"Did you walk out before the earthworms scene?" my critic pal wanted to know, his voice rising in dudgeon. "When he asks the woman in the sand dunes for earthworms? Sand dunes! In June! He's not going to find any bloody earthworms in the sand dunes in June!"
So it would appear that the 70th anniversary edition of Cannes, with its gruelling gauntlets of security, bomb scares, endless jostling queues, technical snafus, and unconscionably late starts to screenings, not to mention a paucity of good films, has worn some of us to nerve-flayed nubs, and there are still many days to go.
Two films in a row that involve shipbuilding – Laurent Cantet's The Workshop and Gyorgy Kristof's Out, in case anyone asks – do not a trend portend, but twinning films becomes one way of making sense of Cannes's welter.
Obviously, the two films by Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, the sliver-thin and utterly charming Claire's Camera, shot at last year's Cannes festival and starring Isabelle Huppert as a Parisian music teacher in a Rubik's Cube tale of amorous and professional betrayals, and the longer and more complex The Day After in competition, in which Hong offers a self-excoriating version of his own recent marital scandal, make a natural duo. As do the two French films starring Mathieu Amalric, Arnaud Desplechin's Ismael's Ghosts and Barbara, the latter a biopic about a famous sixties chanteuse directed by Amalric, both of which unsuccessfully struggle to revive that stalest meta-trope of modernist cinema: the making-of-a-film movie.
Two studies of hapless male hubris, Ruben Ostlund's The Square and Yorgos Lanthimos's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, feature similar protagonists, the first a smug contemporary art curator, the second a complacent heart surgeon, both of whom are forced to confront their moral failings by threatening male adolescents (one much deadlier than the other).
The title of the strenuously Euripidean Sacred Deer signals the Artemis-like directive the doctor (Colin Farrell) must follow to kill a member of his precious but expendable family to save the others. (Does the appearance of an animal in all three titles of Lanthimos's films, which also include Dogtooth and The Lobster, imply a trilogy, or is this a question that would occur only at Cannes?) Deer's use of Greek tragedy also aligns it with the portrayal of the haute bourgeois family, a latter-day House of Atreus, in Michael Haneke's Happy End, whose villa no doubt has walk-in closets for the countless skeletons each of its secretive members seems to cache.
Occasionally, pairings seem to suggest themselves as double bills, such as Agnès Varda's lovely documentary Faces Places, which ends on a devastating note thanks to Jean-Luc Godard, and Michel Hazanavicius's Redoubtable, a biopic about Godard's marriage to the actress Anne Wiazemsky. Oddly, the film elides the reported account of Godard's falling in love with Wiazemsky on screen in Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar and searching her out to marry her, and the actress who embodies Anne, Stacy Martin, with her dark helmet of hair, unsettlingly appears instead as the spitting image of Chantal Goya, the actress Godard used once only in Masculin Feminin.
The first half of Redoubtable, with its recreations of the arty erotics of JLG's Une Femme Mariée and the party scene from Pierrot le Fou, comes on just as smarmy as I expected but in its second half, as Godard attempts to recreate himself and his cinema after the political events of 1968, the film manages to quarry some stinging insights about the self-righteous, castigating and easily wounded director.
Another dreaded French film which turned out to be less excruciating than initially imagined, Bruno Dumont's techno musical Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc seemed to think it was radically sui generis even as its lineage could be traced back to Poulenc (Dialogues of the Carmelites), Jacques Demy and both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.
Despite the quickly palling audacity of Dumont's account of the formation of Joan as spiritual warrior, and the tiresome choreography that mostly involves young women thrashing their long manes back and forth as if in a mosh-pit advertisement for Rejoice shampoo, the film has inadvertent pleasures, principally from its materialistic soundtrack: the Brechtian backbeat of sheep bleats – one limping lamb proves far more endearing than Joan – and the whipping of wind-stiffened wimples on a pair of twin nuns in the Calais breeze.
An oasis of contemplation amid the chaos of Cannes, the posthumous film of Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, 24 Frames, delivered exactly what its title promises: two dozen locked camera shots, in long takes of four-and-a-half minutes each, of the director's favourite images and topos: solitary Tarkovskian trees, snowy fields, casement panes framing landscapes, Rothko-like triptychs of sky, sea, and sand.
The first frame animates Bruegel's painting Hunters in the Snow (a work much employed by Andrei Tarkovsky in his cinema) but thereafter features Kiarostami's own photographs, in which animals figure prominently. (The extensive end credits for special effects and animal tenders suggest that some of the amazing beast performances were somehow altered.) The film returns to the modus of Kiarostami's tribute to the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, Five, which was even more rigorous in offering a quintet of long takes of nature, each lasting about 16 minutes, and brings back that film's conga line of ducks.
Nevertheless, in a Cannes so far lacking in both poetry and rigour, 24 Frames offered a bracing bit of both.
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto