Cannes 2014: Jemma's blog

Posted on May 29, 2014 by Jemma Desai

Categories: Festival Reports

This year, opinion seems to be that this years Cannes provided a solid but unexceptional selection, but for me it was an experience that was full of ideas that helped me to better understand the importance of arthouse cinema beyond the Croisette.

Cannes is an old master of the film world. It oozes glamour, trash and gravitas in equal measure. Like an old master, it can easily feel out of step with the real world. Spending ten nights in the crazy pressure cooker that is Cannes, where so many big decisions about the films that will find their way to more screens (either through festival selection or distribution),or disappear never to be seen again, is an odd experience, a kind of battle to stay sharp and keen and remember why you are here in the first place. As a colleague eloquently put it, watching films here you fight to get in, you fight to get out, and in between you fight to stay awake.

I started to think a lot about the way that we watch films,and how that changes our experience of cinema. I watched films at 8.30 in the morning, and others at 10.30 at night after three in the day and a drinks reception in the middle. I watched films in market screenings with people coming in and leaving as they pleased, I watched films on the wrong side of the Soixantime, where you can hear the sound of the wind and rain lashing outside but also in the majestic and unbeatable Grand Theatre Lumiere. I watched films with old friends and colleagues and made new friends waiting for others. Each separate context was part of my experience and analysis of the film and made me think about the various and wonderful ways that we can watch and engage with cinema in real life, and why those different experiences are all important and equally valid.

Still the Water
Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water

For me cinema is important because of the range and diversity of voices and worlds that it allows you to access. In amongst the giants and old masters whose films I saw and loved like Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery and the Dardenne brothers, Two Days and one Night and the plethora of films I watched that will only ever be seen in a festival context, I saw three things that I felt really captured the urgency and vitality of contemporary arthouse cinema and its importance beyond Cannes. All three of these titles will prove a trial for UK distributors from a commercial point of view for various reasons, but all three represent a glorious, relevant and exciting experience for audiences and a challenge which I as a programmer am passionate to take on.

Every year before Cannes, a huge debate is ignited about thedearth of female representation in the programme, and most notably in thecompetition. This year, for the first time, the Cannes jury was made up more womenthan men and the jury president was the only woman to ever be awarded the PalmedOr, Jane Campion. Additionally, there were two female filmmakers in the maincompetition. While both Naomi Kawases Stillthe Water and Alice Rohrwachers TheWonders were beautiful coming of age tales that were accomplished, poeticand stunningly realised pieces of filmmaking, they were films that sat quitecomfortably in the within the Cannes tradition. It was an altogether grittierfilm that invigorated me at the very beginning of the festival.

Bande de Filles
Celine Schiamma’s Bande de filles, which was picked up by Studiocanal for UK distribution

Celine Schiamma’s Bande de filles or Girlhood turned the camera into the internal world of a group of girls whose presence on the Croisette was a noisy and startlingly welcome jolt. The film follows a gang of young women of colour- a section of society rarely explored in French cinema – living in the impoverished outskirts of Paris. Never shying away from the limited options and complex impulses represented by their lives, Schiamma’s biggest achievement is her ability to infuse this subject matter with unadulterated moments of joy. A dance sequence with the girls getting drunk in stolen party dresses while lipsyncing to Rhianna’s Diamonds is heartbreakingly euphoric and was one of my cinematic highlights of the festival. Studiocanal have acquired this for the UK, and I cannot wait for audiences to see it.

Another reality check came at the very beginning of the festival when one of the female jury members Leila Hatami, who starred in the 2012 foreign language Oscar-winner A Separation, was greeted by the festivals president, Gilles Jacob, at the opening ceremony with a very Cannes welcome – a kiss on the cheek. Hizbollah Students, a group of university pupils with links to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, immediately denounced her with a statement declaring “the action of this film star has hurt the religious sentiments of the proud and martyrs breeding nation of Iran and as such we also demand the punishment of flogging for her as stipulated in the law.” This startling news made me view Abderrahame Sissako’s Timbuktu, the competition entry set in the west-African state of Mali, which has been taken over by Islamic jihadists, from a new perspective. Sissako’s depiction of the day-to-day cruelties of living under such a regime, seemed a million miles away from the freedom of expression enjoyed by attendees at a festival that privileges artistic expression above all else, yet the events surrounding the screening proved these brutalities to be a very real concern for one of its most prestigious guests. I have not yet heard of UK distribution for this quietly assured and accomplished piece of work, but it feels like an urgent piece of filmmaking for international audiences.

Timbuktu by Abderrahame Sissako

One of my final films of the festival was the jubilant Mommy, Xavier Dolan’s fifth feature. A Cannes favourite (having played films in Directors Fortnight and Un Certain Regard previously), 25-year-old Dolan’s fifth feature finally made it into the main competition with a style all of its own, stomping all over that red carpet like it owned the place (Dolan himself was charmingly shy, nervous and tearful). The film was a personal favourite of mine for various reasons (the complex female characters;the self-referential, personal style; the use of music), but its wider significance is I think about the youth and vitality of arthouse cinema that his films represent. At the festival press conference that morning, Dolan had said “there might be a proper age to know how to tell a story, but there’s no proper age to start telling them,” and this truly was a film full of ideas and experimentation, it literally pushed the boundaries of the Lumieres prestigious screen.

Mommy by Xavier Dolan

Shooting mostly in a 1:1 ratio (a square) that reflects the Instagram dimensions of contemporary social interaction, Dolan hurls open the aspect ratio at keypoints in the film (to the awed delight of the audience). Watching the film in the Grand Theatre Lumiere with Selina was a moment I’ll remember forever.  It was the only red carpet screening I went to this year and beyond the delights of getting dressed up and taking failed selfies at the top of the red carpet (Selina and I are rubbish at selfies), it felt like I was watching something really exciting unfold and I am delighted that Metrodome have acquired it for the UK.

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