GFF Blog: Cannes Film Festival

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Cannes felt as if it had reached a tipping point this year. The world’s most glamorous, important Film Festival is caught between honouring the traditions of its glorious past and running to catch up with seismic changes in the industry.

Hollywood heavyweights now seem so focused on the ever-lengthening awards season that an autumn launch at Venice or Toronto seems preferable to an early roll of the dice in Cannes. The row with Netflix over the obligation to give films a cinema release in France deprived the Festival of several key titles including Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and the holy grail for film buffs of the now completed final feature from Orson Welles - The Other Side Of The Wind.

The irony was that Netflix still bought two Cannes prize-winners for North America and Latin America—Happy As Lazarro and the very impressive Camera D’Or winner Girl.

Cannes still feels behind the curve when it comes to addressing the lack of recognition for women filmmakers and every other aspect of gender equality and respect. There was a Sexual Harassment Hotline established, Cate Blanchett did serve as President of the jury and much lip service was paid to the #MeToo movement and the need for fresh thinking and new initiatives. At the same time, there were  just three women directors in the main competition. When the Festival added a set of masterclasses in which key industry figures discussed their careers all four of them were men. Asia Argento caught some of the mood at the closing ceremony when she declared that Harvey Weinstein had raped her at Cannes in 1997, that the Festival had once been considered his hunting ground and that those shameful days belonged in the past.

Unflappable Cannes supremo Thierry Fremaux was in a damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t position. The Festival is often criticised for relying on a group of regulars considered Cannes family - Michael Haneke, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh. The cry goes up demanding the inclusion of brighten talents that will shape cinema’s future. This year, when he did focus attention on younger, less established figures, he was faced with criticism for a line up full of the unfamiliar. That’s before he decided to impose a ban on red carpet selfies and change the press screening schedule in a way that ruffled many feathers. Choosing the films at the best festival in the world and setting the tone is a dream job, but often an unenviable one.

In the end, Cannes felt a little quiet this year, a little bruised and battered as even the weather was uncooperative; unusually cool with days marked by thunderstorms and torrential rain. Industry journals dramatically challenged the Festival to change or die. Like every other year, what really mattered  were the films.

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Cate Blanchett and a jury that included Kristen Stewart and Ava DuVernay, give their top prize to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s gentle, humane Shoplifters. What initially feels like a Ken Loach film, or an attempt to emulate Italian neorealist films of the 1940s, gradually develops into a story with the sweep of a Dickens novel as it tells of a dirt poor family that rely on shoplifting to keep everyone fed and housed. The strategies for survival reinforce the close bonds between family members but there are surprises in store with a film that confronts love, compassion and the meaning of family life. It struck me as one of Kore-eda’s very best films and one I would love to have at GFF 2019. British distribution has yet to be announced.

Benicio Del Toro and his jury gave their top prize to Ali Abbasi’s second feature Border, based on a short story by Let the Right One In author John Ajvide Lindqvist. The less you know in advance about this one the better, as it takes you completely by surprise in its twists and turns. In essence, it revolves around a female customs officer with a heightened sense of smell. She is more creature than human in the way she can sniff wrongdoing and sense the presence of evil. Then, one day she is confronted by a traveller who looks exactly like her. A fusion of twisted fairytale, folklore, police procedural, tragic romance and existential drama, Border was one of the real discoveries of the Festival and a personal favourite.

Another striking discovery came with Girl, featuring a star-making performance from Victor Polster as a 16 year-old boy transitioning to female, and determined to follow her dream of becoming a ballerina. The intense physical demands of ballet training allied to the huge changes in her body place an enormous strain on a determined, vulnerable individual in a heartbreaker of film.

There were many notable films in Cannes competition including Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a compact, sumptuous-looking black and white drama that tells the tragic story of his parents all-consuming love affair. There are scenes that could have graced a Murnau film in the silent era. Nuri Bilge Ceylan was on majestic form with The Wild Pear Tree, a plaintive saga of prodigal sons and errant fathers, Spike Lee bounced back with the angry, entertaining The BlackKKlansman in which John David Washington proves every bit as charismatic as his dad Denzel.

Other highlights for me included Little Tricks (Les Chatouilles), a moving screen adaptation of Andréa Bescond’s award-winning, one-woman stage show on the legacy of sexual abuse, and Mark Cousins documentary The Eyes Of Orson Welles which really does succeed in making you see Welles films from a fresh perspective. It has a UK cinema release in August.

Cannes may be experiencing a period of transition but it is still a wonderful place to see the best of world cinema, meet the movers and shakers, discover hidden gems and start planning the programme for your very own Festival. The 2019 Glasgow Film Festival selections begin here.

Allan Hunter 
GFF Co-director

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