and cryptic Pacifiction. Some critics have decried that the Palme D’Or went to Ruben Östlund, who thus became the second filmmaker in history to win the festival’s main award with back-to-back films, seeing his triumph as one of cynicism; others celebrated his win. As I haven’t managed to catch the film, I’m unable to give an extended diagnosis; but it’s not hard to see that in a year that featured four ex-Palme winners, the jury went for some of the festival’s darlings: Hirokazu Kore-eda (or rather, main actor Song Kang-Ho), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Claire Denis, Park Chan-wook.
What I do feel confident enough to criticize – and it looks like I’m not alone in this – is a major absence from this year’s Official Competition roster, one which the jury of the Un Certain Regard section also regrettably failed to acknowledge: Hylnur Palmasson’s epic Godland. (Some say that this year’s UCR jury shared members with the main jury of 2016 – the one who didn’t offer any recognition to Maren Ade’s monumental Toni Erdmann). I’ll write more on the film in an upcoming piece, but for the moment, I’ll only pause to say the following: if a festival like Cannes doesn’t award a film that might be imperfect, sure, but that is flourishing in terms of directorial ambitions (on all fronts), combining a homage to the greats (here, Herzog, Malick, and Bresson) with a new and original vision on the history of one’s homeland – then what kinds of films does it award? And what for?