Female voices to fore in first half of Cannes Film Festival

Maren Ade’s ‘Toni Erdmann’ is a strong early contender for Palme d’Or

Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG”, starring Mark Rylance, premiered at the weekend. “The film delivers plenty of laughs and has the sort of cosy look that will appeal greatly to younger children . . . but lacks emotiohnal oomph.”

 

In recent years, the Cannes Film Festival, like so many cinema institutions, has been fighting accusations that it does not allow enough female voices into the conversation. Just three films by women appear in the race for the Palme d’Or this year. Thierry Fremaux, festival president, could have chosen to spread them out over 10 days. Instead, he screened them in successive days of the first weekend. So, for a few moments at least, you could be forgiven for thinking the imbalance had been redressed.

The most conventional of those three films is, probably, Nicole Garcia’s From the Land of the Moon. This endlessly attractive adaptation of a novella by Milena Agus stars Marion Cotillard in the tale of a woman enduring an arranged marriage. The picture strives for the three-hankie sweep of a Warner Brothers romance from the 1940s and often comes close to satisfying those aspirations. Beginning during the second World War, Land of the Moon profits from a superb central performance and some delicious photography by Christophe Beaucarne. They do still “make them like this, anymore”.

“Conventionality” is not an accusation you could level at Andrea Arnold’s sprawling American Honey. This is a film that allows the phrase “divided the critics” to be brandished without attracting accusations of euphemistic evasion.

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More than a few critics objected to the film’s disordered stretch. Five films in this year’s competition exceed two hours and 20 minutes. At 162 minutes, American Honey is not at home to brevity. But its energy and engagement cannot be questioned.

What it most suggests is a big, sprawling triple album by a really good band. In her first film, Lane is a revelation in the lead role. The unseen star may, however, be cinematographer Robbie Ryan. The Irishman has two films in the competition. He also shot Ken Loach’s hugely praised I, Daniel Blake. Actors Marion Cotillard and Kristen Stewart can boast the same. “That’s the first time I’ve ever been compared to Marion Cotillard,” he told this reporter.

There was little such division when it came to Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann. The German’s film has registered the highest score on Screen International’s critics’ “grid” since the trade paper first began running the feature at Cannes. The press screening was broken up by applause, laughter and howls of approval. Toni Erdmann details the complex relationship between a middle-aged corporate consultant (Sandra Hüller) and her eccentric, neglected father (Peter Simonischek). While she is working in Bucharest, he turns up in disguise and, desperate for attention, begins to disrupt her life in increasingly bizarre ways. Once again, cruising comfortably past the 2½-hour mark, the film could profit from a little pruning. But not much. It’s a hugely original, touching piece that arranges its traditional arc around a sequence of bravura set pieces.

At the halfway-point, Ade, a veteran producer directing her third feature, looks favourite to become only the second female director to win the Palme d’Or. Indeed, given Jane Campion shared the prize for The Piano, she could become the first woman film-maker to win the thing outright.

Over the weekend, we also enjoyed The Handmaiden (Mademoiselle), the latest film from Korean master Park Chan Wook. The publicity material stressed that the picture was merely inspired by Sarah Waters’s modern gothic classic Fingersmith. In fact, The Handmaiden turned out to be a reasonably faithful translation of the story to 1930s Korea.

As in the book, the complex plot spins out through three discrete chapters. Nam Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri), an orphaned pickpocket, takes a job as servant to a Japanese heiress (Kim Min-hee) and seeks to persuade her boss to marry a sneaky accomplice (Ha Jung-woo). Along the way, the two women become lovers. Are the emotions genuine or is one (or both) faking to achieve advantage? Once again, it takes over 2½ hours to reach its conclusion.

The opening episode is quite brilliant – as good as anything the director has done since Oldboy. Chung Chung- hoon’s cinematography revels in the lusciously appointed sets and Cho Young-wuk’s music swells with classical grace. All three principals commit themselves totally. The faint hint of penny-dreadful melodrama is heightened by a terrifically evil turn by Cho Jin Woong as the mark’s sexually deviant uncle.

Some of the air goes out of the plot during the later stages. More damagingly, Park’s treatment of the sex scenes sometimes goes beyond “sensitive” and strays into Sapphic-Athena-poster territory. Did I really imagine a first-person shot from one of the lovers’ genitals? (Sadly, I did not.) The film will, nonetheless, play well to fans of Park and admirers of Waters’s novel. Park people will appreciate the appearance of an octopus that, unlike his cousin in Oldboy, remains contentedly uneaten.

Meanwhile Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling were in town for a screening of Shane Black’s wise-talking detective thriller The Nice Guys. As ever Crowe was playing both Jack and the Lad. “You shouldn’t be on radio, you’ve got a beautiful face,” he said to one wireless journalist at the press conference. Gosling claimed the on-screen chemistry between the actors was down to a computer programme.

The highest-profile premiere of the weekend was that for Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Mark Rylance, rendered large and mildly grotesque through motion capture, is quite brilliant as the titular Big Friendly Giant who abducts young Sophie (excellent newcomer Ruby Barnhill) and carries her off to his eccentrically appointed home. His soft Kentish burr and halting delivery are a perfect match for Dahl’s character. The film delivers plenty of laughs and has the sort of cosy look that will appeal greatly to younger children.

For all that, The BFG lacked the emotional oomph that Spielberg brought to his best family pictures. Ditching the sort of cross-generational appeal that the director pioneered with ET, the picture feels like a terribly old-fashioned piece of work. None of which will stop it from being among the most successful releases of the year.

Overall, the opening weekend of this year’s Cannes festival delivered few enormous shocks – the triumph of Toni Erdmann noted – but the competition still has to welcome new films by Pedro Almodóvar, Jim Jarmusch and the Dardenne brothers. Anything could still happen.

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