Critics, audiences and jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival agreed on a few titles, but were keenly divided on those which dared to subvert storytelling traditions.
Look at the Cannes Film Festival prize-winners this year and it’s clear that the jury favoured two films above all others - Michael Haneke’s Amour and Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills. Critics felt the same way, and Screen’s jury grid was won by those two films in a tie.
I was more fascinated this year by the films which drove a wedge down the very centre of opinion. Perhaps most divisive was Leos Carax’s Holy Motors which was considered by some the only masterpiece of the festival – and by others a mess. Carlos Reygadas polarized the audience with Post Tenebras Lux which moved his film-making into a decidedly abstract realm, while Hong Sang-soo’s playful In Another Country – a triptych of tales each placing the same characters in slightly different situations in a coastal town – was largely ignored.
What these three films have in common is a subversion of conventional linear narrative, and designs to tell their stories – or transmit their intentions – through images, moods and situations that sometimes defy easy interpretation. All three refuse to lay out in straightforward terms what they are about, leaving viewers to make up their own mind or, even better, go along for the ride and absorb what they feel without seeking answers.
It was a tad shocking to see many critics reject all three so determinedly, without even applauding them for daring or ambition. And even more ironic, given the respectful response in competition to You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, another adventurous narrative experiment from Alain Resnais, who has spent his career subverting traditional storytelling notions. It’s as if the 90 year-old Resnais is permitted to toy with conventions, but younger film-makers are not.
So why do many critics today cling onto the conventions that 50 years ago the Nouvelle Vague movement did its best to undermine? Was it acceptable then to play with form, but not now? Has reactionary Hollywood three-act cinema trained us so thoroughly and rigidly that we cannot embrace alternative cinematic ideas any more?
Holy Motors was my favourite film in competition, an opus so crammed with inventiveness, wit and love of cinema that I found it irresistible. Some of it doesn’t work, but most of it does, and when I found myself profoundly moved amid the absurdities, I realize that I was watching without asking the film to explain itself but just responding on a visceral, emotional level.
I never imagined myself the boldest film viewer, but this Cannes I felt most excited by those films which abandoned norms. I didn’t resist them, but many did. And there will always be critics and audiences who reject them immediately, even in the ultimate forum of artistic cinema in Cannes.
Of course Haneke himself has always been reluctant to give his audience easy explanations. His first Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon – and Cache, for which many thought he should have won the Palme d’Or – are mysteries never solved. Even in Amour, he ends on a mystery, but Cannes audiences chose to accept it without question, moved by the tragic, perhaps romantic elements of the story.
Ultimately the films which win Oscars and film festivals are the ones which please most people. The ones which divide the audience like Holy Motors might not walk away with prizes but, perhaps in the long run, they will be remembered with more esteem as the films which dared to expand the medium itself.