This was my first trip to the French Riviera to attend the illustrious Festival de Cannes – arguably the most prestigious film festival in the world – with promises of glamour, celebrities, quality world cinema, sunshine, and fancy parties all awaiting. The allure of the festival – mythologised as I expected facets of it to be – was something I’d looked forward to experiencing for a really long time.
When an idea has been long built-up in your mind it often culminates in disappointment, but this was not the case with my first trip to Cannes. Buzzing and wide-eyed for the whole five days I was there, I appreciated every second of it; including all the festivals’ fascinating and seemingly logic-defying idiosyncrasies.
The accreditation and ticketing system was the first head-scratcher I encountered. Why are some people not assigned any tickets – some resorting to standing outside the Palais for hours with handmade signs asking for ‘invitations’ – while others are allocated two red carpet screenings a day? No one knows. There are endless theories as to why, of course, a lot of which revolve around the notion of earning your place and delegates’ perceived industry capital. It’s something on which the festival will never be transparent – it’s part of Cannes’ seductive mystique – but I’d guess there is something in that theory. The insiders’ feel that pervades the festival is part of why it’s widely bemoaned as well as being an element of its draw.
Another ritual that struck me as odd was the sheer amount of clapping. Fast, frantic, and often comically theatrical clapping. People applaud at not only the Festival de Cannes sign – something by which I admittedly couldn’t help but feel moved the first time I saw it in the Grand Théâtre Lumière (Mum, I’ve made it!) – but also at every single company logo that plays before the film, as well as when the credits roll at the end.
I was lucky to have seasoned pro Jonny (Senior Film Programmer) show me around, otherwise my first Cannes experience would have been almost certainly a lot more frustrating. I knew where to queue, how long before to get there, as well as where to eat and drink in between screenings. It might sound like simple information, but you could easily lose a full day to learning these things the hard way if you had no one to show you the ropes.
Now onto the main event: the films! I was particularly enamoured with this year’s line-up as it harked back to a purist, auteur-driven programme for which the festival has historically been renowned. The following three films are the ones that stood out for me.
Gräns (Border) [Dir: Ali Abbasi]
You can’t categorise this film. It’s precisely this that makes it interesting artistically while also limiting its distribution potential in the UK. It’s one of the strangest and hardest to place films I’ve seen since Alex van Warmerdam’s 2013 Borgman – another excellent festival film that never found its way to UK screens.
Shown in Un Certain Regard, Border tells the story of Tina (played by a prosthetics-adorned Eva Melander), a customs officer with a heightened sense of smell, able to sniff out the guilt on anyone who brings through contraband. This is until Vore (Eero Milonoff) comes through, hiding something she’s unable to identify. Clearly attracted to him, the two embark on a romantic relationship. As she discovers more about who she really is, she has to choose between the life she’s always known and Vore’s terrifying alternative offering.
With an unconventional love story at its core, this Scandinavian film also falls across both fantasy and thriller genres, while exuding a folktale quality. Often grotesque and uncomfortable (there’s a sex scene of which I’ll spare you the details), it builds up a very complete and comprehensive world for its characters to inhabit, and in this way is a very accomplished film – no matter how bizarre some of that detail may be.
Aside from being an acquired taste, my only grumble is that it tries to be too ambitious. There is a subplot which, aside from facilitating the exploration of morality, I’m not sure serves the film overall.
It is, however, unique, memorable, and the film I’ve probably thought about the most since viewing, and that’s not to be sniffed at (pun wholly intended).
Zimna Wojna (Cold War) [Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski]
A huge fan of the director’s previous film Ida, as well as being a sucker for any films that explore long-term relationships, Pawlikowski’s offering was my most anticipated of the festival.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the film tells the love story of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) over the course of fifteen years and between the countries of Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and France. The objectively mismatched couple are unable to live with each other but are also totally bereft when separated. The story is loosely based on the director’s parents to whom the film is dedicated.
Using Ida cinematographer, Łukasz Żal, who shoots again in magnificent monochrome, it’s another visually stunning film within which to luxuriate for a neat 84 minutes. Joanna Kulig gives an incredible performance and is the standout element of the film for me. In an opening sequence, after seeing her sing in an audition, Wiktor claims that she has ‘something’ – an unnamed quality that’s unquestionably present in the character Kulig so skilfully conveys. It’s an incredibly powerful performance, with volumes spoken through her expression alone even when she is silent. Effortlessly magnetic and beguiling, she also has agency, driving the mood for a lot of the film.
It’s heartbreaking to see them being endlessly drawn to each other while at once clearly unable to co-exist. Their inability to move on from one another is cyclical in its nature, stuck on a painful and exhausting loop. The film’s very structure – particularly through use of narrative ellipses – serves to compound and solidify their unbreakable bond, omitting vast swathes of time where we’re told they have other partners that we never see. The film spans fifteen years, but the sense of time is presented as collapsed so that they never truly exist without one another.
The film is not without its more upbeat moments though; it’s laced with wry humour and a rhythmic energy that’s present in the many performance sequences and reflected in the pacing of the film’s editing.
El Angel (The Angel) [Dir: Luis Ortega]
I had no expectations with Luis Ortega’s film, knowing almost nothing about it before entering the theatre. It ended up being the most fun two hours I had in the cinema for the whole of the festival.
The Angel is a crime drama based on the true story of Carlos Robledo Puch, an early adolescent who was one of Argentina’s most brutal killers. Named the ‘Angel of Death’ because of his angelic blonde curls, Carlos is brilliantly brought to life by newcomer Lorenzo Ferro, who will surely go on to achieve great success after this impressive debut performance.
Reminiscent of 1970s ‘New Hollywood’ cinema – especially recalling Scorsese’s Mean Streets – The Angel is a total celebration of the anti-hero, and bursts with energy and humour. A baby-face who looks like butter wouldn’t melt; Carlos is slowly revealed to be a criminal mastermind, becoming increasingly reckless and ruthless as the crimes he commits are amped up. Despite his sociopathic behaviour, however, Ortega manages to deliver one of the most likeable villains I’ve seen onscreen for a long time – it’s a real achievement.
With the relative success of films such as The Clan and Neruda in the UK, I’m hoping this one will be picked up and released for domestic audiences to enjoy in the near future.