After repeatedly being drubbed for selecting from the same exclusive assembly of auteurs for its Official Selection, the Cannes Film Festival made the daring decision this year to bypass a number of its longtime favourites, including Olivier Assayas, Mike Leigh, Naomi Kawase, and Paolo Sorrentino. Predictably, the critics then griped that the festival was declining major artists to make way for neophytes and second-raters. Cannes, it seems, can’t catch a break.
Two initial exclusions of Cannes stalwarts were eventually reversed. The Turkish Palme d’Or winner Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose three-hour-plus The Wild Pear Tree, about a writer who returns to his home village and finds his aspirations imperiled by his father’s debts, was a late addition, as was Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built. The latter, a psychological thriller that follows a serial killer over a period of 12 years, was added after the festival overturned its ban on von Trier, which had officially rendered him “persona non grata” for his declaration that he was a Nazi and a Hitler sympathizer during his 2011 festival press conference for Melancholia. There’s little more tiresome than an aged enfant terrible desperate to provoke, and I only hope that this House turns out to be better built than its premise, as any film about a serial killer admits by its very subject matter a crucial lack of invention.
Speaking of a paucity of imagination, I rather dread the festival’s opening film, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem. I was one of few who found Farhadi’s Oscar-winning The Salesman ludicrously implausible in its narrative revelations and laboured in its bizarre interpolations of Death of a Salesman. Everybody Knows is another of the Iranian auteur’s ethical mysteries about an unraveling family, this time set in rural Spain. Perhaps I will end up eating crow étoufée for breakfast if the film reveals any of the moral complexity of Farhadi’s other Oscar winner, the far superior A Separation.
Farhadi’s compatriot Jafar Panahi arrives in Cannes’s competition for the first time with Three Faces, portraying a trio of Iranian actresses: one from the prerevolutionary era who had to cut short her career, a young girl intent upon attending an acting conservatory and a contemporary Farsi superstar. A tripartite tale set in the world of impersonation seems rich material for Panahi, whose films always manage to twist fiction and documentary, performance and actuality, into a slippery helix.
Coming from farther east, the blunt original title of Jia Zhangke’s new film, Money & Love, has been replaced by the more poetic Ash is the Purest White, but his subject matter remains the same: love and money. A brilliant bard of post-Mao China, Jia once again stars his wife and muse, Zhao Tao. Here she is a dancer in an industrial backwater who falls in love with a local mobster and lands in prison after firing a gun to protect him in a gangland fight. Jia has produced the greatest body of work in contemporary Chinese cinema, so there is every reason to anticipate Ash, which ambitiously spans the years 2001 to 2017, and no doubt offers a further iteration of Jia’s harsh, melancholy vision of capitalist rapacity in his beleaguered homeland. I can only hope the film marks a return to form after his last foray into the Cannes competition with the rather erratic Mountains May Depart.
No film in Cannes Competition excites me more than Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book (Le Livre d’image). The most important director in the history of cinema, in my estimation, Godard has, contrary to prevalent opinion, remained an unsurpassed master in his dotage, giving us some of the most beautiful and inexhaustible works of the millennium (Éloge de l’amour, Notre musique, Film Socialisme, Goodbye to Language).
Judging by a one-minute online teaser, Godard appears to have returned to the dense essay form of his magnum opus, Histoire(s) du cinéma, with its rapid fire, stuttering montages of sequences from film history paired with what I call Godard’s Transcendental Jukebox: music culled from the catalogue of the ECM record label. The reclusive Godard is unlikely to get to Cannes, but his presence will be everywhere, in the festival’s official poster, a famous still from his new wave masterpiece, Pierrot le fou.
The radical Godard helped shut the festival down exactly 50 years ago, an event which the current spate of strikes and unrest in France recalls, and now reigns from afar over its 71st edition.
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.