Essay Film Festival 2016 Cannes

The first time one attends the Cannes film festival, the overwhelming sensation is one of shock – shock at a world so displaced from one’s everyday existence, with its idiosyncratic codes, Byzantine regulations, and the dominance of a cut-throat, bellum omnia omnes mentality. The second time at the festival, a certain degree of recognition can be perceived: the lessons learnt from the previous year serve as precious pointers for the new onslaught of film-going. By the third time, a sense of familiarity sets in: the mores and customs that rule over Cannes are now a known quantity, and the battle-hardened festivalier can conduct himself like a seasoned pro. As for the fourth time at the festival, by this point attending Cannes is nothing more nor less than a ritual.

Ritual… ritual… where have I heard that word in connection with Cannes before? Why, of course. Covering the 1955 edition for Cahiers du cinéma, André Bazin wrote – with tongue firmly planted in cheek – that, for the critics assembled at Cannes, the festival was “the modern monastery of the cinematograph,” noting that the “progressive refinement of the Festival phenomenon” had led to the “empirical organisation of its rituals,” to the extent that journalists had to submit themselves to a rigorous daily rite in order to have any hope of adequately taking the measure of the festival. (1)

Since Bazin’s time, nothing has changed – and yet everything has changed. Sixty years later, the Cannes film festival is anything but the “pious retreat from strictly ‘regular’ life” of Bazin’s description, and yet the “regularity of one’s activities” is still, in 2014, the “most characteristic aspect of festival life.” Rather than a monastic order, however, Cannes is more like a military boot camp, a 10-day, high-intensity drill session that, while initially exhilarating, leaves its motley participants physically and emotionally drained by the time it draws to a close.

The festival of Bazin’s time, then, appears from the present-day perspective as a restful idyll of calm and relaxation: the daily intake of three screenings, at 11 in the morning, 3pm and 10 at night, left the festival reporter of the 1950s ample time for meals, cocktail receptions and late-night drinks – essential parts of every festival experience, all would agree, but which are now readily sacrificed in the critic’s vainglorious attempt to adequately gain an overview of the sprawling program on offer.

Every journalist, therefore, will develop their own particular quotidian custom, and this will be determined not only by the nature of their festival coverage (are they writing daily reports for a newspaper, more in-depth coverage for a periodical, or online tweets within minutes of the end of a screening?), but also by the colour-coded ranking their accreditation has been given by the punctiliously hierarchical festival organisers.

At the bottom of this class-system – whose members are kept as strictly segregated in the festival’s queuing system as castes were in feudal India – are the untouchables, with their yellow accreditation badge. (2) These are the scum of the press pack (the Lumpenproletariat, Marx would say), writing for dubious, unheard-of outlets, whose coverage is seen as having negligible value for the festival, and who are generally treated as little more than seat-fillers, shunted to the bottom of the priority list in just about every press event. As you may have guessed, I number among these benighted souls.

Above them, and more numerous, are the proletarian blue badges, who are looked upon with envy by the yellow badges, but whose class privileges are nonetheless decidedly meagre. Whereas yellows will often have no hope of gaining access to an in-demand screening or press conference, the blues may have a chance of entering – but only if they put in the hard labour of queuing for upwards of an hour to do so.

The middle-class of the festival press, meanwhile, are the pink badges – and as with the petty-bourgeois layers in advanced capitalist countries, for a time their numbers were allowed to swell to unsustainable numbers, before being ruthlessly cut back in more recent years. The pink badges will also be subject to lengthy queues, but they are let in to screenings well before the blues, and so are generally granted access as long as they turn up at least 10-15 minutes before start-time. If you are accorded a pink badge at Cannes, you can adopt an air of general respectability in the festival milieu, and your self-perceived importance will inevitably lead you, like the petty-bourgeois arriviste that you are, to sneer derisively at the ranks of unfortunate blues and yellows who are kept at bay while you casually swan past them into press screenings.

Higher up than the pink middle-class are the haute-bourgeoisie of the festival, themselves divided into two layers: pink-with-a-yellow-dot (3) and white. These are the privileged elites of the press corps, and they are not only given virtually guaranteed access to the screenings/press conferences themselves, no matter how late they turn up, but are also provided with the best seats in the house, as well as, I’m sure, all manner of other undisclosed entitlements. In the manner of privileged elites the world over, their numbers are tiny, and even within their stratospheric echelons hierarchical divisions reign. White is definitively above pink-with-a-yellow-dot in the pecking order, and is reserved for an exiguous number of critical VIPs – reporters for the trade journals and prestigious dailies for the most part – but, from my lowly station in the festival’s ruling social order, it is impossible for me to tell what exactly the nature of this distinction is. Rumours even circulate of rankings above white (white-with-a-red-dot has been mentioned), which presumably would give accreditees the right to be brought into screenings on a sedan chair carried by festival minions, but nobody has truly been able to verify the existence of this mythical category.

As a yellow-badge I can only look on enviously at the journalistes-rois reverently ushered in to screenings by the festival’s security guards, who simultaneously fend off the huddled masses from entering the hallowed temple. In truth, to some extent I can understand the rationale behind this hierarchisation – with access at a premium, it would be absurd for an esteemed Variety critic to miss out on a key press screening because the venue is packed with neophyte bloggers. At the same time, however, the criteria determining who is assigned to which category is one of the most closely-guarded secrets of Cannes: nobody truly knows what counts in the eyes of the festival organisers. Obviously, the importance of the outlet is of prime consideration, but how this is calculated is a mystery (except for the fact that online media are treated with general disdain). Additionally, a process of seniority seems to be at work. After a predetermined number of years, a journalist will be viewed as having finally earned their stripes, and given the promotion they have been longing for. This, at least, is one theory.

Nonetheless, those who are still saddled with yellow badges need not despair: the strict levels of hierarchisation only really apply to competition films and certain in-demand special events: Un Certain Regard screenings have looser groupings (yellows and blues are lumped together, for instance), while the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and the Semaine de la Critique are oases of utopian egalitarianism when it comes to press access. With experience, too, comes the insider-knowledge necessary to successfully negotiate the festival: deciding how long a queue each film requires (using a complex mental algorithm weighing up the likely level of interest in the film, the capacity of the venue and the time/date of the screening), where to sit for a quick getaway, and which screenings should simply be renounced as lost causes. This year, for instance, the Sunday 7pm projection presse of Maps to the Stars in the Salle Debussy was a battle I could not hope to win.

Such insider-knowledge, however, also exacerbates the tendency towards ritual. Each day thus takes on a regular pattern, which for me takes on the following shape. Every morning, I will wake up in the Rue Jean-Jaurès apartment I share with Héloïse a little bit before 7 o’clock, have a quick shower and breakfast (muesli and a coffee), before heading out at around 7:45 to get my desired seat at the 8:30am competition screening in the Théâtre Lumière. With my yellow badge consigning me to the balcony level, my aim is always to sit close to the exit aisle in the far right of the salle. Having passed through the metal detectors and bag checks that are unfortunately an ever-present phenomenon at Cannes, I spend the 45 minutes before the screening writing up notes on the previous night’s films and, if I am guarding a seat for Heloïse, warding off those eyeing the empty spot with a curt “C’est occupé.” At 8:30 precisely – the official selection, to its tremendous credit, is timetabled to run like clockwork – the lights will dim and strains of Saint-Saëns’ “Le Carnaval des animaux” will accompany the festival trailer (a graphic of red-carpeted stairs ascending to the sky, which has remained unchanged for as long as I’ve been attending), before the first film of the day begins. Whether it is good or bad, when I sense that the screening is drawing to a close, I get out of my seat and huddle in front of the exit doors with others who have adopted this strategy, peering over the seats in front of us to catch the final moments of the film.

When the screen goes black and the credits start, we rush out the doors, spilling into the concourses that lead into the festival palace. Here, where only those with an accreditation may tread, I endeavour to beat the rush to the Nescafé stand – whose legion of nearly-identical teenaged baristas dish out espressos to the bleary-eyed festival-goers – and gulp down a “ristretto intenso”. From there I go to the press area, retrieving the press kits from my numbered pigeonhole, in what Bazin called the “cérémonie des casiers”. Unceremoniously, most of this material will be immediately thrown into the recycling bin, before I grab the trades (Variety, Screen International and Hollywood Reporter, whose reviews I generally read in this order) and rush to join the queue for the 11am Certain Regard screening in the adjoining Salle Debussy.

Once this screening is over, the next few hours are spent in a state of relative flexibility: I have the choice to remain at the Debussy for another Certain Regard screening, to forego film-viewing for a press conference in the Palais, catch up on a missed film at a reprise screening in the recently-built Salle du Soixiantième in the festival’s backlot, or make my way down the Croisette for a Quinzaine or Semaine film – an option which, as the years go by and the meagre returns from these sidebars add up, I take up less and less frequently. At some point in the afternoon a hurried lunch and a third coffee make their appearance, before, as 6pm approaches, I make the decision as to whether or not to queue for the 7pm competition press screening in the Debussy, which in spite of its 1000-seat capacity is frequently nowhere near large enough to accommodate the number of journalists wishing to get inside.

Subjecting oneself to the 7pm queue is undoubtedly the most excruciating, and potentially humiliating, experience at Cannes: for the lower-ranked press, an hour or more can be spent in vain, only for the doors to be locked and the “complet” sign put up when you are agonisingly close to the front of the line. It is a mark of the Cannes veteran to have horror stories of this nature, which they are only too willing to whip out any time the queue begins to take on the air of an insurmountable foe. On the other hand, if you are one of the lucky last to be given access to the screening, you will then be privy to the upper corner seats of the Debussy, from which more than a third of the screen is blocked from view. For widescreen films, especially, this can lead to the weary journalist questioning their sanity (“I spent 90 minutes in a queue for this?”); conversely, I was dismayed at the potential obstructed viewing from my seat for Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, only to have the joy to find out that the format for the film would be 1:1, which, from my vantage point, actually looked like a vertically-skewed rhombus.

After the evening press screening, my plan is always to take in a film in the 10pm slot to round out the day – but as often as not I will either renounce it entirely for the sweet call of bed, fall asleep during the film, or drowsily walk out halfway through. In any case, upon making my way home of a night, I flop, exhausted, into bed, set my alarm for 6:55am and catch whatever sleep I can before the taxing cycle is repeated.

This, then, is the daily ritual of the Cannes critic, and it only allows for minor variations. Of course, having meticulously mapped out my festival schedule soon after arrival, my best laid plans will inevitably be scuppered by a missed screening, an unforeseen sleep-in or a late, hype-induced decision to take in a film that had initially been discarded as eminently missable – but the main supporting columns of this edifice will invariably remain intact. The ritual is undertaken in such a self-contained environment that the festival attendee will soon lose track of time, or any notion of an outside world. For a long time, the English-language market guide contained the same, risible typographic error: inadvertently one of the days of the week was rendered as “Thuesday”. The misprint was, in fact, very apt. At Cannes, every day is Thuesday, a moment in time excised from the rest of the year, akin to the sanscullotides of the French revolutionary calendar.

This overarching ritual will, of course, be buttressed by any number of minor customs or traditions which, although seemingly inconsequential, are of absolute necessity for the psychological adjustment to festival life to take place. Every year, I look forward to seeing the old newspaper seller work his way through the festival crowds, crying “Demandez Libé!” – it is then that I know for sure I have arrived in Cannes. Every year, I rejoice at seeing the same stern, bulldog-like faces among the garrison of security guards, who have almost become like old friends to me, despite the fact that our communication is limited to a brusque “Par ici, monsieur”. (4) Every year, it will rain solidly for at least one day – catching festival organisers and attendees alike unawares (convinced, as they are, that the Croisette is bathed in permanent sunshine), but spawning a small army of impromptu umbrella sellers, who, when the rains come, appear out of nowhere like mushrooms. Every year, festival director Thierry Frémaux will run onto the stage to introduce the filmmakers to the audience at Un Certain Regard screenings, and at every chance he can get he will make the same ironically immodest jokes when translating Anglophone directors into French. Most arcanely, for years on end every Debussy press screening has been opened with an improvised chorus of deep-voiced audience members yelling “Ra-ooool!” – the genesis of this practice is lost in the mists of time, but presumably originates in a befuddled journalist loudly calling out for his friend Raoul just before a film started.

But by far the most sadistically thrilling ritual of the festival is the “booing of the bad film”. This custom is generally reserved for non-gala screenings – it is considered poor form to do so in the presence of the filmmaker – and is particularly prevalent in press-only sessions. When faced with a particularly odious work, and insulated from members of the broader public, the wearied, crotchety individuals who make up the press corps will transform themselves into a pack of snarling wolves, eager to pounce on the vulnerable prey before them. Although the booing of a film at Cannes ranges from acts of historical injustice (L’Avventura, La Frontière de l’aube) to eminently justifiable reactions to truly awful productions (this year: Captives, The Search, Lost River), it can be a magnificent spectacle to behold, and significantly alters the experience of watching a film at Cannes. At a certain point, whilst viewing an inferior film, a change in attitude occurs: from a jaded lament at its aesthetic poverty, a sense of excitement builds up – will it be so abominable as to elicit a round of booing? From that moment, one wills the film to be as bad as it possibly can be, and one even takes a secret delight as it lurches from one catastrophic misstep to another. Such is the ruthless bearpit that is Cannes.

No matter how ritualised the festival may become, there will always be moments that snap even the most battle-hardened critic out of his torpor, and I feel it is not too hyperbolic to state that this year’s festival contained one of the most aesthetically jolting experiences in film history. The shock did not come from an unexpected quarter, as Jean-Luc Godard has specialised in doing the unprecedented for nearly six decades. That he should premiere his latest work at Cannes is at one and the same time entirely logical – the festival styles itself as a site for celebrating the art of cinema, and Godard has shown virtually all of his feature films of the last 25 years there – and strangely inapposite. Last year, I noted that seeing his short Les trois désastres on the Croisette felt like hearing Stravinsky being played at Glastonbury, and I feel the same way, a fortiori, about Adieu au langage appearing in the main competition – as if it could possibly compete against films which, all of them, appear hopelessly mired in staid convention when compared to Godard’s film-meteorite.

Adieu au langage

As such, the only response I could muster to describe the film when pressed by a woman from French radio was that it was “like a film from another planet.” The premiere screening was an invigorating event, from the confused bustle to get in (it was presented at a rare “all-in” screening at the Lumière in the mid-afternoon) and the growing anticipation as the red carpet ceremony played out, to the unadulterated exuberance of the prolonged applause that rounded out the session – the enthusiasm of the crowd in no way dimmed by the fact that Godard had announced his non-attendance of the festival several days beforehand.

Even by the high standards that I place on a figure like Godard, the film did not disappoint. But his work is of such a density that making snap judgements on its merits, or hasty interpretations of its underlying meaning, can be a perilous exercise – as is evinced by the cautious approach of the film’s early reviews, which, while largely lauding it, refrained from offering anything more involved than a surface description of the work accompanied by a few generalised remarks on Godard’s aesthetic approach. It is only now, after three viewings of the film (two at Cannes, and one, happily bereft of English subtitles, at the Panthéon cinema in Paris), and upon having allowed it to sit with me for a while, that I feel confident about publicly responding to it.

Adieu au langage both continues in the thematic lineage of all of Godard’s “late” work, and on a formal level is a striking new departure for the filmmaker. Most overtly, of course, this shift is evident in Godard’s use of the 3D format. Five years after Avatar represented the false dawn of a purported new age of 3D cinema, it is Godard who shows us the true aesthetic possibilities of the technique. Who else could it be? Who other than the filmmaker who, for decades now, has drawn a sharp distinction between the image and “what the Americans call” the picture, insisting:

The image is a relationship… An image is either two distant things which you bring together, or it is two close things which you pull apart… “As thin as a thread of hair, as ample as the light of dawn”, this is an image, a thread of hair is not an image, the light of dawn is not an image, it is their relationship which makes the image. (5)

Those of us amassed in the Théâtre Lumière on that Wednesday afternoon, witnessed, through the prism of our burdensome 3D glasses, the invention of a technique – no, more than that, of a mode of vision – unlike anything to which a cinema audience had previously been exposed. We all know that the “3D image” is in fact two images, captured by two different cameras, projected slightly askance from one another, which the viewer, aided by his special glasses, is able to synthesise into a single image with the appearance of three-dimensional contours. What Godard did on two occasions in the film – and it took a genius of Godard’s stature to devise such a simple manoeuvre – was to pan one of the cameras recording a given scene (to follow one of the characters) while keeping the other static (to remain fixed on the other). The image we saw was thus wrenched into two, resulting in a hallucinatory, unstable superimposition effect, until the camera panned back to its original position and the two images re-fused to become one. The audacity of the operation, and the chimeric quality of the effect obtained, produced spontaneous peels of applause from the public. We had seen something utterly unprecedented. As a perceptual frontier, it was on par with witnessing the invention of montage, or the first zoom.

At once, Godard’s interest in le cinéma en relief became clear to us – even Les trois désastres did not give a presentiment of the formal revolution he intended to enact. In interviews, he openly ridicules the notion that “three-dimensional” cinema is somehow perceptually closer to human vision than the two-dimensional image; and we only need to watch the average 3D film to be sure of this. Instead, in these moments in the film, Godard uses stereoscopy to fashion a fundamentally new type of perception, radically alien to our normal manner of seeing the world. (6)

On a broader level, Adieu au langage confirms that, since 2010, Godard has definitively entered a new period of his work, which I have little hesitation in dubbing “Digital Godard”. His renunciation, beginning with Film socialisme, of analogue technologies (whether film or video) has led to a new aesthetic in Godard’s work, the transformation being every bit as palpable as his earlier adoption of video in the mid-1970s. As in his Sonimage period, his work has been revitalised by collaborating with younger technicians (at present, Jean-Paul Battaggia and Fabrice Aragno). Moreover, the new technical dispositif he has adopted entails a shift in thematic focus, albeit more subtly this time, with the capital-P politics of Notre musique ceding to a deeper preoccupation with the domestic sphere, family relations and the dynamics of sexual couples.

In another sense, however, Godard’s latest work recalls the Bresson of the late-1970s and early 1980s. In both cases, an octogenarian director makes films that are resolutely young: centring on youthful characters, and with a certain brattish quality to them. In Adieu this manifests itself in the film’s almost hyperactive shuttling from one image to another, and its brazen rejection of received convention as to what constitutes a “good” film, most notably in the frequent infusion of degraded images or indeterminate noise on the soundtrack – not to mention the recourse to scatological humour!

As for a narrative, no summary can hope to outdo that given by Godard in the film’s press kit:

the idea is simple
a married woman and a single man meet
they love, they argue, fists fly
a dog strays between town and country
the seasons pass
the man and woman meet again
the dog finds itself between them
the other is in one
the one is in the other
and they are three
the former husband shatters everything
a second film begins
the same as the first
and yet not
from the human race we pass to metaphor
this ends in barking
and a baby’s cries (7)

We thus see a couple (or is it more than one?) roaming naked around a large house, engaged in an interminable dispute. We see other characters quoting from Derrida, Heidegger, Brunschwicg and Jacques Ellul, among many others. We see actors dressed as Byron and Shelley, promenading in a glen on the banks of Lake Geneva. We see the exterior of the Usine à gaz, a cultural centre in the Swiss town of Nyon with a historically-loaded name that Godard clearly relished. Most of all, however, we see the dog Roxy Miéville, a non-anthropomorphised character in the mould of Bresson’s Balthasar, who becomes the fulcrum of the film.

I am not free of misgivings about Adieu – most pointedly the inference that an upsurge in radical politics inevitably leads to the gulags (with references to Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky’s Demons, and phrases such as “Abracadabra Mao Zedong Che Guevara” and “There is a great talk of revolution, and a great chance of despotism”) – but my greatest regret in writing these notes is primarily a sentiment of not having been up to the task, of not even beginning to tease out the film’s deeper meaning in the space allotted to me, and, most crushingly, of reducing the inimitable poetry of Godard’s images to the dry prose of the critic’s pen.

Of course, in spite of the fact that Adieu was in competition, nobody at Cannes seriously entertained the idea that it would win the Palme d’or – indeed, it was rather surprising that it even garnered the festival’s bronze medal (the Jury Prize, ex aequo with Mommy). Instead, Jane Campion’s jury bestowed the golden palm on a predictable recipient. If anything, the decision was too predictable: it almost seems as if everything Nuri Bilge Ceylan has done in the cinema over the last decade has been intended to lead up to this moment of coronation, and with his seventh feature, Winter Sleep, the Turkish director has been duly rewarded. This is not to detract from the work, which, aside from Godard’s act of cinematic insurrection, was indisputably the strongest film in the competition line-up. Ceylan’s Palme was also an approbation for a trend that has been particularly prevalent on the festival circuit in the past year – namely, the long-form film. At 196 minutes, Winter Sleep is in the company of recent three-hour-plus titles such as Hard to be a God, Norte, At Berkeley, and, at Cannes, National Gallery and P’tit Quinquin (both in the Quinzaine), while the competition also featured a number of films (Mr. Turner, Saint Laurent, Leviathan) that hovered around the two-and-a-half hour mark.

Winter Sleep

In Ceylan’s case, though, the director more than justified the mammoth running time, skilfully drawing the spectator into his claustrophobic chamber piece. The involved, morally searing dialogues are capable of carrying the lengthy, lambently lit interior scenes without palling on the viewer, and the moral hypocrisies that the three main characters face result in the film inexorably recalling the later work of Ingmar Bergman (a professed influence on Ceylan) – an affinity that is further underscored by the fact that the protagonist, Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), seems to have been sculpted on the model of the well-to-do, aging, bilious male leads played to perfection by Erland Josephson. Aydin, who becomes progressively more egotistic, arrogant and ill-tempered as the film wears on, is the centre of gravity in Winter Sleep’s constellation of characters: a former actor, he now tends to a plush bed-and-breakfast in a remote, mountainous corner of Anatolia, and spends his free time writing Op-Ed articles denouncing the existing social order while extracting rent from the poor villagers who live on his property. Aydin is accompanied by his embittered sister Neycat and attractive young wife Nilhan, who dedicates herself, faute de mieux, to raising money for local school charities. All three individuals are suffocating, to various degrees, from the stifling atmosphere and geographical isolation their situation imposes on them, but a chain of events triggered by a young boy throwing a rock at Aydin’s car window upsets the tenuous equilibrium they had hitherto established.

As a detailed dissection of a society riven by deep historical contradictions, Ceylan’s film was only equalled, at Cannes, by Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, which, despite bowing late in the festival (the second-last day), deservedly won critical plaudits and the Best Screenplay prize. As with his previous film, Elena (which featured in Un Certain Regard in 2011), Zvyagintsev caustically examines the corruption and violence endemic to Russia’s post-Soviet oligarchy, and, as with Elena, the filmmaker’s icy visuals are accompanied by a Philip Glass-composed score. But the setting for the film shifts from Moscow to a sedate town in Russia’s barren north, the beauty of which, while not immediately apparent, is enough for protagonist Kolia to stubbornly resist the crooked city mayor’s attempts to forcibly appropriate his house in order to build a luxury villa. The collusive interpenetration of municipal power, big business, the court system and the Orthodox church notwithstanding, Kolia believes the aid of his Muscovite lawyer pal Dmitri – who has compiled a hefty file detailing the mayor’s long past of corrupt activities – can thwart the impending eviction, but he does not reckon with the fact that Dmitri is having an affair with his wife Lilya. In good Russian fashion, tragedy is the only possible outcome of this set of circumstances, but the director also infuses the film with a potent dash of humour, which reaches an acerbic high point on a boozy hunting trip, where Kolia and his friends take to using official portraits of former Soviet leaders (from Lenin to Gorbachev) as targets, but withhold from shooting Yeltsin’s likeness due to a “lack of historical perspective”. Zvyagintsev’s ability, in Leviathan, to blend such comic moments with a lacerating critique of institutional power, moments of visual grandeur and an element of metaphysical inquiry (Hobbes, Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job are all evoked in the film) will ensure his further ascent into the upper ranks of the world’s auteurs.

Leviathan

The Dardenne brothers have long assumed their own place within the cinematic Pantheon, and are accordingly a permanent fixture at Cannes. Their latest outing, Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night), takes a while for its power to hit home, but when it does, the film provides for one of the most emotionally moving moments of the festival. When Sandra (Marion Cotillard, convincing in her role as a working-class Walloon) returns to her job at a solar panel factory after she had been granted sick leave to deal with a bout of depression, the company owner gives her 16 co-workers a diabolical choice: either the firm sacks Cotillard (now deemed surplus to requirements), or the workers lose their much-needed treizième mois. Having lost an initial ballot 14-2, Sandra succeeds in convincing the boss to stage a revote the next Monday, and so has a single weekend to convince her co-workers to change their mind. With the help of her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongone), her entreaties meet with mixed success, as her colleagues wrestle between a sense of duty to their friend and their own financial needs. Although the visits Sandra pays to 16 individuals, going over the same to-and-fro arguments with each one of them, risk miring the film in a monotonous structure, the mastery of the Dardennes is such that the pay-off is more than worth the slow build-up: unexpectedly, the tables are turned on Sandra, and she is presented with a choice as to whether to make the same sacrifice that she had requested of others. In the end, the film poses the question of the ability of human solidarity to survive the savagery of a neo-liberal economic system in crisis mode. To their immense credit, the Dardennes give an optimistic answer.

Two Days, One Night

Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, his first film since 2006’s Bamako, was the other unambiguously masterful film of the competition. With the historic Malian city under the thumb of Islamic militants in 2012, edicts are passed banning heathen activities such as smoking, music, football and, of course, non-marital sexual relations. Blithe to such draconian restrictions, and the barbaric forms of punishment inflicted on those found infringing them (floggings and stonings become de rigueur), a herdsman, Kidane, lives in a tent situated on sand dunes outside the town, in blissful cohabitation with his loving wife Fatima, 12-year-old daughter Toya and a herd of cattle. When their prize possession, a cow named GPS, is speared by neighbour Amadou, Kidane confronts him about it, and, in a scene shot in sunshine-dappled extreme long-shots, inadvertently kills the man. Brought to trial under Sharia law, there seems to be no way out of a death sentence for Kidane, his wife’s plaintive pleas to the court notwithstanding. Shooting in imperious widescreen, with memorable scenes including a group of young boys playing an imaginary football match without a ball, Sissako traces a cultural conflict distinct from the dominant noise about Islam and the West, but no less intractable: that between the Maghrebin world and sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, difficulties in communication are one of the film’s major tropes, as Arab, French, English and Tuareg are all spoken, and characters frequently criticise each other for their poor linguistic skills. I generally hesitate to use the term “humanist” in an unambiguously positive sense, but sensitivity, generosity and empathy are on such ample display in this film that Sissako not only merits the appellation, but is even able to shear it of its dubiety.

Timbuktu

Beyond these films, the competition provided more mixed results, ranging from films with minor drawbacks to lamentable efforts which have even the most credulous of festival scribes querying the motives behind the selection process (as corruptible as a FIFA World Cup vote is the general consensus). Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner puts the English painter’s life under the microscope, but despite the enthusiasm of the vocal British contingent at Cannes, the film remains a largely conventional biopic, and, in episodically spanning a large chunk of the painters life, is denuded of most of its potential narrative dynamism. Leigh thankfully restrains the urge to turn his film into a series of imitation Turner-tableaux – an endeavour which, even with the filmmaker’s turn to digital photography, would be impossible anyway – and instead focuses on the painter’s lascivious personality. In incarnating Turner in all his grunting, belching glory, Timothy Spall all but guaranteed himself the best actor gong; in my mind, however, it is hard to credit him as anything but Timothy Spall. On the whole, a smattering of stand-out scenes (including encounters with a Daguerreotype photographer, a young and garrulous John Ruskin and the dyspeptic, debt-laden rival painter Hayden) are not always enough to sustain the entire 150-minute venture.

With Saint Laurent, Bertrand Bonello also sallied into the territory of the biopic. He is not the first filmmaker to turn to the flamboyant fashion mogul’s life for inspiration, but his visual flair is such that one could hardly think of a better match. Bonello focuses on the halcyon years of Yves Saint Laurent’s career (1967-76), when the designer went about single-handedly revolutionising both tastes and business practices in the fashion world before inevitably succumbing to a decadent, drug-induced stupor. Everything seems fated to an early death for the tortured soul, which would have given the film a tight dramatic unity – but alas, for Bonello, YSL lived to a ripe old age, and the effort to factor his longevity into the film results in a work that is every bit as bloated as the aging tycoon of haute couture. Indeed, this almost seems to be admitted in a coda to the film, which shows Libération journalists in 1977 on the cusp of writing Saint Laurent’s obituary before deciding to seek irrefutable confirmation of the rumours of his death (disproven, evidently). Tellingly, Bonello himself plays one of the editors.

Saint Laurent

Canada was a strong presence in the competition, with both the Anglophone and Quebecois halves of the country represented. I will pass over Atom Egoyan’s execrable Captives in silence (the director seems to be in a terminal slump in form), but David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars was one of the festival’s most hotly anticipated films. A sardonic ensemble piece taking the knife to Hollywood, Cronenberg’s collaboration with screenwriter Bruce Wagner has echoes of Magnolia, The Player and Mulholland Drive. It is for this reason, perhaps – not to mention the fact that the script spent twenty years in development – that the satire in the film feels rather dated: what may have seemed an exaggerated parody in the 1990s has in many regards been overtaken by reality. In the end, however, there is nothing people in the movies love more than movies ridiculing people in the movies, and the film was correspondingly received favourably by the denizens of Cannes, with the warmest accolades going to Julianne Moore for her histrionic rendition of past-it actress Havana Segrand, who hopes to secure a role in a remake of an older film starring her dead mother. The rest of Maps to the Stars’ elaborate plot revolves around the Weisses, an archetypal Hollywood family, complete with murderous child star Benji, psychopathic burns victim Agatha, motivational-speaker father Stafford and tough-as-nails mother Cristina (who turn out to be brother and sister, of course). If anything, the theme of incest is probably the most pointed aspect of Cronenberg/Weiss’s commentary on Hollywood – an institution so self-absorbed and nepotistic that it seems fated to share the fate of European royal families. How long before the next generation of starlets and movie brats have harelips and clubbed feet?

One of the more recent rituals of Cannes has been to marvel/scoff dismissively (circle the appropriate option) at the precocity of Xavier Dolan. The 25 year-old Montrealer was at this year’s festival with his fifth feature, Mommy. After the work-for-hire job on Tom at the Farm, Dolan here returns to his earlier enterprise of working out his mother issues on celluloid (or digital pixels as the case may be). Die (Anne Dorval) is the single mother of a hyperactive teen, Steve, who returns to her care in Montreal suburbia after being detained for having set fire to a fellow schoolboy, and the joual-speaking duo’s exuberance wins the friendship of neighbour Kyla, a stuttering teacher on sabbatical after an unexplained trauma (the loss of a child is hinted at). Although Die and Steve form a tight unit, they have the misfortune to live in the fictional Canada of a distant future (2015), which has just elected a government whose first order of the day has been to alter some obscure mental health custody laws, and Steve is interned in an asylum against his will. Mommy handily exhibits Dolan’s typical strengths and weaknesses: a certain headstrong vision, visual panache, and the ability to craft genuine emotional climaxes (here: a straitjacketed Steve’s phone call to his mother late in the piece), but also numerous moments of unhinged gaucherie, and a proclivity to partake in faddish trends (here: changing the aspect ratio mid-film).

Mommy

As for the rest of the competition, Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria was not as egregiously problematic as his 2012 outing Après Mai (Something in the Air), but it nonetheless came across as a desultory effort, a sketch-outline of a project rather than a fully-fleshed film – with the star-laden cast (Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, Chloe Grace Moretz) not enough to give substance to Assayas’ foray into English-language cinema, while veteran Ken Loach delivered a similarly lukewarm depiction of 1930s Ireland with Jimmy’s Hall, a tale of the social division sown by a jazz-loving communist militant’s decision to re-open a dance hall in his home village. Taking the bizarre story of reclusive billionaire John Dupont’s bid to steer the US wrestling team to Olympic gold, Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher has been widely tipped for an Oscars run, but in the end the bland film’s main stand-out feature is Steve Carrell’s aquiline prosthetic nose. Italian novice Alice Rohrwacher was a surprise inclusion in the competition with Le Meraviglie, but the film was so lightweight that it was hard to avoid the conclusion that its Grand Prix award was due mainly to Jane Campion’s insistence on having an up-and-coming female director among the prize-winners. For me, however, the true turkey of the festival was Michel Hazanavicius’ The Search (although it’s true that I judiciously skipped the universally reviled opening night film Grace of Monaco). Remaking a Fred Zinnemann film, with the action displaced from World War II to the Chechen conflict of the late 1990s, Hazanavicius cycles through every ponderous cliché he can muster in his bid to make a profound statement about the cruelties of war, but the film at least has the merits of proving beyond doubt that, a) The Artist did not herald the arrival of a worthy filmmaker, and b) Bérénice Bejo’s acting talents are severely limited, and she is probably best off sticking to silent roles. Rarely has a film so thoroughly deserved its resounding chorus of boos.

Jauja

While the competition inevitably draws the lion’s share of attention – and, it seems, this festival report – rewards were also reliably to be had in the Un Certain Regard. Here, the two stand-out films both featured key involvement from Scandinavian countries, but beyond that they shared little in common. Ruben Östlund’s Turist (Force majeure) will undoubtedly bolster the 39 year-old Swede’s stock on the festival circuit, after he had impressed with Involuntary (2008) and Play (2011). As in his two earlier films, Östlund pries into the faultlines sundering middle-class Swedish society with his depiction of a young family on holidays in a French ski resort, whose lives unravel after the father, Tomas, flees an impending avalanche, leaving his wife, Ebba, and two children to fend for themselves. While Tomas initially defends his actions, and blithely takes to the slopes, Ebba continues to press him on the event, and he eventually breaks down in a flood of pathetic sobbing. Like Zvyagintsev, Östlund liberally drizzles his caustic analysis of contemporary social relations with lashings of discomfiting humour, often involving Tomas’ bearded friend Harry. Lisandro Alonso, meanwhile, returned from a six-year hiatus from feature filmmaking with the Viggo Mortensen-starring Dano-Argentine co-production Jauja. Mortensen channels Klaus Kinski’s Aguirre in his portrayal of Captain Dinesen, a 19th-century explorer who sets off in search of the mystical kingdom of Jauja (the name of an ancient Peruvian city that has become the Spanish equivalent of “never-neverland”, Wikipedia tells me), along with his daughter Ingeborg and a rather disloyal Hispanophone crew, one of whom runs off with the young girl. The rest of the film follows Dinesen’s pursuit of the runaways across immaculately framed Patagonian landscapes. With long sequences largely absent of dialogue, a circular narrative echoing Kafka’s The Castle, and a mystifying temporal/geographical shift late in the piece, Alonso’s latest film is almost entirely inscrutable, but invigoratingly so; perhaps, indeed, it is the strangely numinous quality of the film that is its greatest enigma.

Force majeure

Further rich pickings could be found among the sidebar’s screenings at the Salle Debussy, including Charlie’s Country by Australian auteur Rolf de Heer, with David Gulpilil as a nomadic aborigine in the Northern Territory gaining a well-deserved acting award, and the Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó’s Fehér Isten (White God), which, in staging an uprising of mongrel dogs on the streets of Budapest, veered between austere arthouse cinema and blockbuster parody. Jaime Rosales’ Hermosa juventud (Beautiful Youth), while uneven, achieved a certain authenticity in highlighting the aimlessness and despair of Spanish youth trapped in chronic unemployment. The strongest aspect of Pascale Ferran’s Bird People, in contrast, is the diagnosis of the soul-crushing ennui of jet-setting corporate life in the film’s first half, as Silicon Valley exec Gary abruptly decides to quit his job and leave his wife when in transit at Roissy airport on his way to a business meeting in Dubai. The second panel of Ferran’s cinematic diptych, however, registers a disappointing drop in quality as the film switches focus to a Parisian hotel room-cleaner who is inexplicably transformed into a sparrow.

An integral part of the ritual of Cannes for most critics is the routine disregard for Critics’ Week, and neither of the two films I caught in Charles Tesson’s program (Piu buio di mezzanotte by Sebastiano Riso and FLA by Djinn Carrénard) would have done much to alter this prevailing attitude. Directors’ Fortnight is in danger of sharing this fate – certainly, expressions of wistful nostalgia for the Olivier Père years have now become a perennial lament among festival veterans. Under Édouard Waintrop’s stewardship, the section has been increasingly given over to genre films (horror, predominantly), at the expense of the edgier auteurist works which, once the domain of the Quinzaine, now generally find themselves in Un Certain Regard. Gratifying exceptions nonetheless included National Gallery, the latest instalment in Frederick Wiseman’s long-term investigation of cultural institutions, Bande des filles (Girlhood) by Céline Sciamma, and Bruno Dumont’s 197-minute TV series-cum-film P’tit Quinquin, with the French director tapping a rich vein of humour in following the twitching detective Van der Weyden’s bungling attempts to solve a series of unexplained murders in a Ch’ti-speaking village in France’s post-industrial north.

The essay film has become one of the key focal points of Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image’s activities since the first Essay Film Festival in 2015. Although the main festival takes place over a week at the end of March each year, BIMI in fact organises essay-related screenings and events as part of its general programme.

In the run-up to the annual festival, we also schedule a series of “prelude” essay film events, which form a very significant part of our broad research interests concerning the historical as well as contemporary manifestations of the essay form.

Our programming reflects an open and inclusive idea of the essay film, which we think of as a hybrid form that brings together elements of documentary and experimental filmmaking into a highly personal and often politically engaged mode of expression. Some classic exponents of the essay film are Humphrey Jennings, Harun Farocki, Patrick Keiller, and Agnès Varda. But more recently the essay has flourished in the new era of digital filmmaking, and one of the aims of the festival is to provide a focus for the current global expansion of the form.

On this website you will find information and resources about past and present editions of the Essay Film Festival, including video and audio recordings of events, photographs, articles and other documents, which we would like to build into a veritable research archive for anyone who is interested in this most lively and engaging mode of filmmaking.

Theinaugural edition of Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival took place in 2015, featuring a varied programme of screenings, discussions and special guests, and showcasing works by Thom Andersen, Esfir Shub, The Otolith Group, Peter von Bagh, and Constanze Ruhm, among others.

The2016 Festivalfeatured a retrospective of the wide-ranging career of Kidlat Tahimik, the Filipino filmmaker and artist, including the UK premiere ofBalikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux III, along with films by Miranda Pennell, Manoel de Oliveira, Bani Khoshnoudi, and Mark Rappaport.

For our 2017 edition, we welcomed filmmakers Babette Mangolte, Andrés di Tella, Jocelyne Saab, Sarah Wood, Zoe Beloff, George Clark, Deborah Stratman, Kevin B. Lee, Ehsan Khoshbakht, and Huang Ya-Li, and we curated a special series of events around German TV essays made in the 1970s.

Here is the programme for this year’s 2018 Festival.

Come and join us!

 

On behalf of the Essay Film Festival: Michael Temple, Matthew Barrington, Kieron Corless, Catherine Grant, Ricardo Matos Cabo, Janet McCabe, Raquel Morais, Laura Mulvey, Treasa O’Brien

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