Cannes 2018: walkouts galore at von Trier screening

Cannes diary: Spike Lee’s black Klan comedy, Wim Wenders’s Papal pic and Lars von Trier’s latest outrage

The critics are squabbling 

Ah, we've got an old-school critical punch-up going on here. The medium is largely digital, but the language sounds familiar from similar disputes down through the years. The film in question is Eva Husson's Girls of the Sun. Most critics didn't care for it. Some liked it a bit. The issue at question is whether women were mostly up for it and men were mostly agin. Following the press screening in the Debussy, Spanish journalists - aggrieved at the gung-ho portrayal of female Kurdish guerrillas, yelled the word "immoral" (in Spanish).

Just round the corner at the red-carpet screening, the obligatory standing ovation was in progress. The first two critics I talked to were female and both thought the film was dire. "Girls Of The Sun is tone deaf, clunky and naïve," Wendy Ide, who writes for the the Observer and Screen International tweeted, "Score is a disaster and Bercot's western journo is a plot device rather than a character."

Responding to the subsequent good reviews by men in such organs as the Guardian, Time Out and the Daily Telegraph, Agnes Poirier said: "I wonder whether it will take a female critic to say what a poorly directed, dreadfully written and exploitative film this is."

Yet Melissa Silverstein, publisher of Women and Hollywood, commented: "Has there been a review written by a female on Girls of the Sun? I've only seen male-written reviews and women are responding very differently to it." Silverstein was right about one thing. There are too few women reviewers here and, as a result, you will sometimes fight to find a female voice. But those female critics really haven't been any keener on Girls of the Sun than the men. Honest.


Nation shall not talk unto nation

Idiot friends of mine once planned to collaborate with me on the internal demographics of Dublin pubs. Who drinks in what bit of what bar. Similar divides apply at press screening at the Cannes Festival. Who decided this? Who decided that, in the morning, the Italians all sit to the rear of the stalls at the left-hand side? Who decided that Anglophone critics position themselves towards the front right? The answers are lost in the runes of time. And nobody much cares anyway.

More gender equality news 

Thierry Fremaux, Cannes artistic director, has publicly signed a pledge aimed at increasing transparency and promoting gender equality. Titled "Programming Pledge for Parity and Inclusion in Cinema Festivals," the document was sponsored by 5050×2020, the women's organisation that organised the much publicised protest on the red carpet at the weekend. Cate Blanchett, Kristen Stewart, Lea Seydoux, and Ava DuVernay were on hand to watch representatives of Critics Week and Director's Fortnight, the two main sidebar events, put their own names to the document.

Walkouts galore at von Trier screening

Few left their seats during the press screening of Lars von Trier's predictably horrible serial killer film The House that Jack Built, but we're told – who counted? – around 100 suited and booted guests stormed out of the red-carpet screening in Monday night. We can understand that not everyone wants to enjoy watching women, children and ducklings being mutilated on their evening at the Riviera. But what did they expect from von Trier?

 Steven S directs Streep in a film about papers

If it's directed by someone both of whose names begin with "s" and it's about famous "papers" then you can bet that Meryl Streep is on board. There is much gossip in the market to the effect that the Streepster will join Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas in Steven Soderbergh's variations on the Panama Papers. It wouldn't be a Cannes 2018 story without the additional observation that Netflix are rumoured to be financing the thing.

And today’s reviews from the festival. . .

Directed by Spike Lee. Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen. In competition, 128 min.

Spike Lee has been all over the place in recent years. There's been an odd documentary. There have been disasters such as the remake of Oldboy. Not enough people saw the mad, fabulous Chi-Raq. Now, nearly 30 years after Do The Right Thing premiered at Cannes, he returns to the competition with an angry, good-natured, chaotic cop flick that deserves a place in the mainstream.

The true-life scenario promises something only slightly less likely than what we get. In 1979, Detective Ron Stallworth, a black officer from Colorado, infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and helped stall significant terrorist attacks. Sadly, Stallworth didn't actually join as himself. That would be too bonkers for even this often-bonkers film. As BlacKkKlansman tells it, Stallworth (John David Washington) charmed the KKK with racist banter on the phone and then sent his white colleague Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) along to the actual meetings. In this version, he also gets pally with then Klan chief David Dukes (Topher Grace) and romances a black student radical (Laura Harrier).

Lee has reached the age where he’s allowed his indulgences and, to be fair, the indulgences here are pretty entertaining. Corey Hawkins gets to deliver an entire speech by firebrand Stokely Carmichael with wit and fury. Harry Belafonte, always welcome at 91, does something similar late in the film. The plot has a higgledy nature that suggests more energy has been put into dialogue and character than structure. But the interplay between the actors is so juicy it proves hard to care about these demerits.

Washington is dryly hilarious as a man who can’t quite tell where his allegiances lie. The turn is good enough to shake off comparisons with his father, one Denzel of that ilk. Driver bounces lines back with startled bonhomie. The infiltrated Klan are intermittently terrifying and hilarious. Grace has enormous fun pouring syrup over a pompous version of the future State Representative Duke.

During one of Duke's conversations with Stallworth, he boasts about returning America to "greatness". It's not the only reference to Donald Trump. Some may find these nods a tad on the nose, but they help remind us how marginalised many of Trump's ideas once were.

Before taking a dark swerve into chilling verité at the close, BlacKkKlansman – scored ingeniously by jazzman Terence Blanchard – kicks up suggestions of the pilot for a great 1970s mismatched cop show. It’s that funky. It’s that loosely structured. I’m not sure Lee would regard that as an insult.

Pope Francis: A Man of his Word

Directed by Wim Wenders. Starring Pope Francis. Out of competition. 96 min. 

Linguistic pedants will surely allow us to call Wim Wenders's study of Pope Francis almost literally hagiographic. No miracles are revealed. But the film could certainly serve as powerful evidence when discussion of the pope's canonisation begins. None of which is to suggest that the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio doesn't come across as a fine man. And we understand that such interviews come with conditions. But just a little pushback from the interviewer would have been nice.

The film makes much of comparisons between the current pope and Saint Francis of Assisi. The misguided decision to act out scenes from that historical figure's life – Sunday School-sincere in respectful black and white – can be excused on the grounds of relative brevity. The bulk of the film comprises footage of the pope going about his business and talking to Wenders's camera. There is some moving film of the pope visiting a hospital for children in Africa. Everywhere he goes, he makes sure to reach out and touch those who appreciate that touch most.

A Man of His Word will, however, be studied most closely for what the pope actually says. There is a genuine impression of a man trying to do his best within the confines of a rigid clerical structure. No thinking person could listen to this careful Jesuit without concluding that certain orthodoxies are being strategically questioned. "Could anybody think that Gandhi or Martin Luther King are less loved by God?" he says smilingly of the Baptist and the Hindu. Atheists get a word of support as well.

Too many serious issues are, however, either glossed over or entirely ignored. Though many will regard clerical sexual abuse as the defining story for the contemporary church, the film gives Francis little more than five minutes to clarify that he has “zero tolerance” for the “illness”. Those enmeshed in this country’s current debate over abortion will be surprised to hear that he says not a word about that topic.

Largely for the already faithful.

The House That Jack Built
Directed by Lars von Trier. Starring Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sofie Gråbøl, Riley Keough. Out of competition, 155 min. 

For some, the defining moment in Lars von Trier’s latest provocation will be the scene in which the title character – a serial killer played with numbing monotony by Matt Dillon – severs Riley Keough’s breast and pins it to a car. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler, but you are better off knowing these things before seeing it.) For others it will be the realisation that a director expelled from Cannes for comparing himself to Hitler finds time to offer qualified praise of Alfred Speer and include a few shots of the Führer himself. For me, the key moment finds the pathetic, deluded Jack wondering why men are always assumed to be the guilty party. “If you’re unfortunate to be born male you’re born guilty,” he says before running off to graphically murder another woman.

Let's approach this in a charitable mood. In this passage, Jack sounds exactly like the sort of men's rights fathead who – swooning aghast at the horrors of "intersexuality" – has recently been clogging up the internet with whinges about "the wrong kind of feminism". That lot. So, The House That Jack Built is a savage attack on the man babies. I mean this guy is a nut and a loser. Right?

Possibly so. But I wouldn’t put it past von Trier to attempt proof that it’s possible to make a film decrying misogyny that is in itself deeply misogynistic. It is made clear that we are seeing the story through Jack’s eyes. The images are linked by a duologue between the (I guess) protagonist and a rumbling voice that turns out to be that of Virgil (Bruno Ganz). Towards the close, Virgil asks Jack why he presents all his female victims as idiots.

Jack does do that. But it is Lars who is shooting the film and the relish with which he makes Uma Thurman into a prattling snoot and Riley Keough into an empty twit fairly spins the head. There is a delight in sadism for sadism's sake that gets in the way of the film's exhaustingly exercised ambitions to analyse the meaning of art. The Gothic arch comes in early. So does footage of Glenn Gould. Eventually, this study of the Greats gets round to Lars von Trier himself. Over clips from Melancholia, Breaking the Waves and Antichrist, Jack explains that it's a mistake to suggest that artists express their worst desires through outrages in their work. We get that, Lars. Nobody is saying you actually want to kill women or (this happens too) cut the legs off ducklings. But even this level of mediated interest seems a little unhealthy.

It would be easier to get around all this if the film were a little less sluggish and repetitive. Featuring no wider story arc to speak of, The House that Jack Built begins with mayhem, takes in more mayhem and – stopping here and there for a bit of Gould and Bernini – does more mayhem until we reach Dante's Inferno. It has the usual cool Danish sheen. It has the expected chalky titles. In fact, its greatest flaw may well be – despite all the abundant horrors – its disgusting familiarity. There are shreds here of Lars at his best. But they are shreds that we've seen before.