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Cannes Film Festival 2019: ‘Parasite’ is a Crowd-Pleaser for the Class-Conscious

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A black-comic thriller from South Korean director of Memories of Murder and Snowpiercer

Parasite combines the broad satire of Bong Joon-Ho’s recent output with the fascination with power structures of South Korean society that was central to his early work. Beginning as a class-conscious dramedy, then abruptly turning into an upstairs/downstairs farce, and finally transforming during its final act into a paranoid thriller, Parasite may initially seem like a mess, but Bong handles the shifts in tone exquisitely; it’s not until the rapturous final moments that you realize just how deeply you’ve come to care about these broad caricatures of characters. Nothing about Parasite is subtle or particularly incisive, but as far as maximalist, crowd-pleasing, big-budget storytelling goes, it’s the cream of the crop.

The film beings with a comically mundane family predicament: Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), son of the unemployed Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), is distraught to discover that the lady in the apartment above their cramped, dilapidated basement has changed the password of the wi-fi network they leech off. Ki-taek’s solution is to hold his phone as close to the ceiling as possible to try to make even a faint connection. Shortly afterwards, we are introduced to the entire family (which includes Ki-taek’s daughter, Ki-jung (Park So-dam), and wife, Chung-sook (Hyae Jin Chang)) as they sit around the dinner table, hoisting their tablets in the air. “So we are gathered here today to celebrate the reconnection of our phones,” proudly quips Ki-taek. On one level, it’s a damn funny sight gag; on another, it’s a poignant perversion of the idyllic nuclear family image.

parasite review

The family lives in near poverty, scraping together a meagre living by constructing cardboard boxes for a local pizza restaurant — a simple task that they miraculously screw up by scuffing a quarter of the boxes, prompting their uncaring boss to dock their pay. A chance to draw in some extra income presents itself when Ki-woo’s educated friend leaves the country to study in America and offers him the opportunity to fill in his position as the English-language tutor of Da-hye (Jung Ziso), the high school-aged daughter of obscenely wealthy businessman Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun). Ki-woo’s friend has developed an infatuation with Da-hye, and wants to find the most pathetic substitute possible to ensure that she won’t set her sights on another.

In order the secure the role, Ki-Woo must fabricate official documents and qualifications. Despite being woefully incapable of fulfilling the position, Ki-Woo easily blags his way through a trial session, delivering a ludicrous speech on the existential state necessary to pass an exam paper. Learning the facts isn’t important, he insists; what’s important is reaching such a state of zen-like calm that you can essentially power through the answers on autopilot. It’s pure bullshit, but the matriarch of the household, Yeon-kyo (Chang Hyae-jin), laps it up, eager to find easy solutions to her problems wrapped in pleasant, vaguely New Age-y rhetoric. And this introduces one of the film’s key satirical themes: the pitting of the practical, home-spun wisdom of the poor against the naive fantasies of the cloistered upper class, who are so sheltered from the mundane business of day-to-day living that they have become completely out of touch with reality.

parasite

Recognizing this fact, Ki-Woo encourages his wily sister to join him in working for the family by posing as an arts therapist. Yeon-kyo is concerned that her young son’s standard childish play is actually the product of a disturbed mind, and hence latches onto Ki-jung’s ridiculous psycho-analysis of his drawings. “This,” she says, pointing to a small corner of the canvas, “is what we call the schizophrenia zone” — a kernel of wisdom which gets her hired for an extortionate wage. From there, an elaborate set of schemes are used to exploit the rich family’s naiveté to get the rest of Ki-Woo’s clan hired — at the expense of a few of the existing domestic staff. The poor family now find themselves bringing home healthy sums of cash and enjoying the pleasures of a luxurious working environment — a modernist mansion with an open floor plan, carefully manicured garden, and elaborate system of sensors.

And yet, their integration into the moneyed class comes with constant reminders that the gap between rich and poor in South Korea is unbridgeable, that they will always remain outsiders only enjoying brief slithers of the high life. After having a heart-to-heart talk with Mr. Park, Ki-taek (who works as his new driver) overhears the banker complain to his wife that Ki-taek omits an off-putting smell that reminds him of the subway. Also, a burgeoning flirtation between Ki-woo and Da-hye is tempered with the awareness that a marriage between two citizens on such different ends of the social divide is unlikely;

parasite-bong-joon-ho

What’s more, in buying into this fake allusion of luxury, the lower-rung family have become class betrayers, edging out former members of the house’s staff in order to further their own monetary interests. This fact becomes painfully clear in the second half of the film, which is catalysed by the arrival of the former maid, who Ki-taek’s family cruelly pushed out. To reveal more would be to spoil a plot rich in gear shifts, but let’s just say that the second act becomes a riotous farce which uses every detail of the house space, so carefully mapped out in the first, to its maximum potential. What emerges is a blistering critique of the myth of meritocracy, and how this myth encourages the poor not to band together, but to work against one another while joining the side of their oppressors.

It is vital that the central family never plan to overthrow the wealthy one, but rather to pathetically curry their favor — to ruthlessly battle it out with those on their own level in order to ascend to the top of the social heap (or, at least, to the top of their designated class). This mentality, of course, supports the capitalist structures that keep them subjugated rather than deconstructing them, and registers as even more tragic considering that the film has already established that its impoverished characters are far more intelligent, resourceful, and hardworking than their bourgeois counterparts.

Parasite, then, uses the codes of high-concept genre filmmaking to tackle an issue central to another, apparently very dissimilar film in the competition line-up: Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. In the throes of the current economic recession, when the revolutionary ideal seems dead and the notion of class transcendence no longer seems attainable, to what extent will the proletariat debase themselves in order to get by? Loach’s film is concerned with self-sacrifice, focusing on those willing to completely give up their health, their time, and their relationships in order to sustain the most meagre of living circumstances; Bong’s is concerned with the betrayal of others, focusing on the ways in which the desperation of the poor is exploited to pit them against each other in service of those who enjoy a life of material luxury.

The 72nd Cannes Film Festival runs May 14, 2019 – May 25, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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‘The Whistlers’ Updates Noir to the Age of Digital Surveillance

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The Whistler

Whereas Arnaud Desplechin found his unique artistic vision smothered by the conventions of the police procedural in his middling Oh Mercy!, Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu uses the genre format to expand and enrich his own. In The Whistlers, Porumboiu updates the genre of the Cold War thriller to the era of mass surveillance and networked digitization. The title comes from corrupt Bucharest police officer Cristi’s (Vlad Ivanov) favoured means of communication; in an age where emails and phone conversations can be easily hacked into, recorded, stored, and re-circulated, whistling is the only safe way to spread messages you wish to keep off the grid. “The police will hear it and think the birds are singing,” says Christi’s partner, Kiko (Antonioni Buil), arguing that while most secret codes can easily be decrypted by advanced computer systems, whistling is too abstract to even be recognized as a language.

This is the form of communication which Cristi must master in order to traverse the underworld on the remote island of La Gomera, where criminals have been drawing from the whistling language of the aboriginal Guanche tribe to escape detection for centuries. Cristi, who is on a freelance job to break out an imprisoned businessman banished to the island, remains an outsider throughout the film. Like him, the audience is only drip-fed slim pieces of information about this culture; as in many of the best crime films, there is the impression of a grand criminal system which lies just beneath the visible surface. From there, the film expands into a vast web of intrigue, illegal schemes, and double crosses; a mafia boss is desperate to appoint Cristi as one of his goons, his suspicious police chief back in Romania is obsessively monitoring Cristi’s actions in the hopes of catching him in the act via hidden cameras planted in his room, and Cristi’s language teacher, Gilda (Catrinel Marlon), embroils him in a plot to steal a fortune.

The Whistlers

These strands get so complicated that it becomes increasingly difficult to keep up with the plot, but Porumboiu is less interested in the unfolding of narrative detail than using the noir template as a vessel through which to explore his established thematic concerns: the nuances of language, the alienation of the immigration experience, and the application of cultural traditions into contemporary frameworks. In doing so, Porumboiu has placed one of his shaggy-dog everymen into a noir structure, a passive klutz who never quite realizes how deeply out of his depth he truly is.

Yet, The Whistlers is more than a mere pastiche. The film is infused with the same sense of deadpan slapstick seen throughout films like When Evening Falls in Bucharest and Police Adjective, with Porumboiu’s static, distanced camera and muted greyscale colour palette constantly in tension with the more absurdist elements of the action. The dissonance of seeing a neo-noir caper play out within comically mundane locations (a bureaucratic office floor, an abandoned playground, kitchsy living rooms) and captured in lengthy, plainly lit wide-shots is classic Porumboiu, while the drollness with which familiar narrative baits-and-switches play out is handled with incredible finesse. The film is comprised mostly of digressions, red herrings, and dead-ends — pockets of dead time which create the impression that the story is stalling. The stop-start rhythm, combined with the labyrinthine, Kafka-esque plotting, is very effective in capturing the affective experience of a very modern type of post-industrial alienation, with Cristi suspended between corporate, financial, and cultural currents he can never quite comprehend.

whistlers

And Porumboiu offsets the playful humour with a deeply felt undercurrent of melancholy. The Whistlers may draw on the conventions of 70s/early-80s paranoid thrillers such as The Conversation, Blow-Out, and The Parallax View, but it pointedly upends the models of its predecessors. In The Whistlers, the surveillance network is not a grand, hidden organization — it is open, sprawling, and participatory. There is no single villainous organization behind the shady dealings exhibited in the film, but rather a vast series of various organizations employing digital surveillance devices to suit their own interests. Behind every revelation only lies another question, an endless rabbit hole of conspiracies and deceptions.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 28, 2019, as part of our coverage of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. The Whistlers is now available on VOD.

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Ken Loach’s ‘Sorry We Missed You’ is a Searing Look at the Underclass

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Sorry We Missed You Review Cannes

At first glance, Sorry We Missed You may appear to be merely a re-tread of Loach’s 2016 Palme d’Or winner; both films focus on the steady downfall of a struggling everyman unable to break out of a declining spiral of economic destitution, victimized by the structures of post-Fordist capitalism that systematically exploits the underclass. As if to heighten the connection, the opening of Loach’s new project is nearly identical to I, Daniel Blake’s — simple white-on-black credits play silently over the dialogue of the protagonist who is answering a series of inexplicably convoluted questions to a dispassionate official. In the earlier film, the scene is revealed to be Daniel applying for disability benefits; here it is Ricky (Kris Hitchen) applying for a zero-hour position as a white van delivery driver.

Ricky lost his long-term construction job in the 2008 financial crash, and has been hopping between low-paid temporary gigs ever since. As a result of his job insecurity and ever-mounting debts, Ricky was forced to put a hold on purchasing a house with his doting wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood). The two now rent a string of properties with their two children: wayward teenager Seb (Rhys Stone), and the precocious Liza Jane (Katie Proctor).

The prospect of delivery driving for a corporate package distribution company thus seems immediately appealing to Rick. He is told that he can act as his own boss, choose his own hours, and (if he works hard enough) make a substantially larger profit than he’d earn in conventional employment. However, complications soon arise. Ricky is informed that he will essentially be working as a freelancer, and the size of his paycheck will depend entirely on the number of orders that are made to the company. In order to begin, he must rent his own van, priced at a hefty £14,000 — to be paid in £400 monthly installments and accompanied by an initial £1000 deposit.

Sorry We Missed You Len LoachThe position is, therefore, a huge gamble; if it works out well, it means that Ricky will finally be granted an easy ticket out of economic ruin, but if it doesn’t, the safety net offered by traditional, salaried employment will not be in place to prevent his family from being plunged further into the poorhouse. Ricky’s misplaced faith in meritocracy, leads him to gleefully accept the offer, persuading Jane to sell her car to raise the upfront fees.

It doesn’t take Ricky long to realize his mistake. The pressure is enormous, the hours are long, and the work is demeaning (he is treated with brazen disrespect by most of the customers he delivers packages to, and is forced to urinate in a plastic water bottle to prevent wasting time with a bathroom break). These factors increasingly give rise to conflicts which fracture the family unit. Without her car, Abbie is forced to take long journeys on public transportation to get to her freelance care jobs, leaving her with nearly no time to spend with her children; meanwhile, Seb becomes disenfranchised with the seeming hopelessness of the work-a-day adult world, and, in lieu of proper guidance, is swayed towards juvenile delinquency, transforming the formerly warm young man into a hot-tempered brute. The ratcheting tensions also cause havoc with Liza Jane’s bourgeoning anxiety issues.

The gradual build-ups of these familial confrontations serve as a sophisticated exploration of the ways in which the political shapes the personal, and the horrific effects financial strain can wreak on intimate relationships. In many ways, Sorry We Missed You feels like Loach’s riff on Fassbinder’s great I Only Want You To Love Me, a sorrowful intimate epic in which a working-class marriage is eroded by the pressures of mounting debts. Like Fassbinder, Loach fiercely attacks the notion of a society which positions personal wealth as the measure of human worth, imbuing a seemingly mundane narrative with a mounting sense of tension which violently explodes in the film’s bravura final act.

Ken Loach Sorry We Missed You Cannes Film Festival

The nuanced, multifaceted portrayal of the British working class elevates Sorry We Missed You far above the overly schematic Blake, which flattens its characters into one-dimensional figures of angelic warmth in an attempt to heighten the tragedy of their victimization at the hands of the state. While the rose-tinted Blake willfully overlooks the ugly behaviour that is fostered by squalid social conditions, Sorry To Miss You illustrates the ways in which the insidious forces of the predatory capitalism infect every aspect of daily life, transforming well-meaning men into monsters and turning family members against one another. Seeing a family been torn apart from the inside by their allegiance to an unjust system that they rely on simply to survive is far more heart-wrenching than seeing a few unrecognizable, good-natured figures pitted against a string of anonymous corporate boogeymen.

Ricky and Abbie allow their personal lives fall to pieces through their total commitment to their work, but they are not motivated by greed; instead, theirs is a simple need to sustain the basic elements of living — food, water, shelter. No matter how hard they work, however, Ricky and Abbie will never truly reap the material benefits of their labour. This is a true reflection of the struggles facing working-class families, and a far cry from the jejune sentiments of Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, which suggests that the problem with modern capitalism is that it encourages shallow rich kids to want too many iPhones.

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The dehumanizing effect of the contemporary working world is a key theme here, realized more fully than it was in Blake. Ricky is forced to carry around a portable scanner which tallies the number of deliveries he has made each day, and uses this information to set increasingly high targets that he must hit if he wants to maintain his position. The company that employs Ricky, of course, refuses to see him as an individual rather than a machine to generate profit. When he asks for a few days away from work to cope with his crumbling familial situation, he is not only denied, but threatened with a sanction — a scare tactic employed to pummel Ricky into submission.

This is a damn vital subject, and one which calls for the tone of righteous anger of Sorry We Missed You rather than the subdued black comedy of I, Daniel Blake. The sense of measured distance that was the dominant mode of Loach’s twilight era has thankfully been abandoned here, as he instead plunges us with full force into the visceral desperation — the searing anxiety and the pain of living in hardship — while conjuring the most arresting images of his career. Many sequences towards the latter part of the film are excruciating in their visualization of abject humiliation, yet never feel exploitative or manipulative.  

  • James Slaymaker

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 17, 2019, as part of our coverage of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.

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Cannes 2019 Round-Up: The Best and Worst of the Fest

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best of Cannes Film Festival

“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

Cannes Film Festival

  1. A Hidden Life

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.

best of Cannes Film Festival

  1. 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.

Liberté

  1. Liberté

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.

Mektoub

Worst of the Cannes Film Festival

  1. 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.

Young Ahmed

  1. Young Ahmed

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.

Too Old to Die Young

  1. Too Old to Die Young

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:

  1. A Hidden Life
  2. The Halt
  3. Liberté
  4. Tommaso
  5. Atlantics
  6. Sorry We Missed You
  7. Parasite
  8. The Wild Goose Lake
  9. The Whistlers
  10. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  11. The Swallows of Kabul
  12. The Lighthouse
  13. Oh Mercy!
  14. The Climb
  15. Family Romance, LLC
  16. Beanpole
  17. Pain and Glory
  18. The Traitor
  19. The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily
  20. Little Joe
  21. Bull
  22. Lux Æterna
  23. Matthias & Maxime
  24. The Dead Don’t Die
  25. Once in Trubchevsk
  26. Too Old to Die Young
  27. Young Ahmed
  28. Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo

The 72nd Cannes Film Festival runs May 14, 2019 – May 25, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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