INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
By Mark Peranson
Like all Cannes film festivals, the 71st began brightly for this correspondent with the highest of hopes and expectations—and by that of course I am referring to Paulo Branco’s lawsuit against the Festival de Cannes to block the closing-night screening of Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Say what you will about Cannes, but in my almost 20 years of attendance I’ve never seen the festival’s brutalist concrete façade show the slightest of tendencies to crack. Yet in the midst of the Branco-Quixote kerfuffle, a volley of press releases was issued that saw something like critical editorializing penetrating the typically machine-like vernacular. I mean, they referred to Branco “and his lawyer son” having “used intimidation and defamatory statements, as derisory as they are ridiculous” and “slanderous and grotesque statements” and a “campaign of attempted intimidation,” in case you didn’t get the point. I for one am all in favour of signs of life, a breakdown of the anonymous. Someone should try and sue Cannes every year, as it would make the festival a much more fun place.
But this sudden and rare manifestation of a human touch was no coincidence. After the well-publicized Netflix, selfie, and press-screening scheduling debacles—which truly led to a deflated sense of importance in the press (goal achieved), but also a completely deflated ambiance inside the non-gala official screenings I attended—it was necessary for Cannes to save some face, while at the same time overcompensating for the smallest of victories. In pure Trumpian fashion, l’affaire Branco—a to-do about a film that, unsurprisingly, turned out to be awful—allowed Cannes to deflect attention from its persistent problems, and also its ass’ most recent festering, corpulent boil: Harvey Weinstein. Because this was a year when extra-cinematic issues (#MeToo, 50/50) took precedence over the actual movies, a firestorm waiting to happen in an industry, a festival, and a country where the vestiges of centuries of sexism are still highly visible, beginning with the all-female hostesses who form the human chain that blocks off the Lumière exits while the film crews are soaking up their operatic ovations.
Of course, the main subject for debate is the festival’s dismal track record of exhibiting female directors in Competition, but to my mind this says more about the type of films that Cannes prefers to show than evincing any longstanding animosity on the part of its general delegate to the principle of female authorship. That being said, Thierry Frémaux really must despise Claire Denis and/or her filmmaking—and, Alice Rohrwacher aside, he really didn’t do women any favours with his Competition quota for 2018, as Eva Husson’s execrable Les filles du soleil continues in that grand biennial Cannes tradition of overblown war cinema in this decade, inaugurated by Michel Hazanavicius’ The Search (2014) and memorably peaking with Sean Penn’s epic The Last Face (2016). At Cannes, you can be sure war will be hell.
But before we get into the films, it’s time to feel the non-metaphorical pain by indulging the now-annual Cannes-ailment phase of the dispatch, which this year was occasioned by a paralyzing pain in my lower right leg awakening me one morning at 6:30; its unwelcome spasmodic presence returned periodically throughout the fortnight, at a certain point occurring in my left calf as well. “The Debussy Cramp” is not your latest French dance craze, but if it were, it would be one of the more annoying ones around. Anyone who had the opportunity to sit next to, in front of, or behind me during one of the many arduous screenings I suffered through at pretty much all Cannes cinemas—and I do apologize, truly—can attest to the amount of back-and-forth shuffling and leg adjustments emanating from my general vicinity.
If most festival reports end up being travel reviews, I’m not prepared to end up writing a piece that’s more suited to Architectural Digest. That being said, this general feeling of discomfort isn’t unique to Cannes: it actually begins as soon as one gets on the cramped bus from Nice to Cannes, as it is endemic of a society which seeks to maximize profit with little concern for physical or mental stability. For men and women of a certain height (such as me and the actor of In My Room), the experience of entering and sitting in Cannes cinemas, especially those in the Palais, can be tantamount to a long-haul Delta flight, complete with abusive security checks, long lines, blasting air conditioning, and no free refreshments. (Though free water was revived this year for the Palais cinemas, for the Quinzaine it was a complete no-go, which meant I was likewise a no-go, except to see Ognjen Glavonic’s stand-out The Load, a film about Serbian war crimes which made my action of smuggling an Evian bottle inside my jacket pocket into the bowels of the smelly Palais Stephanie seem rather innocuous in comparison.)
In another time, and with more research assistance and graphic renderings, I’d be eager to conduct a survey as to the various conditions of the cinemas at Cannes: both their plusses (which are, for the most part, projection-related) and their minuses, namely general discomfort or, in the case of the English surtitles at the Bazin, also projection-related. (For example, what the hell is up with the Buñuel? Who thought that building a cinema where 40 percent of the seats are so far to the left or right of the screen, resulting in impossible viewing angles, was at all a good idea? The Surrealists?) But for now I’ll limit myself to the Debussy, a cinema that is known for having the best theatrical projection in the world and is lesser known for having the most uncomfortable seating plan in France. This is a cinema designed with varying amounts of legroom from row to row within the orchestra (the closer to the screen, the marginally better), and a discernible difference between orchestra and balcony, with the balcony better for comfort—except the front row, which is worse: many of the seats are broken, and all are smaller, which can be a plus as it makes falling asleep more difficult. By the end of the festival, I was reduced to getting there as early as possible and grabbing one of the choicest seats down left or down right—those with no obstructions at all—to allow myself complete leg freedom, sightlines be damned. (Stay subscribed for next year’s installment: In Praise of the Salle du Soixantième, Except During Rain or When the Air Conditioning Breaks.)
So, as part of the decision to spice things up a bit, the following filmmakers most definitely were not given the opportunity by Cannes to sit in the front row of the second part of the orchestra section of the Lumière, with its oh-so-spacious legroom and high-backed chairs: Olivier Assayas, Kawase Naomi, Claire Denis, Mia Hansen-Løve, Pablo Trapero, Carlos Reygadas (mitigating factor: do you guys know what this film is about???), Mike Leigh, László Nemes, Alfonso Cuarón (mitigating factor: Le Flix du Net), Denys Arcand, Xavier Dolan (mitigating factor: the film probably really, really sucks, if it is done at all), Roberto Minervini (mitigating factor: too many Italians and, also, a documentary, which Cannes cannot properly judge). Then there were those steel-willed gladiators who survived the Great Purge of 2018: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Jia Zhangke, Kore-eda Hirokazu, Lee Chang-dong, Matteo Garrone, Asghar Farhadi (I’m pretty sure most of the world by now has forgotten Everybody Knows was in Competition) and Stéphane Brizé (who I’m sure nobody remembered screened in Cannes at all). The list of newcomers included A.W. Shawky, Eva Husson, Kirill Serebnnikov, Yann Gonzalez, and David Robert Mitchell. Comparing these two lists of names, it’s clear that the veterans generally outperformed the neophytes, so even on this metric of quality Frémaux gets docked a few grades; granting that he clearly wanted to shake things up, still he could have done better. That said, the fact that Hamaguchi Ryosuke was thrown into the mix—and he himself was shocked that his film was selected—means that we can’t consider it a total loss.
Plus, of course, there was the glaring error (to anyone with, well, four eyes) of not putting Long Day’s Journey Into Night into Competition, but I’m willing to let Bi Gans be Bi Gans: Frémaux at least had the good sense to program a film whose final version he certainly never saw, as witnessed by the buyers’ screenings for the film being cancelled days before the premiere due to unfinished subtitles. (I saw it twice, though to be honest there really was nothing else on at the time of the second screening; anyway, it did clarify a number of points in this very confusing film, which I now completely understand.) Long Day’s Journey into Night is capably covered elsewhere in this issue—as are all of my other preferred titles from the Official Selection, including Ash Is Purest White, Happy as Lazzaro, In My Room, and Le livre d’Image—but let me just add that, as a filmmaker in this year’s selection, Bi stands out for foregrounding memory over reality, or, in the second half, combining them, in a manner that alludes to the classics of both Western and East Asian cinema, but shows no anxiety of influence. We should all praise Bi Gan for being Bi Gan, and if there were only more Bi Gan floating around in the ether of the cinema world, it would be a more imaginative place.
Quantifiable evidence shows that rather than cinematic qualities or—as everyone thought might happen beforehand, and in a rather demeaning way, I must say—gender, the actor-heavy and female-majority jury decided to devote its attention to issues, the foremost of which was class: the Cate Blanchett Palme d’Or went to Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, and the bulk of the other prizes were likewise handed out to films that featured depictions of poverty (Capernaum, Ayka), capitalist exploitation (Happy as Lazzaro), Italian white trash so wretched it’s like someone left it outdoors in the sun for a few days (Dogman), poor Iranian villagers overrun by the Tehran filmmaking elite (3 Faces), and the glorious communist splendour of Cold War Poland (Cold War). This all makes it even more surprising that Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s portrait of Korean class conflict, was ignored; maybe the film itself had too much nuance (or was too glossy) compared to the poverty porn that was awarded. (One exception was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, but in Lee’s thudding “comedy” race Trumped class as the hot-button issue.) Meanwhile, the illustrious Cannes jurors, following on from the shared 2014 Jury Prize between Adieu au langage and Mommy, continue to make Godard’s unnecessary Competition presence into an unfunny running joke. (What the fuck is a “Special Palme d’Or”? What are they going to give him next time, a set of steak knives?)
What does it say that some of the most popular films, for both the jury and the general public, fall under the category of poverty porn, which may be the ne plus ultra of vacant contemporary realism? The shameless emotional manipulation that was represented last year by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning VR installation found its place this year in three standout (for their miserableness) titles. The Egyptian leper poverty pilgrimage piece Yomeddine was a surprise entry that not even its sales agent Wild Bunch, who picked it up as a favour, thought suitable for Competition (in an interview, Wild Bunch head honcho Vincent Maraval said it would have been good for Critics Week, and maybe even that’s a stretch). One imagines the thought process that went into booking this one: “Hey, we can have a leper on the red carpet! And a guy without legs!” (OK, maybe the leper is allowed to take a selfie.) Alas, the leper did not appear, but the film did.
Ayka was one of the most anticipated titles this year, as well as for the last five, since Sergei Dvortsevoy has supposedly been working on his follow-up to Tulpan (2008) for almost a decade (rumours that he was still shooting a week before the premiere were confirmed). Ayka (Best Actress winner Samal Yeslyamova) is a half-human, half-cow who milks herself and bleeds all over the place as she spirals further and further down into frigid misery, moving from job to job to repay a loan while denying the birth of her recent child. The result is a fully unpleasant viewing experience that looks like it was shot not over ten years but ten weeks at most (unless Dvortsevoy had to wait nine years for snow in Moscow, which seems unlikely). And, saving the worst and most popular for last, there’s Capernaum, which Variety informs me Merriam-Webster defines as “a confused jumble.” I’ve managed to forget most of the dirty details of Nadine Labaki’s poverty bukkake, but the pseudo-neorealist elements most certainly included two extremely precocious abandoned children, a snowballing accrual of misery, and something about life not being worth living on the streets for parents and children alike. It matters little to me that this is the kind of film that touches people, because, especially in Cannes, I don’t go to the cinema to be touched.
Nor do I go to the cinema to be abused, but here I am in the strange position of defending Lars von Trier, a visibly shambolic man whose physical health finally seems to have caught up to his mental health. The internet was unsettled a few weeks before Cannes when a video hit on the web channel of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, featuring an interview between von Trier and University of Copenhagen professor Peter Schepelern on the occasion of von Trier receiving the university’s Sonning Prize, the most important cultural award in Denmark. In the interview, which in a way renders all others moot, a sodden-looking and heavily medicated (to counteract “anxiety”) von Trier speaks of his attempts to quit drinking, how great he considers his script for Dogville (“Tarantino said that if I’d made it for the theatre, I would have won a Pulitzer”), and, of course, Nazis (“I’d like to say absolutely unequivocally that I don’t approve of any of Hitler’s actions!”). After watching the interview you’re left asking yourself how this guy can even get out of bed and tie his own shoes in the morning, let alone direct a feature film—and now that I think of it, he was wearing sandals with his suit when I met him for the interview that follows. But for a brief moment in time, as the entirety of the Lumière rose as one before the curtain did on The House That Jack Built and gave von Trier a six-minute standing ovation, you’d have thought that Cannes had let Bi Gans be Bi Gans, and Lars was back with a vengeance.
Then, some people started walking out (as if that has never previously happened at a screening that began past 11:00pm), and some intrepid members of the press tweeted it online before the screening even ended (take that, Frémaux embargo), and, thanks to its depiction of violence against women, the film was immediately branded an offense to humankind in the trade reviews. Breaking news: it isn’t. (And it’s not that cinema is beyond the point of being offensive, and of doing so productively—but this just isn’t that film.) A bloated 160 minutes long, often dull, at times mordant, at times offensive, and at times extremely silly—this is, after all, a film where a serial killer is engaged in a dialogue with Dante’s Virgil (played by Bruno Ganz) at the gates of Hell—The House That Jack Built is far from perfect, but it is von Trier’s most interesting work in a long time, and not merely for the fact that it includes, in its epilogue, an underwater GoPro homage to Leviathan (2012). A film that “celebrates that life is evil and soulless,” The House That Jack Built is a somewhat twisted provocation consciously constructed by the filmmaker to respond to his critics, and one that comes across as a kind of last testament—in no small part because of the presence of a clip reel consisting of suffering females from von Trier’s own cinematic past.
Originally announced as a project for TV (where, by the way, Lars thrives), the film dramatizes five episodes of increasingly intricately planned-out murders by Jack, who assumes the popular identity of “Mister Sophistication” in his communication with the press, which includes artistically posed negative photographs of his victims. As embodied by a committed Matt Dillon (still with his full head of black hair), Jack is a clear von Trier surrogate (and Lars admits as much). Throughout the too-long film, Jack exhibits a number of vile and rank traits that public consciousness has come to associate with the director, including, but not limited to, misogyny, sadism, obsessive compulsion, artistic pretension, lust for fame, and—in a trolling move for the ages—full-blown Naziphilia, as seen in a clip reel featuring Albert Speer and Hitler as well as the attempted re-enactment of an infamous bullet-saving tactic employed by the Germans in World War II. In other words, it’s easy to understand why Frémaux shied away from putting this film in Competition, as the jury could easily have revolted.
What came to my mind when preparing to sit down with von Trier was the history of provocation in art, which at a certain point led me to think about Joseph Beuys. In May 1974, Beuys famously staged an action titled I Like America and America Likes Me, which saw him fly to New York, be taken immediately by an ambulance to René Block’s gallery, and seclude himself for three days with a live coyote. Just as this canine cohabitation constituted Beuys’ only encounter with a native of America during this period, so too does von Trier—who famously, like Kafka, has never been to America—intentionally offer a highly blinkered point of view of the country in Dancer in the Dark (2000), Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011), and now The House That Jack Built. Staring at the evil within, von Trier more than coincidentally finds it in the good old USA.
Nobody dared to draw a line connecting Lars and Harvey, though it’s interesting to compare the Cannes reaction to von Trier with that accorded to newfound hipster hero Gaspar Noé, who, thanks to some voguing, all of a sudden became everyone’s favourite cuddly teddy bear—even as he presented, in the still-brainless Climax, a film with considerably more violence than The House That Jack Built. Rather than Lars, and even rather than Paulo Branco, at Cannes this year it was irony itself that became persona non grata, and in today’s political climate this was a very predictable state of affairs.