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The Speed of Light in a Vacuum

There were standouts at Cannes this year, and not much else

Any festival that programs one unassuming masterpiece; two vibrant, pulse-racing American indies by relatively unknown directors; one exquisite, wonderfully acted depiction of New York history by an indie veteran; two romantic comedies of manners by French veterans at the top of their game; one epic TV series; and one genre-busting Korean/American production that outraged both critics and guardians of the movie business status quo should not be dismissed out of hand. While the favorite films of my colleagues from around the world may not correspond to mine, most critics did find a few films to at least like very much at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

Sadly, that’s just not enough. When one watches an average of four movies a day for 12 days, and the vast majority of them are mediocre at best, one might wonder why one is wasting one’s time, especially since the length of the wait-in-line to get a decent seat at said mediocrities can be over an hour, given the heightened level of security—metal detectors, bag searches—for which we were all grateful. To summarize, I saw eight films that gave me enormous pleasure and I would h­ave been satisfied with that, had I summoned up the energy to walk out after the first 20 minutes of most of the others. But inertia prevailed.

The weather, however, was perfect.

The unassuming masterpiece mentioned above is Agnès Varda and JR’s Visages Villages (Faces Places). An 88-year-old Varda teamed up with the much younger visual artist JR in a tour of France, built around JR’s practice of making huge blow-ups of his photographs of ordinary people and affixing them to the places where his subjects live or work. Like Varda’s groundbreaking The Gleaners and I, Visages Villages is both personal and populist, a celebration of artisanal production (including cinema), worker solidarity, and the photographic arts in the face of mortality. Varda and JR wielded cameras themselves but they were also documented in their travels by multiple image and sound recordists. Out of this often spontaneous jumble, Varda and her editor Maxime Pozzi-Garcia created a work that is vivid, lyrical, and inspiringly humanistic.

Good Time

At the gala for Visages Villages in the Lumière, Varda received a prolonged standing ovation, making its out-of-competition slot all the more inexplicable. Cannes has been under pressure to put more female-directed films in the Competition. This year there were three out of 19, which, I guess, is a step forward. (And no, the Oscars have not been any better.) The Competition jury, which was headed by Pedro Almodóvar and included Maren Ade—robbed last year when her Toni Erdmann, by far the festival favorite, failed to win anything at all—were pretty vocal about wanting to support work by women. Had Visages Villages been eligible, the jury might have been spared the embarrassment of giving the best director prize to Sofia Coppola for her pretty but stultifying and purposeless The Beguiled and a screenplay award to Lynne Ramsay for her ludicrous Taxi Driver gloss, You Were Never Really Here. (To be fair, it was rumored that Ramsay’s film was rushed to Cannes unfinished and will be somewhat reedited.) Two years ago, Varda became the first woman to win an Honorary Palme, but that shouldn’t have disqualified her from competing with a specific film. In the entire history of Cannes, only one woman, Jane Campion, has ever been awarded the Palme d’Or. In 1993, Campion won for The Piano, although she shared the award with Chen Kaige, the director of Farewell My Concubine.

The humanism, which Varda’s work exemplifies, was in short supply at Cannes. Pulverizing rage was directed against Russia and its circle of influence and against nationalism in general by such well-regarded filmmakers as Sergei Loznitsa (A Gentle Creature), Andrei Zvyagintsev (Loveless), and Kornél Mundruczó (Jupiter’s Moon). And Michael Haneke was back to his old trick of skewering the bourgeoisie from a safe aesthetic distance in Happy End. (All four were in Competition.) These are not movies that inspire political resistance or any kind of action, in particular the action of leaping out of bed to get to an 8:30 a.m. screening. By contrast, three of the movies that mattered most to me—Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project—all involve characters living on the margins, fiercely pursuing whatever gives their lives meaning or allows them and whomever they love to survive. Thus I can’t help being on the side of Connie (Robert Pattinson), the hapless bank robber desperately trying to free his more vulnerable brother from the law, in Good Time. A kinetic trip through New York’s underbelly that climaxes with a delirious escapade under the neon lights of a dilapidated amusement park, the film calls up memories of Scorsese’s After Hours and Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, while offering proof that the Safdies have found their own genre-savvy filmmaking voice. A crazed Pattinson, freed from the last vestiges of his pretty-boy past, pulls out the stops (he should have won Best Actor), and the supporting cast led by Benny Safdie as the troubled younger brother is memorable. But the film could not exist without Sean Price Williams’s ingenious, wildly expressionist cinematography.

The Florida Project

Good Time was shot on film, as were Haynes’s Wonderstruck and Baker’s The Florida Project. Working again with cinematographer Ed Lachman and production designer Mark Friedberg, Haynes has made a gloriously beautiful movie about two young, deaf runaways, who come to New York City, 50 years apart, each seeking the respective parent they believe has abandoned them. The film interweaves New York in the 1920s, as it looks in silent, black-and-white movies, with New York in the richly dirtied-up color of the 1970s. Not even Taxi Driver captured the crumbling textures of the city as it struggled to survive as expressively as Wonderstruck, a film that earns its title by evoking the power of cinema as a time machine and as the language in which the history of the last century was written. Playing in Competition, Haynes’s film, like Good Time, was ignored by the jury. The Florida Project would have been an asset to the Competition, but instead played in the Directors’ Fortnight, where the program in general was far more pleasurable than in the Competition or its sidebar, Un Certain Regard. The central characters in Wonderstruck are a preteen boy (Oakes Fegley, affable) and an adolescent girl (Millicent Simmonds, radiant), but it is not a film for children. Nor is The Florida Project, in which we follow for almost the entire film a 6-year-old girl (an amazingly intense Brooklynn Prince) and her two friends as they run wild on the grounds of a week-to-week-occupancy motel compound on the edge of Florida’s Disney World. Baker broke out of the independent directors pack with Tangerine, the movie about transgender prostitutes shot entirely on a souped-up iPhone 5s. Here he reasserts his commitment to 35mm film, and the garish sun-blasted color of the cheap motel buildings and the grassy lots where the kids play, as if they are young animals learning to go on the run because that may well be all the future holds for them, captures the attention better than the twists of any narrative—not that there isn’t a narrative here, though it’s all but hidden until the heartbreaking end. The Florida Project didn’t win a prize but it was one of the few films in the entire festival to generate a distribution bidding war, won by A24. Yes, Cannes is also a market, and this year business was (by overwhelming consensus) “disappointing.”

One of the main prizes in the Fortnight was shared by two French masters, Philippe Garrel and Claire Denis. A seemingly effortless throwaway, Garrel’s Lover for a Day describes a chance triangular relationship among a middle-aged professor, his 23-year-old girlfriend, and his daughter of the same age, who tearfully comes home after she’s been ditched by her boyfriend, only to discover that she’ll be sleeping on the couch outside the bedroom occupied by her dad and his new sweetie. The story is quotidian, but the performances have a low-key psychological charge, and the images—exquisitely shadowed black-and-white 35mm— give the narrative a timelessness that is precisely the point of Garrel’s enterprise. Denis’s Un beau soleil intérieur, badly retitled by its American distributor, Sundance Selects, as Let the Sunshine In, is a romantic comedy of manners starring Juliette Binoche, giving her most subtle, understatedly comic performance in decades as a divorced artist in her fifties, taking what she believes is her last shot at finding true love and in the process frightening off every man in her boho milieu, where commitment to anything at all just isn’t cool. I expected that male critics would be similarly turned off by the film, but I was completely off the mark. Perhaps because Denis’s direction and Binoche’s performance make its satire both barbed and tender, Un beau soleil intérieur was one of the few critical successes of the festival.

The future of two of the best movies of Cannes ’17—and I expect that both will only seem stronger over time—is on the small screen. Bong Joon Ho’s Okja, which played in Competition, will never be shown theatrically in France (at least, until 2020). Its distributor, Netflix, has insisted on a day-and-date release worldwide, and by law in France, three years must elapse between a movie’s theatrical release and its release on home screens. Thus it was immediately a scandal that Okja had a place in Competition. According to the festival, it was an experiment that will never be repeated. Too bad, because Netflix and its like are the future, and festivals such as Cannes may be the only venues where one will be able to see on the big screen movies by masters of cinema who have accepted Netflix financing, not only to get their films made but because they want them to be seen wherever viewers prefer. Okja also scandalized in a way that has nothing to do with its release, but rather that it lays a booby trap for the audience by beginning as one kind of film—a bucolic tale of a girl and her companion animal—and turns into an exposé of the animal holocaust that is factory farming. More about that starting here.

Un beau soleil intérieur

Lastly, Cannes tipped its hat to a very old form of cinema—the serial—now watched either weekly or in one gusher on the home screen. Under the rubric “Events of the 70th Anniversary” were two made-for-cable series: the first two episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return and all six hour-long episodes of the second season of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl. I wish I could be interested in Lynch’s fiddling with CGI, his overworking of his actors’ glottal stops, and his evocation of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the symptomology of Alzheimer’s disease, and, more generally, castration anxiety. But I’m not. The second iteration of Top of the Lake, however, is as much a feminist epic as the first. Although it lacks the terrifyingly primal New Zealand landscape in which its predecessor was set, it grapples with something just as powerful and archaic—the maternal drive. Elisabeth Moss returns as Detective Robin Griffin, who is now working in Sydney, and, just as in the first season, investigating a crime whose victims are young women. The character and Moss’s performance are feminist landmarks. What she grapples with are unending contradictions, within and without—something that Campion and Moss take on with a relish that is contagious and liberating. The Cannes audience sat spellbound for six hours. Much of Cannes ’17 was a drag, but I’ll forever remember seeing Top of the Lake: China Girl projected big and beautiful—a Wonder Woman for the ages.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor to Film Comment and Artforum.