The poster of this year’s Cannes Film Festival depicted the iconic kiss over the top of a pair of open cars shared between Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 classic Pierrot le Fou. The 87-year-old Godard returned to Cannes (though not physically, being unable to leave Switzerland for health reasons) with an avant-garde film that was accompanied by silly and self-aggrandizing displays of public nostalgia for his having played a leading role in shuttering the festival during the events of May 1968. A half century later, Godard is still causing trouble, having announced at the start of the festival that he would be joining up with a boycott of an Israeli film festival in France.
Le Livre d’Image (The Image Book), Godard’s final film collage, is a familiar and radical epitaph for a grand life making films. A paean to the film as a manifestation of gnomic text, Le Livre d’Image jettisons conventional storytelling and structure in favor of mashing up snippets of imagery assembled in magpie style from the archival history of 20th-century film and 19th-century literature. The familiar bricolage is overlaid with classical music along with a poignant but tonally false voice-over. The one time that the film breaks out of its nonlinear structure is to deliver a messy narrative disquisition about Dofa, a fictionalized Arab state bereft of oil but which nonetheless oppresses its citizenry with the complicity of the imperialist West. This critic left the film feeling angry at Godard for not having evolved further, for being too easy on himself, for making the same exact kind of facile “political” film that he had been making decades ago during his Maoist phase. While Godard was denied any of the main festival prizes, he did receive a “special” jury-awarded Palme, with Cate Blanchett pointedly stating during her concluding remarks that she had requested a special dispensation from the festival to award it. Yet, unlike Bergman in 1997, during the 50th Cannes festival, Godard would not be awarded the Holy Grail of Cannes prizes: the lifetime achievement award of the “Palme of Palmes” was withheld.
Yet another scandalous filmmaker, Lars von Trier, was allowed to return to the sunny beaches of the Croisette from the dark, wooded wilderness of Denmark after having being declared “persona non grata” in 2011 for his jokes about “understanding Hitler.” Von Trier is both a formalist and a professional provocateur, and his out-of-competition return to the festival with the gruesome The House That Jack Built, is exactly the sort of malevolent gesture that one would expect. His macabre Danish death-metal humor turned out to be too much for the audience, much of which fled.
Von Trier’s film stars a frosty Matt Dillon playing a serial killer named Jack, a frustrated architect who savagely murders women and children and brings their bodies back to his meat locker in an unnamed city in an America that resembles a northern European forest. The film is a work of pure and unadulterated sadism. The frustrated architect throughout the film expounds in pedantic von Trierian manner on the mechanics of building as well as the character of the Third Reich. Throughout the film he is unable to choose the right material from which to construct his lakefront house. No prize will be awarded for guessing the material that he finally settles on.
When he is not listening to Glenn Gould play the piano or having childhood flashbacks to cutting off the feet of a yellow duckling with a pair of pliers, Jack spends the film expounding on his 60 murders to Bruno Ganz, who plays the archetypal turn-of-the-century Viennese psychoanalyst/confessor. The prolonged dialogues of the deranged narrator describing his motivations are as tedious as they are sadistic and humorless. That is, until the extravagant final coda to the film, in which the unnamed Ganz character (he wears a black frock) literally walks the serial killer to the gates of Dante’s ninth circle of hell. As the film played outside of the competition program, von Trier did not have a chance to partake in a competition press conference where he might have to answer his critics. This was perhaps the best outcome for all involved, though I would have been happy to have a chance to ask von Trier about his thoughts on Stalin.
Another surprise return to the festival (and which garnered him a deserved victory at Cannes) was for Spike Lee, America’s own version of von Trier—that is, a provocateur who makes mainstream films about race relations. BlacKkKlansman (yes, that is the correct spelling) marked a significant Cannes comeback for Lee, who won the Grand Prix after not having a film in the official competition since his golden age of the late 1980s.
BlacKkKlansman is a true-to-life adaptation of a book by Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan along with help from several Jewish officers. The film is pretty great (if one overlooks its linear and heavy-handed politics), very funny, and much better than the sum of its cinematic parts. Set in the 1970s, Stallworth is adequately played as a clean-cut Shaft-like character by John David Washington—son of Denzel, having gotten his start in cinema as an 8-hour-old in Malcolm X—in an homage to classic ’70s blaxploitation films. The premise of the film being that an African-American convinces KKK leader David Duke that he is a white American over the phone. The film posits the noble and well-brought-up Stallworth as a kind of civil rights hero in integrating the rampantly racist Colorado Springs Police Department of the time, depicting him as being up against out-of-control and racist bad cops.
Stallworth inducts a Jewish officer named Flip Zimmerman (who is excellently played by Adam Driver), to impersonate him at the Klan meetings while he speaks with the Klan leadership over the phone. Incidentally, but amazingly enough, both of Adam Driver’s festival roles this year had him playing a Jew, with his turn as the director of a troubled production of Don Quixote in Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote having him do an amusing Eddie Cantor-inspired jig to get out of trouble. In BlacKkKlansman, Driver plays an assimilated and conflicted Jewish officer who has not had to think about his Jewish identity very deeply before having taken on this assignment, and Lee has Zimmerman make a speech admitting to having essentially passed for white for all those years. The film represents by far the gentlest and most comradely depiction of racial relations between Jews and Blacks that Lee has ever made, but the message to the Jewish community in the film is nothing if not clear. If that message was not enough, and Lee is not known for understatement, he hammered it home at the official film presser demanding that the world “wake up” to the threat of the Trump presidency, and reminded the Jews point blank that the KKK was not just about African-Americans, and that they would be coming for the Jews secondly.
In the film finale, the pellucid moral of the story about the KKK and contemporary American racism is driven home in brutal and transparent display of overkill with the film’s epilogue, in which scenes from last year’s Charlottesville march are shown along with the ramming of a crowd of protesters by a white supremacist. In his return to form, Lee has made a popular, uncomplex, fun, and positive film about race relations in America: BlacKkKlansman, despite its rousing message, will not make anyone uncomfortable, for which Lee was rewarded with his long-hoped-for Cannes Palme.
On Saturday night, this year’s visibly troubled festival limped to a fittingly anguished conclusion. The French comedian Édouard Baer hosted the awkward and jarring closing ceremony of the festival with a pitch-perfect lack of grace. This year especially the utmost tact and skill were required to soothe the conclusion of a festival plagued by the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein affair—as well as one of the most disappointing film programs of the last decade. Instead, Baer’s irreverence, slapstick jokes, and puerile needling of jury participants and festival prize winners alike (mostly for not speaking French) gave the concluding ceremony an unearned vulgarity. However, it would be Italian film actress and director Asia Argento—widely believed to be one of the greatest Italian actresses of all time, if not the greatest—who would be the main event. On stage, Argento delivered a remarkable and lacerating speech that began with the simple statement that she had been raped in Cannes by Harvey Weinstein when she was 21 years old. “Even tonight there are those here that need to be held responsible for their conduct,” she announced to the assembled crowd of shocked film industry elites. “You know who you are. But more importantly, we know who you are. Cate Blanchett, the head of this year’s jury, was so stunned that it took her a ponderous moment to regain her composure and begin speaking again after Argento’s powerful speech.
The resounding impact of the Weinstein affair on Cannes, to which he was intimately linked, is very difficult to overstate. He had never bothered to be discreet about his behavior, as Argento pointed out when she referred to the festival as “a hunting ground.” Thus, the festival leadership had to put tremendous effort into disproving legitimate and likely accurate accusations of systematically ignoring or even complicity with sociopathic behavior. In the end, Cannes settled on a familiar mixture of lectures, boozy networking events, workshops, and gala events in signaling the new commitment to not allowing a monster to run around assaulting women.
Yet with only a handful of women’s films present in the competition (and one of those being truly bad), veteran journalists and critics had expected there to be strong pressure for a woman to receive one of the top prizes this year. Speculation was rife that this year’s jury had been placed in an especially difficult position. Thus, when Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki took home the Jury Prize (becoming the first Arab woman to receive it at the festival) for her film Capernaum, no one was particularly surprised. Capernaum tells the story of a boy who takes his parents to court for the crime of bringing him into our cruel world (a universal dream) and it was exactly the kind of heartwarming film that industry insiders had expected to win this year. The film was in fact so treacly, saccharine, and divisive that when the prize was announced, the theater where the assembled journalists watched the livestream of the closing ceremony filled up with a mixture of cheers and lusty boos. The competition prize for best actress went to Samal Yeslyamova, for her turn in Russian director Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Ayka, which follows the harrowing (and, sadly, totally realistic) struggles of a young Kyrgyz migrant worker scraping for survival in Moscow’s black market. The film is a fierce indictment by a Russian artist of the brutality that an entire society levels at its most exploited members, and especially toward young women.
Ironically, the one bright spot in this year’s authentically dark and depressing Cannes landscape were films from Eastern Europe. British-Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski’s beautifully shot black-and-white love story Cold War was deservedly awarded the competition prize for best director. Though the narrative of the film is nowhere near as thematically complex as Pawlikowski’s Jewish-themed Oscar-winning Ida of 2013, the love story returns to Pawlikowski’s lingering obsession with Polish history. Set to a wonderful jazz soundtrack, we observe the passionate romance between a pair of defecting Polish musicians, whose tempestuous individuality is ensnared by Iron Curtain politics and is finally crushed by communism. The story is said to be based on the real-life failed marriage of Pawlikowski’s parents (his mother was a ballerina). While accepting the award, a dignified Pawlikowski pronounced his victory to be “a rare piece of good news” for Poland, thus drawing an unmistakable parallel between the illiberal politics of Poland’s right-wing government and the memory of communist repression.
My own festival favorite, Ukrainian auteur Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass was awarded the best director prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival. While the scandalous and wildly profitable Russian Sobibor concentration-camp breakout film was not selected for screening in any Cannes programs, the Russians put significant effort and money into advertising it in the market portion of the festival. A giant placard of the film hung over the entrance to the Cannes Film Market. Blessedly, at Cannes the Russians and Ukrainians got drunk together amiably, attending parties at each other’s pavilions, though the Ukrainian pavilion party did conclude with a fistfight between a Ukrainian producer and a Kyiv film-festival honcho. The festival head had smashed the producer’s nose in response to some nasty gossip. The deed was done with what a Russian ballerina-turned-film-actress who had observed the imbroglio would later describe to me “as a rather cinematic punch.”
One Russian director in the competition program would not be given the chance to drink on the beach, however. Kirill Serebrennikov, who has helmed Moscow’s avant-garde the Gogol Center theater for half a decade, had been in the final stages of the shooting of Leta (Summer) when he was arrested for allegedly embezzling state funds. (The Gogol Center is renowned for its cutting-edge work and received rapturous reviews for their performances in Berlin earlier this year.) At the film press conference, Leta’s producer spoke about the director not being on the set one morning and having concluded the editing of the early ’80s rock drama in his apartment while under house arrest.
Serebrennikov’s previous Cannes film, The Student, was a haunting adaptation of Marius von Mayenburg’s play about a religious fanatic, which is widely rumored among Russians to have set off the Russian Orthodox Church to the point of it having actively lobbied President Vladimir Putin to repress the gifted artist, though there is no way for sure to know if that account is true. But beyond the politics it is a lovely and surprisingly accessible work of popular rock filmography—the press screening I attended gave it a standing ovation.
The film is a love letter to the early-1980s Russian underground rock scene, dramatizing the life of Viktor Tsoi, the Russian-Korean rock songwriter who co-founded the influential and beloved band Kino, and whose career was cut brutally short at 28 by a car crash. Those musical circles in ’80s Leningrad would prove to be as important in determining the direction of Russian cultural development over the next decades as much as the ’60s were for America and Western Europe. The unwashed musicians in this luminous black-and-white film respond to the repression of their time by burrowing deeper into their art and ignoring the authorities (a strategy that seems to have failed the film’s director). The film’s commentary on the loosening but still repressive politics of early-’80s Soviet Union is unmistakably present if also effervescently facile in light of the arrest of its director.
The film was co-written by the Russian-American husband-wife team of Lily and Michael Idov, who had previously co-written an amusing television show about Russian diplomats in the ’60s. They met with Tablet in a café the day before the film’s Cannes premiere. “It is a movie about, sort of the excitement and freedom of youth to manifest itself even in the most suffocating setting, which 1981 Leningrad truly was,” Michael Idov said.
Several Russian rock stars who were active in those Leningrad musical circles have publicly opined (one went on a profanity-laced YouTube rant) about the film, that despite having created an artisanal hermetic world, that that world in fact had nothing to do with the atmosphere of the ’80s rock world. Much like Cold War, to which it is thematically and aesthetically similar, with the same gorgeous black-and-white 8 mm film stock, Leta represents nostalgia for the chastity of lost youth in its purest form.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.