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At War with Trump, Etc: 2018 Cannes, Week One

BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman

By Ali Moosavi.

The honor of opening the 71st Cannes Film Festival went to the Iranian director, and multi Oscar winner, Asghar Farhadi’s new film Everybody Knows. This thriller stars the real-life couple Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, plus the always impressive Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin.

In the press interview following the film, Farhadi stated that the themes that he wanted to explore in the film were the relationship between fathers and daughters and the passage of time. Indeed the film starts with a shot of a church clock and soon its bells are being rung by Irene (Carla Campra), daughter of Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Alejandro (Ricardo Darin). Laura and Irene have traveled to Argentina, where Alejandro has remained behind due to work, to attend a family wedding. Laura’s old flame Paco (Javier Bardem), now happily married to Bea (Barbara Lennie), is also in attendance.

everybody-knows-3Like many other Farhadi films (About Elly, The Salesman), Farhadi takes his time introducing the various characters and setting the scene. A long wedding scene is utilized to this effect. Then he hits us with an incident which alters the course of the film and the life of the main characters. What on the surface appears to be an above average policier (complete with a Hercule Poirot like retired detective) is, as we expect from Farhadi, much more than that, though perhaps not as penetrative and intellectually challenging as his aforementioned films.

Farhadi started work in the theatre and, like many classic plays (Pinter’s The Birthday Party, Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard come to mind), a family gathering causes many past and dark secrets to come out. Although it seems that everybody knows these secrets. The theme of ownership and belonging is explored in the film by looking at the parallels of a piece of land and a child.

As in all his films, Farhadi draws top-notch performances from his group of actors, with Cruz a standout. It is perhaps too mainstream a film to appease some of the Farhadi fans and the Cannes jury but could well become Farhadi’s biggest commercial success to date.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s last film, Ida, was a major success becoming a serial prize winner at festivals all over the world, culminating in the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. As with any major overnight success the question on people’s mind is: was Ida a flash in the pan or are we welcoming more accolades from a major new film maker?

Judging by his latest, Cold War, in the main completion at Cannes this year, we can add Pawlikowski’s name to those illustrious Polish compatriots of his Andrej Wajda, Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Roman Polanski. Cold War is destined to become a classic love story; it’s epic in nature like those made by David Lean but packing an eventful, beautifully shot and acted story spanning 15 years in only 85 minutes.

Cold War is the story of Zula (Joanna Kulig), a folk singer from rural Poland in post war 1949 discovered and trained by musician Wiktor (Tomas Kot). It  in is a story of forbidden love between the teacher and his student, one of two artists unable to freely express themselves in communist Poland. Though fate separates them at different stages of their lives, their love never dies and we see them in Paris during the jazz age, in Berlin at the advent of Rock n Roll, and other locations and eras.

Everything works in the film, from the superb performances of the two leads to Lukasz Zal’s luminous B&W photography and the screenplay which resembles a classic novel by the director and his co-writers Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski. Cold War also boasts tone of the best uses of music in a film with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” being a particular standout. Cold War will be a strong contender for a major prize at Canes this year.

BorderBorder, which was shown in the Un Certain Regard this year, is a successful hybrid of thriller, love story, and science fiction. Tina is a ogre-looking Swedish customs officer (kudos to the make up artists for the amazing transformation of the lovely Eva Melander). When we first see her, she sniffs every person who walks past her in the customs. After sniffing a young boy, she asks her colleague to search his bag. It turns out that he was carrying above his allowed limits of alcohol. So does Tina have a sense of smell akin to, or even stronger, than a dog? Well, the next person who is stopped by Tina, after she has had a good sniff, is a smartly dressed young man. There is nothing illegal in his bag. It is the sim card in his mobile that Tina is after. We are wondering how much drugs can one put into a sim card? It turns out that his sim card is packed with porn. Tina not only can smell drinks and drugs, she can also detect feelings of guilt, anxiety, shame, and stress through her sniffing. We are in the realm of SF.

The police want to use Tina’s sense of smell to sniff out some porn producers. Just as we get into the thriller part, an equally ugly looking and sniffing bloke walks through the customs and an unusual love story follows with one of the most strange sex scenes in recent years. Abbasi makes a few metaphorical contrasts between what we term ugly and beautiful to make points regarding racism and human and animal instincts. Abbasi is yet another talented Danish-Iranian filmmaker to watch for. Eva Melander is superb as Tina and a string contender for Best Actress in the Un Certain Regard section.

For the second year running at Cannes we have a remake on the film roster (last year: Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled). This year sees Ramin Bahrani’s remake of Francois Truffaut’s film, or if you like, Ray Brabury’s SF novel, Fahrenheit 451. Though The Beguiled was in the main competition last year, Fahrenheit 451, being an HBO film, was prevented from competition, by Cannes rules, and shown out of competition.

What Bahrani, and his co-writer Amir Naderi, have tried to accomplish is not just utilizing all the technology, special effects and the big budget that was not available to Truffaut. Instead, they’ve tried to make a Fahrenheit 451 for the internet generation with references to Trump’s America.

Fahrenheit 01The story remains largely unchanged. Montag (Michael B. Jordan) is a fireman in a future time in USA. These firemen, though, burn books rather than stop fires. His boss is Captain Beatty (Michael Shannon), who is grooming Montag to take his place once he himself is promoted. Beatty has some justifications of his own for burning books. To an old man whose books he is burning, he says, with a clear reference to the smart phone generation, in your time people didn’t read books anyway, they just looked at the headlines. In another place he justifies burning by musing that people expressed different opinions in books and on the net, causing arguments and stress. So we don’t give you two sides or even one side of the argument: we delete it all. And in another pointed and timely justification he says that in old times people blew up themselves and killed innocent people because of a book.

There are also several references to The Trump era. The book lovers are trying to smuggle books to Canada where they would be safe! And a slogan that Beatty uses is Time to Burn for America Again!

Montag smuggles a book during a mass book burning exercise: Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground. This book manages to change his outlook on the whole book burning exercise and infuses in him an understanding and appreciation of books. This makes him an Eel or an outlaw.

Bahrani has also added other forms of art into the mix. Among forbidden items that Montag finds are an old VHS copy of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, a few frames of Singing In The Rain, and a vinyl copy of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

So how does the 2018 version compare to the 1966 one? The new version is slicker, more mainstream with more impressive special effects. For me though, Truffaut’s version resonates more strongly.

Girls-Of-The-Sun-2The only reason that I can think as to why Eva Husson’s lackluster Girls of the Sun (Les Filles du Soleil) was selected for the main competition is that, in a year where women have come to the fore in the film industry, it is a feminist film, written and directed by a woman. It is about a group of female Kurdish fighters and their fight against ISIS. It has the obligatory French reporter/photographer, also female (Emmanuelle Bercot) to capture all the ISIS atrocities: rapes and killings. It is all done in a TV movie of the week style without any panache or originality. If the majority-female Cannes jury show a stronger response to this film, then its female lead, Golshifteh Farahani, could have a shot at Best Actress.

As for filmmaker more “outside,” Jafar Panahi’s situation in the Iranian film industry is a very curious one. He has officially been banned from making films. Yet, he openly defies the authorities by not only making films but sending the films to festivals and, in some cases, collecting awards (his last film Taxi won the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival). He is not allowed to leave the country and many festivals display a chair with his name written on it.

His latest, Three Faces (Se Rokh), played in the main completion section. The style of the film is highly reminiscent of a number of Abbas Kiarostami’s films such as Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, and Life, and Nothing More. Face One is Marzieh (Marzieh Rezaei), a young girl who has sent a video, filmed on her mobile, ostensibly showing her reprimanding a well-known Iranian actress, Behnaz Jafari (playing herself) and Face Two in the film, for not returning her calls and now driving her to suicide. She apparently wanted Miss Jafari to talk to her father and ask him to allow her to study acting at college (her father and brother had prevented her from doing so). Marzieh then appears to hang herself. The video was sent by one of her friend to Miss Jafari via Jafar Panahi.

Three-FacesWe then have Panahi and Jafari travelling to Marzieh’s village by road to determine if the video was real or fake. The structure of the film is very Kiarostamiesque, with real people playing themselves and travelling to remote areas on sandy roads. The third face, who probably is only familiar to Iranian audiences, is Shahrzad, who was an actress before the revolution and is now banned from appearing in films. We only see her from afar and even then, either from behind or just her silhouette.

Panahi makes a few statements regarding the circumstances of women actresses in Iranian cinema and the low opinion of many of the common folk regarding women who choose acting as a profession.

Meanwhile, it was just a matter of time before Spike Lee makes his statement on the Trump presidency. It has come in the form of BlacKkKlansman, at the main competition in this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is a funny, entertaining, and at the same time, hard hitting.

It starts by a white supremacist (an uncredited Alec Baldwin), taping a hate speech in the sixties. We’re then in the seventies and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) has become the first black police officer in the Colorado Police Dept. He’s given an undercover assignment to collect information on the Black Panther activist group. He also stumbles across an ad inviting people to join the Ku Klux Klan. He cooks up a scheme to get undercover information on KKK by joining them. He becomes the voice of white supremacist Ron Stallworth while his police colleague (Flip Zimmerman) becomes Stallworth’s face when meeting the clan, for a combined African-American/Jewish KKK member! Incredibly all this is true and is based on Ron Stallworth’s memoirs. Lee’s film is full of LOL moments and dialogues such as “We’ll make America Great Again” and “America First” were loudly cheered by the Cannes crowd . Topher Grace plays a KKK leader called Devin Davis, clearly modeled on David Duke.

Lee’s masterstroke is to let the audience have it’s fun and laughs and then hit them hard with some real-life footage which is hard hitting and unsettling. If the Cannes jury decides to make a political statement against Trump, then BlacKkKlansman could take a Palm d’Or.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine(Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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