A personal reflection on the Best and Worst of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Each year journalists and industry professionals from around the globe gather in the south of France for the Cannes Film Festival. A majority of the festival’s attendees are there simply to walk a red carpet or attend some parties. Of the tens of thousands in attendance, there are a select some thousand there for with one goal, to watch films, write about films, and talk about films. At this year’s festival, nineteen films were shown as a part of the prestigious official competition. Selected by General Delegate Theirry Fremaux and festival president Pierre Lescure, these nineteen films are supposed to represent the very best in contemporary cinema. These films are supposed to provide a sort of snapshot of the cinematic landscape, showing viewers how far cinema has come, and where it promises to go.
Playing alongside this competition are films in other programs, including Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight, and International Critics’ Week. Only the main competition is viewed by the official jury and in contention for what is perhaps the greatest award cinema has to offer – for many, myself included, more important than the Oscar – the Palme d’Or. At this year’s installment, I was able to catch thirty-two films. Fifteen of these films were from the official competition, while the other seventeen were spread evenly across the Un Certain Regard and Directors’ Fortnight, and Out of Competition sections. Below are my rather personal thoughts on the entire experience, simplified through the best and the worst at Cannes 2017.
Best: You Were Never Really Here
It was the final Friday of the festival, and there was only one film remaining in the official competition. At that point in previous festivals, I had had my mind blown. The previous year I’d felt the wrath of Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. At the same time in the year before that, I was still recovering from the life-altering back-to-back experiences that were Todd Haynes’ Carol and Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. Come May 26, 2017, and I was still waiting for that one film. I’d experienced true greatness, but it wasn’t from the official competition, where this greatness is promised. Then I settled into my ideal seat – five rows away from the screen, direct center – at the Salle Debussy for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. I was among the minority of critics who adored Ramsay’s previous film, 2009’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and experienced a similar form of wonderstruck this time around. Ramsay collaborates with star Joaquin Phoenix for a beautiful effort that exudes vibrancy and life from its opening frame. See my full review for expanded thoughts.
Worst: Based on a True Story
What was once one of my most anticipated films of the year turned out to be the film I loathed the most at Cannes. It also didn’t help that this was the very last film to premiere at the festival, leaving myself and other viewers with sour aftertaste to what was already a disappointing year.
Roman Polanski – who has made some great films in the past few years – teams with Olivier Assayas for what should have been a fun erotic-thriller/romp. Instead, the auteur served up a tepid dish of derivative slop that was more tedious than it was stirring. Polanski’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner starred as a novelist who embarks on a dangerous friendship with a superfan played by Eva Green. With many opportunities to head in the eagerly demanded treachery of a say Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, the film instead leans heavily on Misery, sans hobbling. It all builds very boringly to an unearned twist that evokes more shrugs than gaping mouths.
Best: Films by Women
The festival has repeatedly been scrutinized for an uneven programming of women’s films. This year was no different, with only three women – Lynne Ramsay, Sofia Coppola, and Naomi Kawase – competing for the Palme d’Or. That being said, women directed the best films at this year’s festival. While I missed Kawase’s Radiance, Coppola’s The Beguiled and Ramsay’s previously discussed You Were Never Really Here were definite standouts. Both films were rewarded by the official jury and will likely go on to Oscar success.
Outside of the competition, French masters Claire Denis and Agnes Varda turned out delightful features. It’s a shame that Varda’s Visages Villages (co-directed with JR) played outside of the competition instead of the schmaltz that was Jacques Doillon’s, Rodin. The festival has a French film quota to fill in the official selection, and Varda’s film could have easily taken that space. The festival has rarely embraced documentaries in the official competition, but it’s time Fremaux and co. got with the times. Claire Denis has been snubbed from the competition a few times. Her previous film Bastards was shown in the Un Certain Regard section. So perhaps Denis decided to skip competition consideration altogether as her film Let the Sunshine In was properly showcased with the opening night slot at Directors’ Fortnight, where it won the SACD Prize.
Worst: Women in Films
At a jury press conference following the festival’s awards ceremony, juror Jessica Chastain spoke out against the depiction of women the competition films. Chastain remarked This is the first time I’ve watched twenty films in ten days – and I love movies – and the one thing I took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that were represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” More than ever, this lineup offered a terrible selection in the way of films about women. It was surprising when Chastain spoke out against the festival’s selection, considering the usually secretive manner maintained by the jury. With the platform available, it would have been incredible for the fearless Chastain to point fingers directly at specific films/filmmakers. Of course, anyone who saw the films in the competition could easily see the problems for themselves. Critics were quick to point fingers at Rodin, which essentially featured the artist sculpting and abusing the women in his life.
There was also fair criticism pointed at Michel Hazanavicius’ Redoubtable, which featured Stacey Martin being leered at in various stages of undress. Perhaps this criticism was slightly unwarranted, as the film is recreating/parodying the style of male-gaze king Jean-Luc Godard. Nevertheless, the film was unfair to Martin’s Anne Wiazemsky. Since the film is based on Wiazemsky’s book, one would think that Hazanavicius would make some attempt to flesh out her character as someone who does more than reacting to and lust over Louis Garrel’s Godard. The reaction seemed to be the common thread between the female characters in the competition films.
Even Sophia Coppola’s award-winning The Beguiled, does not pass the Bechdel test. While the women in Coppola’s film receive a more generous portrayal than those in Don Siegel’s 1971 original, they are quick to turn against each other with the arrival of a man. Problematic portrayals continued in Benny and Josh Safdie’s Good Time, which features two women completely hypnotized by Robert Pattinson’s Connie. The much-anticipated appearance of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is a letdown, as she is completely undeveloped as a woman who hangs on Connie’s every word. The reaction continued in one of my favorite films, The Meyerowitz Stories. Elizabeth Marvel gave one of the film’s strongest performance as Jean Meyerowitz, but where was her chapter? The film offered chapters for the characters played by Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Dustin Hoffman, but Marvel’s Jean was left on the sidelines.
Best: TV on the Big Screen
TV series reigned at this year’s festival. Many were shocked to see the festival reserve slots for Jane Campion’s second season of Top of the Lake and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Both wowed, towering above the rest of the lineup. Top of the Lake: China Girl was presented in two formats. Those with stricter schedules (or perhaps less interest) could attend screenings of the first two hours of the new season. More fortunate audiences (myself included) could settle in for all six hours. Watching the entirety of Top of the Lake was perhaps the richest experience of the festival. Even though there were only two ten-minute breaks, the projection never felt exhausting nor did it cease to entertain. Instead, the viewers who made it through all six hours (about a third of the theater at first screening didn’t make it) were rewarded with the richest character arc of the entire festival. Perhaps more difficult for some were the first two hours of Twin Peaks.
Rapid applause broke out at the first press screening as Angelo Badalamenti’s score filled the theater while the opening credits rolled. Long-awaited fans beamed at the screen, eager to take in whatever madness Lynch was serving. Half of the theater – perhaps those who had not seen Inland Empire – was taken aback by a style that unusual even by Lynch’s standards. Then there was the other half, those ready for Twin Peaks in any form, regardless of sense, plot, or madness that were rewarded with an indescribable experience. Needless to say, Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake stuck with me longer than any other films I’d seen at the time of their respective screenings.
Worst: Netflix Controversy
Netflix just couldn’t seem to get a win from anyone at Cannes. At the opening press conference, jury president Pedro Almodovar announced to gasps that he would not be rewarded either of Netflix’s two competition films with awards. This statement was later revisited as Almodovar claimed that his statements were mistranslated. However, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories went home empty handed. This wasn’t exactly shocked, as both films were received with only mild praise. I for one thought Okja was strong and adored Meyerowitz. Then there were the screenings themselves. The press screening of Okja was a bit of a disaster.
Booing broke out as soon as the Netflix logo hit the screen and continued as the press audience realized that nearly a third of the projection was cut off. The film had run for over five minutes before the screen went black, lights came off, and the press wondered if they would even see the film at all. After another five minutes with the lights on, the masking widened, and the film started over properly. More boos as the Netflix logo appeared again. A couple of days later The Meyerowitz Stories was to screen. This time the boos at the appearance of the Netflix logo were countered with cheers.
Finally, with no commentary, here are the ten best films (and shows) at Cannes 2017:
- You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)
- Twin Peaks (David Lynch)
- Top of the Lake: China Girl (Jane Campion and Ariel Kleiman)
- Let the Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
- The Meyerowitz Stories (Noah Baumbach)
- Happy End (Michael Haneke)
- 120 BPM (Robin Campillo)
- Visages Villages (Agnes Varda and JR)
- Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-Soo)
- The Beguiled (Sophia Coppola)
The Five Worst Films at Cannes:
- Based on a True Story (Roman Polanski)
- How to Talk to Girls at Parties (John Cameron Mitchell)
- In the Fade (Fatih Akin)
- A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof)
- Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (Bruno Dumont)
What does it all mean? If the Cannes Film Festival is supposed to provide a snapshot of the best in world cinema; to give attendees a sense of what cinema is capable of and what’s to come, then we have two options. The first is that the programmers did a shitty job, opting – mostly – for familiarity instead of revolution. The second option is the bleaker of the two: maybe this just is not a great time for cinema as a whole. I can’t count the number of critics I spoke to in Cannes who relayed to me that they had not seen a single film that excited them. There are of course exceptions. Some were profoundly roused by 120 BPM, and You Were Never Really Here, but is that just because there was nothing better to latch onto? Aside from those two films, the word “great” was perhaps the highest verbal accolade offered. There is groundbreaking new cinema out there; I just know there is. So, where are you?