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Cannes 2016: Competition Blog - 'Elle, the end...'

Fionnuala Halligan blogs on the Cannes Competition titles straight from the Palais.

May 21

Elle

Paul Verhoeven’s Elle saw Cannes Competition 69 out on a high note. This beautifully judged drama/thriller is all about a provocatively powerful woman, much like Verhoeven’s last Competition entry – Basic Instinct, which played back in 1992. Elle is that picture’s equal, and, in a similar way, captures a new moment for film’s femme fatale.

Elle, starring the unrivalled Isabelle Huppert, threads sexual intrigue with knife-edged danger, punctuated by the occasional relief of unexpected, uneasy humour. It’s a film which could only have come from the hands of the Dutch master, back after a 10-year-absence since Black Book – and how we have missed him.

Huppert has rarely been better as the head of a videogame company who is attacked and raped in her home by a masked intruder. This plays out, however, at the onset and is just a launchpad for Verhoeven to examine his career-long themes of power and domination afresh.  Worldwide success is confidently predicted.

From the dizzying lows of The Last Face to the highs of Elle in the space of a day – that’s Cannes. It has been a terrific year for women, throwing out one challenging female lead performance after another and ending with the dominance of Huppert. Complex portrayals like these can change filmgoers’ tastes – never has the race for Best Actress here been so crowded, with the men’s roles so pedestrian in comparison.

Three poorly-received films at the end of Cannes – Sean Penn’s The Last Face, Nicolas Winding Refn with The Neon Demon and Xavier Dolan with It’s Only The End of The World, do not a bad festival make. From Paterson to Toni Erdmann, Sieranevada to American Honey, Loving to Elle, Cannes 69 has feasted on riches. Jury selection should be an interesting debate.

May 21

The Salesman

It’s not initially clear where Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman is destined. We’re plunged into a Tehran apartment block at night which is under a rattling evacuation. Construction work next door has resulted in damage to the foundations, and it is declared unsafe. Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and schoolteacher Emad (Shahab Hosseini) must evacuate their home. When the pair, who are performing in a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, eventually move into an apartment owned by a friend, it will set off a chain of events which rock their own marriage to its very foundation.

It takes a while for Farhadi’s film to get a grip, but once the masterful director of A Separation hits his stride, the drama begins to ratchet up. After a violent incident, people simply stop telling the truth, to themselves or to each other. And Emad goes from being the type of man who will save a crippled neighbour before himself, to one who might resort to lethal violence when his masculinity comes under threat. There’s a lot in this film, not just about truth, lies and marriages, but Tehran - a city which should be knocked down and built again, says Emad - and Iranian society.

May 20

The Last Face

Sean Penn’s The Last Face is so horribly misjudged, it’s almost painful to watch. Setting a love story between star-crossed western aid workers against the bloody backdrop of civil war in Liberia is clearly not a good idea, but the stunningly insensitive execution somehow makes it all worse.  Sunset silhouettes on the savannah, moody shots of Charlize Theron tearing up, and endless squabbles between these lovelorn MSF-like medicos (“you don’t know me!”) as colourfully-dressed refugees spurt blood in the background actually provoked raw anger at the Cannes press screening.

As it stands, The Last Face looks as if it will seal the position of being the lowest-ever scoring film in the 13-year history of Screen’s Cannes Jury chart. That’s sad, as Theron and Javier Bardem clearly went into this with good intentions and gave it their best shot. But with Penn using the bloody death of an African child as a climax in the couple’s tedious on-off relationship and following it up with a speech about the rights of refugees to have dreams, the reaction becomes understandable. Questions will justifiably be asked about why this film was placed in Cannes Competition in a year where no films from Africa are competing.

Neon Demon

Neon Demon is a stylish, modish parody-slash-takedown of the LA fashion industry, although some might suggest that world is beyond parody and it’s just a grimy old slasher film dressed up in a shiny frock. Coming back to Cannes after Only God Forgives, Nicolas Winding Refn is – again – in a mood to shock. And he tries so very, very hard, driving some highly stylised imagery across a movie drenched in a Giorgio Moroder-ish score. Mostly, though, Neon Demon reminds you of the other, better films it is cobbled together from – anything ranging from Lynchian (Mulholland Drive) to Kubrickian (The Shining) to American Gigolo to Cat People to a Robert Palmer video (Addicted To Love) to DePalma.  Mostly, though, to Cronenberg’s Crash, adapted from JG Ballard and a genuinely shocking film at the time it premiered in Cannes twenty years ago. Have we become so jaded, or is Neon Demon trying too hard? Given its cannibalistic theme, Neon Demon could be the perfect illustration of film eating itself.

Elle Fanning is radiant as a beautiful new arrival on the Los Angeles modelling scene. She has that unquantifiable beauty, a fresh, natural look which sets people’s hearts a-pulsing, and her jealous rivals to take desperate measures. Keanu Reeves, Christina Hendricks and Allessandro Nivola take small cameos, but the film belongs to the model-mannequins, the make-up department, and the very-busy technicians who provided the on-set blood.

May 19

It’s Only The End Of The World

Booing in the Palais has consciously uncoupled from the quality of the film that’s playing. Personal Shopper - hardly a tour de force, but no disaster either - was jeered, but Xavier Dolan’s excruciating It’s Only The End Of The World passed by quietly, at least during the screening. When it came to writing up their reviews, however, this screeching family drama was scorched by the critics.

A jumble of actor-ly tics and fidgety, in-your-face camera work, It’s Only The End Of The World scores high on interesting cast - Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassell, Lea Seydoux and Gaspard Ulliel - and low on interest in spending any time with them. This latest from the Quebecois director of 2014 Grand Prix winner Mommy boasts all the bold signature elements which have propelled Dolan to such great heights at such an early age (propulsive, popular score, blinding, gaudy camerawork). This time, however, they were amped up to deafening levels and wrapped around a paper-thin premise.

Ulliel plays a gay writer who returns home after an unexplained 12-year absence to tell his family about his impending death. Vincent Cassell is his shouty older brother Antoine; Marion Cotillard his bullied, stuttering wife. Seydoux is his shouty tattooed sister Suzanne. And, in kabuki/drag make-up, Nathalie Baye is his shouty mother. 97 minutes later viewers might find they don’t need an explanation as to why Ulliel left, just a ticket out of the cinema themselves. It’s Only The End Of The World is based on a play written by Jean-Luc Lararge, the French actor, director and playwright.

Graduation

Graduation is the second Romanian film to try for Cannes glory this year, after Sieranevada opened the Competiton last week. This is a solid, if unspectacular, feature from the director of the Palme D’Or winning 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days and Beyond the Hills, which took the director’s prize here for Cristian Mungiu. Graduation tells the story of a doctor in Cluj who, desperate that his treasured only daughter pass her exams and get a ticket out of the corrupt, compromised Romania he despises, finds himself in a deep moral quagmire. There’s an air of menace around him as the days of her graduation exams play out.

Graduation was greeted warmly, if not quite ecstatically, by critics around the Palais des Festivals. Mungiu has dealt with these themes before. And after a week spent watching complex, multi-layered women take to the screen, it felt almost retrograde to see the male gaze hone back into view. Another fat, middle-aged man with a bad marriage and a young mistress he mistreats and a daughter he pushes around - all their lives framed within his story. However, Graduation is one of the few films to feature a traditional leading man performance in Cannes this year - thus far - meaning that its lead Adrian Titieni, along with Paterson’s Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton from Loving must remain good bets for Best Actor as we move towards the last few films in Competition.

May 18

The Unknown Girl, Ma’Rosa

A mid-week calm has descended on the Palais des Festivals today, with Brilliante Mendoza (Ma’Rosa) and the Dardenne Brothers (The Unknown Girl) turning in two respectable, and respected, films which run fairly true to the filmmakers’ form.

Double Palme D’Or winners The Dardennes have cast the talented young actor Adèle Haenel to front their Liege-set take on a Nancy Drew mystery, The Unknown Girl. She plays Jenny from the docs, a young medico who fails to answer the buzzer at her grungy clinic one evening. This turns out to be a life-altering decision for everyone involved.

While the Dardennes continue to root their characters in reality, this is a move into more classical genre-inflected story-telling, following on from the tensely told Two Days, One Night. Haunted by a missing woman, Jenny takes it upon herself to make restitution. There’s a very strong sense of place here, and the town of Seraing and the options therein look appropriately tough. Yet the resolution to the drama is bumpy, and despite Haenel’s performance, The Unknown Girl lacks the power of some of the brothers’ earlier films.

If Seraing feels faintly depressing, though, it’s as nothing when compared to Brilliante Mendoza’s Manila in Ma’Rosa. Although he’s going over familiar territory, and, viewers of Kinatay will remember exactly how badly things can go for the city’s inhabitants, the Philippine capital has never looked more despairing, its inhabitants so hopeless, as they negotiate mountains of litter and open sewers in their attempts just to survive the day.

Ma’Rosa (Jaclyn Jose) has taken to selling drugs to eke out her family’s tenuous existence – they run a cabin-like shop in one of the city’s slum-like areas. But when Rosa and her layabout husband Nestor are shopped by a neighbour, they will now have to find a way to get themselves through the openly corrupt and unpredictably dangerous police force to start their lives from square one again – that’s if they survive.

Mendoza is a prolific film-maker, and, as with all his work, Ma’Rosa is a difficult watch – the cacophony of the ambient noise in Metro Manila coupled with the on-the-move visuals and naked camera work make this an all too uncomfortable, immersive experience.

May 17

Aquarius

Sonia Braga holds the viewer in her hands throughout the two hour running time of Aquarius, a Brazilian feature about an impetuous 65 year-old former music critic who is stubbornly holding on to the family apartment in the face of developers.

It’s a magnificent role for any actress, and Braga readily steps up to the plate. Clara is by turns warm, imperious, and unpredictable. She’s also sexy, so rarely seen on screen for a 65-year-old. (And the sex she has is casual, and at her own whim. Nothing tentative, tragic, or consequence-laden about it. It just happens.) She’s also fierce, a worthy opponent – a smart woman and a working mother/grandmother.

Kleber Mendonça Filho follows up the Oscar long-listed Neighbouring Sounds with another story set in Brazil’s Receife, in which casually identifies the layers of the country’s corrupt society at family level and burrows on in – much like the termites which deliver such a pay-off at the end. This is a good prospect for awards for Braga and the Oscar short-list for foreign language film, as well as festival and even art-house exposure.

Business may have been slack in the market this year, but the Competition films have rarely been better.

Julieta

Spain’s Pedro Almodovar is back among his women for his 20th feature as a director, presenting Julieta, an anxious, tantalising, conflicted creature.  Full of hints and omens, the sinuous Julieta bears the darker marks of Almodovar’s recent Hitchcockian dramas Broken Embraces and The Skin I live In, even though it’s all about a mother. This story of loss and grief casts the eponymous Julieta, played at different ages by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suarez, as a grave, fearful, woman who is constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed by her mysterious past.  

Almodovar told a packed press conference yesterday that “I’ve come back to place which I’ll never leave, which is the universe of women.” Thank goodness for that. Critical response was largely positive, with some Twitter confusion as to whether “classic Almodovar” was a good or bad thing. It’s a good thing, if not the very best.

Cannes 2016: The Year Of The Woman?

Cannes 2016 is turning out to be the year of the woman, after all: love them or loathe them, two tour-de-force films by female directors – Maren Ade with Toni Erdmann and and Andrea Arnold’s American Honey – have been arresting experiences. But also the parts.

A series of exceptional leading ladies mid-festival have brought love from the critics and signs that Cannes 2016 will be a year to remember. And that’s all women – fully-fleshed older heroines such as the magnificent Sonia Braga in Aquarius and Emma Suarez in Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, and younger protagonists such as the searching Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper, the magnificent Sandra Hüller in Toni Erdmann, Sasha Lane in American Honey and the stalwart Ruth Negga in Loving. Marion Cotillard as well, in the more classically-framed From The Land Of The Moon.

It’s quite a joyous thing to witness, and these parts have been accompanied by rousing song: from Whitney Houston singalongs in Toni Erdmann, to Queen in Aquarius, and the pumping rap-exuberance of American Honey (not to mention the Lady Antebellum title track).

It’s a vintage year. Then again, “who does not love wine, women and song / Remains a fool his whole life long”.  Eight films are left to run, with significant female parts in most..

Personal Shopper

Boos in the Palais for Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper? It might be one of those times where critics need to steady up.

This went into Cannes 2016 looking like the big commercial prospect of Competition 69 and came out – to the sound of those catcalls – with that reputation intact. It’s a deeply flawed, yes, but enjoyable drama, with an intense performance from Kristen Stewart who moves up a notch here to mature leading lady. Pulpy and eerily intense at times, Personal Shopper melds the mystical and super-natural with the world of high-end couture to enjoyably lurid effect.

There’s a 70s feeling about this Assayas film, which is set in Paris – with a quick jaunt over to London on the Eurostar to pick up some frocks, as well as a finale set, for no apparent reason, in the Sultanate of Oman. The French director of Irma Vep – which was about an attempt to remake Les Vampires – is now playing a tune on the on the theme of the after-life and chopping it up with some real-life drama. Prolonged sequences of text messaging aside, this film is occasionally terrifying, and that’s mostly thanks to Stewart giving a gritty ballast to the ideas swirling around her.

Clouds of Sils Maria gave Stewart the Cesar for Best Supporting Actress – the first American to receive that honour. With Personal Shopper, she could be in with a shot for Best Actress at Cannes as well, though Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller will be hard to beat, and Ruth Negga’s performance in Loving is also impressive.

May 16

Loving

With the Competition hitting the half-way mark today – 10 films have shown to critics out of a Palais-busting 21 – Cannes 69 is shaping up to be a standout year. Critics on the Screen Jury chart have been falling over their fours, for the German comedy-drama Toni Erdmann and Jim Jarmusch’s poetic reverie Paterson, but even when films like American Honey or I, Daniel Blake, have divided critics, there has been love in the room.

In terms of early awards candidates, Manchester By The Sea and Birth of a Nation have already played their hand in Sundance. Two strong performances anchor Jeff Nichols’ dignified, hyper-restrained Loving, with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga presenting a portrait of a marriage under impossible strain, the screenplay (by Nichols) never crumbling into Oscar-bait meltdowns or speechifying as their real-life inter-racial couple fights the State of Virginia all the way to the High Court. But these are clearly award-worthy performances nonetheless, particularly from Negga.

Loving met with a mixed reception, acknowledging the power of the actors and Nichols’ typically-strong sense of place – rural Virginia in the late 1950s, where racist laws meant they either left town for 25 years or spent a year in jail for the crime of miscegenation. This quiet film doesn’t lecture or shout or deliver a sermon, but was too introverted for some critics’ taste half-way through a busy festival.

With a US release set for November, it may be a cool fit for the heated emotions of awards season, but it’s a typically strong piece of work from Jeff Nichols, his second this year after Midnight Special played out of competition at Berlin.

May 15

Paterson

Adam Driver moves into Jim Jarmusch’s very singular world like a glove. Paterson wheels the viewer around a week in the life of his poet bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey, played by Driver with self-sufficient equanimity. The film hits a rhythm all of its own; it’s about poetry and it is poetic, but, like Ron Padgett’s verse read by Driver, it’s impressionistic and spontaneous within its own careful structure.

Critics on Screen’s Jury bestowed four-star rankings on Jarmusch’s feature in which seemingly random incidents and conversations connect and slide away from each other as Driver moves through his days, musing on his delicately-balanced relationship his wife (Iran’s Golshifteh Farahani, playing the ‘cupcake queen of Paterson’ who is excessively fond of black and white).

Paterson might not quite strike the same commercial light as Jarmusch’s last film, Only Lovers Left Alive, but there are good business wheels under this K5 Media-sold film. Jarmusch has a legion of devoted fans, built up over the thirty-plus years since Stranger Than Paradise won the Camera d’Or in Cannes, and they’ll eagerly hop on board this somewhat existential bus.

Driver’s young following will draw in a new, curious audiences – who may or may not respond. Paterson is like a soothing balm, though, for those willing to take the plunge into Jarmusch’s finely calibrated world.

Paterson is one of two Jarmusch films at Cannes this year. The Iggy Pop/Stooges doc Gimme Danger screens out of Competition on Friday.

From The Land Of The Moon

From The Land Of The Moon carries the whiff of the preposterous from the get-go, with the beautiful, incredibly youthful -  but still aged 40 - Marion Cotillard required to play a tempestuous, troubled teenager. She’s Gabrielle, so over-heated in her longing for love that she literally needs to cool her nether regions off in a river. She reads Wuthering Heights and is infatuated by her English teacher. So far, so Mills & Boon.

However it soon becomes clear that director Nicole Garcia is making an old-fashioned women’s film, and this may not be quite the misfire it originally appears. Gabrielle/Cotillard shrugs off her girlish smocks and the artfully-shot lavender fields of the south of France and marries Jose (Alex Brendemuhl), an endlessly-supportive labourer and world-class patient-husband-slash-fugitive from the Spanish Civil War.

It’s an arranged marriage, as Gabrielle’s parents have threatened her with the lunatic asylum if she doesn’t knuckle down. But she will never love him!

A bad case of kidney stones – mal de pierres, the film’s French title – is soon diagnosed and Gabrielle is required to spend six weeks in a Swiss spa where the haunted, tubercular-looking army officer Louis Garrel is also recovering from his war wounds (Indochina). Enough said. There is, however, a twist in the tale. And critics may shrug, but there’s an audience out there for this kind of high-romance, especially if it’s in French, looks gorgeous, and stars Cotillard and Garrel.

And, by the way, Marion Cotillard is terrific, girlish smocks aside.

American Honey

Seven films in, and it’s too early to talk about the Palme D’Or (or is it?); one thing can be said for certain is that the two most exciting films in Competition thus far have been directed by women.

American Honey is a vivid polaroid of a point in time, that reckless bridge between stepping out into adult life and fully entering it, a moment during which you’re never more alive. Following a quasi-renegade group of poor white kids as they bus around the American heartland selling magazine subscriptions to the gullible, it pulsates with energy, and not just from its rousing soundtrack. Although she’s moved countries with this, her fourth film, American Honey is very identifiable as Andrea Arnold’s work, seeming to both encapsulate and extend the themes of all she’s done up to now.  It also seems to be one of the more divisive films to screen at Cannes 2016 thus far, prompting reactions which seemed to be either ecstatic or dismissive, with not much in-between.

American Honey is a right-in-the-moment film about young people in the way, say, of Larry Clark’s Kids, but it’s also a daring, almost experimental, in its gutsy presentation – at times it takes on a documentary feel as Arnold’s candid eye (and Robbie Ryan’s exquisite lensing) casually captures the lives of America’s hopeless. The narrative can falter, and music is used perhaps too often as a propulsive bridge – that’s a casualty of a bracing 162-minute running time and a sense that parts may have been improvised (the film sold to Focus for multiple territories prior to its Cannes release).

May 14

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, the Korean director’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ mainstay of lesbian literature Fingersmith, gorges on the novel’s erotic potential, melding opulent Victoriana with Korean and Japanese period settings and costumes. Featuring much lush, artfully-shot sex between two beautiful young actresses – which never damaged a film’s commercial prospects – The Handmaiden is told, like the book, from multiple points of view across three chapters. With some florid Realm of the Senses-style quivering-bottomed S&M shot through shoji screens, it pulps its way through 145 minutes of drenching desire and obsession, nicely filtered through the Japanese colonisation of Korea at that time and the rigidity of Asian social hierarchies. (Park’s oh-so-clever touch is to set much of the action in a house which melds Asian and Victorian architectures).

Undoubtedly, The Handmaiden will perform well for CJ Entertainment, and it was well-liked by critics, if stopping an octopus-tentacle short of the amour fou experienced by the sensuously-gloved ladies onscreen. Actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-rae shoulder Park’s sexual load with a light  touch (literally, on many occasions, and particularly when it comes to unbuttoning corsets), yet this film is dense with the effects of a depravity which lurks in a torture chamber below. Previously adapted by the BBC with Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy in the main roles, The Handmaiden’s twisting story sees a thief – a ‘fingersmith’ - integrate herself in the deviant household of an upper-class orphan, only to have the tables turned, and turned again.

No tentacled squid in the BBC’s version, needless to say; but in a film which is about an evil uncle’s obsession with the Japanese erotic art of shunga, it’s not a gratuitous octopus cameo from the director of Old Boy, but an extension of visual references to Hokusa’s work The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. Art, in other words, and not titillation, although Park treads a fine line here.

May 13

Toni Erdmann

It’s not often you’ll witness the Debussy audience break into spontaneous applause during a film, but they did it twice during Maren Ade’s sparkling comedy Toni Erdmann. It’s also the Competition’s first proper commercial prospect (Match Factory handles sales), set for almost certain arthouse success despite the fact that the director, Maren Ade, is an unknown quantity in the marketplace and her two lead actors are pretty much unrecognisable outside Germany (and not household names even within). Everyone Else may have won the director some critical plaudits and a Silver Bear in 2009, but it was not widely seen. This will change things, even given the fact that Toni Erdmann’s 166 minute running time could be justifiably deemed overly-generous

Sandra Hüller has certainly moved into pole position for the acting prize for her central performance in this odd, lovable, yet frequently biting film, with Austrian theatre actor Peter Simonischek also a contender. It was her take on Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love Of All that prompted those multiple rounds of cheering, but so many memorable sequences arrived so unexpectedly in this little, left-field film about a father (Simonischek) who makes an impromptu trip to Bucharest to visit his workaholic daughter (Hüller) after the death of his beloved dog.

Toni Erdmann - named for the businessman persona he adopts mid-way through the proceedings - delivers none of the expected, predictable beats of a story like this. It could be said it delivers too much - several vignettes are jiggling around beside the main father-daughter thrust - but its offbeat, wacky German humour cloaks a film in which little is said and so much is implied. Dad’s a bit of a comic, you see, prone to wearing funny teeth and dressing up in odd costumes. His highly-unlikeable daughter is wound-up like a clock with the effort of maintaining her tenuous grip on success in the corporate world.

Toni Erdmann’s credits played out to cheers and the Palais emptied to happy, smiling critics which should indicate, at the very last, some brisk sales over the next few days.

Slack Bay

Bruno Dumont and his cast’s quasi-vaudevillian approach to the period (1910-set) comedy Slack Bay (La Loute) is something of an acquired taste which not all critics immediately shared at Cannes. A progression of sorts from his successful TV series P’tit Quinquin, this tone here was set to high-arch, a ‘Ministry of Funny Walks’ playing out in a very seductive Nord-Pas-De-Calais on the Opal Coast.

Initial whoops of laughter at the Palais press screening slowly faded to a smattering of applause when Juliette Binoche’s trying character was hit over the head with a stick.

The film, which details a bumbling investigation into series of mysterious disappearances of tourists from the beach, opens in France simultaneously with its Cannes screening and will test the waters for such an idiosyncratic fare from a director well known for his forbiddingly-austere arthouse approach. (Longtime Dumont ally Kino Lorber picked up the title pre-Cannes for the US).

Dumont throws in cannibalism, a gender-fluid romance, and themes of incest to this comedy – consanguinity might possibly explain the grotesque and jarring theatrics of the holiday-makers, played by Fabrice Luchini, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, and, most tryingly, Juliette Binoche.

They’re the upper-class Tourcoing blow-ins, returning annually to their faux Egyptian folly, where they irritate the weather-beaten natives and, at least initially, amuse the viewer with their parade of tics and outrageous mannerisms (Dumont is referencing silent cinema, and dumping it into a natural landscape to see how it all might flow). The fishermen respond by eating them, “who wants a foot?” being one of the festival’s more memorable lines of dialogue to date.

But, as Screen Daily’s critic Jonathan Romney pointed out, “perhaps there are only so many times you can laugh at a fat man (Didier Despres) tumbling down a sand dune.”

Although to be fair, Luchini, playing a hunchback, also falls off a deckchair on several occasions, and Tedeschi from a stool.

May 12

I, Ken Loach

What story could have brought Ken Loach back from his – very brief - retirement?  

I, Daniel Blake is the almost-80-year-old British director’s blistering response to ‘Austerity UK’, as seen from the perspective of a marginalised carpenter from Newcastle and the poverty-stricken single mother he befriends.

It’s another tale written by Loach’s regular collaborator Paul Laverty and details the plight of Daniel (Dave Johns), cast aside by an inhumane benefits system. Although this story is very much an identifiable Loach/Laverty collaboration – they’ve made 12 films together, mostly dealing with issues of social justice - there’s a power to the film’s anger and outrage which seems in retrospect to have been missing from the director’s more recent work.

Reaction to the film, which in the UK – and other countries similarly afflicted by austerity measures - will take on a strong political resonance, has been generally positive (from British critics in particular where I, Daniel Blake, stands to generate headlines). Loach and Laverty present situations which seethe with injustice, the emotion of which cloaks a distinct lack of subtlety in how the film’s often didactic plot is carved out. And the answer to what brought Loach back from retirement? The chance to call out the Conservatives by name, in particular that of benefits “reformer” Ian Duncan Smith - who has now left Government to focus on spearheading the Brexit campaign. His ears may be burning.

Staying Vertical

Alain Giuraudie’s Staying Vertical is a singular spin on a well-played cinematic tune, that of the lost, blocked auteur. It’s arresting – on two occasions in particular, where one character is born and another is screwed to death – but also distinguished by its evocation of the French heartland, where wolves and lonely souls prowl the countryside as a way of life vanishes.

Giraudie, who became an art-house name with his Un Certain Regard winning Stranger By The Lake in 2013, also takes in themes of gay fatherhood, maternal and paternal instincts vis a viz mascunity, and a very fluid, modern sexuality in an old France which is constantly shifting.

Hailed as unlikely to repeat the breakout success of Stranger, Staying Vertical met with a mixed response on its press screening Thursday morning at Cannes, as might be expected from such a very individual, beautiful, completely idiosyncratic film. The baby, however, who is carted endlessly, sqallingly, around La France profonde, is a natural. “Wildly eccentric, darkly comic - an acquired taste,” according to Screendaily’s review.

Sieranevada

Sieranevada

Cannes Competition 69 opened with a statement of intent, as Cristi Puiu’s intense, claustrophobic Sieranevada held the Palais audience uncomfortably for almost three hours.

Stamina is clearly low at the onset of this year’s festival, given there was a steady flow of early walkouts during the first of two Romanian contenders for the Palme D’Or. And it’s certainly a wise decision on the part of the festival to screen Sieranevada first.

Puiu, who won the Un Certain Regard prize with The Death of Mr Lazarescu back in 2005, adopts a confident, take-no-prisoners approach from the outset in this uncomfortably absorbing family drama, the camera lingering through opening sequences set in grey, dirty Bucharest traffic, the noise and underlying aggression of which are two elements which will later help shape the film.

Narrative is deliberately withheld as a family gathering begins to take shape; key information that it somehow involves a death is very, very late to arrive.

Puiu traps the viewer for the most part inside tracking, circling shots in a cramped, over-stuffed apartment as this prickly, verbose, family circles around each other, landing love and blows in equal measure.

This is a bold film in which there’s plenty to admire, even as it can feel like the viewer is also stuck inside this interminable family squabble, complete with all the unpredictability, emotion, bursts of humour and hidden undercurrents and anger that can entail. 

Dialogue – or subtitling – can be very ordinary.  A longed-for escape only results in an even worse situation outdoors, making the viewer long to return. Commercially, this is a difficult, almost cerebral prospect.

But Sieranevada is an invigorating start to Cannes 69, which was rewarded with applause by those who stayed to the end of its 173-minute running time.

REVIEW: Sieranevada

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