CANNES, France — What often makes the great film festivals of the world so important isn't just the artistic achievements they unveil, but the snapshot they provide of glaring societal issues bubbling to the surface of our everyday lives.
For example, the Sundance Film Festival is often at the tipping point of America's latest progressive battle, whether it deals with the environment, civil rights, or Wall Street. But Cannes, which selects movies from all over the globe, tends to reflect a more expansive worldview. And what’s been striking this year is just how many of its films deal with growing anger over income inequality, whether they're Brazilian, Romanian, from the UK or the good ol’ USA.
The most blatant and commercial example is Jodie Foster’s Money Monster (read Vox's review of the film here). The George Clooney and Julia Roberts thriller debuted out of competition, and while it touches on growing frustration, it certainly is not the most effective at addressing it.
Ken Loach, in contrast, earned rave reviews for his British drama I, Daniel Blake, which centers on a 59-year-old craftsman (Dave Johns) who is battling to keep his welfare benefits even though a medical condition prevents him from working. Of course, this is familiar territory for Loach, a former Palme d’Or winner who has made a career of tackling the tales of the disenfranchised. It’s actually the more unexpected depictions of economic disparity that are truly resonating throughout the festival.
Aquarius and Hell or High Water address affordable housing and homeowners' rights
During the world premiere of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, the cast and crew held signs protesting the current Brazilian government, both on the red carpet and inside the theater; their anger is palatable in the film itself. Aquarius centers on Dona Clara (Sonia Braga), a 65-year-old widow and respected journalist who is currently the last resident of her condominium building, a beachfront property that new owners are increasingly impatient to redevelop.
Dona’s journey to protect her rights touches on government corruption, class prejudice, and overt racism. (One powerful moment finds the young project manager congratulating her for her success in spite of her darker complexion.) The picture will earn deserved Oscar buzz for Braga, but more importantly, its story will be relatable to many people who are dealing with overzealous landlords or developers across the world.
The fight for homeowners’ rights is also a key plot point of David Mackenzie’s fantastic Hell or High Water, a thriller CBS Films will release in August. Ostensibly a chase movie, it follows a Texas ranger (Jeff Bridges) on the verge of retirement as he attempts to figure out why two robbers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) are hitting only select branches of one particular bank. To reveal more would spoil the drama, but it’s a smart way of incorporating mortgage lender corruption in an unexpected context.
Hell or High Water also touches on the economic hardships faced by many in Western Texas who simply do not believe they will ever find their way to a better future, let alone the comfortable middle class. (Katy Mixon is heartbreaking as a waitress who refuses to hand over a $200 tip left by Pine's character because it’s the only way she can pay her rent.) The film is not overtly political in any way, but the small-town characters are the fuel of the anti-establishment anger on display in the current presidential contest.
American Honey examines poverty all across the United States
The most obvious film at Cannes about the underclass of the United States, in particular, is Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (read more about the film in our earlier Cannes coverage here). In the first scene of the beautifully filmed drama, Star (newcomer Sasha Lane) is picking out food that she hopes is still edible from a dumpster with the two kids she’s been suckered into taking care of. Eventually she "escapes" that hell to the not-so-greener pastures of a sales crew of late-teen and early 20-somethings who travel the country peddling magazine subscriptions.
As Star quickly learns, the group really isn't selling periodicals but a story that convinces people to give them money. They travel by van from one city to another, sleeping in crappy motels and spending their days going door to door in hopes of selling a $40 to $60 "subscription."
While much of the film feels improvised (and some of the dialogue is), Arnold did a large amount of research traveling across the country and spending time with real crews to give American Honey a legitimacy that's hard to argue with. That realism extends to cast of American Honey as well; many of them, like Lane, are nonprofessional actors who have either experienced this transient lifestyle themselves or have struggled to keep themselves afloat.
Bacalaureat and Toni Erdmann highlight economic disparity in Romania
Two of this year's films concentrate on economic issues in Romania.
Cristian Mungiu’s Bacalaureat (which is also being released under the translated title of Graduation) focuses on Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), a respected doctor who's desperate to make sure his daughter (Maria Dragus) passes her final exams so she can collect a scholarship to attend a university in Great Britain. Aldea returned to Romania after the fall of the communist regime and often remarks that his generation couldn’t change the corruption in the country; he wants his daughter to seek better opportunities abroad.
This year’s expected Palme d’Or winner, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, is primarily about a father (Peter Simonischek) attempting to open the eyes of his 30-something workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a woman who is drowning in a job she hates in Bucharest, Romania. A schoolteacher, he’s disheartened to discover that her senior position at a respected consulting firm basically has her formulating different scenarios to help her client lay off skilled workers and find cheaper workers elsewhere.
When he accompanies her to an offsite visit, he’s horrified to discover that one comical exchange he has with a employee gets the employee immediately fired — an event that Ines punctuates by bluntly revealing that the employee would have been laid off anyway.
Granted, Cannes clearly took full advantage of the current political environment by programming these films this year. What’s especially revealing is that many of them were in development for the past three to five years, when the world was seemingly preoccupied with other, more pressing issues. Considering the age of Donald Trump in America and a visceral anger and distrust of most financial institutions around the world, you can just imagine the stories filmmakers will screen at Cannes next year.