sat 24/08/2019

Cannes 2019: Week One - a genre-heavy opening | reviews, news & interviews

Cannes 2019: Week One - a genre-heavy opening

Cannes 2019: Week One - a genre-heavy opening

The 72nd film festival showcases ghouls, the gig economy, and gun-wielding avengers

Cannes Film Festival's feature film juryMatt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Every year the Cannes Film Festival is a swirl of chaos, excitement, and controversy. Last year, the festival had a markedly different feel. Gone were the big starry names. Replacing them were less glitzy films that were given a chance to shine.

There were delights like the monochrome wonder that was Cold War from Paweł Pawlikowski, and the magical-realist fable Happy as Lazarro from Alice Rohrwacher. Both directors are back again this year, sitting on the competition jury headed up by The Revenant director Alejandro González Iñárritu, alongside Elle Fanning, Yorgos Lanthimos, Enki Bilal, Kelly Reichardt, Maimouna N'Diaye and Robin Campillo. They were a sight to behold at the photo-call – never before has Cannes seen such a diverse jury gracing the steps of the Grand Theatre Lumiere.

For every sign that Cannes is moving with the times, there's always a story that shows the festival still has a lot of catching up to do. By day two, a story broke about British director Greta Bellamacinaer, whose four-month-old son was initially denied access to the festival. The festival had already come under fire for the fact that only four films in the competition line-up were from female directors – Mati Diop's Alantique, Little Joe by Jessica Hausner, Portrait of a Lady on Fire from Céline Sciamma and Sibyl from Justine Triet.

The opening slot of the festival has recently offered up more than one turkey, but The Dead Don't Die, from Jim Jarmusch, was a game changer. Laced with the director's trademark humour, it was a delight from start to finish. Then there was a double-whammy of social realism from either side of the English Channel with Ladj Ly's debut feature, Les Misérables, and Ken Loach's Sorry We Missed You. Both are urgent, angry films giving voices to the voiceless. Ly's film has little to do with Victor Hugo's novel, save that it is set in Montfermeil, the same area that the French author wrote the novel. An apt quote from Hugo's book captures the essence of this cop-drama: "There are no bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators." The underprivileged, black teens the film focuses on are surrounded by adults who fail them at every turn. Meanwhile, Loach's follow up to I, Daniel Blake, is a firm and meaningful swipe at the impact of the gig economy in North-East England. If this were Loach's final film (there are rumours of retirement), it would be a fitting last hurrah.

Then there was Rocketman. Many expected a car-crash biopic (in part due to a lacklustre trailer) in the mold of Bohemian Rhapsody, and only included in the line-up to appeal to mainstream tastes. Both films are directed by Dexter Fletcher, but they couldn't be more different. Fletcher was brought in at the 11th hour for his last film, replacing Bryan Singer. This time it is clear that he not only had directorial control but was emotionally invested in the project from the outset. It's a glitzy, bizarre, outlandish and phantasmagorical biopic, with music that knocks the wind from your lungs.

Less impressive was Pedro Almodóvar's autobiographical Pain and Glory. It's essentially Almodóvar's 8 ½, but made with less skill and richness than Fellini's 1963 opus. The self-indulgence can be forgiven, but the lack of pathos cannot, despite a good impression of the director by Antonio Banderas.

The broad swathe of genre films (beyond Jarmusch’s feature) at this year's festival is an unexpected turn, perhaps reflecting how times of political turmoil cause filmmakers and audiences to better process reality through a filter. Nicolas Winding Refn debuted his latest project Too Old To Die Young (which he calls a 13-hour film, but viewers will call a TV show). Although it was an amalgam of his tropes, its breadth was mesmerizing, telling the story of a California Sheriff (Miles Teller) who moonlights as a hired gun, crossing states to right wrongs. Genre-juggling director Takashi Miike also delved into the gangster genre with First Love, while Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots brought Irish sci-fi Vivarium.

Cannes’s embrace of genre films this year shows a progression away from purist cinema. For some this might seem distasteful, but there's no denying it makes for a refreshing palette cleanser from previous years.

The best was saved for Sunday morning, where The Witch director, Robert Eggers, debuted ‘The Lighthouse’. It's a swirling, psychological horror in which you can practically taste the salt coming off the sea, and concerns two lighthouse keepers that are stranded when a storm hits. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe give rapturous, earthy performances, with a script from Max and Robert Eggers worthy of Melville.

And we are only halfway through. The new Terrence Malick A Hidden Life, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood from Quentin Tarantino, and Joon-Ho Bong's Parasite, are still yet to screen. We just have to wait to see if they are any good.

@JosephDAWalsh

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