“Is this the end of the world? Is this the death of light?” ponders a character roughly an hour in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, encapsulating an apocalyptic tone which dominated many of the festival’s most hotly anticipated films. The Dead Don’t Die glibly tittered at the red state voters ostensibly responsible for the rise of nationalism; Too Late to Die Young stared pointlessly into a nihilistic void of human brutality; Sorry We Missed You imagined the self-destruction of a working class family under the pressure of parasitic capitalism; Little Joe painted a society slowly limping towards death through its citizen’s selfish addiction to consumer pleasures; Young Ahmed irresponsibly pinned society’s ills on religious extremism; Parasite reflects a society in which the underclass are pitted against each other to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie.
At the premiere of the outstanding The Halt, Lav Diaz provided a note which lamented the overwhelming focus on despair that has ensnared modern art film, stressing that cinema’s social role should be not to wallow in anguish, but to restore our faith in the future. Aside from Diaz’s magnificent work, the only other film which substantially fulfilled that purpose (in this writer’s eyes) was A Hidden Life. Malick’s vision of transcendence is metaphysical, crucially re-affirming the potential for human redemption, while Diaz’s utopian vision is more concrete, detailing the revolutionary systematic changes which may be implemented to establish a fair and harmonious society. For this reason (amongst others) these films stand as the greatest accomplishments featured at Cannes 2019 — two towering masterworks which will be watched, dissected and debated for years to come.
Best of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival
A Hidden Life centres on a monumental philosophical conundrum: how can a person sustain their moral conviction when the ideological institutions which have influenced — and continue to shape — their ethical beliefs become corrupt? Such is the situation that humble Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter finds himself in when his country is taken over by Nazi forces during the early years of the Second World War. As his friends, religious leaders, and political idols gradually crumble under the pressure to submit themselves to the will of Anschluss, Jägerstätter holds true to his fundamental ideas of right and wrong — and is branded a traitor, a heathen, and a failed patriarch as a result. While those around him either lapse into despair in the face of overwhelming global atrocities or opportunistically embrace the hateful rhetoric encouraged by the Third Reich, Jägerstätter latches onto the examples of the saints to give him the strength to retain his principles.
Out of the overwhelming darkness of a country buckling under the oppressive influence of fascist forces, Malick envisions a 20th century parable in which a sustained deontological act of resistance grants an ordinary man the grandeur of a myth. But although Jägerstätter reaches the status of icon in the film’s exhilarating final passage, for the most part he is portrayed as a very real, conflicted man struggling to reconcile his fundamental beliefs of right and wrong with the shifting landscape around him, tormented by the elusiveness of the creator as the world turns to darkness. A Hidden Life is Malick’s greatest aesthetic achievement, a breathtaking work of impressionistic montage which expresses its lofty existential themes through an ecstatic stream of images loaded with emotional and symbolic weight.
Though Malick is often accused of uncritically embracing a naïve, New Age-y form of spirituality, it’s hard to imagine any of his detractors making this accusation about A Hidden Life, a clear-eyed film which unflinchingly explores the relationship between religion and state, the apathy of the Catholic church during the holocaust, and the ethics of representing images of the war on screen, all the while drawing clear parallels with the rise of the far-right in contemporary Europe. Its final affirmation of the potential for spiritual redemption and the endurance of human decency thus feels deeply earned, and A Hidden Life deserves to be recognized as one of the all-time great films about faith.
- The Halt
The epic reach of Lav Diaz’s astonishing five-hour phantasmagorical nightmare The Halt comes from the way he portrays the development of Fillipino society as a historical continuum, positioning the violently oppressive leadership of Rodrigo Duterte as a repetition of the reign of Ferdinand Marcos. Thus, The Halt is set in a dystopia which collapses past, present, and future — an apocalyptic world ravished by environmental ruin, bathed in perpetual darkness. A title card introduces the year as 2034, but it registers as an ahistorical state in which the sins of the past are allowed to be perpetuated in a vicious cycle. Mass poverty, increasing crime rates, and a horrific food shortage make the citizens of The Halt ripe for the ultra-nationalistic rhetoric peddled by Duterte stand-in President Narvarro, a populist who feeds on the desperation and paranoia of an insecure populace in order to instill an authoritarian military regime.
Citizens are subject to hugely invasive methods of surveillance, an obscene amount of government funds are directed towards the construction of nuclear arms, strict allegiance to Narvarro is demanded, and anybody who is suspected of harbouring dissenting viewpoints is fatally dispatched. The intellectual establishment is swallowed whole by Narvarro’s regime, with the national educational systems and media heavily manipulated so as to put a positive spin on his actions and diffuse the threat of rebellion. The pervasive influence on nationalist conformity trickles down and has physiological effects, expressed through a young woman whose newfound adherence to the totalitarian government coincides with an inexplicable lust for blood.
And yet, traces of resistance remain in the form of a young revolutionary/heavy metal musician called Hook Torollo, a high-ranking member of Narvarro’s armed forces who is working on a movement to usurp him from the inside; Also, there is an academic named Dr. Jean Hadorro, who is working on a social exegesis which parallels Diaz’s perspective — that willful amnesia is a natural reaction to national trauma, but it’s a reaction which narcotizes the country and paves the way for the same mistakes to be made again. To confront historical trauma head-on, though, allows for the failures of the past to be learned from, and society to be substantially altered for the better.
Diaz’s sprawling narrative is devoted to depicting the plight of the poor who suffer the most under Navarro’s reign, the resistance fighters struggling to undercut him against seemingly insurmountable odds, and the dictator himself, presented in scenes of disquieting comic absurdism which recall Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The image of Navarro gently weeping on his balcony, surrounded by cacti of all shapes and sizes, back-dropped by luminescent surveillance drones bobbing in the sky is perhaps the most indelible of the entire festival. Yet, after examining in exacting detail the ways in which a nation can become ensnared by a brutal fascist regime, The Halt’s final section is a breath-taking expression of hope, resulting in one of the most cathartic endings in recent memory.
Albert Serra makes films which explore the socio-political dynamics of specific historical eras through an intense focus on the physicality of his iconic subjects. Liberté is Serra’s most abstract film thus far, partly because the narrative scaffolding which provided a backbone for his aesthetic and temporal explorations in projects like The Story of My Death, The Death of Louis XIV, and Birdsong has been removed, leaving only an uncompromising formal exertion into the human body’s capacity for pleasure. Taking place over a single night, Liberté unfolds as a series of sensual experiments undertaken by a gang of libertines who have been exiled from the court of Louis XVI on obscenity charges. The acts are captured in serene, sumptuous tableaux, with Serra’s masterful use of digital video’s light-capturing abilities to recreate the appearance of Rococo painting. Though it may sound like a dry aesthetic exercise, Liberté is a euphoric work of cinema — a sensuous immersion into a self-constructed utopia positioned on the eve of the French Revolution.
Worst of the Cannes Film Festival
- Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo
The Mektoub, My Love series may well go down in history as one of the most heinous cinematic trainwrecks. After winning the Palme d’Or with his controversial sex epic Blue is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche set his sights on an adaptation of François Bégaudeau’s novel about screenwriter in his mid-twenties returning from Paris to his provincial hometown for a summer of frolicking by the sea, sweating in nightclubs, and flirting with the local girls. The book runs a slim 305 pages and was originally intended to be the basis for a single film of reasonable length, but Kechiche inexplicably decided he needed a far larger canvas to work with, and expanded it into a multi-part project in which each segments lasts somewhere between three and four hours.
Producers were understandably distraught when they learned of Kechiche’s intentions, and withdrew funding, inspiring Kechiche to auction off many of his own possessions — including his Palme d’Or trophy — to finance his (ahem) opus. The first entry in the Mektoub, My Love saga was largely panned by critics when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, made less than half its budget back at the box office, and quickly slinked away into obscurity. The four-hour follow-up, Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo, was a late addition to the festival’s main slate, with news of its premiere being revealed several weeks after the official competition entries had been added. The film arrived steeped in controversy; Kechiche is still under police investigation following allegations of sexual assault filed less than a year ago, while stories of Kechiche’s unethical on-set behaviour quickly circulated, with several crew members alleging that he used heavy doses of alcohol to influence his reluctant young actors to strip and perform explicit sexual acts in front of his camera against their will. To add credence to these accounts, few of the film’s stars appeared for the screening or the Q&A which followed. The screening itself was one of the most disastrous in recent memory, with roughly half of the auditorium walking out mid-way, and a chorus of boos to punctuating the film’s more obnoxious moments.
It is always dangerous to judge a movie as an event rather than focusing on the text itself (especially within a film festival setting), but it is impossible to separate Kechiche’s status as a manipulative sex pest from Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo, an odiously leery ode to the nubile female body. Shot and edited like four episodes of Jersey Shore stapled together and plotted like a daytime soap, Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo picks up exactly where its predecessor left off, foolishly expecting the viewer to remember what the hell was going on in the inconsequential lives of its vapid group of model-perfect youths. The plot revolves around a series of tangled romantic connections between a bunch of incredibly dull stock types: the reserved screenwriter, Amin, who holds a torch for the extroverted temptress, Ophélie, who is having an affair with the charming Tony while her fiancé is serving in the army. This dull drama plays out over a single night, divided into a forty-minute beach scene, a three-hour nightclub scene, and a quick, twenty-minute coda set the next morning.
All of this plays out exactly as expected, with the sensitive Amin — a clear directorial self-insert — being repeatedly antagonized by the vindictive tease, Ophélie, who refuses to see his innate goodness, and instead falls into the arms of a callous ladies’ man. This despicable, misogynistic drama plays out against a backdrop of fetishized, scantily clad bodies twerking at the club, sunning on the beach, and thrusting in the cramped public toilets. Kechiche has limply fired back at his detractors, claiming that his intention with the film was to “celebrate life, love, desire, breath, music, the body,” yet this supposed ‘celebration of the body’ is merely pornographic, fetishizing the sexuality of his young female stars for the satisfaction of a lecherous male gaze. I saw quite a few bad movies at Cannes 2019, but Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo was the only one which made me feel dirty for watching it.
The Dardennes Brothers inexplicably won the Best Director prize for this mean-spirited, grim little movie about the threat of Islamic extremism corrupting otherwise idyllic Belgian communities. Ostensibly a coming-of-age story about a naïve adolescent’s flirtation with religious radicalism, Young Ahmed centres on the titular Ahmed as he is encouraged by an insidious, freedom-hating imam to trade his childhood toys for the Quran, a prayer mat, and whatever sharp objects he can sneak out of his school to use against the infidels. Ahmed is pushed too far when he discovers that his teacher is (gasp) dating a Jew, leading him to attack her with a knife. The plan lands him in juvie, where he is confronted by a series of white Christian and atheist guards who encourage him to give up his religious beliefs (an act Young Ahmed conflates with growing up).
The reductive view of the Muslim faith as one rooted in misogyny, anti-Semitism, and vengeful violence would be laughable if Young Ahmed wasn’t being released in a culture increasingly gripped by Islamophobia. Recurring sequences in which Ahmed is forced to walk through metal detectors and be searched by security guards instantly conjure up images of the oppressive acts of surveillance Muslims were forced to endure in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, but Young Ahmed will only add to the irrational paranoia of the West rather than challenge it.
Nicolas Winding Refn reaches a new low with this tiresome, joyless slog. Refn’s cinema represents the nadir of the arthouse-exploitation hybrid trend pioneered by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Eli Roth, pointlessly recycling the tropes of grindhouse movies but stripping his genre models of any sense of fun, momentum, or suspense. His breakthrough hit Drive may have been flawed, but its stylistic retro textures held a certain base appeal. The commercial success of that film, however, has enabled Refn to wallow in his own worst tendencies, with each film dialing up his most reviled, stylistic affectations as a way of baiting his critics.
Every performance muted down to the point that his characters register as nothing more than blank slates? Check. Lengthy pauses between every line of dialogue? Check. Searing, neon-lit interiors? Check. Pompous slow-motion? Check. Over-reliance on a repetitive synth score? Check. Deliberately idiotic, ridiculously profane dialogue? Check. Every element of Too Old to Die Young is over-directed to an inch of its life, resulting in a sluggish slideshow of stultified, airless images. This time, however, Refn doubles down on the depraved behaviour, incorporating gang rape, incest, pedophilia, snuff filmmaking, bestiality, femicide, torture, human trafficking, sadomasochism, and necrophilia, as if straining to make his way through a list of taboos.
That Refn does not even attempt to say anything of substance about any of the topics he touches on is to be expected — that he presents these atrocities with such an affectless, antiseptic air is self-defeating, and it removes any sense of danger or menace from images which serve no purpose other than to shock. A recent trailer for the series — cut after its Cannes premiere — proudly boasts the critical quote “just as horrible and upsetting as you’d expect,” making it clear that Refn is deliberately courting outrage through his gratuitous display of vile acts. But Too Old to Die Young is unlikely to provoke any response other than boredom. Provocation-for-the-sake-of-provocation will always slip into absolute tedium.
For the sake of completism, here is every movie I saw at Cannes 2019, ranked in order of preference:
- A Hidden Life
- The Halt
- Sorry We Missed You
- The Wild Goose Lake
- The Whistlers
- Portrait of a Lady on Fire
- The Swallows of Kabul
- The Lighthouse
- Oh Mercy!
- The Climb
- Family Romance, LLC
- Pain and Glory
- The Traitor
- The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily
- Little Joe
- Lux Æterna
- Matthias & Maxime
- The Dead Don’t Die
- Once in Trubchevsk
- Too Old to Die Young
- Young Ahmed
- Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo