Halfway through this year’s Cannes Film Festival, there were those who were arguing that it was probably the best edition for many years, and might even outdo the 2005 lineup, which boasted L’Enfant, Hidden, Broken Flowers, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, A History of Violence, Three Times, Last Days, Lemming and, in the Un Certain Regard strand, The Death of Mr Lazarescu.
Though the 2016 selection didn’t, in the end, quite live up to its extraordinary initial promise – the competition fielded a few genuine stinkers in its last two or three days – it must certainly be counted, at the very least, as a highly superior vintage, with an unusually large number of fine films.
My own list of favourites, sadly, includes no films from the Directors’ Fortnight (I should have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to catch Pablo Larraín’s widely acclaimed Neruda, reportedly featuring a terrific performance by Gael García Bernal) or the Critics’ Week; I didn’t see anything in those strands, as I was too busy enjoying the films in the official selection.
Here, then, are some brief thoughts about 15 titles which for me were the very best of the fest. All being well, you will very probably be able to see most if not all of them at some point over the coming year.
Director Cristi Puiu
Three hours long and largely set in one cramped apartment where an extended family and some of their friends are gathered for a memorial service, this rigorous, quietly radical slice of realism from the finest of Romania’s impressive lineup of filmmakers speaks volumes not only about family life but about how we are all shaped, in one way or another, by events in the wider world. (That it takes place shortly after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, for instance, gives rise to much discussion of 9/11 and related topics.) Mysterious, mesmerisingly truthful, and frequently very funny.
I, Daniel Blake
Director Ken Loach
Arguably Ken Loach’s finest work in a decade, this is the deceptively simple, straightforward tale of a 59-year-old Newcastle joiner battling with the bureaucratic obstacles put in his way by the Department for Work and Pensions as he tries to get the benefits payments to which he should be entitled following a heart attack. Frighteningly relevant at a time when the welfare state is being wrecked through privatisation and the poor and disabled are often dismissed as scroungers, it is essential viewing and one of the director’s most profoundly moving films. The Palme d’Or meant than Loach joined a select few who have won the top prize more than once.
Director Maren Ade
The big hit of the festival, this third feature by a German director new to the Cannes competition takes an extended look at the fraught relationship of a young workaholic management consultant determined to get on in her high-flying career, and her widowed father, an irrepressible practical joker with a penchant for disguises involving bad hair and even worse teeth, who comes to visit her in Bucharest. Despite the 162-minute running time, Maren Ade keeps things moving along very nicely indeed, increasingly (and very successfully) slipping into the comedic mode as the film proceeds to its quietly affecting conclusion.
Mal de pierres (From the Land of the Moon)
Director Nicole Garcia
Generally underrated by the critics in Cannes, Nicole Garcia’s admittedly rather old-fashioned film is a surprisingly absorbing study of amour fou, notwithstanding a slightly stodgy start explaining how a teenage girl, living in a village in postwar Provence and fuelled by dreams of perfect, passionate love derived from romantic literature, came to be trapped in a loveless marriage to a Catalan builder. When she falls for an army officer fading away in an Alpine sanatorium, the story finally takes off. Thanks to a predictably fine, unsentimental lead performance from Marion Cotillard, the film paints a frank, sharp portrait of self-centred, self-destructive romantic delusion.
Director Jim Jarmusch
Jim Jarmusch’s finest film in a while, this is a wondrously tender, witty and delicate chronicle of a week in the mostly unremarkable life – in Paterson, New Jersey, once home to William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, among others – of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus-driver and amateur poet. Though some might find the depiction of his mutually supportive relationship with girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) implausibly free from tension, the film charms and impresses both as a billet doux (to a city, to poetry, to friendship, understanding and love) and as a celebration of the joys, beauty and good things that can be found among the disappointments and banalities of everyday life.
Director Pedro Almodóvar
Adapted from three stories by Alice Munro (though the narrative is structured so elegantly, you’d never know it), Pedro Almodóvar’s latest charts the events that led over many years to a young woman suddenly, at the age of 18, abandoning her adoring mother, with no word of warning or exploration. In a more serious, sombre register than much of Almodóvar’s work, it may not have the emotional punch one might expect of material dealing so directly with loss, grief and guilt, but there remain plenty of pleasures to be had from the performances, characteristically polished cinematography, design and music, and the sure sense of period and place.
Director Olivier Assayas
Notable primarily, perhaps, for its pleasingly cavalier attitude to narrative development, Olivier Assayas’s film mixes a fairly naturalistic depiction of the contemporary world of fashion – an American in Paris (Kristen Stewart) has been forced to take a job tending to the wardrobe and other requirements of a temperamental supermodel – with more generic suspense derived from the character’s attempts to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother. The film doesn’t always feel entirely coherent, but the ghost-story elements are genuinely unsettling, and Assayas’s fleet editing style ensures we have little time for pondering the story’s precise credibility. He shared the best director prize with Cristian Mungiu.
Director Kleber Mendonça filho
The second feature from the director of Neighbouring Sounds (2012) centres on Clara, a 65-year-old widow and retired music critic who is the last remaining resident of a block of apartments on the Recife seafront, which has been bought by a company keen to redevelop the site. Partly a study of a stubborn, intelligent, canny and comfortably-off woman determined to hold on to her family home, partly a critique of the aggression and corruption widespread in business and politics, the film benefits from a sterling lead performance by Sonia Braga, which helps Mendonça steer clear of the potential pitfalls of feelgoodism or sentimentality.
The Unknown Girl (La Fille inconnue)
Director Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Compelling, ethically and psychologically astute, and topically relevant, the Dardennes’ latest takes the form of an investigation: having failed to open the door to her surgery to an after-hours visitor, a young doctor later learns that the unidentified African girl in question was found dead nearby, and decides to find out who she was and how she died. This is no conventional policier, however, but a carefully constructed realist drama about a faintly naive but very decent young woman trying to make amends for what she regards as a dreadful mistake and to bring the truth – whatever it may be – to light. Adèle Haenel’s lead performance is as subtle and restrained as the direction.
Director Brillante Mendoza
Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s films are probably something of an acquired taste – his long takes, grubby digital visuals and sometimes raucous soundtracks bring a squalid realism to his evocations of life on the teeming, noisy streets of Manila’s shantytowns – but this is one of his more accessible efforts, and undeniably easier to sit through than the nightmarishly dark, relentlessly violent Kinatay (2009), which won him the Cannes best director prize. Focusing on a candy-store owner and her husband who are arrested for dealing drugs and find themselves having to deal with corrupt police, the film feels so in-your-face that it seems like documentary rather than fiction – proof, were it needed (for unbelievers it may be!), of Mendoza’s skilful mise-en-scène and expertise with actors. Jaclyn Jose was awarded the best actress prize.
Director Cristian Mungiu
Cristian Mungiu’s latest focuses on a successful provincial doctor, a kind and seemingly decent fellow who dotes on his teenage daughter. After she’s assaulted just before the exams she needs to pass in order to study in London, he begins to worry that she may need a bit of help with her results – and so begins a process of steady moral compromise which reveals the institutionalised cronyism and corruption at work in contemporary Romania. Deftly scripted and for the most part very well acted, the film is perhaps a little too relentless in attending to its single overarching theme, but its careful pacing ensures that it is consistently intriguing and watchable. Mungiu shared the best director prize with Olivier Assayas.
Director Paul Verhoeven
Paul Verhoeven’s first French-language film begins with a wealthy, powerful, strong-willed businesswoman (Isabelle Huppert) being raped by a masked man in her own home, and proceeds to show how she responds to the experience: by getting on with her highly complicated life much as normal, it seems, flashbacks to the assault notwithstanding. A sly mix of suspense, drama and deadpan comedy that seems to have little time for politically correct terminology or simplifications, the film benefits from – and perhaps depends for its success on – a lead performance of supremely intelligent subtlety, complexity and wit from Isabelle Huppert.
Un Certain Regard
After the Storm
Director Hirokazu Koreeda
A characteristically gentle, affectionate and wryly amusing domestic drama from Hirokazu Koreeda, this time centred on a formerly successful novelist working as private detective to support his gambling addiction and hoping, when he finds himself stranded with his ex-wife and his son at his mother’s home during a typhoon, to reunite with them. If the film drags a little in the middle section, it more than makes up for it in the final act.
Out of Competition
Hissein Habré, A Chadian Tragedy
Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun
The director of Daratt (2006) and A Screaming Man (2011) returns with an exemplary documentary about the terrible consequences of Hissein Habré’s dictatorship in Chad, particularly the torture inflicted by the police deployed to quash all political opposition. Interviews with those bearing the physical and mental scars testify not only to the horrendous cruelty of the regime but to the courage of those who survived it and united in their efforts to eventually bring the former dictator to trial.
Director Jim Jarmusch
Jarmusch’s contention that the Stooges were the best rock’n’roll band ever is the starting point for a wonderfully eloquent documentary; not only does Iggy Pop contribute (verbally and facially) articulate reminiscences about the rise and fall of the band, but there’s a lovely mix of archive footage, interviews, photos and even animation to accompany the music. The director’s enthusiasm and erudition combine with his cinematic expertise to create one of the great rock documentaries of recent times.