The Sea of Trees
By Mark Peranson
Well, at least the weather was good.
Every year another leak threatens to spring in the dam, but the Festival de Cannes is not going to die a death of a thousand, or even a million, cracks. I started to vomit up the Kool-Aid at least a decade ago, and harbour no illusions that the tide will roll in the direction of us arty-farty zealots, because, friends, the system is surely rigged. To draw a timely analogy, one might say that Cannes, with its national competition painfully unfolding over an extended duration, is the World Cup of festival cinema, and well-known Olympique Lyonnais supporter Thierry Frémaux might as well be its Sepp Blatter. Which is not to say that there are millions in bribes criss-crossing international borders from sales agents (or Vladimir Putin) to ensure a slot in the Official Selection, but who really knows how these films are selected for the Competition (which I defy anyone to claim was up to “traditional” Cannes standards this year, whatever those might be)? Where is the transparency? As the yachts, building-high advertisements, beach parties, and free-flowing champagne all attest, even in the Netflix age movies continue to be a big-money venture. To point out one very sad example, just after Cannes came the improbable Italian box-office triumph of Youth (in a dubbed version thanks to Fox Searchlight’s fears of piracy), which even in its second weekend of release managed to top worldwide #1 hit San Andreas. (Proposition: Paolo Sorrentino is the Qatar of arthouse cinema. On second thought, maybe bribes do explain the phenomenon that is the ongoing career of Sorrentino.)
If it were solely up to Frémaux, based on the 2015 tournament and his acute post-game comments, reforming Cannes would consist of banning selfies, flat shoes on the red carpet, and Twitter from the Palais. (The gloves are off! Twitter, “ruining the general spirit” of the festival—talk about a straw man. Maybe next year he’ll blame television or the advent of colour.) But short of a pending FBI investigation, why would he reform anything? The bubble in which he lives is in the form of a bunker made of concrete called the Palais des Festivals, and that thing could survive a nuclear attack. Hypothetically then, a real reform of Cannes might begin with banning all celebrities from the south of France, because as far as I can tell a red-carpet presence is the crucial factor in guaranteeing a spot in Competition. (Berlin, Cannes, Venice, all one and the same, and in that descending order of star-fuckery.) Every night the tapis rouge was Glamour Central, whether it was a singing and dancing John C. Reilly (twice, first for Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales with Salma Hayek and Vincent Cassel—who himself appeared twice—then with Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell for The Lobster), Isabelle Huppert (twice, once with Gérard Depardieu for their desert jaunt The Valley of Love, then for Joachim Trier’s fizzling Louder Than Bombs), whomever the leads were in Denis Villeneuve’s forgettable foray into the border drug war Sicario (seriously, I remember nothing about that film except for incessant helicopter shots), all the way down to the grand finale of Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender in a Shakespeare adaptation that only Brits and Australians cared about. And how else can one explain the presence in Competition of the outright disaster that is Matthew McConaughey’s Japanese suicide sap The Sea of Trees, which sleepwalks its way through an hour of sentimental, Kawase-inspired claptrap before running off the rails, crashing down a mountain, plunging into the water, and nestling at the bottom of the briny depths before being swallowed up by Gamera?
To be fair, in this era of Birdman I can imagine someone (not me) watching The Sea of Trees alone in a Hollywood screening room and thinking, “This film is bad enough that it could just win an Oscar.” Minus the mitigating influence of Gilles Jacob (a.k.a. Citizen Cannes), celebrity culture ran wild on the Croisette in 2015, nowhere more so than in the flood of French celebrities, most of whom still have the capacity to baffle us foreigners. Who says that Cannes doesn’t play to the home crowd, and in the most noxious manner possible? (If only, like the World Cup, Cannes could relocate each edition, and happen every four years.) Much has already been made of the fact that, not counting co-productions, there were a record five French films in Competition, and based on those odds it was no surprise that French films took away a few Palmerès. Vincent Lindon is 100% class, and he proved it yet again in Stéphane Brizé’s effective social-realist drama La loi du marché, but for the love of FIFA, couldn’t the jury have stopped there?
Let me dispense early on with the Palme d’Or winner, because Jacques Audiard’s Dheepan is so inconsequential that I’ve already forgotten that I’ve seen it. (Or how to spell it—it’s Dheepan, right?) Not that I even planned to, as that one smelled from weeks and miles away, but I happened to be walking in front of the Lumière with nothing better to do at the wrong time, and realized that my press pass gave me access to an afternoon screening, so rather than stare into space for two hours or eat lunch, I was granted access to a hard look at an exiled makeshift Tamil family relocated to the drug wars of the banlieues. (True, I was also covering my bases, as for some reason this Audiard guy wins a lot of prizes.) At the awards press conference, a clueless Bangladeshi reporter asked the main actor, Jesuthasan Antonythasan, what he thought was better, winning the Palme d’Or or winning a war. He was shouted down by a rare consensus of the international press, but one can argue that that kind of distasteful comparison is in fact encouraged by Audiard’s Eurocentric logic, especially in the film’s action-movie climax wherein the war abroad is displaced onto the war at home.
As far as the critics were concerned, the best French films didn’t even screen in the Official Selection (anyone see the Un Certain Regard French titles? A free subscription for the first person who can name them without double-checking) but down the street, over at the smelly basement in whatever the Quinzaine is calling its theatre these days. Critics, as we should all now be well aware, matter little in the grand scheme of things: after all, as one of the Coens pointed out in the press conference, theirs was a jury of artists. (More like celebrities…or assholes.) Whatever you think of Arnaud Desplechin, or this film in particular, surely the lack of star power kept Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse out of the Official Selection—apologies to Mathieu Amalric (in a supporting role)—and the same goes for Philippe Garrel. Meanwhile, I assume Gaspar Noé’s Love—all of his films should ejaculate fully born from his testicles, with the Carpenter-esque possessive attached—was not the sixth French film in Competition because no stars are literally fucked in the film. Then again, who wants to watch 3D shoe-gazing porn starring, say, Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Depardieu, and the new face de France, Emmanuelle Bercot? (And based solely on her Best Actress acceptance speech, who wants to watch anything at all starring Bercot?) OK, maybe Depardieu, Bercot, and Maïwenn would have at least been somewhat amusing, and hopefully it could have ended the careers of at least two of them.
But let’s not talk about Love, because one thing that 15 years of Cannes experience and hair-pulling has shown me—something that is probably also a factor of aging, and having one’s views and tastes harden in a certain direction—is that my bullshit detector is pretty much on the mark. In other words, there are so many films, so many options, and so little time to see films over the 12 days of Cannes-mass that why bother seeing the latest works from filmmakers that I generally despise, or that come from the psyche of the Artist Currently Known as Maïwenn? I fully admit to the dangers of this approach, yet there’s enough polluting my mind on a daily basis that I’ll risk it, thank you very much. Which meant that The Sea of Trees was far and away the most abysmal thing that I sat through, but I’m sure there were worse. There’s nothing more deflating to a critic (or even an everyday viewer) than entering what’s supposed to be the pinnacle of arthouse cinema with lowered expectations. That’s the negative.
The positive side is that, by and large, the filmmakers that haven’t done me wrong continue to deliver. (At this point in his storied career, Van Sant is best seen as a tone-deaf performance artist who makes films of wildly varying quality just to keep us on our toes. I can’t imagine he’s hurting for money.) So if you asked me before I came to Cannes which filmmakers I cared about, the answer would have been the same starting lineup of B-list celebrities whose names and films have graced the covers of past issues of Cinema Scope—namely, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Miguel Gomes, Corneliu Porumboiu, Yorgos Lanthimos, Jia Zhangke, Peter Tscherkassky, and Todd Haynes (to a certain extent, though I wouldn’t stand in line to watch Carol again, which might be his worst film to date). Then there was a fine capper to any festival, and probably the only must-see screening of the entire fortnight—albeit for some mysterious reason (probably because the director isn’t French) it was pushed off into Cannes Classics and the Salle Buñuel on the last Thursday night—the posthumous film from Manoel de Oliveira, Visit, or Memories and Confessions (1982), which was the only 35mm print I saw the whole festival. (I didn’t forget Son of Saul—for some reason the repeat, also in the Buñuel, was a DCP.)
But is this really positive? Aren’t film festivals about unexpected discoveries? About coming across new talent premiering works that (re-)explore different avenues in the ever-changing medium of cinema? Ideally, yes; at Cannes, well, let’s say not so much anymore. (The poor Caméra d’Or jury did have to watch a whopping 23 first films—including a pathetic Chopard infomerical on the history of the Palme d’Or that tastelessly got Debussy stage-promotional time at the Cemetery of Splendour premiere—and decided on a Colombian winner from the Semaine de la Critique that nobody has anything terrific to say about.) There is another, albeit limited, kind of discovery to be had: being pleasantly surprised by filmmakers who are pushing themselves in new directions, in some cases reaching for the stars. Maybe what this posse has in common—and, tautologically, the reason why I supported their films—is the way each of them insists on their particular visions, pursues similar obsessions, but always find ways to avoid simple repetition. (If you want to call them auteurs, I won’t object for the purposes of this argument.)
So, yes, Apichatpong made “another” Apichatpong film—which is probably, alongside the Hou, the most beautiful film of the year—but never before has his vision with regards to Thai politics been so unblinkingly clear. As for Benfica fan Miguel Gomes, he continues to intertwine fiction and reality in a fascinating way, and even those who might have been underwhelmed by Arabian Nights—or decided to skip it entirely—can’t deny that more filmmakers should have the balls to attempt a project like this. (Where can Gomes go from here? How about a movie about the Portuguese delegation to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico?) Jia Zhangke actually attempted something daring in the much-maligned third, predominantly English-speaking section of the tripartite Mountains May Depart, fully embracing his position as a national Chinese artist and shooting off a warning flare to his countrymen and -women about what happens if (or when) they surrender to the Western desire for freedom. Sino-pudding it ain’t, but the reaction to the film spurred a rare coalition between the English-speaking press, who were generally horrified by the “bad acting,” and the Chinese posse sitting in the row next to me, who applauded at the onset when the forest-green Film Bureau censorship logo and fanfare appeared (twice, actually, as the film had to be restarted due to a subtitling error on the DCP), but fled en masse when it was clear the film would continue in a language they couldn’t understand. In China, it seems the censors are the celebrities.
All the while, this cadre of filmmakers also continued to deliver their perennial simplest of pleasures, which is ultimately what makes the trip across the Atlantic worthwhile. And it so happened that this year the most magical ones were musical, from the sight of Zhao Tao going west to the Pet Shop Boys in Mountains May Depart, to Ariane Lebed dancing to techno in the woods in The (Rock) Lobster, or a turtle crawling along to “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” in volume three of Arabian Nights. Last but not least, there was that reliable Romanian footy fan Corneliu Porumbiou, a national treasure indeed. The winner of the most befuddling and insulting prize of the year, the Un Certain Talent (thanks for the assurance, guys), Porumboiu constructs films made entirely of small, memorable moments that accrue into trenchant social/communal comedies. He saves his boldest, most atypical gesture for the last shot of The Treasure, which also happens to be the only camera movement of the film: a crane shot that hovers above a Bucharest playground, a shot whose sheer unfamiliarity in the Porumbouian context initially caused me to scratch my head. But then Laibach’s grandiose version of Opus’ 1985 classic kicked in on the soundtrack for the last laugh, and it all made sense. “Live Is Life” indeed, and Cannes is Cannes.