Cannes at 70 – the top picks of what’s on offer this year


As the famous French film festival celebrates its 70th birthday, our film critic gives his top picks of what’s on offer this year

Paul Whitington

Cannes kicks off next Wednesday, and this year has something to celebrate. The Riviera festival, which has always mixed high art with commerce and a bracing brand of Euro-trashiness, is marking its 70th anniversary, and will do so with a typically impressive and eclectic roster of films.

In the finest Cannes tradition, there’ll be walk-outs, booing, fallings out on the jury and of course lots of embarrassing publicity stunts involving sun, sand and scantily clad women. The Cannes Film Festival is a unique and oddly contradictory event, silly and serious and endearingly tacky all at once.

It has a long tradition of championing esoteric arthouse films, but also happily allows Hollywood to use the festival as a promotional vehicle for its summer blockbusters. And behind the glitz, glamour and red-carpet shenanigans, Cannes’ annual Marché du Film sees distributors from around the world descending on the Côte d’Azur to take part in perhaps the world’s most important commercial film sale.

Dreamt up in the 1930s and launched in the 1940s, it almost died in its early years, and only managed to establish itself as a major event in the international film calendar in the early 1950s after persuading Hollywood that the south of France in early summer was a place worth visiting.

At the same time as they were piggy-backing on golden age Hollywood’s peerless glamour, the good folk at Cannes were merrily sneering at the quality of Tinseltown’s output, and this deep ambivalence about American cinema has continued to this day. But the connection with California remains essential to Cannes’ success, and the festival would surely flounder without some big-budget American films on its roster.

This year’s American contingent includes Sofia Coppola’s new film The Beguiled, a dark American Civil War saga starring Colin Farrell as an injured Union soldier who causes chaos when he takes refuge in an all-girl Mississippi boarding school. It’s a remake of a 1971 Don Siegel film, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning co-star as the women who fall in love with him, and if that sounds like some kind of male fantasy, I can tell you it won’t end well for him.

Todd Haynes’ last film, Carol, wowed everyone at Cannes in 2015, and he returns this year with Wonderstruck, a moving saga set over 50 years and based on the acclaimed young adult illustrated novel by Brian Selznick. Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams star in this film about a deaf boy whose search for his father leads him to a mysterious bookstore.

I’m a big fan of Noah Baumbach, particularly his playful and accomplished recent dramas, like Mistress America and While We’re Young. He arrives in Cannes with a film that promises to be a real delight: The Meyerowitz Stories stars Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler and Emma Thompson as siblings who struggle to get on when they gather to celebrate the achievements of their brilliant father, played by Dustin Hoffman.

So much for the American challenge, but none of the above films are favourites to win the prestigious Palme d’Or. Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke has long been a darling at Cannes, and if, as widely expected, his new film Happy End wins the Palme d’Or, he’ll become the first director ever to earn the accolade three times. Isabelle Huppert, Mathieu Kassovitz, Toby Jones and Jean-Louis Trintignant star in a family saga set in Calais against the backdrop of the refugee crisis. If Happy End is anything like as good as The White Ribbon or Amour, it’ll be well worth seeing.

Speaking of provocateurs, Jean-Luc Godard has a long and eventful track record at Cannes: in 1968, he organised sit-ins and protests in sympathy with striking workers and students, and eventually succeeded in closing that year’s festival down. How insufferable of him. Forty-nine years later, the last of the Nouvelle Vague Lions is the subject of a Michel Hazanavicius film called Redoubtable, which dramatises Godard’s affair with his lead actress Anne Wiazemsky during filming of his 1967 film La Chinoise: at that time the director was 37, while Mademoiselle Wiazemsky was 19.

Like a lot of 1960s Marxists, Monsieur Godard wasn’t much of a feminist, and the 86-year-old has dismissed Hazanavicius’s film as a “stupid, stupid, idea”. Meanwhile, another old 1960s leftie makes her directorial debut at the grand old age of 80. Vanessa Redgrave’s Sea Sorrow is a sombre drama about European refugees fleeing war zones in the 1940s and stars Emma Thompson and Ralph Fiennes, two actors who rarely put a foot wrong.

I thought Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, was a brilliant and criminally underrated exploration of an American mass shooting. Her new film You Were Never Really Here will debut at Cannes, and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, an American war veteran whose sincere attempts to save a girl from a sex trafficking ring go horribly wrong.

Andrey Zvyagintsev made a big impression at Cannes in 2014 with Leviathan, a stark drama set in a coastal Arctic town and exploring the theme of moral corruption in Putin’s Russia. When a hot-headed mechanic refused to sell his land to the local mayor, the public official calmly set out to destroy the man’s life with the help of an Orthodox bishop. In his new film, Loveless, a recently divorced couple must set aside their differences when their son goes missing.

Another Russian film worth watching out for is A Gentle Creature, Sergei Loznitsa’s adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s short story about an unhappy seamstress whose romantic obsessions lead her down a very unhappy path. I suppose if you went to a Russian film that ended happily, you’d ask for your money back.

We’ve already mentioned Colin Farrell in connection with The Beguiled, but he shows up again at Cannes 2017 in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Killing of a Sacred Deer. I thought Farrell and Lanthimos’ worked together very well in the absurd dystopian comedy The Lobster, and in this film he stars (opposite Nicole Kidman again) as a wealthy surgeon who forms a fatherly bond with a teenage boy that turns out to be ill-advised. Lanthimos’ work is always provocative, ever original, and this should be no exception.

The elderly are well represented at Cannes this year, and 91-year-old documentary maker Claude Lanzmann’s new film Napalm will be in competition. His nine-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah is one of those films that everyone’s heard of but hardly anyone’s ever seen, but Napalm sounds more accessible, and to the point. A brisk 100 minutes long, it does exactly what it says on the tin, exploring the endless misery caused by America’s use of the chemical weapon during the Vietnam War. No invitations to the White House for Monsieur Lanzmann in the near future, then.

Alejandro González Iñárritu will win few friends in Washington with Flesh and Sand, his controversial virtual reality short film about immigrants and refugees making the perilous border crossing from Mexico to the US. And refugees are also the theme of Kornél Mundruczó’s latest feature, Jupiter’s Moon, which tells the story of a young boy who discovers he can levitate after he’s shot at a border checkpoint.

That premise might sound bonkers, but if anyone can make it work, Mundruczó can: in the Hungarian’s last film, White God, he brilliantly used real dogs instead of CGI ones to dramatise the story of a pack of hounds that turn feral and terrorise a town.

Netflix is becoming an ever bigger noise in the movie world: they produced Noah Boambach’s Meyerowitz Stories, which we mentioned earlier, and the streaming service also brings an intriguing Korean monster movie to Cannes. In Okja, which was co-written by its director Bong Joon-ho and Welsh writer Jon Ronson, a large, gentle animal previously unknown to science is protected by a little girl when sinister forces try to abduct it.

As ever, then, the Cannes line up is formidable, but the high-quality, award-seeking films aren’t the whole story. There’s always a fair smattering of commercial rubbish, from Hollywood and elsewhere, including France. On the face of it, Jacques Doillon’s Rodin sounds like the latest of a long line of middlebrow, culturally lightweight French movies that have sought to piggyback on a Cannes première, and its plot, which details the love affair between sculptor Auguste Rodin and an unstable female assistant, has already been very well told in the 1988 film, Camille Claudel. But Rodin does star the invariably excellent Vincent Lindon, so maybe it won’t be too bad.

The festival has always loved David Lynch, who will appear here promoting not a film, but a TV show. Cannes will host the première of episodes one and two of the new Twin Peaks, which stars Kyle MacLachlan and takes up where the iconic 1990s series so abruptly left off. Now that is something to get excited about.

We’ve talked about the serious, arty side of the world’s most famous film festival, but Cannes is also famous for bizarre publicity stunts and spectacular fallings-out.

Many careers have been kick-started by a memorable appearance on Cannes’ short but much-photographed beach. Brigitte Bardot (above) was an unknown 18-year-old when she appeared on the famous sands in 1953 wearing a revolutionary new item of clothing called a bikini. “I’ve never seen one of those before,” remarked a clearly impressed Kirk Douglas.

Bardot began the dubious practice of publicity stunt stripping at Cannes that has long since become a vulgar bore. In 1991, though, Madonna revived the tradition in style when she ripped off her cloak on the steps of the Palais des Festivals to reveal a Jean-Paul Gaultier conical bra.

And in 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat took the beach at the festival in a memorable lime-green mankini.

Cannes loves melodrama, and hardly a year passes without some unfortunate entry being subjected to a mass walkout. Booing and hissing are common occurrences, as Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and Ron Howard’s Da Vinci Code discovered to their cost, but it’s the walk-outs directors most fear. Volatile French audiences have even been known to boo their own. In 1987, the Cannes mob took exception to Maurice Pialat’s winning the Palme d’Or with Sous le Soleil de Satan, and gave him the bird. He responded by giving them the finger — on live television. Never a dull moment at Cannes.

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