After watching film after film on the French Riviera, our Programming team highlight their favourites from Cannes Film Festival 2019.
Heather McIntosh, Film Programmer
A White, White Day (directed by Hlynur Pálmason)
A White, White Day – the second film from Icelandic writer-director Hlynur Pálmason, which screened in Critics’ Week – was my favourite of the festival.
Our protagonist, Ingimundur (Ingvar E. Sigurðsson) plays a recently widowed ex-detective. Suspecting that his wife was having an affair prior to her death, he begins investigating in private, becoming increasingly erratic over the course of the film. The relationship with his young granddaughter Salka (Ída Mekkín Hlynsdóttir) is given the most screen time and, to my mind, was one of the best aspects of the film.
The films opens with shots of a car driving along a winding narrow road, covered in a white fog that recalls the film’s title. With aerial shots that are reminiscent of early Haneke work such as The Seventh Continent (1989) and Funny Games (1997), and an overall aesthetic that reminded me of 90s and early 00s European arthouse films, A White, White Day excited me from its beginning. It’s also where we first hear the incredible string score that underpins the whole film.
It’s very honest in its depiction of grief: neither clean, straightforward, or pleasant. The film gives the audience enough credit to understand Ingimindur’s messy – and arguably, dislikeable at times – behaviour as a response to this context, without turning against him. He begrudgingly attends therapy sessions in which he barely communicates – his grief rears its head in more unhealthy ways, as he becomes increasingly unpredictable and obsessional in investigating his wife’s affair. He regularly loses his temper and is often aggressive – at its most upsetting in one scene where his granddaughter is on the receiving end of it – but it’s behaviour that makes sense given his circumstances. He doesn’t have to be perfect throughout to be deserving of our empathy. Dealing with the loss of his wife alone would be difficult, but once he unearths her affair, he can’t even take comfort in his memories anymore. Everything is tainted.
Though dealing with more serious topics, the film is frequently funny and moving. Especially in the scenes featuring the granddaughter-grandfather relationship, which – never overdone – are always very authentic and touching. Salka is a wonderful character: hilarious, fearless, and full of life.
It’s a film that’s not afraid to feature pauses where it needs them, without ever feeling slow-paced. Some of the film’s silences are where it is most impactful. We begin to understand a lot from what remains unspoken. The two final scenes are very affecting, showing the protagonist with his granddaughter as they vent their frustrations by screaming into a tunnel, and then with his deceased wife, as he watches her dance through teary eyes. His feelings aren’t spoken aloud, explicitly, and it’s these kind of subtleties and ambiguities that make the film so quietly powerful.
Port Authority (directed by Danielle Lessovitz)
The impressive first feature from writer-director Danielle Lessovitz, Port Authority, screened in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes. The film gets its title from a New York bus station which is both an iconic and notorious landmark for bringing people into the city in search of a new life. Some will have their hopes and dreams realised, others will have a life like Paul (Fionn Whitehead), the film’s protagonist.
Arriving from Pittsburgh and naively hoping to stay with a half-sister who never arrives to meet him, Paul falls in with Lee (McCaul Lombardi), who saves him from both a beating on the subway, and homelessness, by giving him a place to crash. In return, Lee asks Paul to help him out with a job that involves ‘moving furniture’, which turns out to be the galling task of carrying out evictions and property repossession on vulnerable people. Though Lee is both aggressive and bigoted, after Paul’s half-sister makes clear she wants nothing to do with him, he feels like he’s left with very few options.
Early on in the film, Paul meets Wye (Leyna Bloom) and falls for her immediately. He goes to see her ‘walk’ at a ball – a backdrop which draws comparisons to the seminal Paris Is Burning and the recent prestige TV show Pose – where he discovers from one of her friends that she is transgender. Initially feeling deceived and wondering what this means for his sexuality, Paul’s intense feelings for Wye begin to take over. He comes to realise his fears are based on arbitrary societal expectations and pressures, rather than his own feelings, which to him, are clear and straightforward.
Predominantly, it’s a film about identity and belonging. Denied by his sister, and craving a family, Paul longs to be part of Wye’s all-black and LGBT house that he can’t see he has no right to be a part of. It’s a space they’ve carved out for themselves – away from a world that doesn’t accept them – but he only sees the tight-knit closeness for which he so fiercely yearns.
The film gets its power from the authenticity of the acting and the lives it explores. While the narrative could be better honed, this doesn’t affect the film overall, as it’s the cast of characters that make the film. The fact the cast are largely unknowns (save for Whitehead who appeared in Dunkirk) is something that works for the film, as recognisable actors could have distracted from its realistic style.
The naturalistic way that the New York streets are captured makes sense given Martin Scorsese’s executive producer credit. The way the city landscape is captured also reminded me of the Safdie Brothers’ films, though Port Authority never gets quite as darkly twisted as their universes tend to.
The only mild frustration is that it can feel mostly like Paul’s story at times, with the arguably more interesting characters falling into supporting roles. Nevertheless, it’s a really interesting and important film that focuses on widely-explored themes in a way that feels exciting and fresh.
MUBI have picked up this title, so it will be making its way to UK screens at some point in the future.
Les Misérables (directed by Ladj Ly)
Playing in Competition, Les Misérables is an incredibly tense thriller set in Paris, exploring the urgent issues of police corruption, harassment, brutality, and the havoc this wreaks on poor and minority communities. Getting its title from Victor Hugo’s classic novel which was written in Montfermeil – the same Paris suburb in which the film takes place – it’s an impressive debut feature from Ladj Ly (director and co-writer), who grew up in this area.
After being transferred to a new unit, we see through the eyes of Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), as he observes Montfermeil on his first day on the job. He rides alongside colleagues, Chris (Alexis Manenti) – an aggressive, white, racist and corrupt cop – and his more mild-mannered partner of colour, Gwada (Djebril Zonga). Very early on we see Chris harassing a group of girls for no other reason than his own perverse enjoyment. He’s a bully who tries to maintain ‘peace’ on the streets by colluding with the gangs that run them. Initially Stéphane seems like the most empathetic character, but the bar is low, and by the end of the film his complicity is undeniable.
After a stand-off with a group of kids who are trying to protect their friend, Issa (Issa Perica), Gwada mistakenly shoots a flashbang into the child’s face. This incident is captured by another child’s drone, which threatens to reveal the cops’ violence if they don’t seize the footage. From here, any good-will or benefit of the doubt given to the police quickly dissipates due to the clumsy and aggressive way they go about the ensuing chase, and their downright cruel treatment of Issa.
Through Issa’s arc from innocent kid to rightful vengeance-seeker as a result of being needlessly disfigured, the film makes clear how police harassment both creates and then further exacerbates violence in communities of colour. We’re never shown the police answering to anyone, making us question their wholly unchecked authority.
While the film is almost entirely from the cops’ perspective, we are definitely encouraged to view them critically – especially in the case of Chris, who is nothing short of repulsive. I would have liked to see more from the characters in the community, though, with more space being afforded to their perception of events and the fleshing out of their characters. They’re still the ones you’re rooting for, it just feels like they’re at risk of falling into stereotypes at times.
Tense throughout, and reminiscent of La Haine – as a French thriller that looks at social tensions – I’m glad Altitude are bringing these great performances, from a largely unknown, but incredibly talented cast to UK screens.
Isabel Moir, Film Programmer
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (directed by Céline Sciamma)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is the latest feature by celebrated French Director Céline Sciamma which received it’s world premiere in the competition section. Sciamma has already built herself an impressive body of work with Water Lilies, Tomboy and most recently Girlhood in 2014. Due to the positive reception her previous films received, the title became one of the most anticipated in the competition.
Sciamma’s film is a beautifully seductive love story set in the 18th century, where a female painter is sent to an isolated island to paint a wedding portrait of a young woman. Featuring powerful performances by Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel, who was previously cast in Sciamma’s directorial debut Water Lilies. Sciamma puts her own stamp on the period drama making it feel contemporary as well as playing with the audiences’ expectations and subverting elements associated with the genre. The camera’s gaze is always female, creating a feminine world absent of men and offers a critique of women’s role in the world, whilst highlighting the potential of what might have been had these women been born in a different time.
I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of this screening which was deservedly met with a standing ovation for the director and cast in attendance in the auditorium. There is always something uniquely special when you are able to watch a film without any prior reviews to influence your viewing experience.
Initially, I found the period setting and austere atmosphere quite cold compared to her previous work which was so alive and vibrant from the offset. However, I quickly found that I was rewarded as the slow burning desire of the character’s relationship unfolded and which has impacted me long after the credits. Beautifully written by Sciamma, and awarded Best Screenplay as well as receiving nominations for Queer Palm and top prize Palme d’Or. I am pleased to see that Curzon have already picked this film up for UK distribution, which will be the first time they have released one of Sciamma’s films but already feels like a great pairing.
Sick Sick Sick (directed by Alice Furtardo)
Sick Sick Sick is a striking debut by Brazilian director Alice Furtado which premiered as part of the Cannes Director’s Fortnight section. Newcomer Luiza Kosovski plays Silvia, a young girl whose life is turned upside down with the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Artur who is the new student at her school. The teen romance beautifully captures the all-encompassing and destructive nature of first love as well as a refreshing portrait of young female desire. At the height of their romance it becomes evident that Artur’s life threatening disease starts to loom over their future as the love-struck teens attempt to forge their own destiny. Featuring evocative imagery, the film effortlessly explores notions of the horror genre as Silvia’s feelings of obsession and grief start to overwhelm her being which at times felt reminiscent of Julia Ducournau’s debut Raw. Furtado has stated that her first feature was created for young people by young people which feels important when there is so much uncertainty and concern for the future generation of Brazilian filmmakers.
Furtado has previously directed two short films including Duel Before Nightfall which premiered at Cannes in 2011 whose visual style marked her as a new talent to watch. As well as being Assistant Director on Claire Denis‘s short film Voilà L’Enchaînement and Editor on Eduardo William’s festival hit, The Human Surge. Sick Sick Sick was financially supported by The Hubert Bals Fund which is designed to help innovative filmmakers from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe. The fund has previously financed recent titles The Wound, Rafiki and Too Late to Die Young. At the time of writing there was no confirmed UK distributor for the film, however I was extremely happy to discover an ambitious and unique debut from a director who shows much promise and whose work I am excited to see more of.
Matthias & Maxime (directed by Xavier Dolan)
Matthias & Maxime is the eighth feature film by Xavier Dolan and this year marks ten years since Dolan’s debut I Killed My Mother which premiered at Cannes in the Director’s Fortnight at aged just 20. Dolan’s prolific career has been long supported by Cannes and he has received various awards for earlier films Heart Beats, Laurence Anyways and Mommy which received the Jury Prize.
Matthias & Maxime is a story of two childhood best friends who share an onscreen kiss for a student film which forces them to question the future of their friendship and hidden feelings for one another. The drama is set around a group of friends in their early thirties who are all processing the changes within their friendship group which is further highlighted as Maxime (Xavier Dolan) makes the move to Australia. This is a tender and heartfelt portrait of friendship as well as masculinity, sexual identity and unspoken desires.
Reminiscent of his earlier work, the film also marks the return to the location of Quebec and again places Dolan in front of the camera, the last time being in Tom at the Farm in 2013, delivering a vulnerable and sensitive performance. It also features a welcome cameo by Anne Dorval who previously shone in Dolan’s feature Mommy as well as a scene stealing cameo by Harris Dickson (Beach Rat, Postcards from London). After the recent titles It’s Only the End of World and English-Language The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Dolan’s latest work demonstrated much restraint, ease, as well as growth as a filmmaker and hope this will continue in his future work. At the time of writing there is no confirmed UK distributor for the film that said, several of Dolan’s previous titles have received a UK release.
Jonny Courtney, Senior Film Programmer
Cannes Film Festival usually quietens down considerably towards the end of the final week as the market closes and many people disappear home, but the introduction of a three-day pass for young cinephiles has really boosted audiences for the last few days, giving them a new energy that was previously absent.
I managed to see 14 films during this time including Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino), The Wild Goose Lake (Yi’nan Diao) and the exquisite Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma); but the three titles below were my stand-outs in a high quality year.
Parasite (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner, Parasite, follows the misfortunes of a downtrodden South Korean family, the Kis, who eke out a hand-to-mouth existence in an inner city basement apartment. They struggle to earn enough to buy even basic food (or Wi-Fi), until the son, Ki woo is presented with an opportunity to teach English to the daughter of the wealthy Park family at their comfortable suburban home. After convincing Mrs Park that in addition, their unruly son needs the help of an art therapist, Ki woo’s sister assumes the role and slowly the Kis begin to infiltrate every aspect of the Parks’ day to day life.
The film takes several twists and turns, and Bong’s ability to shift between tones and genres in an instant, without it ever feeling jarring or disrupting the narrative flow, is incredibly impressive. This has always been a feature of his work (see Memories of Murder or The Host) but Parasite is surely his greatest success yet in balancing the shocks and thrills of a genre movie with the nuanced observations of a biting social satire.
Like Lee Chang-Dong’s Burning, Parasite portrays the ever widening gap between the haves and have-nots of the modern world; like Jordan Peele’s Us, exploring the most nightmarish fears of the privileged classes in the form of a mysterious ‘other’ who threatens their way of life. It’s all done with such a sense of fun – there are some truly hilarious moments – that the full horror of Bong’s portrayal almost sneaks up on you and smacks you round the head.
Curzon Artificial Eye acquired the title early on at Cannes, and should be hoping to match the great business they did on Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden in 2017
The Lighthouse (directed by Robert Eggers)
Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse (his follow-up to his 2015 debut, The Witch) played in Director’s Fortnight, but could easily have sat alongside the films in Competition, such is the brilliance and originality on display. I was very fortunate to get into the final screening (many didn’t) after queuing for at least two hours, and once inside the anticipation of the audience was palpable, creating an electric atmosphere more akin to a gig.
The story tells of an old lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and his rookie assistant (Robert Pattinson). For several weeks, they are alone together on a small island off the coast of Maine, tasked with keeping the titular lighthouse going. As the days go by and the harshness of their location takes its toll, their loneliness, anxiety and sense of cabin fever increase, given extra fuel by alcohol and their own individual demons.
It’s hard to remember a better performance from either actor. Dafoe, as the more verbose of the two characters, gets the majority of the best lines and delivers each one with relish, especially as the old seadog tears into his young apprentice. Pattinson’s performance, on the other hand, starts slowly, swelling like the raging sea around the island as the film develops.
It’s very impressive stuff. Special mention must go to the script from Eggers and his brother Max, crafted with such wonderful language it carries you away to another time; the striking visuals, shot in eerie black and white using the Movietone aspect ratio of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the extraordinary score, all combining to create a unique tone which at times falls somewhere between an archive film and a psychological thriller. If that sounds strange, well, it is, but it’s also visceral, hilarious and terrifying, and one of the most original films I’ve seen in quite some time.
Universal’s Focus Features (The Witch, Sorry to Bother You) have acquired the film for the UK, and I imagine they will look to keep the opening pretty tight and work closely with select indie cinemas to build on the strong word of mouth and critical praise it will inevitably receive.
Fire Will Come (directed by Oliver Laxe)
Fire Will Come is the third feature from French-born Galician director Oliver Laxe (Mimosas), and tells of Amador (Amador Arias), a middle-aged man returning to rural Galicia with his mother after serving a prison sentence for arson. Only partially accepted by the locals, Amador nevertheless attempts to pick up the simple life he left behind before a catastrophic event tears through the community, raising more questions about his true intent.
There are several wonderful sequences in the film, which begins with shots of mists rolling across gentle landscapes, before switching to the terrifying sight of trees being ripped down in the dead of night, accompanied by an otherworldly score. But the standout scene is midway through the film, where after Amador and the local vet have rescued a cow trapped in a stream, they drive back to the village together and listen to Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne (Amador claims to not understand the words, but he still finds the music powerful). The exchange and the song both hint at possible redemption for Amador and the start of things to come, and it was a standout moment of Cannes for me.
Whilst ambiguous, the film seems concerned with threats to rural Galician communities. These take several forms – from the foresters working on the outskirts of the village, to the outsider (Amador) amongst them, through to the gradual onset of modernity which could spell an end to the simple way of life these people have known for so long. Beautifully realised and more accessible than Mimosas, I’m hopeful a UK distributor will take a chance on this small but captivating film.