National and Aesthetic Diversity

in 66th Cannes Film Festival

by Maja Bogojević

This year’s Cannes International Film Festival screened hundreds of feature films from different countries around the world in its various sections — competition, off competition, Un certain regard, Quinzaines des realisateurs, Semaine de la critique, ACID, Cannes Classics, Cinema de la plage, and numerous Marché producer organised screenings. The nationality of films didn’t seem to matter, as co-productions and inter-national métissages abounded: French actresses directed by a Tunisian director in a Palme d’Or French film, British and Canadian stars in a film made by a Danish filmmaker in Bangkok with Thai actors, a British cast in a US film and so on. The Cannes selection, therefore, exhibited national, thematic and aesthetic diversity.

This aesthetic diversity was prominent also in the sections of Quinzaines des realisateurs and Semaine de la Critique, but the films displayed a more local/national focus both in terms of their thematic preoccupations and the film crews involved. Although diverse and even contrasting in their cinematic approaches to portrayals of different realities and human relationships, the screened films mainly focused on a microcosmos, ordinary or less ordinary small community stories, and personal portraits imbued with family drama or societal tensions, ranging from stylish visions of two masters Alejandro Jodorowsky and Marcel Ophuls (The Dance of Reality (La Danza de la Realidad) and Un voyageur, respectively), with also an illuminating documentary on Jodorowsky’s failed project Dune, by Frank Pavich, to entertaining comedies by Guillaume Gallienne and Serge Bozon, a daring documentary experiment L’escale by Kaveh Bakhtiari and a bold work of realism The Selfish Giant by Clio Barnard, to magnificently filmed Salvo, by F. Grassadonia and A. Piazza, contemplative Sebastien Pilot’s Le Demantelement, or Ritesh Batra’s lyrical urban story The Lunchbox (Dabba) and award winning FIPRESCI gem Blue Ruin, by Jerome Saulnier. With the exception of L’escale, no films showed political engagement or social critique, as if the defeatist acceptance of mainstream values, relativisation of normative standards and petty (pseudo)individualistic concerns had taken precedence over attempts at challenging the set boundaries and artistic search for reflexive criticism, perhaps symptomatic of the age we live in.

Nation became very important, however, both in a filmic and meta-filmic context in Ilo Ilo, but that film is also one that most effectively internationalises these cross-cultural experiences. Anthony Chen is the first Singaporean director to have won accolades in Cannes: first, a special mention for his short Ah Ma (Grandma) in 2007, and this year the prestigious Camera d’Or for Ilo Ilo, awarded by an impressive jury headed by Agnès Varda.

Set in Singapore at the time of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the film depicts a family in tension — an estranged father, a spoilt son and a mother pregnant with another child. Their lives are made more tense, deepening both a moral and financial crisis, by the arrival of a Filipino maid Teresa, who has come, like many other Filipino women, in search of a life with better economic conditions. The already strained family relationship (the husband is hiding from his family many of his dodgy business deals and the fact that he smokes) is further intensified by the maid who enters their life, especially young Jiale’s, with whom she shares the room. Masterfully shot in a minimalist retro style, the film coveys the emotions of all the characters and reveals their secrets through refined camera and editing work, thanks to which the Filipino maid becomes the unspoken, but catalyst, ingredient in the manifestation of the complexity of family relations. The film, also, subtly unfolds Teresa’s hardships, her silences, her simple joys of taking care of the children of others, whilst not forgetting to take care of her own, albeit long distance. It is the only Cannes film, viewed by me, that did not resort to intrusive extra-diegetic music to achieve a more powerful dramatic impact on the viewer. It simply lets the visual language speak of its characters, thus contributing to an excellently balanced narrative, which may demand a certain degree of cinematic maturity from the viewer. The contextual extra-filmic detail from the director’s life adds to the connotative value of the film’s autobiographical title, which refers to the place in the Philippines from which the director’s maid was from.

Similarly to Ilo Ilo, a feeling of tension and solitude is portrayed in Henri, by Yolande Moreau, an established theatre and film actress, whose debut feature When the Sea Rises (Quand la mer monte…) won the Louis-Delluc prize for best first film and two Césars, for best film and best actress. Whilst Henri’s subject matter may not appear to be original, its filmic treatment is certainly innovative. Loneliness seems to be the protagonist of the film, as Yolande Moreau lets the camera explore and weave the relationship between two lonely individuals, beautifully played by Pippo Delbonno and Candy Ming. Rich visual language, coupled with the subtle use of diegetic music, accentuates the perfect rhythm of the characters’ development of intimacy, enhancing the viewer’s curiosity for and empathy with the film’s protagonists.

Although many films screened in Quinzaine des realisateurs and Semaine de la critique shared the common topics of isolation, alienation, or yearning to belong somewhere, Blue Ruin, Ilo ilo and Henri seem to be the most efficient in their characters’ portrayals and in their conveyance of the feeling of loneliness.

Edited by Carmen Gray