Cannes at 70: Bad Times, Good Time

By Mark Peranson

To celebrate its 70th anniversary, Cannes aggressively, yet clumsily, inserted itself into all kinds of contemporary debates over that age-old question: What is Cinema? The first answer to this question: the cinema is Cannes. On the organizational side, this was evident in the reworking of the festival trailer that runs prior to each official screening, which (to the usual strains of “Aquarium” from Saint-Saëns’ Le carnaval des animaux) added a list of knighted filmmakers to the red velvet steps that changed daily and progressed roughly forwards through history. In effect, this gambit set out to establish a canon of the most important filmmakers at work since the existence of the festival, from Orson Welles to, uh, Michel Franco. (I left before the final iteration; that’s an educated guess.) That these names were projected out there as sheer fact should be of surprise to no one, nor should be the absence of Lucrecia Martel; at least on Day Nine they finally got around to squeezing in Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a filmmaker whose calming presence was notably missing in the testosterone-and-Caucasian-heavy gathering of past Palme winners during the self-congratulatory 70th anniversary Lumière gala special, which, unfortunately, I was not invited to attend.

But who am I to begrudge the festival for throwing its own fête (complete, I am told, with an Isabelle Huppert-led sing-along to “Happy Birthday,” alas now in the public domain). There can be no debate over the fact that for most of its history Cannes has been the key launching pad for what will account for a fair percentage of the year’s most important films. So what does it mean when one of the best “films” in Cannes this year—if not the best—was the first two episodes of a TV series screened in Cannes four days after airing on Showtime? Or that four films in Competition were produced by streaming services, and that the two by Netflix will not be released in French theatres at all? Cannes has largely managed to stay out of the fray when it comes to redefining what constitutes “A Film,” but Thierry Frémaux had to know that putting Bong Joon Ho’s Okja and something by Noah Baumbach with a bunch of famous people in it in Competition would arouse the ire of a large percentage of French producers and distributors, and for that he deserves a fair amount of credit (or at least a lifetime subscription to Netflix).

However, I’m not sure Frémaux realized how much he was being played by Netflix, which understands the old adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. The central problem with the Netflix “controversy” is that it sees cinema as entirely predicated on theatrical distribution—in other words, commercial considerations. Who are we to care about the whims of distributors and exhibitors? And what if a distributor bought a film for a dollar and gave it one screening on a Tuesday afternoon in Lille? (Not to mention the fact that there are numerous previous examples of Cannes Competition films that did not gain theatrical releases, whether in France or other countries—though I guess only France matters.) What really matters is that film artists are able to freely produce the work that they desire; if Netflix wants to give Bong Joon Ho $50 million to make a movie, which for them is pocket change, I’m all for it. The real problem with Okja (which I did enjoy) may have been that, with its merely decent CGI and none-too-impressive crowd scenes, the film needed $50 million more.

That Twin Peaks: The Return stole the thunder from the bulk of the Official Selection can be attributed to two factors: (1) charitably speaking, David Lynch is a genius and one of the world’s greatest living filmmakers, plus the current generation of critics grew up with, and has a great fondness for, Twin Peaks, so even when Lynch is making something for television he will spin cinematic gold; (2) it was truly a subpar year for Cannes (and could conceivably prove so for art cinema in general), and yet again the type of contemporary cinema the festival attempts to elevate into the canon fell well short of the standards set by those (mainly) hallowed names scrolling past in the trailer after the lights had been dimmed.

Surely many readers at this point are thinking to themselves, “There he goes again,” but I’m with the general consensus of grumpypants on this one. Indeed, the Competition once more mostly comprised an overlong parade of white elephants (or are they superpigs?) genetically engineered from the frozen sperm of Stanley Kubrick in the basement of the Palais. From bloated attempts to take on Russian society to migrants with superpowers to Michael Haneke to an unapologetic trashy French rip-off of De Palma and Dead Ringers (1988) to a thudding and pointless retelling of Greek myth to the second-best film version of The Beguiled to the triumphant return of one Fatih Akin, this was probably the most ham-fisted, loveless, and least subtle collection of films to compete for the Palme d’Or in the full seven decades. (And I couldn’t even bring myself to see Kawase Naomi’s latest.)

There were highlights, for sure—how many times will a festival premiere two Hong Sangsoo films?—and undoubtedly a few Competition titles will improve months from now with hindsight (my bet is Todd Haynes’ earnest and heartfelt Wonderstruck, which for some strange reason received a hell of a lot of hate after its early screening). But the question that preoccupied my discussions with like-minded critics as the festival mercifully came to an unhappy end was: Which film was the worst? It’s hard to know where to begin analyzing this rogues’ gallery and the lousy awards bestowed on them, but on behalf of cinephiles everywhere I feel the need to say something briefly about Michel Hackavanicius: can Netflix pay this guy to stop making movies? For whatever reason, he decided to adapt Anne Wiazemsky’s book into a terrible, joyless film about how Jean-Luc Godard (as impersonated by Louis Garrel) circa La chinoise (1967) is an asshole—a fact nobody is debating, but that’s beside the point—which, for whatever reason, Cannes decided would be a good idea to screen in their anniversary year (where, indeed, Godard’s name was prominently featured on the ultimate stair in one of the trailers).

Reducing Godard to an advertising colour palette of primary reds and blues, Le Redoubtable is a crude, pointless film with no comprehension of Godard’s filmmaking, cinema history, or, indeed, life itself. (Just one note suffices: this is a film that aestheticizes the ’68 Paris riots.) Those readers who followed the events of this year’s security-obsessed festival will already know about the pseudo-bomb threat that preceded the Debussy Redoubtable press screening, as well as the numerous jokes that went along with it. But the last laugh goes to the filmmaker, whose film was generally positively received by the cinema-blind English-language press and, most importantly, garnered a lucrative North American distribution deal; that it is being sold by Wild Bunch, Godard’s sales agent, adds insult to insult. Though the jury didn’t fall for it, he wins my Merde d’Or—Congrats, Mike. (Full disclosure: a La chinoise poster hangs in my kitchen.)

Speaking of the awards, the most popular film (and likely jury president Pedro Almodóvar’s favourite, judging from the jury awards press conference) had to settle for runner-up. With a repetitive, programmatic structure focusing on process in terms of meetings, political actions, and fucking, Robin Campillo’s 120 battements par minute is an overlong take on the workings of Act Up in Paris in the early ’90s that begs for the emoji treatment, but deserved a prize for its honest emotion as expressed through wildly different acting techniques, especially the baroque stylings of Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart. If there was a non-Hong Palme to be had in the bunch, though, the jury could have done worse than to give it to The Square—a self-reflexive work that is as much about cinema as it is about art—which at least had some ambition and a number of immediately indelible scenes, even if they were encased in a flabby package of repetition where nearly every scene runs too long, creating a film that, eventually, becomes too obvious and overdetermined. Again, I’m not alone in the opinion that The Square, whose cut was completed mere days before the screening, is not yet finished; in fact, distributors were already being promised a cut 20 minutes shorter during the festival (and good luck convincing Ruben Östlund to make those significant cuts now). But The Square at least had a full set of closing credits, which could not be said for the other big winner: Nicolas Winding Refn’s—sorry, I mean Lynne Ramsay’s—intellectually bankrupt and wildly overpraised You Were Never Really Here, recipient of the most illogical screenplay prize awarded at a major festival since…well, last year’s Venice Orrizonti garland awarded to Wang Bing for Bitter Money (2016), a film that literally had no screenplay.

Perhaps the takeaway is that after 70 years, Cannes remains—like cinema itself—a work in progress, in part subject to technological and industrial whims. (Pre-digital cinema, the idea that a film could be in the editing room mere days before its Cannes screening was unimaginable, unless you were Wong Kar-wai.) The nascent rebirth of Cannes’ lazy experimentation was capped on my eighth day with a visit to Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), by bad hombre Alejandro González Iñárritu, which places the participant in the shoes of an illegal migrant being coyoted across the US-Mexico border; it made history as the first-ever such installation placed in the Official Selection. (Apichatpong, eat your heart out.) Offensive on many levels in ways that are shockingly obvious, it’s truly all that one could hope for from the auteur of Babel (2006), Biutiful (2010), and beyond, baby. And to be clear, this is not simply a bad eight-minute virtual-reality short (shot, dimly, by Emmanuel Lubezki): it’s a full-fledged bad art installation, giving the title attraction in The Square a run for its money and, boy, do I mean money. Funded by the Fondazione Prada (after Cannes it headed straight to Milan), Meat and Sand (the catchy English title) was erected in a spacious hangar on the grounds of the Cannes airport, staffed by a dozen or so henchmen, accessible only by official Renault vehicle, with three attendees per each half-hour and advance reservations required—unless you were a celebrity, as witnessed by the glowing testimonials to Iñárritu’s genius in the guest book; when I was there, Abbas Kiarostami’s son showed up, no doubt eager to experience the future of cinema. (His father should be rolling over in his grave.) Ironically, the airport had no security, so it turned out to be a much swifter process, door to door, than seeing the Campillo at an official screening in the Lumière.

To go back to the beginning and, again, to Bazin, Iñárritu is operating here, for the “cinematic” element of his installation—which also comprises video testimonies from migrants whose experiences influenced the artist, an antechamber featuring piles of actual migrants’ abandoned shoes (collected around the border), and a large room strewn with sand in which one is obliged to pace around barefoot while strapped into the VR harness—in that age-old arena of “total cinema.” And, like others who have attempted this, he has failed. It’s not just that the technology isn’t there yet—the dark and muddy figures passing for fellow migrants don’t even approach the reality of video-game characters—but, as Bazin noted, the idea that an immersive experience is attainable through technological means abuses the idea of cinema, which thrives on imagination rather than a sensory replication of “reality” (or, as Iñárritu puts it in his artist’s statement, a “semi-fictionalized ethnography”). Iñárritu’s odious collection of dirty tricks includes aggressive border patrolmen, a fantasy sequence where a dinner table appears in the middle of the desert, and numerous helicopters zooming low overhead (standing outside the installation, it sounds like the appearance of the Smoke Monster from Lost). The superstructure of the piece goes so far as to include an actual section (!) of the US-Mexico border fence, which, to tie things together thematically, was made from recycled material used as portable touchdown pads for US helicopters during the Vietnam War. Forget the desert of the real—I’ll take Lynch’s Red Room any day of the week.

Of course, Iñárritu is good-intentioned, but he’s horribly misguided politically, as he conflates aesthetics with empathetics and privileges identification with these victims over attempting to understand the circumstances that brought them to their apocalypse. (Seriously, what’s next—a virtual-reality installation about a concentration camp?) After this nadir, it was left to the Safdies to save Cannes—which, indeed, they did, with a film that can be described as total cinem, in another, more traditional meaning of the term. And unlikely saviours they were, as no doubt their film, which Variety reviewed as “Robert Pattinson in Good Time,” would not have been selected for Competition save for the presence of their male lead. Spoilers follow.

A kind of Dionysian New York Gesamtkunstwerk, Good Time is immersion without identification, as the Safdies place viewers in the backseat for a long night’s ride that lets us observe freedom without participating in it and witness a series of choices that seem like good ideas at the time which progressively lead the protagonist ever deeper into a sinkhole of his own creation. As opposed to nearly every other Competition effort, Good Time is a taut work bereft of waste, one in which every element—screenplay (by Josh Safdie and Ronnie Bronstein), performances (from the entire cast), editing (by Benny Safdie and Bronstein), glorious widescreen, frequently low-light photography (by Sean Price Williams, his first 35mm effort), and, most of all, the electro-Wagnerian soundtrack (by Oneohtrix Point Never)—has clearly been obsessed over, and which often provides little room for the viewer to breathe as it leaps propulsively from essential scene to essential scene in the throbbing vein of action cinema. (The relentless Tangerine Dream-like score, too, places the film more in the realm of William Friedkin than Abel Ferrara.)

That the Safdies are operating on a grander scale here than in their previous work is apparent from the opening helicopter shot, which swoops over Manhattan and almost enters, pace Psycho (1960), an office building, where Nick Nikas (a bulked-up Benny Safdie), framed in close-up, is engaged in a session with a kindly psychiatrist. Clad in a puffy jacket that frames his neck like a boxer sitting in his corner in between rounds, Nick is mentally disabled, and resists his interrogator’s word-association games, which are aimed at revealing the source of his antagonistic feelings towards his grandmother; a single tear runs down his cheek as he recalls that water and salt, in his mind, signifies the beach. At a certain point, Nick’s brother Connie (Pattinson) bursts in and removes him from the office, evincing a strong brotherly affection—as Connie says, it’s the two of them against the world. One jump cut later, they are robbing a bank. (The editing bridging scene to scene throughout the film is particularly spectacular.)

I’ll spare you the details, but Connie has actually concocted a pretty good plan for the hold-up, with one screw-up: he doesn’t account for the bag of cash containing an exploding paint bomb. As the screen fills with red (a colour that makes a more than periodic reappearance), the time has come for improvisation: looking like extras from, well, La chinoise, the brothers duck into a Domino’s, clean up, and stash the money in the ceiling, while Connie comes up with an excuse for their paint-splattered state (Nick was hit in the head by a can of paint from a construction site). Connie’s improvisatory abilities are tested even more severely after Nick crashes through a glass window while running from the cops, is taken to Riker’s, and is almost immediately sprayed with tear gas, then pummelled to a bloody pulp when he won’t relinquish control of the TV remote.

Most of the remaining running time is concerned with Connie steamrolling through Queens trying to get his brother out of jail and dealing with all sorts of mishegoss, because he justly realizes Nick won’t last long in there. First step is to try and raise bail money from his vacation-obsessed girl Corey (an excellent Jennifer Jason Leigh, back in her comfort zone of psychological instability) by bullshitting her that Nick was abused by his therapist; then, once the yarmulke-wearing bail bondsman finds out that Nick has been moved to Elmhurst Hospital, Connie breaks him out of the sick ward and ends up hiding out with an elderly black couple and their self-sufficient 16-year-old granddaughter, Crystal (Taliah Webster).

But what exactly is Connie’s endgame? There are innumerable ways that all of this can go wrong, and probably only one way that each step can go right—and to Connie’s credit, he always manages to devise a clever solution that puts him one step ahead, before taking another step backwards. That step becomes a giant leap when it’s revealed that he’s accidentally sprung Ray (Buddy Duress, who, like all the cast members, steals a scene or two), a common criminal on parole with a general physical likeness to Nick and a wild backstory of his own involving a Sprite bottle filled with acid. Taking off on a detour to—naturally—Long Island’s Adventureland (which provides another occasion for some stunning black-light cinematography, awash in reds and blues, the colours of police siren lights), Ray and Connie form a partnership of convenience which means a break can happen at any time (which is also why Connie abandons Crystal when it suits him).

Through all of this, Connie never once realizes his inability to be in full control of his situation and never thinks through the ramifications of his decisions, partly because there’s no time to make plans: he’s operating on survival instinct and adrenaline rather than intellect, or even emotion. (Of the numerous improvs Connie employs to get out of a jam, none is finer than the moment when, while watching the news with Crystal in a rare moment of down time, a report of their escape comes on; to avoid being recognized, he starts making out with the girl.) As ably realized by Pattinson, Connie (short for “confidence man”) is a classic Safdie creation, a charismatic, pushy, beady-eyed hustler with a great deal of street smarts who thinks he’s savvier than everyone else, but isn’t. His tragic flaw is that, in one case only, he is unable to put himself first: he loves his brother too much. And it’s here where Nick’s disability, far from being exploitative, is crucial to the film’s narrative; it in part excuses Connie’s unwavering dedication and refusal to go rogue.

There is only one way that Good Time can end: as street smarts can only get you so far, and as there is no believable way that Connie can manage to escape, the best he can do is make it out alive. As the cops zero in on him, the Safdies’ camera shoots the scene from above, depicting Connie as a rat trapped in a Sartrean maze with no exit. (Ray’s fate is worse: despite his brilliant decision to waterboard the amusement park’s security guard [Barkhad Abdi] with acid to prevent him from talking—these guys really are bottom-of-the-barrel MacGyvers—he’s not as adept at improvising, especially when drunk.) By the end, it’s clear that what we have been witnessing is Connie’s subconscious attempt to extend his last day of freedom, to live the good time—his time off for “good behaviour”—moment to moment. A coda makes it clear that Connie has sacrificed himself for Nick, who we see back in the psych clinic, still out of step with the world. Cementing its place in the New York-by-night canon, Good Time is a film that feels familiar, but is done in a way that we’ve never quite seen before. At a Cannes that so insistently paid lip service to rewriting the rules of the game of cinema, the Safdies won by digging deep into the art form’s basic elements.