INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Mark Peranson
“Messieurs, nous ferons mieux la prochaine fois.”—Fagon, Le mort de Louis XIV
The already established conventional wisdom is that 2016 saw a strong Cannes Competition ruined by a set of awful awards from a dunderheaded jury of circus clowns led by third-time’s-a-charm George Miller—and while I certainly agree with the latter contention, the former may be taking things a bit too far. This year’s marathon of a Competition indeed started and ended strong, but plummeted to a predictable depth in the middle. Let’s say I saw around ten films worth taking home and re-seeing, which is about the same as last year—and for my admittedly high standards, that’s good enough. It’s tempting to co-opt the already classic final words of Albert Serra’s barnstorming “Special Honorary Jean-Pierre Léaud Screening” to the jury with regards to the awards, and next time they certainly will do better, as it’s impossible to do worse. (Far from being underground, it turns out that the real terrorists were in plain sight all along.) More apropos words in this situation come in the form of another quote from Louis XIV: “Je m’en vais, mais l’État demeurera toujours” (“I am going away, but the State will always remain”). For in Cannes, Thierry “L’État, c’est moi” Frémaux rules supreme, an all-powerful monarch who sets the rules, chooses the films, handpicks the nine members of the jury, and then contentedly sits back to watch the critical community flail their arms about at the rank miscarriage of justice, with little power to do anything to change the situation. For, to paraphrase the Brothers Coen, Cannes is by no means a film festival for the critics. Which begs the question—which for the life of me I can’t answer definitively—“Who is it for, then?”
This year’s specific answer might consist of a list of names, plus whomever is selling their films: Ken Loach (with his lucky 13th film in the Competition), Xavier Dolan, Asghar Farhadi, Cristian Mungiu, Brillante Mendoza, Andrea Arnold (polishing off her Jury Prize hat trick), and, in a surprising twist just to enrage the boo-birds a bit more, Olivier Assayas. (Pick the outlier. And, yes, I had no problem with the supernaturally tinged Personal Shopper, a film that, whatever you want to say about it, is never boring. Maybe the boos at the press screening were by ghosts.) Someday an enterprising critic will write a book devoted to the auteurs anointed by the Cannes festival in its current incarnation; Cannes used to present auteurs, now it essentially creates them. Exemplars in this year’s Competition included Arnold, Nicolas Winding Refn, Dolan, Mungiu, Park Chan-wook, Mendoza, and even the Dardennes to some extent: though La fille inconnue is better than the last one, it still finds the brothers spinning their wheels, or, it might even be said, making films more for Cannes than for themselves. (The multiple Les Films des Fleuve co-productions at Cannes included I, Daniel Blake, Graduation, and something in Un Certain Regard called La danseuse…another regrettable sign that the brothers have eyes mainly for the Croisette.) Other members of this illustrious club certainly include Paolo Sorrentino (I’ll say it each time it applies: at least he didn’t win a prize this year), the great Maiwenn, Michel Franco, this year’s Shorts and Cinefondation jury president Naomi Kawase, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Jacques Audiard, Gaspar Noé, and, of course, Frémaux’s dynamic duo of Michael Haneke and, ban notwithstanding, Lars von Trier. Who wouldn’t buy that book…and then burn it with pleasure.
A shockingly high number of members in this rogues’ gallery have served on Cannes juries after being welcomed into “le club,” and that goes a long way towards explaining what went on this year, combined with the fact that few actors and directors have the capacity to judge anything when it comes to cinema. I wonder how many members of this jury has seen any films from the Romanian New Wave, as that’s the only explanation for giving Best Director to former juror Mungiu, whose Graduation is, simply put, a boring procession of unglamorously framed two-shots touching on this most well-trod of plot lines and unresolvable moral conundrums. Compared to the great Sieranevada by a master filmmaker, Cristi Puiu, Mungiu’s literal-minded slog looks even worse—which of course, in the Opposite Land of Cannes juries, makes it look better. (Though it’s his first film in Competition, Puiu is the exception that proves the rule.) Stories have always circulated about whispering in ears from on high, or a boss asking the jury to “try again.” But to repeat, gentlemen, don’t think it’ll be different the next time: an educated guess based on past incarnations will see either Mendoza, Farhadi, or Jeff “Oscar Bait” Nichols on next year’s jury, unless Frémaux throws a curveball and seats Best Actress winner Jaclyn Jose (and her co-star, her daughter), and history will repeat itself. Stranger things have happened. Actually, I’ll put my money on Shia LaBeouf.
Last year’s Dheepan-awarding jury saw the illustrious participation of one Xavier Dolan, and in his chair this year was relative newcomer László Nemes (at least we got that guy out of the way fast). Nemes won the Grand Prix last year for Son of Saul (a film that failed at the North American box office—so much for the theory that the festival is for buyers), and was asked to comment on awarding Dolan the same prize this year. Like many answers at the uncomfortable jury press conference, Nemes stammered something about Dolan shooting on 35mm and avoided the question entirely, as if a devil was watching over his shoulder—and he probably was. As far as Dolan’s film goes…well, after the initial press reactions wavered from scathing to personally insulting, you almost—almost—had to feel sorry for the guy; well, sorry mixed with a healthy dose of schadenfreude. Having missed being served up that juicy slice of humble pie due to a prior acting commitment (and also missing out on that surely immaculate 35mm print), I had to wait a day to have my eardrums blown apart by French star-driven hysteria. (Of special note for scorn, if I have to pick two, are Vincent Cassel and a meek Marion Cotillard, who serves as a counterpoint to all the screaming, neither of whom are up for what Dolan demands of them.)
Rather than being offensive, Juste la fin du monde is just what the unrepentant French (still Dolan’s biggest fans, and maybe the film does work better in its native tongue) would call nul: it’s a one-note film that sets a shrill tone early, never wavers over the course of its mercifully short running time, and is an experience completely bereft of any pleasure or fun, right down to André Turpin’s claustrophobic cinematography. Say what you will about Mommy (2014), but at least it had, as one says in the fashion world, “flair”; Juste la fin du monde takes the fun out of dysfunction. Dolan’s reaction, of course, was to attack his critics and laughably claim that all of a sudden “Cannes is sinking into a culture of hatred.” Then he had to go off and win the Grand Prix from the O.J.-like jury of his peers (e.g., fellow Montréaler Donald Sutherland), tearing up as he delivered a belated dedication to his costume designer, once again proving the adage that some things in life are just too good to be true and that, at the end of the world, the critics are the ones with the pie splattered all over their faces.
But the world didn’t end, as at least Dolan didn’t win. Debatably, Juste la fin du monde was actually the jury’s third favourite, as for some reason they opted to give two prizes to The Salesman, for Best Actor (should have stopped right there) and Screenplay—because of course nothing says Best Screenplay like a typically overwritten, dramatically implausible, and often infuriating Asghar Farhadi film. Not that anyone cares at this point, but the Palme instead went to probably the best film of the sorry lot of award winners—and when we’re talking about Ken Loach, you know that lot is pretty sorry. The first questioner at the jury press conference hit the nail on the head with a question re: I, Daniel Blake: namely, if somehow the lavish surroundings of the Riviera had made an impact on how they viewed a film made by an unrepentant Trotskyite that attacks British austerity practices and an impenetrable, nightmarish Orwellian bureaucracy with a meritorious emotion. (Sure as hell did for me.) This point, too, was brushed away by a peeved Sutherland, because after all films are rarely seen by sheltered actors in their social or political context.
But it’s hard to consider Loach’s film—probably one of his best in the baker’s dozen for what it’s worth, thanks to a vital topic and an above-average script from Paul Laverty—in a vacuum, nor does he want it to be seen that way. Laverty has crafted an irresistible lead character in Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old widowed tradesman who, after suffering a heart attack, is, despite his doctor’s diagnosis, dumbfoundingly typed by a health-care professional as “fit to work,” and needs to attempt to find a job to continue to receive government benefits. (This involves learning to use a computer, leading to assorted old-man shenanigans that threaten to derail the good will Loach and Laverty earn.) An ideal Loachian working-class hero, Daniel possesses a good nature and generosity that extends to all around him, including Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single mother of two uprooted to Newcastle from London, whom he befriends after witnessing her screaming altercation with a government worker in a job centre who won’t seat her for an appointment as she’s arrived ten minutes late. The most excruciating, borderline horrific scene in I, Daniel Blake (and the best thing 2017 jury president Loach has staged in quite some time) finds Katie, distraught by hunger, breaking down in a food bank, opening a tin of sauce, and shovelling it into her mouth with her hands, with a plangent mixture of desperation and embarrassment.
Chalk it up to Cannes class coincidence, but later that day brought former Cannes juror Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest surface-work The Neon Demon, a kind of horror film about a coven of lesbian cannibal supermodels that, kid you not, Refn dedicated to his wife. Par for the course, as many have pointed out, this was a fortnight heavy in cannibalism (Cannes-abalism?), with no less than five films on the subject, and capped off by Mads Mikkelsen on the jury. Perhaps this is not the right point to bring up in the context of a Suspiria-inflected hoot that is really, truly about absolutely nothing except for maybe the colour red, but aren’t models supposed to avoid eating meat? Is human flesh less fatty than animal flesh? Or am I overthinking this? That’s a rhetorical question, because Refn’s is clearly a film not be reflected upon, nor did he exercise any brain waves while making it. But having said that, for this two-hour vacation into an ideology-free zone I had a blast, as Refn has his vomit and eats it too. (Lesbian necrophilia! Chromatic ejacluation! To quote an anonymous Spanish-speaking heckler, “Puta mierda!”)
Maybe it’s not the best segue from The Neon Demon (though I suppose an argument can be made), but perhaps the most notable common ground amongst the Competition titles was the representation of strong female protagonists. Though Frémaux brushed off the criticism that he only included three female directors in Competition, his eye seemed to be drawn towards powerful and/or multidimensional portraits of women, and for that he deserves some credit. Not all, however, succeeded. Directed (rather, “screamed”) by Andrea Arnold, the 162-minute crapfest American Honey has both, but the (again) former Cannes juror’s gross foray into the milieu of young, white-trash door-to-door magazine salesman stands alongside the worst examples of foreign directors trying to tell us about “America.” (Like many who can’t take Arnold in typical “girl with the most cake” mode, I fled halfway through after getting the point.) Jaclyn Jose’s performance in Ma Rosa—a real shock considering the other actresses in the Competition—is buried in a smudge film with a true aesthetics of ugliness, as Brilliante Mendoza again descends into the slums of Manila for one night of hell, albeit this time taking a breath in a corrupt police station and making a minor heroine out of a minor drug dealer in what is barely a minor film.
The strongest titles in this regard came from Competition newcomers, both less established filmmakers and one old whippersnapper. A sensational Sonia Braga commands the screen in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s sophomore offering Aquarius, a film that takes its time to get where it’s going but ends up as a rich, stubborn attack on daily corruption in Brazil. Last in Cannes in 1992 with Basic Instinct (now that was an opener!), Paul Verhoeven surely benefitted from casting former jury president Isabelle Huppert, as I think the Cannes by-laws mandate at least one Huppert title per year. Huppert is as good as she’s ever been in Elle as, yes, a woman who comes to enjoy being raped. But as it’s a Verhoeven movie, things are much more complicated than that: Huppert’s Michèle is a complex character indeed. Elle is a full-blown feminist film, fully immersing itself in the ambiguous actions of a grounded, divorced, strong businesswoman—the male characters are incredibly stupid (her son), violent (well, the rapist, but also her father, a jailed serial killer), or sex objects (her lover, who is also the husband of her business partner). It’s also a film that grants Verhoeven the space to engage in a number of his own personal fetishes (there’s a Starship Troopers allusion that stands as my highpoint of the festival). Verhoeven’s long-gestating project—his first French film—had to wait until the last day of the festival to reveal itself, and despite rumours of a guaranteed negative reaction from the crowd, Elle was met with much applause and ended the Competition on a well-deserved high note.
But, as we’ve already been through, there was not to be a happy ending. Of all the notable omissions in the awards, according to the critics (Adam Driver is pretty spot-on in Paterson, but I wasn’t as keen as many were on Jim Jarmusch going Ozu, with cutaways to a nefarious bulldog rather than pillow shots in a naked attempt to win the Palme Dog), Maren’s Ade’s third feature Toni Erdmann stands out as the most egregious in the 15 years I have been attending Cannes. To nobody’s surprise, it racked up a 3.7 in the Screen Daily chart, the highest in recorded Cannes history (albeit edging out Mr. Turner from two years back), and everyone’s new hero Ade won the FIPRESCI award from the international critics. Aside from a few French holdouts, Toni Erdmann was far and away the consensus pick as the film of the festival, a true success of script, acting, and directing that manages to be fully German and universal at the same time, a film that received as close to universal acclaim as it gets in Cannes. Despite the now-popular 162-minute running time, which I’m sure some will hold against it, it’s easy to explain why. For starters, Sean Penn’s The Last Face notwithstanding, there are generally few laugh-out-loud films in the Cannes Competition (let alone funny German films), and Toni Erdmann, even if it’s not a comedy per se, is at times laugh-out-loud funny; as opposed to almost everything (except for maybe The Neon Demon), it’s genuinely unpredictable, especially in its climactic act (an uproarious set-piece party that, however tempted I may be, I shall not spoil); it features two crackerjack lead performances from Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller; and finally, there’s the fact that pretty much every critic, wherever they are from, is a child, a parent, or both, and on this count the film tugs at the heartstrings pretty hard. You would think there would be a similar emotional impact on the jury members, being as they are clowns (especially the dude who made Happy Feet ), but they certainly, to paraphrase Toni Erdmann, “lost the humour.”
The triumph of Toni Erdmann also comes as little surprise to anyone who saw Ade’s last film Everyone Else, which won the Silver Bear in Berlin way back in 2009. (Or her 2003 debut The Forest for the Trees, whose graffiti-strewn original poster, featuring blacked-out teeth on Eva Löbau’s protagonist, brings to mind one of Toni Erdmann’s prominent gags.) Toni Erdmann has a lot in common with Ade’s earlier film, initially posing as a game of shifting perspectives and encouraging the audience to identify and sympathize with the points of view of both of the film’s main characters as they reveal—and are made conscious of—the roles they are playing. In the first act, this is mainly Winfried (Simonischek), an aging schoolteacher with a crippled dog, whose identity is so associated with his predilection for pranks that even at the most uncalled-for times it’s hard for him to avoid provocation. (He’s characterized by the false teeth he inserts and removes from his mouth as if by habit, as if he is totally unaware; it becomes an unconscious act.) At a family gathering he meets his daughter, the seemingly unflappable Ines (Hüller, always good but never better than here), who we quickly understand harbours an estrangement, and a long-standing sense of embarrassment, for her father’s lowbrow antics. (Winfried sees Ines so rarely that he jokes to strangers that he has had to hire someone as a “substitute daughter.”) The second and third acts, which unfold in Bucharest, where Ines is temporarily employed as a consultant to an oil company looking to streamline, becomes more her story. After a bumpy reunion, what she calls “the worst weekend of my life” to her friends, “Winfried” is replaced by a bewigged lookalike who calls himself “Toni Erdmann.” A more overt game is played with the same characters under a different set of rules, initially one-sided until Ines, who herself has unconsciously assumed, or internalized, the role of the prototypical German businessperson, spontaneously decides to take things to the next level.
Most of the action in Bucharest is in some way related to the sexist business milieu and set in lifeless, neo-European locations (hotel rooms, office buildings, bland apartments, horribly tacky bars and restaurants; it’s almost unbelievable to think that in a communist-era apartment block a few kilometres away a wake is being staged by Cristi Puiu, with another aging clown named Toni); but this is the new Europe. (One of the exceptions comes in another stunning set piece set at an Easter family celebration involving one real-time warbling Whitney Schnuck; again, I won’t say more, only that this apartment contains the semblance of authentic life, as opposed to the transient business existence mostly presented elsewhere.) In other words, in a daring move by Ade, almost everything generally considered as beautiful is drained from the mise en scène so as not to distract us from what matters, which are the actors/characters and their complicated relationship. Winfried is completely out of place in this environment, so much so that when he first arrives (unexpectedly) to greet Ines, she struts past him in the lobby of her building as if he wasn’t even there. She later explains she was with colleagues, so she had to ignore him, which sets up the further adventures of Toni Erdmann: life coach, high-powered businessman, German ambassador, Kukeri.
Though her father’s arrival throws her off her game—she makes a few faux pas in conversation with her client, sleeps through an important phone call, and blames Winfried for her errors—more than him causing her embarrassment Ines does a pretty good job of embarrassing herself. (Though during an extremely uncomfortable sex scene, par for the course for Ade, she gets off on embarrassing her partner.) Winfried’s antics are partly a result of his concern, as he senses that Ines isn’t happy in her life (and Huller does a fine job of appearing consistently agitated and downright miserable); before leaving her apartment to head to the airport, Winfried asks her, half-jokingly yet razor-sharp, “Are you really a human?” (This line is echoed later, after a successful business presentation, when her boss beams at her, “You’re an animal, Ines.”) But Winfried/Toni’s presence also makes Ines realize that he has a point, readily apparent in scene in a nightclub where her kind-of boyfriend behaves like a moron, pouring champagne from a bottle at crotch-level. Ines comes to be embarrassed by her friends’ behaviour as well, until she has the confidence—which, as the sex scene proves, was inside her all along—to willingly sacrifice herself on the altar of humiliation. Ines’ party is a wonderfully mounted mix of embarrassment, humiliation, a power exercise, and a climactic resolution, and is such an inventive moment because of the way Ade first mixes the public and the private and then builds on it by adding an element of the surreal.
Ade’s triumph is to locate the obfuscated humanity in both of these characters: under Toni’s wig and Ines’ full-body force field are a father and daughter, and Ade reveals what they look like naked. In the film’s necessary coda, back in Germany for another family gathering (this time a funeral), Winfried and Ines have one of those conversations that seemingly summarize the dramatic action and point the way to a life-altering resolution. (“Life is so often about getting things done…how are we supposed to hold on to moments?”) Ines shows she hasn’t “lost her humour” by taking Winfried’s false teeth and placing them in her mouth, letting her guard down, but as Winfried runs to get a camera to capture this special moment, Ines shuffles around, removes the teeth, and, again, tightens up her face, assuming her familiar, dejected pose. There are no such easy resolutions in life, Ade is telling us, and despite all that they’ve gone through there’s just as likely a chance that the next time father and daughter meet, whether it’s in Germany or Ines’ new work home of Singapore, it might very well be like nothing ever happened in Bucharest. It will exist as a memory that elicits a smile, but will recede quickly into the grey matter. Because in the game of life, the banal and the consistent trump the extraordinary, and there are no easy resolutions.