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David Poland

By David Poland

Cannes You Dig It?: Episode 1


It’s been an interesting start to this year’s annual family reunion. Some inspired filmmaking, but aside from the most commercial movies here – Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out, both playing out of competition – there is a distinct lack of greatness worth fighting about into the night.

Legendary names like Woody Allen and Gus Van Sant have delivered some of their weakest work here. Favorites from recent festivals, like Matteo Garrone and Yorgos Lathimos, have delivered visceral, compelling work that seems to lose its way as they slide into the third act. The style of gentle, thoughtful Asian cinema is on display with Kore-Eda and Naomi Kawase, but lovely though it may be, it doesn’t pack the big punch.

Rams (aka Hrutar) is an odd stand-out, telling the tale of estranged brother farmers in their golden years faced with the end of their prize-winning bloodline of livestock as well as their family bloodline. Twenty hours after viewing it and having that “it’s a slow, weird sheep movie” feeling, the complete and flawless nature of the universe Grimur Hankonarson creates for the film is feeling a lot stickier than I would ever have expected. There is something sublime about the film that becomes of even greater value when set against the backdrop of such big swings and such unfortunate near-misses.

Also, there is Son of Saul, which seems destined to become a big deal, though I found myself more interesting in the gimmick of the film – a visually myopic experience of one man who is in a unique position to wander through as horrible a place as has been on this earth, the business end of a Nazi death camp. The film has been touted for being shown on 35mm, though the filmmaker has actually made the film in 1.33:1 ratio, emulating the filmmaking of the period. After about 30 minutes, the character who we are attached to finds one dead body of unique interest and the film becomes about his effort to bury this one, properly overseen by a rabbi, not just burn it with the others. For me, this is when the visual gimmick of the experience, for me, starts to interfere profoundly with the emotional journey of the story. There is no denying that the power of any recreation of the Jewish Holocaust. But for me, it is a starting point, not enough as a backdrop. Personally, I felt like I was having one of those “you are in it” Holocaust experiences from Jewish summer camps… which inevitably devolves from the reflection on how horrible it is to be seen as something less than human by other humans to “when’s lunch?” at some point. The most profound notion that stuck with me as I watched the film was that these Jewish men are doing this to other Jews while we know, as the film tells us up front, that they will all be killed within months as they reach the human boiling point of their agreement to participate in this kind of work. That narrative tension was much more interesting to me than the very personal story that the film chooses and, for me, didn’t go anywhere more profound than the first blush of the idea.

The film most likely to find critical acclaim in the festival so far is The Lobster, which has the surrealistic premise of a society setting rules for coupling, oddly reflecting Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange with the surrealist bent of someone young and hip like Richard Ayoade. It’s a film you want to fall in love with… and you have to, a little. But even from the early unrolling of its premise, there is a sense that it is not being sculpted with quite a sharp enough knife. Then, it loses its bearings, as it flips the premise on its head and tries to define the tyranny of The Loners. It is such a deep vein that the film is tapping, making it all the more frustrating when it can’t close the deal. Or maybe, on multiple viewings, it will.

If there is a problem with all film festivals, none more than Cannes, it is that the pressure to have strong opinions about complex ideas in an instant is as real as running into the first person you know within minutes of seeing any film. Like fine wine, really good films need time to breathe. But there is this truth too… real greatness is felt in the gut and can come instantly and undeniably. I am still waiting for that on this particular journey… that is, aside from George Miller kicking ass.

One Response to “Cannes You Dig It?: Episode 1”

  1. EtGuild2 says:

    Any thoughts on “Sea of Trees?”

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This is probably going to sound petty, but Martin Scorsese insisting that critics see his film in theaters even though it’s going straight to Netflix and then not screening it in most American cities was a watershed moment for me in this theatrical versus streaming debate.

I completely respect when a filmmaker insists that their movie is meant to be seen in the theater, but the thing is, you got to actually make it possible to see it in the theater. Some movies may be too small for that, and that’s totally OK.

When your movie is largely financed by a streaming service and is going to appear on that streaming service instantly, I don’t really see the point of pretending that it’s a theatrical film. It just seems like we are needlessly indulging some kind of personal fantasy.

I don’t think that making a feature film length production that is going to go straight to a video platform is some sort of “step down.“ I really don’t. Theatrical exhibition as we know it is dying off anyway, for a variety of reasons.

I should clarify myself because this thread is already being misconstrued — I’m talking about how the movie is screened in advance. If it’s going straight to Netflix, why the ritual of demanding people see it in the theater?

There used to be a category that everyone recognized called “TV movie” or “made for television movie” and even though a lot of filmmakers considered that déclassé, it seems to me that probably 90% of feature films fit that description now.

Atlantis has mostly sunk into the ocean, only a few tower spires remain above the waterline, and I’m increasingly at peace with that, because it seems to be what the industry and much of the audience wants. We live in an age of convenience and information control.

Only a very elite group of filmmakers is still allowed to make movies “for theaters“ and actually have them seen and judged that way on a wide scale. Even platform releasing seems to be somewhat endangered. It can’t be fought. It has to be accepted.

9. Addendum: I’ve been informed that it wasn’t Scorsese who requested that the Bob Dylan documentary only be screened for critics in theaters, but a Netflix representative indicated the opposite to me, so I just don’t know what to believe.

It’s actually OK if your film is not eligible for an Oscar — we have a thing called the Emmys. A lot of this anxiety is just a holdover from the days when television was considered culturally inferior to theatrical feature films. Everybody needs to just get over it.

In another 10 to 20 years they’re probably going to merge the Emmys in the Oscars into one program anyway, maybe they’ll call it the Contentys.

“One of the fun things about seeing the new Quentin Tarantino film three months early in Cannes (did I mention this?) is that I know exactly why it’s going to make some people furious, and thus I have time to steel myself for the takes.

Back in July 2017, when it was revealed that Tarantino’s next project was connected to the Manson Family murders, it was condemned in some quarters as an insulting and exploitative stunt. We usually require at least a fig-leaf of compassion for the victims in true-crime adaptations, and even Tarantino partisans like myself – I don’t think he’s made a bad film yet – found ourselves wondering how he might square his more outré stylistic impulses with the depiction of a real mass murder in which five people and one unborn child lost their lives.

After all, it’s one thing to slice off with gusto a fictional policeman’s ear; it’s quite another to linger over the gory details of a massacre that took place within living memory, and which still carries a dread historical significance.

In her essay The White Album, Joan Didion wrote: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true.”

Early in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters drive up the hill towards Leo’s bachelor pad, the camera cranes up gently to reveal a street sign: Cielo Drive. Tarantino understands how charged that name is; he can hear the Molotov cocktails clinking as he shoulders the crate.

As you may have read in the reviews from Cannes, much of the film is taken up with following DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters – a fading TV actor and his long-serving stunt double – as they amusingly go about their lives in Los Angeles, while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a relatively minor presence. But the spectre of the murders is just over the horizon, and when the night of the 9th finally arrives, you feel the mood in the cinema shift.

No spoilers whatsoever about what transpires on screen. But in the audience, as it became clear how Tarantino was going to handle this extraordinarily loaded moment, the room soured and split, like a pan of cream left too long on the hob. I craned in, amazed, but felt the person beside me recoil in either dismay or disgust.

Two weeks on, I’m convinced that the scene is the boldest and most graphically violent of Tarantino’s career – I had to shield my eyes at one point, found myself involuntarily groaning “oh no” at another – and a dead cert for the most controversial. People will be outraged by it, and with good reason. But in a strange and brilliant way, it takes Didion’s death-of-the-Sixties observation and pushes it through a hellfire-hot catharsis.

Hollywood summoned up this horror, the film seems to be saying, and now it’s Hollywood’s turn to exorcise it. I can’t wait until the release in August, when we can finally talk about why.

~ Robbie Collin