On and Off Screen

By Jason Solomons

Cannes 2018 was all about the women. It was the first festival of the era of #metoo, #timesup and #50/50, and the first in 30 years without Harvey Weinstein huckstering, bullying and pestering and his absence seemed to give everyone a sense of empowerment and freedom. La Croisette was replete with panels about Women in Film and Female Filmmaker meetings and the tide went all the way up the red carpet on one historic and symbolic Saturday evening, when 82 women climbed halfway up the famous steps to the Palais, led by this year’s Jury President and undisputed Queen of Cannes, Cate Blanchett.

They were 82 because that’s the number of women who’ve been in the Competition in the 71 years of Cannes, and only two of them hold a Palme d’Or – Jane Campion for The Piano, 25 years ago, and Agnès Varda, awarded an honorary Palme in 2015 for, well, for being absolutely amazing. The tiny trailblazer of the New Wave was here, still battling away at 89. Will all the female voices and initiatives really change the film world? Certainly, several festivals including Cannes signed up to pledges for parity in the future, so the balance is shifting and films by women will be given more exposure on the bigger stages.

Understandably, the search for a female director with a film good enough to win this year put some heat on the three female-directed movies in competition. France’s Eva Husson gave us a stylish, emotional war movie called Girls of the Sun, about a brave photojournalist (played by Iranian beauty Golshifteh Farahani) following a battalion of rebel female soldiers – all former captives and sex slaves – fighting back against Isis in Kurdistan. I didn’t know this before, but Isis soldiers killed by a woman do not go to paradise, so these ladies are greatly feared, their sex their most lethal weapon.

More memorable was the film from young Italian director Alice Rohrwacher, a magical realist fable set deep in the Tuscan countryside. It’s called Happy as Lazzaro, about a village of peasants who work as plantation slaves to an eccentric tobacco heiress Marchesa, living as they did 150 years ago. When modernity intervenes, they find being set free in the modern city a far worse fate, particularly the angelic, saintly, wide-eyed, man- child Lazzaro. What a wonderful, strange film it is, with shades of Fellini but a fresh, female voice
all of its own.

As for female stars, you don’t get much more Euro-glam than Penelope Cruz, whose tense new film Everybody Knows, written and directed by asghar Farhadi, opened the festival. Co-starring with her real-life husband Javier Bardem, she plays Laura, a woman returning from Argentina for a family wedding in the country ‘pueblo’ where she and Bardem’s vineyard boss were teenage sweethearts, although now both are married to others. A shock kidnapping forces out long-hidden secrets and feuds, with as much Spanish melodrama as you can shake a chorizo at.

Cannes is glam off-screen but pretty gritty on it. There was the story of a leper and an orphan travelling along the Nile on a horse and cart, in Yommedine; a film about a French labour dispute; a gay romance in 1990s Paris (you’ve never seen so much smoking); and a startling glimpse into modern China’s relentless economic modernisation, in ash is Purest White. Most exquisitely, there was a film called Cold War, from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski and it really was beautiful in black and white, every frame a cool poster in a story about a painful love affair over 20 years from the end of the Second World War in the communist bloc. It’s about a famous conductor and musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) who recruits Zula, a folk singer from the countryside and falls deep in love with her. Zula was played by actress Joanna Kulig, who seized her chance like a whirlwind, becoming an instant new Euro screen siren with all the star quality of Jeanne Moreau or a little Lauren Bacall. Remember her name and make a beeline for the film when it comes out – it’s a heartbreaker and a gem.

Pleasing the crowds was Le Grand Bain, with French actors Mathieu Amalric, Guillaume Canet and Jean-Hugues Anglade. Essentially, it’s The Full Monty in swimming trunks, about a male synchronised swimming team of middle-aged misfits from a small town in France travelling all the way to the World Championships. It’s funny and predictable, yet nicely done and, weirdly, there’s an English version called Swimming with Men paddling along behind it into our cinemas in summer.

I loved Italian film Dogman, about meek Marcello who massages pooches in a run-down Neopolitan parlour. and what an array of dogs, from snarling bulldogs to primped poodles to one enormous white one that looked more like a polar bear; they all adore Marcello’s care and blow dries, although he can’t control the neighbourhood’s biggest animal, a giant bully of a human called Simone, who terrorises everyone and demands Marcello give him cocaine. There wasn’t much on offer from form with BlacKkKlansman, which meant it had soul, anger, politics, style, disco, humour and more anger, the true story of a black Colorado detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan undercover in the mid-70s. The cop was played, very charismatically, by John David Washington, son of Denzel.

Our own Andrew Garfield played an LA slacker in Under the Silver Lake. Garfield was pretty good as a man looking for this blonde girl who disappears from his apartment block, but despite his best efforts, the film really falls apart around him. Amid the parties – I met Woody Harrelson on the beach, Chloe Sevigny in the rain, and bumped into Jane Fonda in a car park – my personal highlight this year was going on the red carpet for the premiere of Whitney, a heartbreaking documentary about Whitney Houston, her rise, her family and her unquenchable drug addiction. On a memorable night, I joined the director Kevin Macdonald who cleverly lets the story unfold like a musical tragedy in the guise of a thoughtful, sad doc that shows a female life in the vortex of fame. Everyone wanted a piece of Whitney and never allowed her to find her own identity, racially or sexually and although it builds to some headline-grabbing revelations, you come out marvelling what a voice she had, what a smile. But oh that Bobby Brown, you won’t like him much.