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Cannes 2017: how the world’s biggest, glitziest film festival dealt with political unrest

Escaping politics is impossible, even at a film festival. The movies took a big-picture approach.

120 Beats Per Minute is about AIDS activists in the 1990s.
120 Beats Per Minute is about AIDS activists in the 1990s.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

The Cannes Film Festival celebrated its 70th birthday this year under a cloud of global political unrest — a state of affairs that was hard to ignore at the fest, with the presence of machine gun-toting soldiers on the red carpet among the tuxedos and ballgowns, and the extraordinary security measures required to just enter a movie theater (one or two bag checks, plus both walk-through and wand metal detectors). One evening, a bomb threat sent thousands of disgruntled people into the streets as the Palais des Festivals was evacuated.

Early in the festival, the news of the Trump administration’s ongoing corruption scandal would start breaking in mid-afternoon, as the US East Coast was waking up, and continue late into the night. And though the time difference and lack of ready wifi access at Cannes made it easy to sink into the cocoon of cinema and glamour and ignore the shenanigans stateside, Monday night’s suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, and the resulting heightened state of alert, was a wake-up call. The festival observed a moment of silence in honor of the Manchester victims at 3 pm on Tuesday. On Friday, the flags on the Palais des Festivals were still flying at half-mast even as news broke of gunmen in Egypt killing 23 Coptic Christians.

Meanwhile, news of an assault on a reporter by a GOP candidate for Congress — who won the election anyway — floated across the Atlantic, while the theatrics of Trump’s international trip and NATO meetings kept up its steady drumbeat.

'The Beguiled' Red Carpet Arrivals - The 70th Annual Cannes Film Festival
The cast of The Beguiled on the Cannes red carpet.
Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images

But the show goes inexorably on. The red-carpet premieres and late-night parties continued, with high-powered movie executives, investors, and power players wheeling and dealing in the hotels and cabanas that ring the Croisette, the main drag in Cannes. Hopeful moviegoers, with signs begging for tickets, stood in eveningwear outside theater entrances. Critics sprinted from screening to screening, then stood in queues in the midday sun. And the rosé kept flowing.

Yet in the actual theaters in Cannes, the anxious world’s worries were being quietly but relentlessly plumbed.

Films at festivals (even the ones still being edited in the days leading up to their premiere) are inherently unsuited to addressing very recent political events, because a film usually takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months to make, and often a lot longer. And that’s usually good; the space afforded by time can make for a clearer, more interesting retelling of events. (One of the best films in competition and the Grand Prix winner, Robin Campillo’s 120 Beats Per Minute — about Parisian anti-AIDS activists in the early 1990s — clearly gained potency and clarity from the 25 years since its events transpired.)

But that doesn’t mean today’s politics are absent at the festival. On the contrary; this year’s Cannes selections frequently addressed — sometimes obliquely, sometimes not — the deep divisions and anxieties that are keeping people around the world up at night.

And the consensus from Cannes was clear: The various frictions that have the world on edge come from our inability to deal with political, cultural, and linguistic barriers, and our discomfort when we brush up against the unfamiliar. This was explicitly the topic of the Palme d’Or winner, The Square, but it was evident everywhere you looked. Often these concerns were dressed up as stories about dysfunctional families; sometimes they were just horror films.

Two concerns related to immigration — borders and language — factored heavily in films at Cannes

Immigration, as well as the refugee crisis, is clearly on the minds of European filmmakers. The best of the Cannes films engaging with those topics is Michael Haneke’s Happy End, a chilling tale of a wealthy family whose blindness to their privilege — and to the immigrants in their hometown of Calais, where one of Europe’s biggest migrant crises has been going on for years — has turned them into monsters. Instead of playing up this angle, Haneke elects to bury it, reminding those seated in the comfortable theater how easy it is to overlook what’s going on around us.

Jupiter’s Moon, from the Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, tells the story of a young Syrian immigrant who experiences a traumatic event while trying to escape into Hungary, only to discover that he now can levitate. That unexpected turn of events gives him power not typically given to refugees, which challenges both him and the Hungarian doctor who makes it his mission to care for the young man.

A similar theme surfaces in Palme d’Or winner The Square, from Swedish director Ruben Östlund. Claes Bang plays Christian, a curator at a modern art museum who’s in the midst of preparing for the opening of an exhibition of a piece called “The Square.” Exhibition visitors are exhorted to step into a square on the floor, which functions as a radical space in which all inhabitants have equal rights and responsibilities. But the film skewers Christian’s performative concerns about equality, often hilariously, suggesting that social contexts tend to alter our behavior even with the best of ideals — especially when it comes to how we treat people (and in Christian’s case, immigrants) who aren’t like us.

Ruben Ostland’s The Square
Ruben Ostland’s The Square.

A highly praised virtual reality exhibition (which was available to see by invitation only) transported visitors to an immigrant crisis on a different continent: North America. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant) and shot by his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, Carne y Arena let participants step into the shoes of people fleeing Mexico over the border into the United States. The VR film is based on true accounts from people who had made the journey. The audience for Carne y Arena didn’t just see and hear the stories from the safety of a theater seat, but became, for a brief time, a participant.

That theme of borders — the artificially imposed lines that divide people and cultures from one another — was naturally an important part of all of the films at Cannes that tackled immigration. But invisible borders exist within countries too, between cultures and people with radically different perceptions of the world. Those themes were powerfully explored in two moving nonfiction road movies: Visages, Villages, which enters the lives of ordinary people in France, and Promised Land, which traces the history of America in the 20th century through the life of Elvis Presley, concluding that the latest American political turmoil has been a long time coming.

The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s wickedly women-centric take on Thomas Cullinan’s 1961 Civil War novel, fixates on two borders: the line between the American South and the North (and the Union soldier who strays too far past the line), as well as the line between man and woman, and the sorts of behavior society dictates for each.

And Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, set in Queens, New York, subtly takes on an internal border in the United States: race. Starring a stellar Robert Pattinson, the film chronicles one man’s wild night trying to break his imprisoned, mentally handicapped brother out of a heavily guarded hospital after a robbery gone wrong. But in a quiet subplot — so quiet you might miss it, if you don’t catch a pointed but apparently throwaway line — our white main characters get away with a lot because they don’t raise police suspicions, while black characters are treated entirely differently. It’s a biting critique folded into a bright, loud action movie.

Robert Pattinson in Good Time
Robert Pattinson in Good Time.

Another invisible border, but an important one, is the barrier thrown up by language — something familiar to many international Cannes attendees who find themselves stranded in a sea of French experience. (Thankfully, everyone working at the festival and at the many shops and cafes surrounding it are helpful and gracious, even for those Americans reduced to jabbing their fingers at menus to indicate what they want to eat.)

At a festival as globally focused as Cannes, language is an ever-present consideration; most films, regardless of language, are subtitled in both French and English. But language barriers were also part of the films themselves: In John Cameron Mitchell’s punk sci-fi teen romance How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Elle Fanning plays an alien (like, a literal extraterrestrial) named Zan who becomes fascinated by a human boy (Alex Sharp) and his favorite mode of communication, punk music. But though the two of them seem to speak the same language (“Take me to the punk!” Zan declares), reality isn’t quite that kind.

Okja, one of the two Netflix films playing in competition (to great controversy), featured characters twisting language and capitalizing on linguistic differences for their own ends. The limpid tragicomedy Oh Lucy!, selected to play at Critics’ Week, put language at its center, starring Shinobu Terajima as a Japanese woman who becomes enamored of her English teacher (Josh Hartnett). And Todd Haynes’s luminous Wonderstruck moved beyond spoken language altogether, with two children trying to communicate with the world despite their deafness.

Critiques were couched in stories of “politics in the first person”

In one of the most critically praised films in competition, the jury’s Grand Prix winner 120 Beats per Minute, an activist is praised at his funeral as having lived “politics in the first person.” That’s a handy shorthand for how some Cannes films addressed the stress of living among people unlike oneself, and of trying to communicate with both strangers and fellow countrymen. These films take a subtle approach, burying their ideas in stories that often mix hallmarks of the horror genre with characters belonging to dysfunctional families that function as metaphors for the global mood.

The best of these is Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, a complex tale that’s both about a miserable, disconnected couple whose son goes missing and about a loss of hope in contemporary Russia. Official news broadcasts that continually play on TVs and radios in the background contrast sharply with the atomized vacuity displayed by a number of the movie’s characters. The film also pointedly focuses on the contrasts between characters’ lavish homes and abandoned, dismantled buildings that silently tell the stories of a nation’s hopes dashed, just as we see how couples’ big hopes turn into dust in their hands. A sense of impending apocalypse hangs heavily over the whole film.

Another barnburner is Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, which unfolds at first like a series of sketches about the characters who live in a purple-painted $35-a-night motel called the “Magic Castle” down the street from Disney World. The film is held together by the hysterical antics of a kid named Mooney and her pack of young friends, as well as long-suffering hotel manager Bobby (a splendid, warm Willem Dafoe), who tries to put up with it all while keeping some kind of order. But as The Florida Project goes on, a narrative starts to form, one that chronicles with heartbreaking attention the sorts of dilemmas that poor adults and their children face in America, and the broken systems that try to cope with impossible situations.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer, from The Lobster director Yorgos Lanthimos, does this as well, with stellar results. A masterful, brutal, deeply creepy inversion of the Greek myth of Iphigenia, the film centers on a married couple (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman) and their two children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic), who live an apparently happy and ordered life, until an interloping teenager (Barry Keoghan) horrifically exposes their divisions.

Coppola’s The Beguiled revels in its makeshift family’s severely dysfunctional relationships and eventually takes a lurch toward full-on horror in externalizing those internal divisions. Haneke’s Happy End takes a similar approach. In You Were Never Really Here, a veteran and abuse survivor played by Joaquin Phoenix finds himself embroiled in a world of high-class child sex trafficking facilitated, horrifically, by the children’s own parents. And François Ozon’s ludicrously trashy thriller L’Amant Double also mixes a deadly cocktail of desire and dread, set within a massively messed-up family.

Even films that aren’t exactly horror — Okja, for instance, or Good Time — have an unhappy family at their core. One stellar example is The Meyerowitz Stories, from the auteur of dysfunctional families, Noah Baumbach. Dustin Hoffman plays the patriarch who messed up his kids through neglect and nitpicking, and as his children, Adam Sandler, Elizabeth Marvel, and Ben Stiller, struggle to live with the ongoing effects and one another.

The Meyerowitz Stories gives no answers, but does employ a great deal of humor and forbearance, which, coupled with a commitment to “politics in the first person,” may be the only reasonable response for ordinary citizens to the daily mess cooked up by global leaders.

Those brutish metaphorical patriarchs — the demands of history and the machinations of power-hungry megalomaniacs — hang heavy over the world, leaving many bruised and angry. The conclusion of Cannes 2017 is that art, and especially the cinema, offers the ability to fight back with tales of compassion, humor, catharsis, and warning.

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