Cannes 2023: A Dialogue (Part I)
In between the exaggerated signs, the omnipresent sounds and well-known celebrities, the Grand Palais showcases a more striking sight. A sidewalk right in front of it is tagged with the word “SHAME” an initiative of the collective “Tapis Rouge Colère Noire” (red carpet dark anger) denouncing the rape apology and complicitness on the side of the festival. The sign is in one of the most transited places in Cannes, but it can be missed. Others, however, are more noticeable, unless one is only thinking about celebrities and parties. And films, but these seem to be almost an afterthought in the heat of the french riviera. The signs, on the other hand, demand to be seen; their messages seethe with noticeable, righteous anger:
„PATRIARCANNES,“ „LA HONTE“ „LA RETRAITE À 60 ANS POUR VOIR DES FILMS IL FAUT DU TEMPS,“ „Ni MACRON NI BOUTONNAT“, „VOTRE VIOLENCE NOUS DEPP,“ „ÉQUIPE OPPRIMÉE, FILM NOMINÉ“ „EXPLOITER N’EST JAMAIS PUNK“ „CANNES PARTNER IN CRIME“ “EST-CE QUE LA PALME JUSTIFIE LES MOYENS?,” “POUVOIR, VIOLENCE, SOUFFRANCE, CANNES COMPLICE” “LE CINÉMA SERA TOUJOURS COLLECTIF” “J’ACCUSE L’HOMME, J’EMMERDE L’ARTISTE,” “RAPISTS UNDER SPOTLIGHTS,” “CINÉMA SEXISTE, RIPOSTE FÉMINISTE,” “CANNES IS THE REAL TRIANGLE OF SADNESS,” “SOUS LE TAPIS LA VIOLENCE” “SOUS LA PLAGE, LES PAVÉS,” “CANNES, LES 400 COUILLES” “GREAT FILMS EXIST, ETHICAL SETS TOO” “PALME D’OR TAPIS ROUGE COLÈRE NOIRE”
Adèle Haenel, who has been very public about not working in the film industry anymore due to rampant sexism, refused to attend for this reason amongst others. Thierry Frémaux, the controversial director of the festival, called her an opportunist who seemingly does not have a problem with heading to the french riviera when one of her films is shown. Controversies abound in Cannes, a sense of manufactured entertainment meant to create newsfeed approved relevance. Some days into the festival, Frémaux is confronted by a policeman for riding a bicycle on a side-walk. The situation provides laughs and indignation. Inadvertently, though, it sets up a dichotomy that has many applauding a police officer. The battle between prestige, wealth, and privilege versus order, discipline, and punishment, makes the spectators, paradoxically, the losers from the get go.
However, it would be, if not a lie, a one sided view of the festival to highlight only its controversial status. Although films take fourth place to all Cannes has to offer for many, this is also a meeting point for professionals who rely on these ten days to expand their network, pitch their projects, look for funding, and spot interesting films to distribute. The industry is still old-fashioned, with some attendees of the Marche du Film describing the experience as “going back to the 60s” in terms of class and gender relations. There are, however, people working to understand the industry and change it. Although these efforts are small in relation to the hegemony of wealth and privilege, they are to be commended. Some of these can be seen at the Quinzaine des cinéastes, a parallel section of the festival that took the decision not to accept films that were rejected for other sections, thereby blocking the easy entry for established filmmakers. Under the welcomed direction of Julien Rejl and a selection committee composed of Daniella Shreir, co-founder of the feminist film magazine Another Gaze, amongst others, the Quinzaine presented films from relative newcomers whose formal abilities at times made us forget about the main sections.
Films are, in the end, why we are here. In this place of pointed contradiction, the act of being in a dark room with some of the most well known actors and directors in the world while strikes and demonstrations were taking place in France felt like the endpoint of alienation, an act of hiding that was luckily countered by the insistence many films showed to look unflinchingly at reality with a wide array of methods. We, Clara and Giancarlo, took part in the majority of the festival and after some time to reflect we sat down to talk about some of the films we watched that left a lasting memory on us.
Giancarlo: Out of the competition titles the most expected one due to its secrecy was Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, a “holocaust” film, but done in a very particular style. Clara, what if anything of Glazer’s approach to the subject matter conjure up in you?
Clara: It had an anxiogenic effect on me. The film was deeply unsettling and judging from the comments I overheard from people at the exit of the cinema, I was not the only one to sense the force of the film in creating a sensation of terror and disquiet. And now one might wonder what else to expect from a film of which the narrative mostly unfolds inside the household of a nazi family living right next to the concentration camp of Auschwitz. Actually, films about the holocaust have become a genre by now; the theme has been used and overused in cinema. Something less disturbing could therefore certainly have been conveyed. Films like Spielberg’s Schindler List or Mark Herman’s The boy in the striped pyjamas have popularized concentration camp voyeurism by conveying scenes inside them and even worse : inside the gas chambers. The repercussion this genocide-spectacularization has had on the public opinion is not to be undermined; in the 90’s, Pierre Vidal-Naquet had highlighted an abvious correlation between the rise of negationism and the massive distribution of the tv-show Hocolaust, transforming its History into “pure language and mass consumption1 Vidal-Naquet, Pierre, Les assassins de la mémoire. “Un Eichmann de papier” et autres essais sur le révisionnisme, Paris, La Découverte, 1987 (éd. 1991), p.133”.
Jonathan Glazer avoids falling into this scheme. First of all, the horrors committed inside the camp are never shown in his new work; the extermination is not turned into a visual spectacle for us to consume. Still, the inhumane acts of mass killing, the millions of human sufferings and losses, are present throughout the whole length of the piece, and that mainly through the sound (by Mica Levi) – the sound of the screams and of passing trains. It fills the space; but the space (mainly the nazi household) we’re being shown is organized, clean, and the people living inside it follow the normative scheme of the bourgeois nuclear family. The contrast between the visual space and the sound reaching and filling its inside is extremely unnerving.
It is probably this dissonance that conveyed the most visceral feeling about the piece, don’t you think?
Giancarlo: Exactly. The difficulty in talking about this film is that it is a film that can be described more as an experience rather than something to judge easily and readily as other “holocaust” films. That is not to say that others have it easy or shy away from some of the experiential darkness we have come to expect from the subject matter, but they do have some surface level charms. Long traveling shots, Hollywood acting, and a sad and regretful soundtrack are things we have come to expect, (in Schidler’s List for example) and even some of the more arthouse experiments like Son of Saul have a certain sense for dramaturgy and first person perspective which envelops the viewer. The reduction to a rather simple narrative is complemented by the choice to use surveillance-like camera footage, which to an extent reminded me of the videos you can take with your iPhone. What is usually term “sound designed” is a play of absences, absence of score and absence of some recognizable sound, supplemented by background noises that augment the camp’s terrifying aspects. The bourgeois life these people undertake, moreover, is what is most distinctly “disturbing” and echoes the strategies of horrors in depicting something horrifying as extremely normal, even natural. All the while, though, I must admit that the film’s intensity was rather in the background to what I would call the film’s intellectual exercise: how to make a film about this in a way that might be something that Michael Haneke, who famously opposed Schindler’s List on moral grounds, would approve of? I don’t mean to impute Glazer of having heard of this, but his film does seem to work in terms of aesthetic reduction, pointing to a certain moral rottenness in these people, that echoes Haneke’s work, while not exactly being a Haneke film. Did the film seem distant to you in any way? or did it work as a “normal” film?
Clara: There is certainly a distance created between the spectator and the characters. These are built up in a way that it is impossible to feel anything for them, apart from disgust. But also not the kind of comforting disgust; not the one that makes the spectator feel good about his*her own morals in comparison to the ones being witnessed. Instead, the members of the portrayed family – Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss (played by Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig Höss (played by Sandra Hüller) and their two sons – do rarely exhibit extreme reactions themselves. Their immorality is mainly apparent in their indifference. And this one is to be read through mundane actions, or the absence of actions which, as you mentioned before, would have contributed to this dramaturgy usually present in films touching this subject. Instead, these characters are represented in their daily life and what is scary about their concerns is how similar they are to those of many people living today. Lamentably, Hedwig Höss made me think of people I have encountered in my life. Her obsession with her looks, the possessiveness she has with her house and garden, her condescendence towards people working for the maintenance of her property, her concern in giving her children the perfect education, could easily be applied to many contemporary people. As for Hedwig Höss, he is driven by – and obsessed with – his work. He is haunted by the question of how to maximize the efficiency of his given extermination tools and strategies; he thinks in terms of gain and profit.
In that, the characters in Glazer’s piece are being shown as stereotypes in which the spectator can easily recognize behaviors that are frightfully familiar to him*herself. But the particularity of their representation lies in the fact that they don’t fall into the pattern of caricatures either. Although Hedwig Höss does showcast moments of emotional outbursts (tied to her frustrations), neither she nor Rudolf Höss are being represented as full exaggerations of themselves in a way to convey a direct idea of evil and exuberance. They’re not physically repulsive like Grosz would in his paintings represent those he despises; they do not have red noses from alcoholism or veins popping out of their foreheads like in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.
What makes them repulsive is, indeed, their banality and the detachment with which they proceed to their destructive actions; in that there is definitely a resemblance with Haneke’s films. Though there’s something additionally terrifying in Glazer’s piece. It’s force lies not only in its success in making us witness this detachment all the while hearing the trains and screams, but also in the bureaucratic procedure of the camera as a means of representing the bureaucratic exploitation of destruction that Nazis were applying for the genocide. In Zone of Interest, the camera always takes a distance with its characters. That distance however stems not from a fear of these characters but from a will of meticulous observation towards them. As you said, it is often placed in room corners and offers a cold overview of the protagonists occupying their spaces. As spectators, we feel like we are surveilling them; it’s almost as if some grudging power was given to each of us too.
Individual power and its usage; or more precisely: how to make one’s free will being used at service of a broader cause is one of the themes explored by Jessica Hausner in her film Club zero. Before I went to see the film, you had alerted me: one scene is so deeply disturbing that it affirms the radical position of the filmmaker. Can you explain why?
Giancarlo: I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about Club Zero’s politics and their place in our current discourse. The scene in question is an affirmation of two things. Firstly, a bodily dissociation, Ms Novak’s (Mia Wasikowska) method of eating consciously leads to the students, who enrolled in her class and believe in her, not eating anymore and decoupling their intellectual desires and their activism from their needs as humans. This rejection, a bodily one, is coupled with intellectual disassociation. Instead of engaging with the world in a more thoroughly collective manner, and say, being engaged in politics, their position leads them to decouple themselves and their desire for a better world intellectually. Solutions are not given to others, they are more “lessons” that need to be internalized in order to survive. TW: bulimia. The scene in question has one of Ms Novak’s students puke her meal in real time as an affront not only to her parents, but to the world itself. What she learned with Ms Novak is an intellectual “exit,” she can now affirm herself as a subject and is able to reject her bodily needs and, moreover, predict events, which the film itself hints at. Reactions to this scene are, in the same way, a reaction to seeing a character reject her body and affirm her own sense of subjectivity, which was tapped by Ms. Novak and was always there, in a rather cold way. Neoliberal cynicism has left the building. With that particular scene and with the film in general, Hausner confronts us with the core of modern political movements and their motivations. She criticizes them, but at the same time she respects them and follows them to the end. This sequence is, however, not the most decisive. Hausner’s formalism refuses to be taken as mere decoration. Her choreography, colors, and framing, show someone thinking about the spacial dynamics of Ms Novak and the children. How did this scene work for you? Did you also notice what Hausner was up to formally?
Clara: I found the scene to detain some dark humor. Being exposed to this polished (in terms of appearance and looks) character performing such a “disgusting” act in front of her parents, and on a larger scale in front of the cinema audience, makes her, together with her comrades, quite punk. There is a contradiction between the radicalism these students are falling into and the formalism of the film. In its form, the film is actually rather sensible; it’s poetic in its symbiosis between colors, movements and the portrayed feelings of the characters. That makes sense because the story itself is also ambiguous; the film is evoking food disorder but places the practices and motifs around it to a higher state : the one of faith.
Mrs Novak teaches her pupils how to reach this state by practicing rituals. These rituals involve all the senses; the club’s adherents have to stare at the food, they have to smell the food, they have to grab the smallest possible piece of the food with their forks, they have to imagine what it tastes like and even enact its pleasurable chewing. As viewers, our senses are activated too, the numerous shots of colorful food plates matching the rooms and the stylish outfits of the characters give the film a polished allure, comparable to advertisement images for ELLE or Vanity Fair. There is something enticing about Club Zero’s images, almost pushing us to consumption rather than its opposite. However, as the story goes on, there are more and more disruptions in these polished images, like in this scene you were referring to. The diegetic sound also plays a role in this; a strident score accompanies many scenes and announces that something, beyond this pretty surface, is going to happen. And although something does happen, the film remains pleasing to look at until the very end.
Indeed, despite the rejection towards neoliberalism with all its consumptive aspects, the characters are still driven by an utopian scenario that can hardly be detached from its poetic aspects. The painting Mrs Novak has hung in her office proves it. It depicts a romantic landscape, devoid of human inputs and brutality; only blue sky, green grass and trees. She thrives towards harmony. Now harmony is also conveyed in narratives that feed neoliberal thinking. “Work hard enough and you’ll be able to afford a nice outfit and home”. The “pretty” and comfortable environment the characters live in is transcribed in the form of the film and we are confronted with the question of what exactly these privileged characters are trying to escape. You were saying Hausner shows some sympathy towards them, where would you say that is noticeable?
Giancarlo: Primarily because the way the kids are shown as people is seldom not-contradictory. Yes, they speak as if under the effects of heavy tranquilizers, their cadences adopting a weird affected tonality, but their feelings, wishes and concerns ring true. Had she had them perform in a satire, two of the other kids would have also been part of the machinations, this whole world bending towards the beat of dark humour. Instead, we have moments of rupture, differences of opinion, and contradictory attitudes that point to the different discursive fields these characters live in. Particularly, I feel that one cannot talk about the discourse of these figures without talking about their class status. When Ben (Samuel D. Anderson) has doubts about Novak’s instructions and proceeds to live in his own way, he is not only taken to task by not accommodating to group-think, but questioned in his status as dissident. His mom, similarly, is entirely dumb-founded by the way the parents of the other children process everything. When Ben decides not to eat, this feels like an affront to herself and her subjectivity, love being the prime mediator in lower-income households (whether by its lack or abundance in the face of difficult economic conditions). The final scene presents, in this regard, a direct address to the audience: what is faith? have these characters shown it by pursuing their own self optimization masquerading as capitalist critique? Faith in political change based on total trust of one’s own particular set of values flirts seriously with spiritual conviction not on proof. What Novak does is tap into their potential, doing ideology critique based on shaky scientific grounds, but the film does not present these kids as idiots nor laughs at them. It takes their convictions seriously and is undecided as to whether their own personal solution to the world’s problems is the best, the worst, or something in between. Hausner designs the film to ask questions, at times very concrete and timely political ones. I wonder if you saw any of these aspects in the film, since their execution is very particular.
Clara: The characters are, it is true, not presented as idiots. They question their environment and themselves: that is enough of a quality to notice their cleverness. Obviously, they are also naive and easily manipulable. The gap between both their ignorance and their refusal to accept things as they are, makes them charming. As much as we are, together with the parents, brought to grow skeptical towards Novak’s lectures, they, together with Novak herself, genuinely believe their common practice to be beneficial for the rest of humankind. Mrs Novak does play the role of a leader – she first has to convince people to trust her ideology and could appear as a dogmatist – but she’s actually driven by faith. Now what led her to her faith could have its origins somewhere else: possibly in her solitude, a state shared by many in post-capitalism, individualism playing a key role in their isolation. By introducing her pupils and young followers to her spiritual conviction, she brings them to practice the adequate rituals together, as if the aim was for them to collectively control their bodies (meant to contribute to society by being fit, productive and consuming) to the point of suppressing it and becoming one, or zero.
Ideology is made up of rituals. Belief grows in repetitive gestures and words. Praying and kneeling in religion; drinking coffee and talking business in capitalism – belief is the crucial thing about capitalism2 Fisher, Mark, Not failing better but fighting to win. Nurturing collective intelligence is a way of submitting to new rituals in order to believe in something else, in order to oppose oneself to the capitalist dogma. Nurturing collective starvation can be a way for Club Zero members to resist, a way of being in control rather than being controlled by consumptive desires – a way to say “no” together. Still, as much sympathy as Haussner might have for her characters for radically acting upon an alternative way of living, she does also make it clear that they do it from a place of comfort. Ben and his mother are indeed key personas to understand this as their lifestyle enters in contrast with the one of the others’. I actually found Ben’s mother to be the only grounded person in the film. As you pointed out, love is more visible in her household than in others. She puts all her energy into cooking rich meals for his son and has a sensible approach on how to communicate with him. She will also be the first to warn other parents and educators about the dangers of Novak’s lectures, although being the most affected by neo-liberal capitalism and thus the one who would benefit the most from an alternative. Nevertheless, she remains in the background of the story…
Giancarlo: People affected or working under heavy capitalist conditions are most definitely not in the background in Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring). Clocking at 212 minutes it would be considered a short film by his standard had it not been for Man in Black, an actual short film outside of competition. Watching a Wang Bing film means spending time with people that are often pushed to the margins and whose lives are deemed too unglamorous for most documentary filmmakers and Youth is no exception. Clara, you watched it twice, correct? What was it about the film that made you want to revisit it?
Clara: The reason why I felt the need to watch it twice was because of the length of the film (3.5 hours). The scenes are filmed in a very immersive way. Bing approaches his characters with his hand-held camera and thus places himself amongst them. We are invited to follow them in their daily life – those of late teens and young adults living and working in the district of Huzhou in Zhejiang. As the title suggests, their working force is condensed to a season: Spring. It’s the season of blossoming and decrease in the needed layers of fabrics to wear, though, for the workers, not in the pace with which these pieces are expected to be sewn together. In the workshops, seasons don’t change. The walls remain dirty white and the light artificial. The only things that grow within these rather grim spaces, are the relationships between laborers; such is the logic of individuals sharing the same room during a considerable amount of time. There also lies the interest of Bing’s oeuvre – in one of the camera’s abilities: to record a space over time; to show how time makes a space one that holds the power of participating to the blossoming of different ranges of emotions, hopes and desillusions from the part of those who use its facilities. Although 3,5 hours is long to sit on a chair and stare at a screen, it is nothing if we consider a whole season to be condensed to it. Wang Bing allows, in the span of a season, to witness the evolution of their interpersonal relationships but also of their desires as a group: they wish for a safer future; they want a better salary. I wanted to watch it a second time to be attentive not only to the spontaneity of the events shaping the individual’s relationships, but also to the possible message Bing was trying to convey by bringing us close to them. Did you grasp the bigger picture tying these people not only to their work but also to a bigger phenomena, representative of China’s contemporary economy?
Giancarlo: I think the point of a Wang Bing film is the way that local conditions can encapsulate bigger picture conditions without necessarily showing anything explicit about it. The bigger phenomena, as you call it, is abstract, it’s the economy. But Wang Bing wants to express it through irruptions in the day to day life of these young people rather than showing, for example, news footage or adding more information about the Chinese context. His approach is materialistic, which means that he is more comfortable with registering actions and movements instead of giving us a speech or adding information that may stray far from the reality of these young workers. Through this, the director effortlessly shows day to day struggles, which seem personal at first, but that are revealed to be a part of a carefully organized assemblage. These people wouldn’t be there without work, would not talk to each other without work, wouldn’t organize if they didn’t feel the injustices of work. The absence of a major narrative thread means that these sequences, focusing on different factories, have to hang together through routines, motions, and conflicts that are similar to each other. Politics is intrinsically tied to real life, real life is intrinsically tied to work. Neat separations in realms and contexts are not to be found. Was this your first Wang Bing film? Have you seen anything like it before?
Clara: I also think this non-direct way of conveying a political message – showing these workers at work rather than relying on additional comments from the side of the director – is a smart way not to be forced to censorship from the government. I had only watched Mrs Fang from Wang Bing before watching Youth. The approach in Mrs Fang is similar, we forget about the presence of the director, we’re immersed inside the lives of people sharing a household in which the eldest is slowly dying. In both documentaries, as we are brought to patiently accompany the people in the evolution of the condition and environment they find themselves in, the dramaturgy is one of the same nature as the one defining in our daily lives. The emotions are conveyed through hints inside the dialogues or reactions visible on the people’s faces rather than being built up by means of a dramatic plot or dramatic shots. That’s what makes Bing’s pieces appealing; they do not convey the defeating tone in which narratives built upon social issues are – by the means of cinematographic tools – too often being filtered through. It does not have the sensationalist effect of documentaries like Plastic China, exposing children in poverty silently staring at the camera with music forcibly pulling out deep emotions from the viewer. In Youth (Spring), it is the people Bing is filming – the workers – who set up the atmosphere of the film. We hear the music they hear – the one they play on their phones, intermingled with the piercing sound of the sewing machines. We are not being manipulated by post-production diegetic sound or the limited selection of scenes only holding “sad quotes” to feel pity towards them, despite how hard their living condition is. In short: there is no simplified, direct social commentary emitted for us to painfully grasp the message as if it was a face-slap. Instead, we – the viewers – have to make an effort to distinguish the political message out of the narrative thread, mostly composed of mundane aspects of everyday life. The director encourages us to “study” the characters without giving us the opportunity to feel condescendent about them. Still, I do wonder if a director can truly do this. Don’t you think the one holding the camera is automatically in the position of power?
GC: It depends. Seen formally, yes. By way of owning something, in this case a camera, and having an idea, you enter relations with people in a different way. Both you and they react differently. But this is a relation that Wang Bing and Pedro Costa have sought to come to terms with, by, in a way, turning to the collective and their lives and ideas as a way to dissolve some of their authority. This authority then comes back in editing, where the choices of which images are included are made, but both Wang Bing and Costa trust that the experience transformed them enough to make the “correct” choices, it is in this sense that one can begin to talk about ethical decisions beyond theory and get into the actual ethics of putting images of living people at work on the screen. For that, Wang Bing relies on a commitment to reality that is as idiosyncratic as it is devoid of traditional sentimentalism. His camera witnesses work and is transformed by it.
- 1Vidal-Naquet, Pierre, Les assassins de la mémoire. “Un Eichmann de papier” et autres essais sur le révisionnisme, Paris, La Découverte, 1987 (éd. 1991), p.133
- 2Fisher, Mark, Not failing better but fighting to win