Cannes 2019

Competition Highs and Lows

On Film / The Daily — May 27, 2019
Song Kang-ho in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019)

When Bong Joon-ho accepted the Palme d’Or for Parasite on Saturday night, he took every opportunity available to express his gratitude to his lead actor, Song Kang-ho. An AFP photo of Bong kneeling and offering up the gold-leafed award to Song has been gathering countless likes and shares all across social media. In Parasite, the first Korean film to win the top award at the Cannes Film Festival, Song plays the head of a destitute family that, one by one, infiltrates a vastly wealthier family. Most agree with Giovanni Marchini Camia, who writes at the Film Stage that “Bong has crafted an angry, genre-inflected social allegory that in many ways functions as a Korean analog to Jordan Peele’s Us. A far superior craftsman than Peele, Bong is perhaps the contemporary master of entertaining, intelligent, and resolutely political cinema. In our age of assembly line blockbusters, he’s a veritable treasure.”

Parasite is the fourth collaboration between Bong and the actor who’s also worked repeatedly with Park Chan-wook and Kim Jee-woon and appeared in films by Hong Sang-soo and Lee Chang-dong. In August, the Locarno Film Festival will present its Excellence Award to Song, and many in Cannes thought he might be a strong contender for this year’s best actor award. Instead, it’s gone to Antonio Banderas for his turn as a filmmaker not at all unlike Pedro Almodóvar in Pain and Glory. Time’s Stephanie Zacharek suggests that “Banderas’s performance—although he’s nearly always terrific, this is quite possibly his finest—is so fine-grained in its attentiveness to every nuance of physical and psychic suffering that you can’t help thinking Almodóvar is speaking through him.” More than a few critics were hoping that Almodóvar’s sixth run for the Palme would, for the first time, go all the way, Banderas included. Accepting the award, he said that the film’s title reflected his own conflicting feelings. Pained that the man who’d previously directed him in films such as Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987), and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989) couldn’t join him on stage, Banderas nevertheless basked in his moment of glory.

Yet another fruitful collaboration was celebrated when the best screenplay award went to Céline Sciamma, who’s directed Adèle Haenel, her real-life partner and the star of her 2007 debut Water Lilies, in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Scan the grids tabulating critics’ ratings of the films in competition this year, and you’ll find that Portrait, also the winner of the Queer Palm, consistently ranks among the top three alongside Parasite and Pain and Glory. In Portrait, set in the eighteenth century on an island off the coast of France, Haenel plays Héloïse, who’s resisting her titled parents’ plans to marry her off to a wealthy man in Milan. They give Marianne (Noémie Merlant) one week to pose as their daughter’s walking companion by day, and to spend her nights committing Héloïse’s image to a canvas that would be sent to Italy for the future husband’s approval. No one involved foresees Héloïse and Marianne falling in love.

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As the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd observes, Portrait is the story of “a mutual, slow-motion seduction, and it seduces its audience just as gradually and effectively, pulling us into its old world with the beauty of its images and the quiet efficiency of its storytelling.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw is reminded of Alfred Hitchcock, “actually two specific Hitchcocks: Rebecca, with a young woman arriving at a mysterious house, haunted by the past, and also Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with its all-important male gaze. Sciamma flips it to a female gaze, a gaze of connoisseurship, of artistic appropriation, of erotic rapture.” Sciamma also “brings the erotic together with the cerebral,” adds Bradshaw, and in Another Gaze, Rebecca Liu notes that Héloïse and Marianne “argue about what’s more important: adhering to the formal rules of portraiture, or pursuing more malleable notions of capturing spirit and playing with feeling. Portrait de la jeune fille en feu—a study of two women pursuing lives larger than the ones they’ve been given—chooses the spirit over formalism; poetry over realism; myth over history.” Neon will be bringing both Portrait and Parasite to the States later this year.

Haenel had quite a festival, appearing not only in Portrait but also in Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin, which opened the Directors’ Fortnight, and in Aude Léa Rapin’s Critics’ Week entry Heroes Don’t Die; Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold talks with her about all three films. Though she’s been working in film and television since 2002, she didn’t really break through internationally until she took the lead in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl in 2016. This year, the Dardennes brought Young Ahmed, the story of a thirteen-year-old Muslim (Idir Ben Addi) so radicalized by an extremist imam (Othmane Moumen) that he plans to murder his teacher (Myriem Akheddiou). In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis notes that, when it was announced that the award for best director was going to the Dardennes, the assembled press “erupted in vigorous boos.” The Dardennes “have won the Palme d’Or twice and their influence on contemporary cinema is profound, as was evident throughout the festival,” writes Dargis. “But their new movie was seen by many critics as a disappointment.”

For Richard Porton at the Daily Beast, what’s “truly depressing about Young Ahmed is the filmmakers’ capitulation to a schematic analysis of Islamism that is completely unedifying. Other Dardenne brothers films such as La promesse or L’enfant deal with characters grappling with complex moral choices. Ahmed, by contrast, is a static abstraction.” At Little White Lies, Charles Bramesco adds that the ending “in particular suffers from this absence of innate understanding, giving the filmmakers an easy way out from the questions of penance and forgiveness that’s nagged so many of their past characters.”

No one’s objected to the decision by the jury—Alejandro González Iñárritu (president), Enki Bilal, Robin Campillo, Maimouna N’Diaye, Elle Fanning, Yorgos Lanthimos, Pawel Pawlikowski, Kelly Reichardt, and Alice Rohrwacher—to award the Grand prix to Mati Diop’s Atlantics. Essentially, this means that the feature debut by the first film in competition to have been directed by a black woman has placed second. Introducing his interview with Diop for Film Comment, Eric Hynes calls this love story set in contemporary Dakar “a mix of classical storytelling and genre gambits—a practical love contrasted with one of passion, a detective story, a haunting—with unique stylizations, from subjective music cues to provocative reverses and long takes.”

This year’s jury prize is shared by Ladj Ly’s Les misérables, an electric depiction of tensions between immigrants and the police in a Parisian banlieue, and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, a violent and unpredictable story of the invasion of a small town in rural Brazil. The best actress award goes to Emily Beecham for her performance as a genetic engineer who’s created a plant that makes people happy in Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe.


The jury has decided to honor Elia Suleiman’s It Must Be Heaven with a special mention. As in his previous three features, the Palestinian filmmaker plays a silently observant and somewhat perplexed version of himself. In the new film, he finds that life in France and the U.S. is just as absurd as it is in Palestine. “There is a hint of Jacques Tati in the tone and style of his work, and this new effort, with its tableaux-style mise-en-scène, has a touch of Roy Andersson,” writes Kaleem Aftab at Cineuropa. Heaven, named the best film in competition by the International Federation of Film Critics, isn’t really “a major evolution in his style or approach,” writes A. A. Dowd. “But given how infrequently we actually get a new dose of it, that’s more than fine, maybe even preferable.” Here in the Current, Suleiman tells Bilge Ebiri that he’s “wanted to do this kind of film for a while—one that goes to the edge with the burlesque, and with the choreographic elements. I had been yearning to have this légèreté—to achieve something extremely political and extremely light.”

Rithy Panh presided over the jury that presents the award for the best first feature, the Camera d’Or, and this year’s winner premiered in Critics’ Week. In César Díaz’s Our Mothers, a forensic archaeologist investigates the fates of those who went missing during Guatemala’s long civil war. And the Cinéfondation and short films juries presided over by Claire Denis have given the Short Film Palme d’Or to Vasilis Kekatos’s The Distance Between Us and the Sky, which finds two strangers negotiating a deal one night at a lonely gas station.

On the whole, the decisions made by Alejandro González Iñárritu and his fellow jurors have been met with resounding approval. For Blake Williams, dispatching to Filmmaker, this year’s set of awards is “better than any since at least 2011,” when Terrence Malick won the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life. Malick, who brought A Hidden Life to the 2019 edition, goes home empty-handed, but so, too, do Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, Ken Loach, Corneliu Porumboiu, Diao Yinan, and a handful of filmmakers we haven’t yet mentioned in this year’s round.

Cannes favorite Xavier Dolan, for example, who’s just turned thirty and is a great admirer of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, brought his eighth feature, Matthias and Maxime. Dolan plays Maxime, who’s been friends with Matthias for as long as either of them can remember. It’s only after they agree to perform in a short student film that they realize they’ll be required to kiss. In Variety, Guy Lodge finds that “in its relaxed assemblage of themes and cinematic motifs from previous Dolan joints—a relationship dynamic from Heartbeats here, a swirly visual flourish from Laurence Anyways there—Matthias and Maxime feels comfortable: not out to scout new stylistic territory, but confident in the turf it covers, often gorgeously so.” For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, the film is “as crisp and tangy-sweet as raspberry sorbet, and Dolan’s most conventional and accessible work to date.”


Arnaud Desplechin returned to the festival with Oh Mercy!, a procedural centering on two cops (Roschdy Zem and Antoine Reinartz) investigating the murder of an elderly woman in Roubaix, a city in northern France scarred by poverty and violence. The partners spend a good half of the film’s running time interrogating two suspects (Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier), and Variety’s Jay Weissberg finds that Desplechin’s “stated desire to humanize the couple holds less interest than the policemen’s personalities and their interplay with each other and the community.” But for Jonathan Romney, writing for Film Comment, “to suggest that there’s somehow grace to be found on France’s meanest streets may seem a rarefied ambition, and perhaps even an improper one in a film drawn from hard reportage. But it’s something that Desplechin pulls off, with not a jot of his usual cinematic dandyism; for me, it was one of the most welcome surprises of this year’s festival.”

Reviewing The Traitor, most critics have bent over backwards to express their admiration for the work of Marco Bellocchio before enumerating their frustrations with what IndieWire’s David Ehrlich calls “a lively but scattershot and exasperating biopic.” The Traitor sweeps through twenty years in the life of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss-turned-informant, in just under two and a half hours. Bellocchio will turn eighty in November, and his “boisterous spirit is still evident in every frame,” writes Ehrlich, “especially as he depicts the Italian court system like a drunken soap opera at the Coliseum—but his film covers too much ground to navigate any of it with real intention.” Screen’s Tim Grierson, though, finds that Pierfrancesco Favino is “such a commanding presence as Buscetta—imposing but also unknowable—that other concerns almost don’t matter.” And the Notebook’s Daniel Kasman admires the way that Bellocchio “deftly narrates Buscetta’s journey of moral rectitude and personal vengeance by avoiding melodrama in favor of a muscular, straightforward style.”


Hopes were high for Frankie, the first film critical favorite Ira Sachs (Love Is Strange, Little Men) has made abroad. Isabelle Huppert plays a famous actress who’s assembled friends and family in Sintra, the picturesque town on the Portuguese Riviera. Her cancer has returned and she “now fears the worst, although you wouldn’t notice,” as Rory O’Connor observes at the Film Stage. Over the course of a single day, “we’ll see her play piano, crack jokes, and possibly even get some . . . Huppert is great at this, and of course she is. It’s elsewhere that the film falters. This is not by any failing of Huppert’s supporting players, per se, but in a strange lack of chemistry. The family is a hodgepodge of the sort that would make even Royal Tenenbaum blush.” The cast includes Marisa Tomei, Brendan Gleeson, Greg Kinnear, Jérémie Renier, and Pascal Greggory, who appeared in a handful of films by Eric Rohmer in the 1980s. And “for all its naturalistic elegance and lighter-than-air precision,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, Frankie is “an American Rohmer film that doesn’t, unfortunately, feel close to being a major Rohmer film.”

There’s always one film at Cannes that everyone gangs up on, and by nearly all accounts, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo well and truly deserves to be that film this year. To be fair, the film has a few champions in France. In 2013, the Franco-Tunisian director shared the Palme d’Or for Blue Is the Warmest Color with his two lead actresses, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, both of whom would later talk of an arduous shoot. Last year, an actress accused Kechiche of sexual assault, a charge he denies. This context is not irrelevant to the way Intermezzo has been received. Running over three and a half hours, Intermezzo, a sequel to 2017’s Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno, an adaptation of a novel by François Bégaudeau, follows a loose band of young and beautiful people from an afternoon on the beach to an evening at a club that culminates in a now infamous unsimulated sex scene. Overall, the film is “a numbingly obtuse experience,” writes the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang, “a feat of maddeningly indulgent non-storytelling hiding behind a symphony of bared midriffs and jiggling derrières.” The New York TimesManohla Dargis argues that “Kechiche’s fetishization of the female body here is as tedious as it is insulting, and the actual filmmaking is flat-out bad; it’s uninterestingly, unproductively ugly, boring, and repetitive.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it there. Hours before the awards were presented, Cannes’s seventy-second edition wrapped with the premiere of Justine Triet’s Sibyl. Virginie Efira plays a psychotherapist, Sibyl, who’s treating an actress (Adèle Exarchopoulos) embroiled in a tumultuous love triangle with the lead actor (Gaspard Ulliel) and director (Sandra Hüller) of her current project. The Hollywood Reporter’s Jordan Mintzer calls Sibyl “a meta-psychological thriller that’s something like a film within the making-of-a-film within a crime novel within an erotic dream within a therapy session run amok . . . and yet Triet handles the material gracefully and altogether skillfully.” For Variety’s Guy Lodge, Sibyl is “certainly the most purely enjoyable French fancy to play in Cannes’s top tier since François Ozon’s Double Lover two years ago” and it “also seals the arrival of Efira, once pegged as a likable but lightweight comedienne, as a first-class leading lady of consistently expanding range and elan.”

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