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Sights at Cannes

The 10 trends, movies and sightings of the world's richest and most important film fest

The Cannes Film Festival is in love with itself. While it can justly claim to be the biggest and best film festival in the world, nothing can prepare the first time festival-goer for the extravaganza of love that Cannes showers on itself every day. At press conferences and photo-calls, the impression given of the stars promoting their films is that they should be honoured to be appearing at Cannes, not the other way around. “We could do without Emma Watson,” the festival seems to say – “but let her have an afternoon with the photogs, bless her.  She’s alright really.”

In screenings for which the press queues diligently, in sledgehammer sun or blustery wind, everyone claps in the cinema when the Cannes ident appears on the screen before each film. If I had to compare the festival to anything, it would be to the court of a monarch in the olden days – perhaps Louis XIV, the sun king – where all the courtiers (in this instance the press and ordinary festival-goers) are rapt with adoration for the ruler, and speak in hallowed tones of Him. There is a select entourage near the king of course: these are the actors and filmmakers, regally permitted to appear in His vicinity. These people swan around the court with affected pomp, happy to live off the refracted glamour of the King – and the courtiers are happy, occasionally, to glimpse the King’s entourage. Finally, the King himself, rarely seen, presides over everything with a cold, patrician hand, provoking a sort of veneration in everyone. The King is the festival itself.

This year, for the second time, I was blessed with the King’s seal, to come and pay my respects in His court, as the owner of a blue press badge (there is a further caste system at play at the festival, where blue outranks yellow and pink outranks blue, and at the very top is Peter Bradshaw from the Guardian). I saw 22 films in eight and a half days, slightly down on my performance last year. From my lowly position in the palace, I present the top ten things I was condescended upon to behold. 

1. Fathers and Sons
One of the things the festival did best this year was to talk about family. In two great films – Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Like Father, Like Son and Asgar Farhadi’s The Past – we are given to see the direct consequences on children of the actions of unthinking grown-ups. Kore-Eda’s film, played in a sort of chamber-piece mode, talks about two families dealing with the mix-up of their babies in the hospital where they were born, and seems to be an indictment of rigid Japanese patriarchy in some of its more hard-hitting scenes. Farhadi’s film, set in Paris, is a forensic choral film, analysing with a cold eye the particulars of one extended family, and the various lies and ambiguities that bind them together. Both films are worth seeing, even if they never attain, for me, the power of both directors’ previous films, I Wish and A Separation, respectively.

I hesitate to write about this, lest it be a sort of professional error to mention an industry in-joke, like The Aristocrats is to stand-up comedians. But the best thing at Cannes, every year, is someone shouting the name “RAAAAAAOUL!” in the Debussy screening room, just as the lights go down. It is one of the earliest instances of a meme, as Roger Ebert noted, and it stretches back over forty years. Back then, the first person to shout it was a critic looking for his friend in the darkened room – but since then, it has caught on and been shouted year after year.  It always fills me with happiness.

3. A fabulously queeny child
I saw a fabulously queeny infant strolling along the Croisette, the road that lines the sea-front. Fixing his hair with an adorable self-possession – he must have been ten or eleven – he was walking along totally rapt in his preening, and he fitted in with the festival’s starfuckery an absolute treat.

4. Real sex!
Two of the best and most lauded films at the festival this year – The Stranger by the Lake, directed by Alain Guiraudie, and the eventual Palme d’Or winner, Blue Is The Warmest Colour – featured real sex, in extended scenes that felt fresh, touching, exciting and important. Sex is a part of most people’s lives, and often feels disappointing on film. Here, there was something vibrant, something that felt essential about these scenes, which put to shame jiggy-getting scenes in other films.

5. Politcs
There were some good political accents on display this year: in the sometimes militant queerness of Blue Is The Warmest Colour and The Stranger By The Lake, for instance, and in the potshots that Claire Denis took at the French elite in her new film Bastards.  That film shows how the actions of a Dominique Strauss-Kahn type come to have consequences on the lives of real people, and women in particular. It’s a harrowing film to watch, not always showing the director at her most controlled, but it features some very bold and exciting filmmaking on several occasions.  Borgman, by Alex Van Warmerdarm, was a slightly heavy-handed attack on Western privilege. Meanwhile, La grande bellezza, a magisterial new film by Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) bemoans the cultural decrepitude of Italy, painting a portrait of an empty, party-going nation that desecrates its former glories.

6 My own terror upon encountering Harvey Weinstein
At one point he was physically standing next to me at a party and I felt, for completely irrational reasons pertaining to what I know of his character from books and blogs, absolutely shit-scared of him. I moved swiftly on. 

7. Mother Nature’s revenge
Two interesting films this year – Sebastian Silva’s Magic Magic and J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost – pitted individuals against nature, and nature mostly kicked the crap out of the individuals. Magic Magic tells the story of four friends who go off to the countryside, where everything starts to go horribly wrong: like a psychedelic, not-very-funny, very disturbing Withnail & I. The cast features Michael Cera and, in the role of the girl who most gets freaked out, Juno Temple – the poor girl has to get over her fear of deep water, a dog, some horses, a parrot. Everywhere around her, nature is deregulated and terrifying. I think it’s a film about a young generation completely cut off by technology. It has its moments, but can be ramshackle. All Is Lost is fantastic: just Robert Redford in a boat, struggling to survive on the high seas. Hardly a word is uttered, but almost every shot, every little bit of activity is riveting.

8. Struggling journalists
You realise when you go to a film festival, that there is no real consensus as to what is good and what is bad. The festival mostly consists of journos flapping about in the press room, trying to gauge what their colleagues thought of the Coens’ latest, or of the new James Gray (always call every film by the name of its director, in Cannes. “I hated the Coppola!” etc). That film is perhaps the most subjective of all the arts is maybe its strength. 

9. Bad endings
A real trend in the films this year was for bad endings. This was true of Rebecca Zlotowski’s otherwise powerful Grand Central, about blue collar workers in a French industrial plant. The film just ended, seemingly, when the reel ran out. Fruitvale Station, the debut of Ryan Coogler and a winner at Sundance, had a horrifyingly bad ending, trite and hackneyed. The film has some qualities, but an over-emotional script and a tendency towards cloying overstatement do not help its cause. Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers was a rare exception to this rule, being perfectly judged in its entire construction: it ends with a blisteringly ironic and poetic finale that ably and cruelly subverts the film’s opening scenes.  Going in, you judge the beginning of the film as being a start, full of hope, but the brothers show how really it represents an ending, full of despair and loss. In the meantime, they have spun an entertaining, personal and always masterfully told story about a typically Coen-like shmuck, played just right by Oscar Isaac. 

10. Blue Is The Warmest Colour
The Stranger By The Lake may be my favourite film to have played this year – sexy, beautiful, frightening and exciting, it is a dissection of gay life filmed with precision and sensitivity – but from the moment it screened at the festival, it was clear there was only one winner here. Blue Is The Warmest Colour represents everything that film can and should do – a portrait in heart-stoppingly gorgeous pictures of one woman, and the changes in her life as she embarks on a love affair with a slightly older woman. The film does everything well, eking meaning and pathos from seemingly drab situations: school, family dinners, little parties, a visit to the seaside. It knows its characters inside out, and offers them up to the audience as if they were friends, or even as is they were us. This means that the highs are ecstatic – the sex, the sense of discovery that love brings – and the lows are devastating when they come. Its actors are magnificent; its pacing is perfect – it is confident, bold and moving filmmaking at its very best.