This year’s Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated by Woody Allen’s Café Society, a middling and derivative rehash of Allen’s signature themes set in the Golden Age of 1930s Hollywood. The film was in turn preempted by the now annual ritual of the latest Allen-Farrow family scandal. This year’s iteration was predicated on the publication in The Hollywood Reporter of Ronen Farrow’s damning essay, “My Father, Woody Allen, and the Danger of Questions Unasked.” The piece defends his sister, Dylan Farrow, who is a daughter of longtime Allen film actress and former girlfriend Mia Farrow.
Dylan Farrow, it should be recalled, had made damning allegations of childhood sexual abuse against Allen in the wake of the collapse of their relationship when she discovered the nude pictures Allen had taken of Farrow’s step-daughter—now his wife—Soon-Yi Previn. Allen has continued to deny all allegations of the sexual abuse but Ronan—who may or may not be the illegitimate son of Frank Sinatra—posited himself as being exhausted by what he characterized as the “culture of acquiescence” and complicity that has wrapped his father (or not) in accolades, absolving him of culpability. According to Ronen’s furious piece, the brutal accusations levied against Allen were being systematically ignored and left socially unpunished by an equally exhausted public that just wanted to get on with it so it could watch his films in peace.
Ronan’s blows against Allen’s reputation landed squarely on target. Myriad Hollywood actors and filmmakers felt the compulsion to proffer their opinions, and articles appeared cataloguing which sides people had taken. Marquee actresses rushed to give self-exculpatory interviews explaining the many reasons that they continued to work with Allen.
Hours after the essay was published, the opening night’s MC, French comedian Laurent Lafitte, made a grotesquely misjudged joke about Allen, comparing him to the French-Polish director Roman Polanski. “You’ve been shooting so many of your films here in Europe and yet in the U.S. you haven’t even been convicted for rape.” The audience gasped in collective mortification, but Lafitte would later claim that he had not known about the latest round of accusations.
The saga of Allen’s perverse family life is playing out in the movies as stitched together from the cloth of his cinematically constructed public persona. Perhaps more precisely, this may have been the deciding episode in tipping our enmeshed relations with Allen’s convoluted family life as it is refracted in the way we watch his movies. At the film’s press conference, Woody was pointedly questioned over his predilection for telling stories that focus on relations between older men and much younger women. He did not have any good answers.
Café Society features a love triangle between Jesse Eisenberg (who is himself an eerily apt reincarnation of a nerdy young Woody), a secretary played by the 26-year-old Kristen Stewart, and Eisenberg’s Hollywood-agent uncle, played by Steve Carell, who is in his mid fifties. Allen’s nostalgic portrayal of the Jewish Brooklyn of old would be sort of charming if it were not so wincingly formulaic, giving us a middlebrow parody of Allen playing Allen to type. Admittedly, he does pull off one excellent scene—a Radio Days or Rose of Cairo-worthy scene—toward the end of the film when the parents of a Jewish gangster on death row lament his final jailhouse conversion. (“First he commits murder … now Christianity?!”) Blessedly, unlike last year’s Irrational Man, this year’s Allen film did not center on a pathologically depressed older philosophy professor having an illicit affair with his younger student. Ava Cahan, editor of the Paris film magazine Clap! and the author of the newly published French monograph Woody Allen, Profession: Cynic, praised the film as a great success. “It is very melancholic and with a better flow than some of his more recent films,” she told me excitedly while pointing out that in my mannerisms and bearing I resembled a young Woody.
Israeli cinema, meanwhile, had a spectacularly positive and high-profile Cannes. Asaph Polonsky’s One Week and a Day, following a couple who sit the customary shiva week of mourning, won the GAN Foundation Award in the Critics’ Week competition. The festival also featured a pair of Israeli features in the sidebar Un Certain Regard competition: Eran Kolirin’s Beyond the Mountains and Hills, and the talented Israel-Arab filmmaker Maha Haj’s Personal Affairs, about generational family issues facing a Palestinian family.
This year was also the first time that a dedicated Israeli pavilion opened at the festival, with the Israeli flag flapping in the spring wind over a prime piece of territory on the Croisette. The national pavilion was set up to execute the same functions as others, namely to promote the country’s film industry for international cooperation, raise the visibility of festivals, market Israeli films, and provide a place to network with foreign distributors when it throws parties for Israeli filmmakers. Though naturally, none of this could pass without scandal: Turf-patrolling representatives of the Israeli film-stand, inside the Festival market, objected to the publicly borne expenses of having a pavilion, which was inaugurated by Israel’s militantly right-wing Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who is well-known for her sparring with Israel’s artistic community and intelligentsia.
Amusingly enough, the Israeli film she chose to attend in her capacity as representative of the government was Kolirin’s third feature, which has a distinctly anti-militarist plot. Regev did not publicly discuss her opinion of the film.
My own favorite Israeli film was one by a crazed young genius by the name of Nadav Lapid. Having won previously at Cannes with his “inscrutable” film, Lapid served as a jury member for this year’s Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week) section of the festival. The half-length feature he submitted to the noncompetition program, From the Diary of a Wedding Photographer, was one of the most masterful and poetic works of film on offer this year. It illustrates the diary of a disgruntled wedding photographer who seduces and marries one bride and, at the instigation of another, tries to help her avoid the dreaded day by beating her to a pulp.
Also worth noting (though it screened only once at the market section and was unfortunately sparsely attended) is the lovely Greek Holocaust film Cloudy Sunday, directed by Manoussos Manoussakis. It is curious to speak about a “Greek Holocaust film” as the idea is almost a misnomer: The genre did not exist before this film was made. Which should be reason enough to hope that Cloudy Sunday finds the North American distribution deal that it deserves. Set in the second Greek city of Thessaloniki during the German occupation in 1942-1943, the film relates the story of a doubly forbidden love between Estrea, a young Jewish girl, and Giorgos, brother-in-law of the great Greek composer and famed bouzouki player Vassilis Tsitsanis. The film is partially filmed in Ladino, and the plot does occasionally hit a melodramatic note, but the cinematography and soundtrack to the film are lovely, and the events it relates are criminally unknown.
Even by Cannes’ highly mannered standard, the prize for the most inspired set piece of political theater would have to go to the events that took place on the festival’s final Friday when philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy arrived at the premiere of his new documentary Peshmerga along with the high command of the Kurdish army. Lévy sauntered into the screening of his film with a half-dozen picaresque Kurds, dressed in olive tunics and caftans, their heads wrapped in red keffiyeh. They included Gen. Sirwan Barzani, a nephew of the Iraqi Kurdish Autonomous Regional president Massoud Barzani, a female battalion captain, and a Kurdish cameraman who had been wounded in the course of making the film. Also present was the pop singer Helly Luv, also known as the “Kurdish Madonna.”
Lévy’s third wartime documentary after Bosnia! and Le Serment de Tobrouk (The Oath of Tobruk) follows the fiercely disciplined Kurdish forces as they wage war to establish their longed-for pan-Kurdish state, which would be carved out of parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. With their female-integrated battalions, historical enmity to the Arabs, and tolerant disdain of religious dogma, the peshmerga have emerged as the West’s most committed proxies in the war against ISIS. The film tracks Lévy and his crew as they travel for six months with the peshmerga north along the territory held by ISIS toward a major battle in the Sinjar mountains.
Lévy’s previous film about the Libyan uprising (shot along with photojournalist Marc Roussel) was constrained by the necessity of having to explicate his side of the story in the public debates over whether his influence was indeed pivotal in the West’s decision to deploy military force against Moammar Qaddafi. The lack of such constraints in Peshmerga allows him to focus on the Kurds—he seldom appears in the shot—and their quest to forge their own state. “Only the Kurds could rid the world of the scourge of ISIS,” he intones in this love letter to the Kurdish nationalism. The crisp war footage that Lévy’s cameras captured is fantastic and rigorously edited.
Just as in Oath of Tobruk, Lévy pays loving homage to his Sephardi roots and his nostalgia for a time of peaceful Muslim-Jewish co-existence. He digresses with a keen focus on the vanished Jewish past of the places that he visits, searching out the old townsfolk in the recaptured towns who remember communal relations with their long-gone Jewish compatriots. A touching moment in the film occurs when Lévy finds the “concrete link between the memory of Judaism and the Muslim world” in the form of Mike, a jovial Kurdish-Jewish senior adviser to President Barzani.
At the end of the evening, I found myself at the celebratory dinner for Peshmerga, along with the Kurdish delegation, the film crew, and Lévy’s famous artist and socialite friends. The Kurdish generals had changed out of their tunics and into black suits. The French elites and the Kurdish army high command sat in self contained circles at their own tables. The Kurdish Madonna brought along her glamorous Russian-Vietnamese-Finnish girlfriend. In the back of the room, Jim Jarmusch held court imperiously with his own dinner companions. He sat under a painting of the restaurant’s slogan Tous Célèbres Ici (everyone’s famous here) painted in white lettering over red canvas. As the waiters brought out the cake and sparklers, the restaurant’s jam band had been asked by someone to play a special request. They struck up a raucous rendition of Hava Nagila, and our mixed party turned to surprisingly debonair dancing. As we swayed to the music, Mike the Jewish-Kurdish adviser to President Barzani giddily explained to me that the biblical relationship between the Kurds and the Jews had first been prophesied in the book of Isaiah. The theory seemed plausible if one had had enough to drink.
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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.