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  • The other films at Cannes beyond the glitz

The Square, a darkly comic Swedish satire, won the Palme d'Or

The other films at Cannes beyond the glitz

Saibal Chatterjee, Cannes

Published: Jul. 11, 2017
Updated: Apr. 03, 2021

A young Syrian refugee attempting to sneak into Hungary is shot down by the border police. As he lies wounded and disoriented, he discovers that he can levitate at will. The illegal migrant is sent to a refugee camp but is soon smuggled out by a cynical doctor who sees in the man’s secret power an opportunity to make a killing. This, in a nutshell, is the plot of Kornel Mundruczo’s Jupiter’s Moon, one of the 19 films that competed for the Palme d’Or at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in May. 

Jupiter’s Moon wasn’t the only film in the festival’s official selection to explore the global refugee crisis or the European Union’s current troubles as populist politicians seek to benefit from a growing disquiet sparked by the universal fear of the other. Delving into what it means to be uprooted from one’s own land, the film raises questions about the dynamics of faith, the possibility of miracles in a hopeless world and the challenge of being different.

Cannes, beyond its glitz and glamour, is a film festival acutely aware of the world around it. It, therefore, loves multi-layered, politically loaded cinematic essays like Jupiter’s Moon — a natural affinity that also extends to its choice of non-fiction films usually showcased in the Special Screenings section. The world’s premier film festival acknowledges the need for and responsibility of cinema to dig deep into contemporary realities and pose uncomfortable questions. It is driven by a firm belief that, amid all the strife that mankind faces, miracles do happen — and a benighted world is lit up — when gifted chroniclers set their minds to the task.

Both directly political and magnificently artful, Mundruczo’s intriguing and engaging film tells us a great deal about the world we live in without  seeking to offer pat solutions to mankind’s problems. That is also true of the other ‘political’ films that were in the 2017 Cannes Competition line-up: Michael Haneke’s Happy End and Fatih Akin’s In the Fade.

Putting the central idea of Jupiter’s Moon in context, Mundruczo says: “I have somehow always thought that there is a greater, comprehensive universal faith that reaches beyond the relative faith dictated by a given culture and historical age, one that can have an impact on all people, especially in a day and age where we seem to be settling scores with traditional religion… Instead, we are defined by money and success, by the ever-present god of populism and instant gratification.”

Stories that provoke

Beach parties, photo calls, high fashion and stardust are an integral part of the Cannes Film Festival. But far more central to its celebration of cinema are the deep conversations the films spark. Even when it is below par, as it was in several respects this year by its own high standards, the festival throws up provocative narratives like the one at the heart of Jupiter’s Moon and reminds us of the enormity of the obstacles that the world faces as it negotiates a maze of serious problems pertaining to floundering economies, ethnic wars, terrorism, undermining of democracy and rampant hate-mongering.

BPM  (Beats Per Minute) won the Cannes Grand Prix 

“We did not want to make a refugee film, but to use the present crisis as a context for rethinking miracles,” says Mundruczo.

Challenging fiction films by the established masters of world cinema, disturbing and insightful documentaries from leading lights of non-fiction moviemaking and a handful of genre offerings that touched upon fractious themes — Cannes had it all this year. The cinematic spectrum that the festival showcases has always been fascinating. So one had expected its 70th edition to pull out the stops. Not that it did not try — the Competition lineup as well as the Un Certain Regard and Special Screenings sections had many world cinema heavyweights, not the least of whom was Austrian auteur Haneke, a two-time Palme d’Or winner and Cannes regular who never fails to excite fans of his austere and incisive brand of cinema.

Happy End is about a wealthy bourgeois family in Calais 

The films in the festival’s principal segments were expected to whet the appetite of cinema lovers. That did not quite happen to the anticipated extent, notwithstanding the fact that a few of the Palme d’Or contenders — Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here in particular — did make a strong impression and were tipped to be frontrunners for the festival’s top prize.

On the final day, the jury presided over by Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, sprang a surprise by voting for Ruben Ostlund’s The Square, a vibrant darkly comic Swedish satire that probes the themes of trust, responsibility and social hypocrisy in the modern world through the story of an esteemed curator of an art gallery facing an existential crisis.

The film’s win was seen by many as a stunning upset. But its expansive theme does have an undeniable appeal for anybody who is perturbed by the direction that first world societies are headed in. “In the film, we face the weakness in human nature,” says Ostlund in his director’s note. “In attempting to do the right thing, the hardest part is not to simply agree on common values, but to actually act according to them….” 

In Loveless, the story of an estranged married couple forced to work together when their only son goes missing, there is no scope for redemption. The film paints a bleak portrait of urban Russia where personal aspirations snuff out genuine emotional connections. You Were Never Really Here, a sinewy thriller set in New York, is about an ex-soldier-turned-hitman who battles a sex trafficking ring to save a teenage girl. Both films are stark reminders that the world is an unsettlingly unhappy place today.  

Global issues

But while the overall show may have left some critics a tad cold, the political thrust of the films that the Cannes programmers assembled this year ensured that there would be no dearth of talking points during the festival that turns this French Riviera town — once a nondescript fishing port — into the world’s movie capital for 12 days every May.

Reflecting the reality of a world grappling with severe political and ethnic strife, many of the titles in the 70th Cannes Film Festival addressed the breakdown of communication between individuals, societies, communities and nations. It’s a collective, global existential crisis that humanity is facing and it was reflected in no uncertain terms in the selected films. The broad pattern that emerged pointed to an ever-increasing urge among storytellers to reflect upon and seek to make sense of a world under siege.

Jupiter's Moon is about a young Syrian refugee who discovers he can levitate 

One wouldn’t have got that sense had our primary source of information been the glamour-struck Indian entertainment press. Large swathes of it couldn’t see beyond Aishwarya Rai, Sonam Kapoor and Deepika Padukone, the three Bollywood actresses who walked the red carpet in their capacity as L’Oreal brand ambassadors. The Indian media’s fixation with the Mumbai divas is understandable: in the absence of nothing to cheer on by way of films from the subcontinent, they treat the Cannes Film Festival as no more than a high-voltage jamboree that yields eye-catching photographs of American and European divas in their best designer outfits. The Indians invited to the parade bask in the reflected glory of being in a place where the shutterbugs never stop working and the media spotlight never dims.  

But those in the know are aware that there is a great deal more to this extravagant summer event than the red carpets, tuxedos, bow-ties, flowing gowns and the heady hoopla fuelled by non-stop global media coverage. Cannes remains, first and foremost, committed to cinema.

It was no different this year. Europe is in the midst of multiple crises. It is up against a swelling population of migrants and the constant threat of terror attacks. While repercussions of the former found its way into the themes of a wide array of films, the latter reflected in the unprecedented security measures adopted on the ground by the festival authorities.

Less than a year ago, in July 2016, Nice, about 45 minutes away by road, had witnessed a horrific terror attack on Bastille Day when a truck driven by a radicalised youth ploughed through a crowd of revellers. Understandably, there was fear in the air in Cannes and a tight security ring was thrown around the venue of the festival, inconveniencing filmgoers streaming in and out of the screening hub in the Palais des Festivals.

Who better to capture the forbidding mood of Europe than Michael Haneke? His ironically titled Happy End is about a wealthy bourgeois family in Calais whose transport and construction business is passed from the ageing patriarch Georges Laurent to his daughter Anne, played, respectively, by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert (who were also in Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning Amour). The old man, now contemplating ways to end his life, is served by the family’s Moroccan retainers, Rachid and Jamila, who are often objects of racist disdain. 

The Laurent family faces a host of grave issues, personal and social, and the new head of the brood does not help matters by deciding to marry a British lawyer (Toby Jones) in the midst of a civil suit relating to a mishap caused by negligence at one of their construction sites. Their placidly insular world is always at risk of being shaken up by the refugees who reside in the jungle camp on the edge of Calais and are occasionally seen restlessly trudging the streets. Happy End is a sly, crafty film that bears the stamp of a master — it addresses the ways of affluent Europeans and the realities that they would rather not confront.

In German-Turkish filmmaker Fatih Akin’s Competition entry, In the Fade, starring German-born Hollywood actress Diane Kruger, a woman fights for justice when her Turkish husband and their six-year-old son are killed in a blast masterminded by a neo-Nazi group in Hamburg. Cast in the mould of a vengeance thriller, the film journeys into the core of the rising socio-political agitation triggered by a growing hatred for outsiders and depicts the legal loopholes that allow perpetrators of violence to be let off the hook.

The film that took home the Cannes Grand Prix this year, French director Robin Campillo’s BPM  (Beats Per Minute), travels a quarter of a century back in time to portray Parisian AIDS activists in the early 1990s who waged a war to get the government of the day and pharmaceutical giants to invest in medical research in the fight against the epidemic.

Retracing journeys

A war of a completely different but equally dangerous kind is the subject matter of Demons in Paradise, first-time director Jude Ratnam’s documentary on the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war that ended in 2009 but still continues to divide the nation. In 1983, aged only five, Jude, a Sri Lankan Tamil, fled the massacre in Colombo and elsewhere instigated by the majority Sinhalese government.

More than three decades later, Ratnam undertakes the same journey on a red train from the south to the north of the country and investigates aspects of the war that have never been recorded on the screen by a local filmmaker. Tell-tale signs of the 26-year-long violent conflict are everywhere, especially in Jaffna and its surroundings. The film becomes a means for Ratnam to remind himself and his compatriots of the horrors that his community not only faced, but also perpetrated. 

Still from In the Fade 

Demons in Paradise, a film of urgent importance, exposes the Sinhala role in precipitating the bloody conflict. It also takes a critical look at the violence that was unleashed by the Tamil Tigers on ‘traitors’ to the cause. Ratnam says: “Currently in my country, more than seven years after the end of the civil war, the victors are celebrated, general amnesia is encouraged and silence is imposed. I want to break that silence and help the scars of recent events heal rather than grow deeper.”

The filmmaker is aware of the controversy Demons in Paradise is likely to lead to. “I know I will have to face harsh, perhaps even hateful, criticism from both communities. The Sinhalese will claim that I am betraying my country by stirring up a past that is best forgotten. On the other hand, the Tamils will insist that I betrayed our cause by revealing the atrocities committed by the Tamil Tigers,” says Ratnam.

English actress Vanessa Redgrave, 80, was in Cannes with her first film as director, Sea Sorrow, a 74-minute heartfelt documentary that traces the history of forced migrations that have occurred from across the world over the past century. The powerful film makes a strong case for the UK in particular and Europe in general to play a proactive part in providing safe havens to the wave of refugees that have been coming in of late from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, especially children unaccompanied by parents.

Redgrave, a timeless theatre and cinema icon, makes illuminating references to William Shakespeare — especially to Richard III and The Tempest — in driving home the horrors of deracination and the lack of political will among today’s world leaders to do something about it. Pointing out that Europe generated the largest number of refugees in the post-Second World War era, Sea Sorrow — the title is drawn from Prospero’s lines spoken to daughter Miranda in The Tempest — asserts that the continent is morally bound to act with a sense of urgency. As 65 million refugees struggle to find a new life, Europe cannot slam its doors on migrants, the film suggests.

Truth on film

A powerful new documentary film about former US Vice-President Al Gore’s sustained campaign to encourage renewable energy use across the world, took sharp swipes at President Donald Trump, a climate change denier. Gore was at the forefront of the decades-long campaign that culminated in the Paris Climate Conference in November 2015.

An Inconvenient Sequel tracks the progress made by him in the 10 years since An Inconvenient Truth put the global spotlight on the question of climate change and what needs to be done to reverse it.

Talking to the press, co-director Jon Shenk said: “This film is about a truly epic battle between all those who have got us into the mess we are in today and those who want to do things in a new, sustainable way.”

For Gore, film has proven to be a powerful medium. “When An Inconvenient Truth premiered in Cannes, I learned something I did not know before. Film is the most effective medium to deliver a message. The news environment is so messy and chaotic today that it is difficult to get focussed attention,” he said. While in the film he laments the distortions that have crept into democracy, he asserted that the climate change fight is now “a hopeful cause because we have the solutions”.   

Among the more unusual films that played in Cannes was one in the parallel Directors’ Fortnight — French documentarian Sonia Kronlund’s Nothingwood, which celebrates the life and work of Kabul-based actor-director-producer Salim Shaheen. The gutsy 51-year-old has braved 35 years of war to continue making films in Afghanistan, inspired in the main by Bollywood. He has 112 films behind him and, as he told this writer after the screening of Nothingwood, will begin working on his 113th and 114th films as soon as he returns to Afghanistan.

In one scene in Nothingwood, Kronlund expresses the fear that a particular location might have landmines. “There are no landmines,” Shaheen assures her. “But even if there are, we will both die of cinema,” he adds airily. Nobody defines passion for cinema quite like Salim Shaheen: an irrepressible man who sums up the spirit that the Cannes Film Festival celebrates.