“Opulence! That’s the word,” Robbie Ryan tells me. “The opulence of Cannes is balanced out by the real art of Cannes. It’s been there forever and it’s amazing.”
The Oscar-nominated Irish cinematographer, here with Ken Loach’s The Old Oak, correctly identifies what remains commendable about the greatest film festival in the world. Walk out to the press balcony, turn to your right and, most evenings, you will see pop stars, media influencers and megamodels carpet-strutting the opening night of a competition film. Check your programme and you discover they are there for a 3½-hour documentary about Chinese textile workers. Ah, Cannes!
It all comes together at an admirably nippy closing ceremony that has no trouble persuading cinema greats to hand over the loot. Nothing at this year’s Oscars was so moving as the vision of the veteran producer Roger Corman – still apparently sharp at 97 – receiving a standing ovation before presenting the Grand Prix with his megafan Quentin Tarantino. That second prize went to the film most pundits thought was taking the Palme d’Or. Jonathan Glazer, director of The Zone of Interest, an icy study of life outside the walls of Auschwitz, accepted his Grand Prix with admirable humility.
This is not to suggest that Justin Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, winner of the top prize, was indifferently received. Premiering at the middle of the event, the courtroom drama – following a writer accused of murdering her unhappy husband – went down an absolute storm, but the festival’s eccentric rules dictate that no acting prize can go to the Palme winner, and Sandra Hüller, flinty as the defendant, seemed nailed down for best actress. As things worked out, Hüller, who also plays the commandant’s wife in The Zone of Interest, had to cede the acting gong to Merve Dizdar for Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic drama About Dry Grasses. But she can congratulate herself on having a lead role in both the first- and second-placed films. She got no prize of her own, but it remains the German actor’s year. Triet took the opportunity to attack the French government for its handling of protests at changes to retirement rights. “These protests were denied, repressed in a shocking way,” she said.
Triet’s intricate, twisty film begins with the protagonist apparently finding her husband dead at the foot of their lodge in the French Alps. It soon transpires that the couple had various astringent fallings-out. Suicide is deemed unlikely as a cause of death. The film rations its revelations with great economy as Hüller works unlikely sympathy for a character short on warmth. At a reliably pun-heavy event by the beach, a Border collie named Messi, who plays a vital role in the plot of Triet’s film, won the Palm Dog for best performance by a mutt at this year’s Cannes. This is the first time in the Palm Dog’s 22-year history that their top prize has gone to the Palme d’Or winner. Write it in the record books.
Would you believe it? The Jury Prize at the human and canine events also went to the same film. Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves is an utterly typical and utterly delightful addition to the Finnish director’s catalogue of tales about excluded oddballs. Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen play, respectively, a reserved shop employee and a dissolute construction worker who form an awkward partnership in Kaurismäki’s romantic version of Helsinki. It is a slim film but one infused with endless autumnal charm. And Alma, the yellow dog, deserved her prize down by the Med.
While Kaurismäki has been consistently strong over the years, the German director Wim Wenders, a decade older than the Finn, has excelled with documentaries – his 3D film on the artist Anselm Kiefer went down well this year – while his fiction films have become increasingly unwatchable. What a delight, then, to welcome Wenders’s impeccably moving Perfect Days. Kōji Yakusho deservedly won best actor for playing a Japanese lavatory cleaner who, when not scrubbing the high-tech facilities, structures his day around classic rock on cassettes, soothing baths and highbrow literature. It is a real Rorschach blot of a film. Some see his existence as unsatisfactory. I viewed the film as offering a model of how to live a simple life well. Perhaps Wenders’s best fiction film since Wings of Desire, 35 years ago.
What else shone in the second week? Trần Anh Hùng, the French-Vietnamese director behind classics such as The Scent of Green Papaya and Cyclo, delivered a gorgeous – Don’t say “delicious”! Don’t say “delicious”! – foodie epic starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel titled Le Pot-au-Feu. Set in a Renoiresque version of rural France during the belle époque, the film makes Babette’s Feast look like Ready Steady Cook. It is all about the food, but old hands Binoche and Magimel – former husband and wife in real life – make something touching of an affair between two dedicated cooks who have long avoided acknowledging the extent of their affection.
Also in the “heritage” bracket, Marco Bellocchio’s Kidnapped told the fascinating story of Edgardo Mortara, a Jewish boy who, in mid-19th-century Bologna, was snatched by the papal authorities after it was determined that a servant had surreptitiously baptised him as a child. This was the yarn that Steven Spielberg longed to produce. One imagines that version would have been less steeped in Stygian moral uncertainty. The film is maybe a little fusty, but it is strong on the self-deceptions of anti-Semitism and intriguing on the birth of modern Italy.
Loach was back to break his own record for most entries ever in the Cannes competition. The Old Oak, his 15th crack at the Palme d’Or, concerns a community in northeast England coping erratically with the arrival of Syrian refugees. The film demonstrates some of Loach’s strengths and some of his more recent weaknesses. Paul Laverty’s script is strong on the emotional grip the mining industry holds over communities that have long ago been driven above ground. The film, named for a tattered pub that provides a rare social focus, is not afraid to address racism in working-class communities. But some of the nonprofessional acting is shaky, and Laverty’s reliance on mawkish sentiment has never been more in evidence. A mid-ranking addition to a line of vital social-realist features that, if the 86-year-old Loach is to be believed, here comes to an end. He has said that before, mind you.
The most starry of the competition premieres was surely that for Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City. Jason Schwartzman, Scarlett Johansson, Tom Hanks and many, many more people of whom you have heard appear in the tale of a “stargazer” festival held in the US desert during the nervous 1950s – a time of atom-bomb tests and alleged alien landings. Those happy with gorgeous pastel designs and neat forward-facing compositions will have a good enough time. Those hoping for the forward momentum that made Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel such a delight will leave profoundly disappointed. Like the director’s recent The French Dispatch, this is a collation of pretty images and half-decent jokes in fruitless search of any guiding order. Pretty. Odd. Ultimately wearisome.
There were – as there should be – a few utter puzzlers in the selection. Four years ago Emily Beecham won best actress for her role in Jessica Hauser’s fascinating pharma satire Little Joe. Now the Austrian director moves on to a head-scratchy treatment of eating disorders in the risky Club Zero. Mia Wasikowska plays a nutrition teacher arguing for the virtues of starvation diets at an upmarket English school. Like Little Joe, the film is impeccably designed, but it is hard to discern any worthwhile argument in the troubling, no-doubt triggering (for once, that word seems apt) allegorical action. Most discussed for a scene in which a pupil consumes vomit she has, in the same shot, just deposited on her plate.
That film, at least, was interesting in its disappointments. Winner of this year’s “What the heck is this doing in competition?” award – there is always one – has to be Karim Aïnouz’s Firebrand. Largely indistinguishable from Sunday-evening telly, the historical drama stars Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr (fine) and Jude Law as Henry VIII (pretty good) in a film that avoids no cliche of costume-drama faffery. I couldn’t actually see pipe cleaners behind the ears of all those wearing false beards, but their presence was assumed.
Then there was Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera. Josh O’Connor stars as a divinely gifted hunter of buried treasure in another meandering folk tale from the much-lauded Italian director. I must now accept that, whereas the rest of the critical world seems to speak fluent Rohrwacher, I know not a word – not even those for “the” or “and” – of that obscure, imprecise tongue. For the third time at a Cannes festival, I emerged baffled by the raves swimming around my bored head. Good luck to her.
That experience did not dampen excitement at this event’s consistent ability to keep the cinematic spirits aloft. Superb work such as Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, Wenders’s Perfect Days, Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves and Todd Haynes’s May December will be sprucing up cinemas deep into winter. The opulence (Robbie Ryan’s word) is to a purpose.