By Ali Moosavi.
It is very unusual for Cannes, or indeed any film festival that I care to remember, to provide a warning in the festival program for a particular film. In Cannes this year this honour was bestowed upon Lars von Trier’s The House that Jack Built, shown out of competition. The warning read “Some of the scenes in this film may be disturbing to some audiences”. In the screening that I attended, several members of the audience, particularly women and older patrons, felt disturbed enough to leave the auditorium. This tale of a serial killer (Matt Dillon) discussing his murders with an unseen narrator (Bruno Ganz, who does appear towards the end), in typical von Trier style goes beyond those invisible red lines set by previous filmmakers working in the crime genre. What point does von Trier want to put across with this graphic violence? To me, it seems that he is equating murders with works of art. Just as Harry Lime equated the terror and murder during the Borgias with production of great works of art, von Trier seems to suggest that just as we stare with fascination at paintings depicting killings, torture, crucifixion; or at films or other works of art depicting terror and violence, the way murders are committed could be seen in retrospect as works of art. The House that Jack Built is bound to cause controversy when it is publicly released. Fans of von Trier will likely lap it up; others better heed the warnings given by Cannes.
David Robert Mitchell caused quite a stir with It Follows back in 2014, scoring favourably both with critics and at the box office. His new film, Under the Silver Lake was chosen in the Main Competition section at Cannes. Mitchell appears to be an ardent fan of both Hitchcock and Lynch. There are echoes of Vertigo and specially Mullholland Dr. in his new film. A young man (Andrew Garfield) in LA strikes a relationship with a girl who appears in his condo one day. When she goes missing, he goes searching for her in a Lynchian world where nothing is what it seems and, frankly, nothing seems to make any sense. Mitchell has tried to combined a Hitchcockian obsession in a Lynchian milieu but, in my view, has missed the mark as strange people and strange surroundings and weird happenings do not necessarily add up to a story worth telling. That said, Under the Silver Lake does have its share of fun moments.
Jean-Luc Goddard is such a legendary figure in the world cinema that any new film of his is considered a major event. It was particularly fitting that 50 years after he, Truffaut and a number of other French directors, in solidarity with the student demonstrations across France, brought Cannes Film Festival to a halt, a Goddard film should be in Cannes. Book of Image was shown in the Main Competition and it served as a Goddardian treatise on the state of the world and history of cinema. Clips of classic films such as Vertigo, Salo, Johnny Guitar were shown alongside scenes of terrorism, demonstrations and other events. It seemed that Goddard’s films are adored and disliked in equal measure; judging by the large number of walkouts in an 85 minute film. However, it was inconceivable that Cannes would let Goddard go empty handed and a “Special Plame d”Or” was presented to him.
The Chinese master Bi Gan had Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the Un Certain Regard section. Its events take place in what could be either reality or dream. The male protagonist observes that dreams are superior to films because films are all made up whilst dream are half true and half false. He is in search of a woman who could be an actress. The film comes with a gimmick: after around 40 minutes it becomes 3D and we have to put on the glasses. Using mainly primary colours, Bi Gan does weave a visually magic spell over the audience.
The Lebanese director-actress Nadine Labaki, who ventured into directing in 2007 with the delightful social comedy Caramel and then graduated to the serious subject of religion conflict in Lebanon with Where Do We Go Now? was in the Main Competition with Capernaum. This hard-hitting film depicts the lower depth of Lebanon where people are born and locked into poverty and misfortune. At the centre of the film is 12 year old Zain (a wonderful performance by Zain Alrafeea) who is suing his parents for bringing him into this miserable world. There are no redeeming or hopeful features in his life. His even younger sister is forcefully wedded to the local grocer to provide food for the family. Zain finds a kind of surrogate mother in an Ethiopian refugee (Yordanos Shifera) who is finding it difficult to provide food for her infant son. Labaki and her cameraman, Christopher Aoun provide us with a depressing, yet fascinating world reminiscent of the neorealist films of De Sica. Capernaum is a giant leap for Labaki, and won her the Jury’s Prize at Cannes. It is a film that stays in the memory.
The plight of refugees has been a topic for a number of films in recent years. Sergey Dvortsevoy presents a penetrative and bleak look at a refugee from Kyrgyzstan in Russia in Ayka, which played in the Main Competition. We follow Ayka (Samal Yesyamova) as she goes through a heart wrenching struggle just to stay alive. Dvortsevoy uses muted colours and a roaming hand-held camera to follow Ayka through the hell in which she is living. From abandoning her unwanted child to working in the worst imaginable conditions in a chicken factory to escaping from those to whom she owes money. Ayka is a tough film to take as Dvortsevoy and Samal Yesyamova make us feel right at the centre of this hell on earth. Yesyamova very deservedly won the Best Actress award.
There were rumours flying in Cannes that the festival had requested Nuri Ceylan to trim The Wild Pear Tree, before it could be accepted at Cannes. Apparently Ceylan refused to touch the film, Cannes backed down and Ceylan’s film was selected as the closing film in the Main Competition. Ceylan’s last film, the Palme d’Or winning Winter Sleep was based on a Chekhov story. The Wild Pear Tree also feels as though it is based on a classic Russian play or novel. It is packed with a series of conversations; between father and son, mother and son, old friends, an aspiring writer and a well-known writer…. The conversations are about religion, politics, passage of time, love; in a word, about life.
Sinan (Aydin Demirkol) is a young graduate and aspiring writer, hoping that the novel he’s written will get published. He travels back to his home town to visit his family. His father, Idris, is a school teacher who has squandered all his earnings on gambling on the horses. Idris’s main interest in life seems to be to drill a water well in the village where his father lives. Sinan is full of anger and pity. He chastises his father for gambling with the money that the family needs and his mother for having married such ne’er-do-well. Sinan has formed a very cynical view of the world; an old flame of his is marrying for money, the town mayor refuses to provide any help towards publishing his book, a famous writer that he meets appears to be more interested in sales of his books than literature and so on. Nuri Ceylan though provides an absorbing, inspiring and poetic conclusion to the film that one tends to forgive him for what seemed the undue length of some of the conversations (the film runs 187 minutes). Special mention must go to Murat Cemcir, who is outstanding in the role of Idris.
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).