When I saw the results of the 2019 Cannes Jury judging process I was pleasantly surprised by what appear to be some interesting and seemingly well-supported decisions. Here are the main awards for 2019:
Palme d’Or: Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho (South Korea)
Grand Prix: Atlantique, dir. Mati Diop (France-Senegal-Belgium)
Jury Prize (tie): Les Misérables (dir. Ladj Ly, France) and Bacurau (dirs. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles, Brazil-France)
Best Actress: Emily Beecham, Little Joe, (dir. Jessica Hausner, Austria-UK-Germany)
Best Actor: Antonio Banderas, Dolor y gloria (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
Best Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, (Le jeune Ahmed, Belgium-France)
Best Screenplay: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, Céline Sciamma (dir. Céline Sciamma, France)
Special Mention of the Jury: It Must Be Heaven, dir. Elia Suleiman (France-Qatar-Germany-Canada-Turkey-Palestine)
I haven’t seen any of the films, but I am familiar with most of the directors and the two actors in the list and on that basis I’m very happy with the results.
But the main question is how do these results affect the way Cannes as a festival is judged? The second question is what happens to these titles now? How many of them will be shown in the UK and how long will they take to get here?
I’ll deal with the most dispiriting news first – which both feeds a current debate and dismays me as a filmgoer. The film I perhaps most want to see is Atlantique and I’ve already seen a tweet suggesting that it has been sold to Netflix. What this actually means is not clear as the film appears to have a French theatrical distributor. France seems to handle this much better than the UK. I want to see the film in a cinema and I want a DVD I can use for teaching. Will this be a similar case to Roma? Possibly not but Mati Diop is the first black woman to win a prize at Cannes as a director and that ought to generate some interest even in the UK market. I remember Ms Diop as an actor in the wonderful Claire Denis film 35 rhums (France 2008) and as the director of a short 16 mins version of Atlantique released in 2009.
The prize for Atlantique is also noteworthy in the recognition of female filmmakers at Cannes. Alongside Mati Diop, Céline Sciamma has won the script prize for a film she has also directed and Jessica Hausner has directed the film which produced the best female performance by Emily Beecham. I’ve already seen comments that though these results are welcome, why have no women won best director or the Palme d’Or since Jane Campion in 1993? Several commentators have also noted that women have won the script prize for the last three years (Lynne Ramsay in 2017, Alice Rohrwacher in 2018), each time for a film they have also directed. Is there a reluctance to award them best picture or best director? I understand all these points and I’d like to see a much more even share of prizes as recognition of women’s creativity and skill in the film industry. But it’s going to take time to improve the the number of Cannes screenings of films by women. The whole enterprise could backfire if the overall quality of entries was affected by attempts to ‘fast track’ particular writers/directors. The juries have become much more diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation and nationality but perhaps more does need to be done in the selection process for film titles to go into competition? Overall I think Cannes is making progress.
What else is notable in these results? East Asia wins the Palme d’Or again, this time an overdue win for South Korea and Bong Joon-ho. I have been a big fan, but not able to see his last two films because they haven’t had a proper release in UK cinemas. Parasite has been acquired by Curzon, which means it won’t play in Bradford but I should be able to see it in Manchester. I’m also a fan of Céline Sciamma, the Dardenne Brothers and Elia Suleiman (bravo for a Palestinian filmmaker getting recognition). Curzon has also picked up the Céline Sciamma film – and the intriguing Romanian title The Whistlers set on the tiny island of La Gomera in the Canaries. I haven’t yet seen who has acquired Le jeune Ahmed or It Must Be Heaven for the UK.
Jessica Hausner is the Austrian director who directed Lourdes (2009) which won prizes at Venice. That film was in French and she has also made features in German and now English. Little Joe, a UK co-production, stars Emily Beecham, winner of the best female performance prize. She is mainly known as a TV actor in the UK but I remember her performance in Daphne (UK 2017). I didn’t like that film for several reasons but I was impressed by Emily Beecham’s lead performance so I’m looking forward to Little Joe. The film attracted some BBC funding which means that we should see it in UK cinemas. As an SF/horror film about biotechnology it should find a UK audience.
The other two prizes offer contrasting stories. Antonio Banderas playing an ageing gay film director for Pedro Almodóvar is guaranteed a strong UK reception surely – even during the Brexit madness? The film is distributed in different territories by Sony, Warner Bros. and Pathé but I’m not sure who will bring it to the UK. The final prize (the Jury Prize) is split between the Brazilian film by two directors who collaborated on Aquarius in 2016 (and Neighbouring Sounds in 2012) and the updated version of Les Misérables by Ladj Ly. This last title is a début fiction feature by a black documentarist from the Paris banlieues. It certainly sounds like something I would want to see and which again should find a UK market. Selecting the film also highlights one of the other questions that always hangs around Cannes.
Cannes is a French festival but is it too focused on French films? Looking down the list of prize-winners it seems clear that if you are a filmmaker from anywhere else in the world, you are best advised to at least consider a French co-production deal as a way of getting a Cannes competition screening. Only US or UK films (because of their financial muscle/market importance) or films from securely established auteurs like Almodóvar stand much chance otherwise. This year the Americans have really suffered with Terence Malick winning only a minor prize and Quentin Tarantino ignored altogether. I’m not going to try to analyse why that is. It’s good of course that French support for East Asian directors has brought further recognition for Bong Joon-ho following on from Kore-eda Hirokazu last year. Asian titles always seem to get more support in Paris than in London and it’s no surprise that, following Asghar Farhadi, Kore-eda has now made a film in France, The Truth (2019) with Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. I think this might appear at Venice? But Cannes still struggles to showcase Indian film industries – something arguably more a problem caused by institutional failures in those industries rather than the festival itself?
We’ll try to see as many of these 2019 Cannes titles as possible in a cinema. I hope the London, Leeds and Glasgow festival programmers will bring them to us even if they don’t all get UK releases.
Fans of ‘reel’ films gathered in Rochester New York State for the George Eastman Museum fifth Nitrate Picture Show. It is a trek, though the train journey is very scenic. And where else can you see a whole programme of the format on which film emerged, as used by Thomas Edison and the Lumière Brothers. The Museum is well appointed. The Dryden auditorium is well designed, comfortable and the sight lines are good. The staff and volunteers are friendly and knowledgeable. And the projection team are expert in a set of skills that, sadly, are becoming rare.
The programme has now settled into a standard order. It is revealed on Friday morning. You have to be prepared to take the films on trust. And one title, the last, is [rather coyly] hidden as a ‘Blind Date’ with a tantalising single frame to set you guessing over the intervening two days.
Friday afternoon commences with talks by experienced archivists on nitrate; ‘Keepers of the Flame’. This year enjoyed David Russell from the Imperial War Museum and Elaine Burroughs who worked at the British Film Institute and also for FIAF. This offers the opportunity to learn more about nitrate, archiving, preservation and the occasional hazards of the work.
The first set of titles are the shorts, including documentaries, newsreels or travelogues and animation.
Two of the latter offered particular pleasures, both in Technicolor, a system whose vibrant colours have an extra sheen in nitrate.
Tulips Shall Grow was war-time animation, (USA 1942), from the hand of George Pals. The print and the Technicolor were in fine condition in a Library of Congress print. The plot involves a young Dutch couple who suffer when the ‘army of Screwballs’ invade. But ‘Mother Nature’ provides a catalyst for resistance and victory over the invaders.
The Cobweb Hotel (USA 1936) was a delightful animation with a far more sardonic tone from David Fleischer provided by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Flies, including a honeymoon couple, battle to escape the malevolent designs of a spider.
The early evening programme was Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930). The screening was from a George Eastman print which they acquired from the legendary Henri Langlois and it was in reasonable condition. This is an undoubted classic and a fine example of surrealist film. It is longer and more complex than Un Chien Andalu (1929), partly because it has both title cards and recorded dialogue, plus recorded music and effects. Sex, violence, satire, subversion and sardonic humour engage one for just over an hour. I especially like the giraffe flying out a window, the cow on the bed, and a familiar figure with hitherto suppressed biography.
The evening ended with The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949). This was the last major title directed by Preston Sturges in Hollywood. The print from the Museum of Modern Art was in good shape and the Technicolor format offered bold and vivid colours. The ‘Blonde’ (Betty Grable) is a western ‘sure shot’ whose main problem is her unfaithful boyfriend Blackie (Caesar Romero). The action tends to slapstick but is done with real panache. The climatic sequence is a lengthy gun battle full of witty visuals.
Saturday morning opened with the 1947 Nightmare Alley. This was a print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It was a pleasure to watch. Generally seen as a film noir the film lacks the flashbacks and confessional mode of the genre. And the femme fatale in this story is an overweening ambition embodied in fake spiritualist Stanton ‘Stan’ (Tyrone Power). The film was directed by Edmund Goulding, a Hollywood talent who deserves greater recognition. This film also has fine black and white cinematography by Lee Garmes.
The afternoon started with a short film by Arne Sucksdorff from the Swedish Film Institute / Svenska Film Institute, Strandhugg (1950). The print was in excellent shape and Sucksdorff’s films offer fine black and white cinematography; here with poetic sequences of the seaside.
The feature in this session came from the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland; People of the Summer Night (Ihmiset suviyössä, 1948) was directed by Valentin Vaala. Set over one night in a small rural community we watch various relationships and actions among local people; these include birth, death, and conflicts fuelled by alcohol. There also seems to be a implicit gay character. The cinematography by Eino Heino is excellent. The film offers a ‘warm-hearted and sensitive’ evocation of the ordinary but compressed for dramatic purposes.
Late afternoon offered a Cinecolor western, The Nevadan (1950). Cinecolor was a two colour subtraction system, cheaper and quicker to process than Technicolor. Not that many features were filmed in the process which offered especially vibrant orange, red, blue and green. The film has a typical Randolph Scott hero. Upright and stalwart, he outmanoeuvres and outguns the villains led by George Macready. And there is the young Dorothy Malone, not just a romantic interest, but involved in the action. The print from the Austrian Film Museum had quite a lot of scratches and noticeable splices but the colour was excellent.
Rebecca (1940) was a George Eastman print in pretty good condition. There is some fine cinematography by George Barnes and a great score by Franz Waxman. I find that the first part of the film is really good as we encounter [through the eyes and ears of the unnamed heroine) the dead titular character. But once the past is revealed I think the film becomes less interesting and dynamic. The screening included a set of screen tests with Joan Fontaine, Nova Pilbeam and Anne Baxter. This demonstrated how apt was the casting of John Fontaine.
The Sunday opened with a classic film noir, Dead Reckoning (1947). This was a Library of Congress print with signs of wear, both on the emulsion and on the sound track. However, it still showed off the qualities of this black and white film. The movie has all the characteristics of a noir thriller; the confessional mode, flashbacks, the world of chaos into which the hero falls, night and chiaroscuro and a femme fatale. But I did not find it had a strong noir feel. This is mainly because the fatale, ‘Dusty’ (Lizabeth Scott] seems more like the scheming female of private eye films such as The Maltese Falcon. And Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Rip’ is in the mould of the same private eye.
The afternoon offered a John Barrymore film, Counsellor at Law (1933), finely directed in an adaptation from Elmer Rice’s play by William Wyler. The print was from the UCLA Film and Television Archives in very good condition. The early sound track apparently needed adjustment from time to time by the projectionists. Barrymore is excellent as a shyster Lawyer George Simon, originally from the Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. The film [and play] follow his Machiavellian manoeuvres when a past case returns to haunt him. The pace and the dialogue are crisp and sharp; Isabel Jewell as telephonist Bessie is a delight. And there is one memorable scene when Simon agrees to defend the son of an old Jewish neighbour, Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman). Harry is a communist and in a terrific sequence turns on Simon who he denounces as a class traitor. Even though this is pre-code Harry later dies from injuries sustained from the New York police.
Then to Blind Date. This year the title was worth a wait, Gone to Earth (1950). The clue was a shot of the wedding cake after Hazel’s (Jennifer Jones) marriage to the Reverend Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). In the adaptation of a novel by Mary Webb Hazel, is caught between the religious but liberal Edward and the sexy but brutal Squire ‘Jack’ (David Farrar). Rather than a triangle this is a square, including Foxy, a young vixen [unfortunate not credited]. Jennifer Jones is miscast as this wild country spirit but she gives her performance real panache. Cusack is grave and convincing and Farrar probably had the female audience swooning with desire. The print was from the George Eastman Museum, a donation by the Selznick family. Fortunately it was the British print not the shorter US version titled The Wild Heart. The directors were those idiosyncratic romantics, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
So this was a rewarding weekend filled full of cinematic pleasures. The organisers and volunteers got a deserved ovation at one point. And, in a habit that is distinctive to George Eastman, the audience were also invited to applaud the projectionists who work overtime to presents these old and often delicate prints.
Punters who would like to see a whole programme of the original cinema format should note that next year the Picture Show Weekend is later, June 4th to 7th 2020. We were advised that Yuri Tsivian is on a mission for the Museum scouring European Archives for Nitrate Prints. Perhaps Dziga Vertov, Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir?
This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.
There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:
For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.
Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:
It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.
The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:
The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.
The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.
In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.
The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.
I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.
I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.
Alanis is an unusual study of a sex worker, presented mainly as a kind of social realist ‘prostitution procedural’. We experience what happens to Alanis, a 25 year-old in Buenos Aires with Dante her 18 month old infant still fed at his mother’s breast. Alanis works out of an apartment she shares with Gisela, an older woman who acts as a madam and a carer for the boy. The exact working relationship between the two women hasn’t yet been made clear when local agents, police and a social worker arrive and effectively eject Alanis and Dante from the apartment and arrest Gisela. We then follow what happens to Alanis and Dante.
Argentinian law seems to prosecute brothel-keeping but tolerates individual acts of selling sex. The procedures explored in the film are mainly concerned withthe raid, some of the practices of street prostitution and something of the arrangements in a brothel. Alanis is devoted to her son and her work is to some extent humanised by Dante’s care arrangements. The film features two contrasting scenes with clients, the second of which does move away from social realism to an expressionist representation of the sheer hard work of trying to satisfy a client. This scene is shot in from specific angles in a hotel bedroom in such a way that doesn’t feel exploitative and certainly not erotic, but it is certainly wearing – for the viewer and for Alanis herself. In other scenes social realism conventions are also undermined by camerawork which often frames action in uncomfortable ways –with Alanis seen through doorways or in mirrors. There is also frequent use of shallow focus in which Alanis moves very close to the camera with backgrounds increasingly blurred. Again this seems to consciously undermine the fetishisation of female bodies on screen. We get to see Alanis in big close-ups often with Dante at her breast. Those strange people who are offended by the sight of breast-feeding might find this very shocking.
There isn’t much in the way of narrative drive in the film, only the details of how Alanis will find somewhere to stay and ways to find the money to keep herself and Dante and there isn’t a conventional narrative resolution. The film must be carried by Sofía Gala as Alanis. In a sense I was relieved to discover after the screening that Dante is played by Ms Gala’s own son. As one reviewer noted, the emotional attachment is there on the screen and there is the possibility that later in life mother and son will look back with affection on their portrayal. The film is written and directed by Anahí Berneri. This is her fifth film and she has been winning prizes at international festivals since 2005. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across her before. Alanis won her the best director prize at San Sebastian International Festival and at Havana in 2017. Sofía Gala also won acting prizes for the film.
The links to social realism in the film come through the everyday presentation of the streets of Buenos Aires, the presentation of the characters Alanis meets and the few details we glean from her accounts of her background as a girl from a provincial town. Alanis is not her real name and there is a nice joke when someone asks if she was named after that pop star ‘Morrissey’. If the film overall isn’t social realist it is definitely ‘humanist’ in its depiction of a world and the people in it. As another reviewer points out, what is noticeable is that Alanis never feels sorry for herself and never complains. She simply gets on with the task of looking after Dante and herself. She isn’t ashamed of what she does. We get the impression that she sees sex work simply as work.
I’m not sure I ‘enjoyed’ Alanis but I was never bored (it’s a short film at 82 minutes). I was very impressed by the central performance and by the writing and direction. I’m not sure my feelings about prostitution have been changed one way or the other. This isn’t a ‘social message’ film but, as in all good humanist films, I feel grateful to have got to know a character like Alanis. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Anahí Berneri and anything featuring Sofía Gala. The trailer below doesn’t have English subs but gives an idea of the style of the film.