How Cannes 2017 Revealed a World in Crisis
At Cannes 2017, movies reflected an increasingly complex world.
It's been an interesting year to be a film writer. Especially in times of economic and political complacency, the film industry can feel like a myopic world, governed by capricious cycles of hype, reliance on past financial success, and insider privileges. But when the real world comes knocking, it's loud. And this year, at the 70th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, the lights came on in the theater to reveal a world in crisis—not much different from the one depicted on the screens.
The Migrant Crisis
To enter any building associated with the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, audiences had to undergo extensive security procedures similar to those in place at airports. After a 20-minute-long wait in line, two thorough bag checks, a walk-through metal detector, and a personal pat-down with a wand, festival-goers strolled past walls of French soldiers dressed in camo and armed with AK-47s.
Reminders of a precarious world order scarcely ended at the theater's entrance. Last year's Cannes lineup betrayed a preoccupation with the 1%. This year, the other shoe dropped as class issues gave way to the migrant crisis.
In Jupiter's Moon, Kornél Mundruczó's highly-anticipated follow-up to 2014 Cannes Un Certain Regard winner White God, the Hungarian director opens with 15 minutes of the most captivating portrayal of the migrant crisis in cinema so far. Aryan (Zsombor Jéger), a Syrian refugee from Homs, is fleeing across the Serbian border into Hungary in the dead of night. A thick, menacing haze snakes through the trees like the ghosts of the Yugoslav and World War II refugees who died in this very same forest. The petrified migrants hustle on to boats. "If you have papers, keep them dry, no matter what," someone instructs.
Blinding flashlights. Gunshots. There's no time to process the situation; we're underwater with Aryan as he fights for air. Bodies plunge into the water. Aryan finally makes it to shore, only to find that the border police are close behind.
As dawn breaks, Aryan runs for his life. The scene is shot with breathless dexterity and verisimilitude. Together with cinematographer Marcell Rév, Mundruczó creates a striking empathic exercise: in no other film at Cannes this year is one more patently aware of the plight of the migrant than here, where the audience experiences being hunted, like vermin, through the desolate backlands of a country that doesn't want you. The sentiment is further enhanced by the miserable conditions of the refugee camps across the border. The rest of Jupiter's Moon is an opportunity lost to confused magical realism (spoiler alert: Aryan can fly), but Mundruczó's visual feast is worth watching for the emphatic refutation of its title card: "Jupiter has 67 moons, but only Europa is capable of supporting life."
There is, in fact, one scene in recent cinematic memory that approaches the immersive quality of Jupiter's Moon. In Jonas Carpignano's Mediterranea, which premiered at Cannes in 2015, migrants crossing the sea on ramshackle boat encounter a thunderstorm at night. At the mercy of nature, bolts of lightning cast them in between a world of primordial darkness and a hellish nightmare. Carpignano was back at Cannes this year with A Ciambra, another window into the existential loneliness of the migrant. A Ciambra sees the Italian director train his gauzy, observational camera on an emerging truth: for many global citizens, the coming-of-age story is now one of assimilation.
On at least two occasions, Cannes movies visited the epicenter of the migrant crisis: Calais, a port city in northern France that is home to one of the largest refugee camps in Europe. Vanessa Redgrave's impassioned documentary Sea Sorrow ventured into the so-called "Calais Jungle" to plea for mercy for child refugees, who too often fall victim to criminality and child trafficking in the absence of better options for survival. Although Michael Haneke's Happy End is set in Calais, its characters are too blinkered by bourgeois problems to notice how the other half lives—even when it lives with them, in the form of a family of Moroccan servants. It takes an industrial accident that occurs on the family business' property to shake the wealthy matriarch from complacency.
Though it is endemic to the film industry, complacency was not much of an option for festival-goers this year, who experienced a bomb scare due to a "suspicious package" found at the entrance of the Palais, Cannes' main venue. The next morning, the world awoke to the tragic news of the Manchester bombing. That the terrorists had targeted a concert—a venue that, like the movie theater, is a sacred place of cultural commune—was not lost on festival audiences.
On screen, characters also grappled with the looming threat of terrorism. Fatih Akin's In the Fade deals with the aftermath of a Neo-Nazi attack that took the lives of her Kurdish husband and son. In Jupiter's Moon, our Syrian refugee is suspected of perpetrating a subway bombing, rendered in chilling detail in the film. For a while, Mundruczó implicates our implicit biases, too. Does Aryan deserve the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact of his brown skin?
"Man is a wolf to his fellow man," says a character in Russian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature. "And how do wolves live? In packs."
Global instability was not the only threat to human progress in this year's Cannes movies. Technology—a byproduct (or symptom, depending on your outlook) of progress itself—enabled the narcissistic desires and illusory worldviews of the characters in many of this year's Palme d'Or contenders. Haneke, who is 75 years old, opens Happy End with a prolonged Facebook Live video in which a twelve-year-old girl expresses homicidal tendencies toward both her mother and her hamster after one of them severely neglects her. Later, Haneke trains the screen on her father's philandering, all of which occurs over Facebook messages. (This, a year after Olivier Assayas tested Cannes audiences with a five-minute text messaging scene in Personal Shopper.) Haneke's cinematographer, Christian Berger, captures the characters in a vortex of stillness; their empty values have rendered them catatonic, and the world threatens to collapse from the inside in.
In Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless, a child's parents also neglect him. The Russian director's characters orbit each other fueled only by the gravitational pull of their own narcissism—or is it despair? It's hard to distinguish between the two, as they end up in the same place: the void, Haneke's vortex of stillness, into which young Alexey (Matvey Novikov) disappears. The village that was supposed to raise this child has utterly failed him. It's too busy validating its existence with selfies. But piercing this lifeless human behavior, the camera is kinetic, and its energy can be construed as a form of hope. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman places the camera on the dashboard of the father's car as it descends into a dark parking garage. In the corner of the frame, the rearview mirror is fixed on an eye, as if entering the underworld with one eye open.
Ruben Östlund's Palme d'Or-winning The Square concerned itself with the bourgeois inertia of Haneke and Zvyagintsev's films as well as the wolf packs in Loznitsa's A Gentle Creature. Our main character, Christian (Claes Bang), a curator at an art museum, is preparing an exhibit called "The Square," a performance art experiment in which patrons have equal rights and societal obligations. Unwittingly, Christian's well-intentioned experiment exposes some ugly human truths that look a lot like the world today—chief among them, an inability to cope with the "other."
Cinema as a Muscle of Democracy
Despite the unease roiling all corners of the world, directors at Cannes showcased the vitality of cinema. Whether it was Zvyagintsev, who continues to make politically subversive films under a de facto dictatorship, or Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof, who made the anti-authoritarian A Man of Integrity with a prison sentence impending, Cannes filmmakers demonstrated that when democracy comes under seige, movies serve a new purpose. Cinema, an art form that began as escapism, has evolved into exactly the opposite: a mirror of our increasingly complex world.