Traversing the seaside Croisette in Cannes, whose view of the Mediterranean is increasingly obstructed by private beach hoardings and billboards for films you pray never get made, it is difficult to imagine that this same shoreline stretches to the east, onto which hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived over the past years.
The Cannes festival has always supplied a rich dose of class irony, as the rich and famous shimmy out of their black sedans and up the tapis rouge in Givenchy and Chopard to applaud films about the homeless, the abject and, especially this year, desperate refugees. At least three major films tackle the European refugee crisis, revealing in their drastically different approaches how the suffering of others serves variously as a prod to conscience, source for exploitation or reason for reprimand.
Vanessa Redgrave became a first-time director at the age of 80 to make Sea Sorrow, whose Shakespearean title refers to the exile of Prospero, which Redgrave employs as an analogy for the plight of the refugees she portrays in her activist documentary. The film begins with shots of a bucolic landscape and abstract imagery of shimmering gold material – which will be familiar to anyone who saw Gianfranco Rosi's Fire at Sea as the protective cloak used to enwrap refugee survivors from cross-sea voyages – and rending interviews with young men who have fled various horrors in Africa and the Middle East, cropped in tight eyes-forward compositions so that they seem to be judging us.
If Redgrave's indictment of the inhumane and, according to international human rights accords, illegal response of Britain to the refugee crisis is predictably earnest in tone and crude in method, the film is infinitely preferable to its narrative opposite, the callow, exploitative Jupiter's Moon, which landed in official competition.
The Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo has now been at Cannes five times, but Jupiter's Moon proves the least of his films in its cynical employment of the Syrian refugee crisis as mere pretext for a showy supernatural thriller that the director claims is part of a trilogy about faith. My own faith in cinema was more than a little shaken by the director's usurpation of suffering for a genre film he imagines is visionary (and clever) but is in its every aspect morally repugnant.
Mundruczo has been explicit about his concerted disregard for the calamity he exploits: "We did not want to make a refugee film but to use the present crisis as a context for rethinking miracles." So it is in Jupiter's Moon that a young Syrian fleeing the devastation of Oms is shot to death by a zealous border policeman but soon discovers in this Lazarian tale – part Tarkovsky, part Terminator – that he not only lives on but can miraculously fly. (His CGI levitations are admittedly impressive, if overused.) Moon suggests the gravity defier may be an angel, but the Biblical aspects of his miracle are as incoherent as the film's intentions.
When a corrupt Hungarian doctor, intent on paying off a malpractice suit, discovers the young refugee's numinous abilities, he takes him under his wing (so to speak) and exploits him to bilk huge sums from the gullible and religiously devoted. After the Budapest subway is bombed by a fellow Syrian escapee – a Trumpian fantasy come true – the maybe-angel is misidentified by the police as a perpetrator, allowing Mundruczo to indulge in all manner of showboating chase scenes and shootouts, culminating in a redemptive finale larded with Dostoevskian musings about faith (apparently, people just forget to "look up") and the history that the film has so studiously ignored throughout. "There is no safe place from the injuries of history," the doctor pronounces to his preternatural protege. And certainly no haven from those who exploit imperilled refugees, including Mundruczo.
The press book for Michael Haneke's Happy End states the film's synopsis in two sentences: "'All around us, the world, and we, in its midst, blind.' A snapshot from the life of a bourgeois European family." Make that haute bourgeois, given the palatial pile that la famille Laurent inhabits in Calais, complete with a married pair of live-in servants (referred to at one point as "Moroccan slaves.") The addled patriarch (Jean-Louis Trintignant) wants out of life, long after handing over the family construction empire to his daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), whose brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is a married surgeon with a penchant for e-mail erotics with a baroque cellist. (Period instrument players may be pleased with the association of musical abandonment with kinky sex, while those who recently suffered through the prolonged e-mail exchange in Olivier Assayas' Personal Shopper will worry that endless texting has become an art-house trope.)
No surprise for those familiar with the dire, often malign vision of Austrian master Haneke, moral scourge of our complacent, violent, distracted times, that Happy End figures as a kind of cerebral disaster movie. Overloaded with four suicide attempts, including one of a barely adolescent child, the fatal collapse of a construction site and assorted beatings, betrayals, and chastisements – in Haneke the mere presence of a dog signals that someone, like a wee girl here, will inevitably be viciously attacked – Happy End remains both uninvolving and unconvincing through its predictably unhappy finale. That the director employs the film as a digest of his career, with direct references to Benny's Video, Caché, Code Inconnu and Amour, only makes it all the more enervating.
Except for a couple of elliptical sequences – as always, Haneke withholds essential information by filming in long shot or obscuring dialogue with traffic noise – Happy End initially appears to leave the matter of the infamous refugee encampment in Calais as what we used to call a "structuring absence," unremarked though ever-present. Not so.
The film's finale, set at a swank seaside luncheon to celebrate Anne's engagement to a British lawyer, rather clumsily introduces the missing inhabitants of Calais' notorious "jungle," African refugees Anne's errant son brings to the event as a provocation. Suddenly, the bourgeois guests can no longer enjoy the comfort of their collective blindness, Haneke's chiding analogy extending to us, the equally obtuse audience.
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.