By Kent Jones in the July-August 2017 Issue
Many years ago now, the writer Larry Gross predicted that the term “indie” would devolve from the designation of an actual economic position within the film industry to pure marketing speak. He was correct, of course. The common usage of “auteur” has similarly devolved and, like “liberal” before it, become a damning epithet. “It’s an auteur film...,” one hears. What does that mean? Like all words that have come unmoored from their actual origins (by the way, I’m not referring to the actual French word for “author,” but the cinema-specific usage), it now indicates a range of possible implications, exactly what shade depending on the implicator. Sometimes it simply means the work of an individual; sometimes it stands for esoteric, rarefied, or self-indulgent; and sometimes it stands for a type of filmmaking that has supposedly now been outmoded by the greater glories of show-runner-driven serialized television.
It would seem that as of now, the programmers of the Cannes Film Festival have settled on a definition somewhere in between but tending negative. There was a handful of very good films in competition this year. But it was striking that one of the very best films—Agnès Varda and JR’s Visages Villages, which will be called Faces Places on these shores—was out of competition. It was equally striking that there were so many very-good-to-genuinely-great films in the Quinzaine, including Claire Denis’s insightful, surprising, and hilarious Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sunshine In). And it was especially striking that the main festival opened with the shortened version of Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts, as opposed to the director’s cut now playing at the Cinéma du Panthéon in Paris.
Why is this now the case? But when has it not been the case? The glory days of the studio system are often fondly recalled by film lovers, but the brutal realities of commercial survival in factory conditions, which caused John Ford and Howard Hawks to do somersaults proving that they weren’t artists but dependable employees, are almost always elided. The glories of the Taiwanese New Wave are recalled with justifiable fondness, but not its brevity. The New Hollywood got its comeuppance from the multiple blows of Rocky/Star Wars/Ghostbusters and the failure of Heaven’s Gate. The achievements of functioning artists in the American cinema of 2017 are pitted against serial television and found passé. But the relegation of the cinéma d’auteur to the level of a minor genre to be not so benignly tolerated in the supposedly greater adult realities of the film world at the Cannes Film Festival, once a true home for the cinema, truly stings.
Philippe Garrel has always had a contentious relationship with Cannes. After a disastrous experience with his 2008 Frontier of Dawn, he made a vow never to return to the competition, and Venice and the Quinzaine have always felt like his real home. His new Lover for a Day continues in the vein begun with 2015’s In the Shadow of Women, on which veteran screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière came into the picture, presumably adding a new level of literary formality to Garrel’s work, with narration and a brittle undertone of irony that recalls epistolary novels and the films of Eric Rohmer. It’s been a rewarding experience to see Garrel’s cinema as it has changed over the years, incorporating and absorbing different longings and personalities and strategies (from the coming and going of writer Marc Cholodenko and DP Raoul Coutard to the gradual disappearance of Nico as an inspiration), and yet stayed absolutely and gloriously itself. In Garrel’s third black-and-white meditation on jealousy, this time featuring a stunning young actress named Louise Chevillotte and Garrel’s own daughter Esther, the spells of sustained breathable time have become a little more compact but no less beautiful or wondrously close to lived existence.
Sean Baker’s The Florida Project was a revelatory experience, both in and of itself and because of the fact that it so fully realized the promise of American place-specific reality-based fiction cinema after so many years of films with intriguing passages and situations that never quite add up to an entire satisfying movie. Baker works with a mix of actors and non-actors in this story of a single mother (Bria Vinaite) and her young daughter (Brooklynn Prince) trying to make a life in a Florida motel somewhere in the vicinity of Disney World. Baker cuts no corners with the flimsy bottom-rung consumer world of Orlando, from the “vista” overlooking the highway and the condemned housing development to the supermarket knockoff items on which mother and daughter splurge. In its early stages, the film appears to be another immersive slice of low life, albeit an unusually fleet and ingenious one. But The Florida Project gradually and almost imperceptibly develops a sad, humanly scaled tension that builds to a genuinely harrowing and sadly commonplace finale, underscored by a moving Willem Dafoe as the motel’s attentive but no-nonsense manager. The Florida Project is a deliberately modest-sized film made by an artist whose sense of ethics is matched by his pursuit of exciting and tough-to-render behaviors and situations and the small-scale delights and disasters of life on the tips of the edges of the margins.
The main festival initiated a documentary prize two festivals ago, which has resulted in a very minimal increase in the nonfiction presence at the festival. Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places won this year’s prize. There was also a very tough new film from Barbet Schroeder, the third and final installment in what the director is now calling his Trilogy of Evil, beginning all the way back in 1974 with General Idi Amin Dada. The Venerable W is a fascinating portrait of Ashin Wirathu, a nationally renowned Buddhist monk in Myanmar who gently preaches incendiary rhetoric against the “Rohingya” Muslim minority and has unarguably incited slaughter. Schroeder and his brilliant editor Nelly Quettier (who has cut the majority of Claire Denis’s films and the majority of Leos Carax’s) build their damning portrait one gradation at a time. The becalmed Venerable W speaks in measured tones on matters that initially appear to be run-of-the-mill Buddhism, gradually shading into the purest hate-mongering. Schroeder and Quettier play a game of concealing information that cunningly exploits Western anxiety over Islam, only to reveal that the Rohingya community is a fraction of the country’s population and that they are spoken and thought of in a manner that recalls the worst of vintage Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda. The Venerable W is far more lucid than the middle film in Schroeder’s trilogy, Terror’s Advocate (2007), and it builds to a genuinely horrifying endpoint.
Tony Zierra’s Filmworker, shown in Cannes Classics, follows Leon Vitali, who gave up a lucrative acting career and a life with his family to become not just Stanley Kubrick’s right hand but also his left hand, his right foot, and at least one or two of his major organs. Zierra’s film manages a fascinating portrait of the wiry, once-emaciated, now near-bankrupt Vitali, the man who found Danny Lloyd for The Shining; who insisted that Kubrick consider Lee Ermey as the drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket; who personally checked every print, video transfer, and soundtrack compilation from every Kubrick film; and who can’t stop looking out for his outsized boss. I wish that Zierra had gone into a little detail about the questionable decisions around the HD transfers of Kubrick’s films that appeared in the Blu-ray box set (including an incorrect aspect ratio for Barry Lyndon, in which Vitali played Lord Bullingdon), but his film is lively, funny, and a little disturbing.
As many before me have pointed out, the competition was not exactly overrun with great films, and that made it particularly odd to run into people who managed to have a problem with Todd Haynes’s lovely adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel Wonderstruck, featuring parallel but slowly converging narratives about two hearing-impaired adolescents (Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley) escaping to Manhattan in the silent black-and-white ’20s and the harsh and humid ’70s. Every detail in this magical and emotionally potent (not to mention texturally bewitching, thanks to DP Ed Lachman and production designer Mark Friedberg) film appears to have been patiently summoned from Selznick’s and Haynes’s remembered pasts. Wonderstruck is a richly rewarding experience, and its culminating scene, featuring one of Julianne Moore’s finest moments, packs quite an emotional wallop.
Kent Jones is the Director of the New York Film Festival.