Cannes 2023: A Dialogue (Part II)
These questions of collectivity, of course, remit us to another film, our first outside of the main competition, Pierre Creton’s A Prince. I regret to say I had to catch this film over a screener link after you talked positively about it.
Clara: A prince is a good example of collectivity turned into a cinematographic piece. Pierre Creton built the screenplay by using monologues written and thought by some of his closest friends. Beyond being a collective piece, it’s also one celebrating friendships and the influence they have in one’s own way of seeing things, I guess. Each protagonist, apart from the prince himself, is the embodiment of these different monologues; they act upon them. The “prince” this movie refers to is not one holding the power of a son’s monarch; instead, he’s an enigmatic, mysterious young man whose origins are uncertain; what else can be said of someone whose existence merely depends on what is being narrated of him by different people? The prince, for all the little that is known about him, is a figure on whom the protagonists project their desires and fantasies, like „the visitor“ in Pasolini’s Theorem. Except that here the characters remain in a state of constant speculation and reverie rather than descending into madness, perhaps because they are not repressed bourgeois, but passionate botanists who channel their creative forces around plants, continually celebrating and cultivating their eroticism.
Talking about eroticism, I particularly liked the fact that third aged people were involved in the acts of lust and desire. It is quite uncommon to see old, bodies being represented not only as desirable ones but also offering tenderness. What did you like the most about the film?
Giancarlo: The pace is one of the elements that most moved me about A Prince. Though this is in general something to do with how much care is taken in composing images for the film. Creton’s mode invited the viewer to peruse the contours of the images and get lost in the mixture of its off-voice and the affects that rule its characters. Sexuality is one of those things that’s difficult to describe, let alone portray in cinema. But here the tenderness really shines through in an understated way. It makes for a kind experience full of possible interpretations in a way that recalls the open image: inviting understatedly the myriad of possible meanings/interpretations rather than fixing one possible one. In one of the most arresting images of the film, one of these open images has to do with the phallus, which took me by surprise. What do you make of Creton’s intent? His gestures seem extremely significant to me.
Clara: I think Creton celebrates the imaginative force that individuals behold. Being the result of multiple individual expressions, the story of the prince is the story of a prince. A prince is present in most childhood tales; he’s as much a figure evoking the magical, noble, as the mysterious (he’s often overprotected, approachable). In Creton’s film, words give meaning to the images, so that a prince is omnipresent in these even if physically barely appearing on screen. The visuals are quite detached from the monumentality such a character is usually attributed to; here, a prince is present in the garden, in gerontophilia, in a wood cabin; he nourishes the imagination of the narrators wherever they are, whomever they’re with – he’s universal and exists for as long as tales exist. Creton is not the first to experiment with collective writing; Armand Gatti had done it in the 80’s with The writing on the Wall in his ambition to make a film not about but with young people in revolt1 Cinémas libertaires, au service des forces the transgression et de révolte. Like in Gatti’s film, Creton prones a certain vagrancy of the narrative rather than submitting to the mainstream logic of the “film-tract2 Cayeux, Charlotte, Armand Gatti et “l’expression multiple” du cinéma, Cinémas libertaires, p.100”. He also values a non-authoritarian approach to cinema: there’s not one, “real” story conveyed, but multiple possibilities of what could be “real”, the ensemble of these realities forming one poetic piece3ibid.
However, whereas Gatti actively included the subjects the film is about in the construction of the story, Creton’s subject – the prince – can only be excluded from it, as he’s completely fictional. Instead, what Creton aims for is to show how these different narratives, despite their differences, can enter into a poetic symbiosis through the creative act of moviemaking. Although we enter in the realm of pure imagination rather than into the one of social commentary such as was more directly conveyed in Gatti’s film, what both films definitely have in common in their political engagement is that they do not rely on big budgets for which they’d have to be completely dependent on the cinema industry; Creton admittedly does not earn any money by making films, but by being a farm laborer and gardener. Consequently, Creton also celebrates movie-making as a manner to use free-time in a playful manner and encourages people to make movies regardless of how much money they can put in it.
Giancarlo: That’s a good segway to our next film, Joanna Arnow’s The Feeling that the Time for Doing Something Has Passed Arnow’s no budget style of filmmaking has been making an impression for a while because of the intimacy that is seemingly conveyed by a very specific type of humor. While watching it, I couldn’t help but feel invited to the world Arnow created, one constituted by moments and their clashing relationship to each other. In terms of tone, Arnow creates a comedic, slightly deadpan atmosphere that provides a complex figure, played by herself, without necessarily making this complexity explicit in the script. In an exemplary scene, we see how Ann empties out a packet of microwave ready food until nothing is left inside. Comedy has long leaned on timing to arouse laughs, with timing becoming increasingly sped up as a result. Where Arrow achieves is making timing her own, sometimes fast in the editing, sometimes slow like in the aforementioned scene. But this is also a distinctive character moment, of the kind that you get taught about in basic screenwriting classes. Did you feel drawn, repelled or indifferent to Arnow’s particular charm?
Clara: I like how you refer to the complexity of the figure Arnow managed to create in a seemingly simple scenario. She managed to underline the absurdity of some situations that we could think of as pleasing or sexy while we’re performing them ourselves This is caused by the editing but also definitely by her performance. She presents herself as indifferent to what she’s being exposed to or to the moments she willingly participates in. She goes on the same pace as the pace imposed on her either by others or by the objects surrounding her This slowness that she not only accepts but also embodies, is in my opinion what gives shape to the film and to the protagonist. Now what I found particularly charming about the protagonist herself is that there’s not much mystery imposed on her. Arnow presents herself undressed and submissive from the first scene on. Her naked, oversized body occupies many of the film’s frames; those of the men she has sex with, on another hand, are never fully revealed. By putting herself in that vulnerable position, Arnow also affirms the ownership she has over her body, despite her will of having it “controlled” by others. The character she portrays is idiosyncratic; if we’d compare her to most females holding a leading role in movies, she’d most likely enter the frame of the anti-hero. She’s been single most of her life, has a boring job and her best friends are her parents whom she has difficulties communicating with. What makes her powerful is the detachment she has over her situation by never presenting herself as a victim, barely complaining; she seems to just wanting people to tell her what to do and to be satisfied with that. By being the anti-hero of the neoliberal “successful” person – fit, rich and married – Arnow’s protagonist is a genuine incorporation of the result these expectations will most likely have on a middle-class individual living in a big city in the twenty first century; those of alienation and disillusion. Paradoxically, she’s also representative of that successful person; she’s an independent woman and could therefore as well be seen as what becomes of an individual at the cost of this status. There is an alternation in the montage between scenes at work and of intimacy that I found to elucidate this point. Did you notice this too?
Giancarlo: I did. I think there are two things at work here that can be easily overlooked. Radical changes of mood between scenes has been a feature of comedy for a while now. A scene that can be conventionally funny can be underscored by a subsequent one providing a completely different outlook. This is often used isolatedly, as a sort of “backdrop” in front of which the comedy takes place. Arnow, however, extends this collisional images to the whole film. The effect is comedic, but it also pertains to the complexity of the character. By her nature as a “submissive” one might wrongly assume that this is the behaviour she has the whole time. But nothing can be further from the truth. Arnow draws from her own experience to underline that a successful and confident woman has different sides to her personality which are not easily psychoanalyzable. By extending the clashing of scenes to the whole film, she rejects easily psychologization, the abscribing of motives to her character that would make her the object of a simple narrative. We are not asked to suss out why she lives how she lives, but to accept it as a normal part of the life of a complex human being. This leads to a sweetness and care that often gets buried under layers of irony, sarcasm and cynicism in contemporary comedy. That she does that naked, emotionally and bodily, puts her in a position of extreme vulnerability, but it is through this that she finds a truth. Sex was also a topic on the main slate, you watched “How to have sex” and weren’t so big on it, what about Molly Manning Walker’s film didn’t sppeal to you?
Clara: Whereas nothing about sex is implied in Arnow’s film’s title, How to have sex brings sex to the foreground; an appealing title to attract a young crowd – an intent similar to Harmony Korine’s in his film Spring Breakers. When I went to see Spring Breakers at the cinema, most spectators left the room; the film was not what they expected it to be. It’s not just about young Americans having the time of their life; it’s about their confrontation with meeting the reality – or at least a reality – present in the narrative that has shaped their fantasies and desires. Harmony Korine plays with symbols of pop culture to create some sort of mouse trap and attract those who are most likely to fantasize about Spring break and American culture at large. What makes his film brilliant is that Korine manages to imbed these elements into a poetic structure. He actually empathizes with the characters and gives them, their ignorance, their vulgarity, a poetic voice. But venerating American drinking and sex culture comes with opposite values as those promoting poetry.
Molly Manning Walker tried to do something similar in her film. During the first part of it (which actually represents half of it, or at least that’s how it felt), we see three friends having fun during their summer break. We quickly understand that the purpose of one of the protagonists (Tara) is to lose her virginity. We see her choosing appealing outfits, putting make-up, doing and talking typical “girl-stuff”. In that first part, all the ingredients of the perfect teenage american comedy are applied. The conversations remain shallow, the psychology of the characters is mostly revealed through how they chose, or what they consider, to be “fun”. I understand the purpose of this: keeping those this movie is actually made for – late teens / young women – interested. It also permits to create loose situations that are easy to laugh at. It’s made for the spectator to have a “good time”. And then comes the drop. The friction. The drama. The tone of the movie suddenly changes.
We quickly come to realize that during one of these fun nights, Tara lost her virginity, and not the way she had expected it to be like. Yes, on the beach, but no, not romantically. From that moment on, none of the spectators dared laughing anymore. And that is certainly an interesting tactic to approach such a serious subject as consent in sex. However, I felt it was also provoked in a very manipulative way. We’re supposed to grasp the tragedy of the situation mostly by having it put into contrast with the lightness of the previous scenes. The tragedy doesn’t really stand for itself. I also suspect the previous scenes to potentially serve as a justification for what happened to Tara in the eyes of spectators that are not themselves, or who have never been themselves, young women.
Now I’d lie if I’d say the movie didn’t do anything to me; it definitely did. Although I found the first part to be more boring than entertaining, the ending (when Tara recognizes and tells her friend that she has been raped) touched me. Many women were in tears when leaving the screening room. Many of us have been exposed to similar situations, not fully saying no when we actually didn’t feel like it, letting something happen out of fear of pulling ourselves out of certain situations, and not knowing how to put it into words. However, Tara herself, the protagonist in the film and portrayed victim, is not given this chance. She’s not given the chance to fully feel. At one point she’s in the bathroom and starts crying. The scene cuts before her tear even has time to fully flow and drop. I felt like the whole piece was edited in a way to keep us entertained. And that really annoyed me.
GC: The idea that a victim is not given room enough to feel or that, perhaps more importantly, the film doesn’t focus on it enough, seems to trivialize some of its deeper themes. At the same time, I spoke with people who found it rather cathartic and compared it to other media, particularly Skins, the British Channel 4 series. While the series does have its share of entertainment, it also takes its characters seriously. This leads us along the path of another film, May December, Todd Hayne’s return to melodrama. The film was scheduled right at the end of the day at Cannes and felt like a breath of fresh air in between all the self-seriousness that accompanies arthouse fare. I wrote a bit about it for the Filmlöwin and highlighted some of the philosophical themes that it explores, but eventually sacrifices for the spectacle of it all. Did philosophy play a role in how you saw the film?
Clara: Not really. The film opens up questions about the nature of certain relationships that are said and globally accepted to be immoral. The relationship between Gracie (Juliane Moore) and Joe (Chalres Melton) had initially started in a way that could have brought Gracie to court (she was in her thirties and he was 13). However, both have managed to build a family and live in a big house in the American suburbs. What I found quite interesting is how their condition and material comfort – their big property, green grass, the barbecues they organize etc – conveys an image of a healthy relationship; they complete the scheme of the perfect family. It’s only once an “intruder” – Elizabeth (Nathalie Portman) – comes into the house that a certain eeriness comes to the surface. We are constantly brought to wonder if this comfort they seemingly live in is not a masquerade. However, we are never given the tools to fully judge the characters either. I had the feeling they’re all portrayed as immature adults, not really knowing themselves if they have the control over their lives and feelings or not. Did you have this feeling too?
Giancarlo: For sure. The characters are all written like immature teenagers, which is both a nod to the “campy” nature of the proceedings and a backhanded critique of, shall we say, a particular American attitude towards things. Perhaps what’s colouring my view of May December is my contact with that culture and some of its choices of entertainment. Reality shows, for better or worse, are not just simply cultural objects that can be ignored, left aside in favour of quality TV, they are also a window into how people act when in front of cameras. With a phone, a similar thing happens, of course, and people pose/talk/move in a different way. May December seems to be tapping into that through the lens of a film camera and showing us people constantly performing, for themselves and for others. When abstracted, this performance resembles that of teenagers not knowing how to act and overreacting to anything. But my main problem with the film is that it commits wholesale to this type of entertainment narrative, without breaking its foundations too much or showing a diegetic world that disagrees with how these people are behaving. It shows how Haynes can create an amazingly rich world that contains subtle references to the characters own existential struggles, but the spell wears off and with the subject matter at hand I definitely would have enjoyed some breaks with its narrative. A film that offers plenty of narrative breaks is Lisandro Alonso’s return, Eureka. What’s your memory of the film?
Clara: The film is made in a way that rather than remembering a narrative thread with a concrete plot, I’m left with images and metaphors. A scene that got stuck in my memory is one from the second part, when the police officer is inside a hotel room and watches outside the window while it heavily snows outside. She’s shown in a moment of contemplation and the whole purpose of her presence in that hotel room (a crime was committed) seems to vanish in her act of contemplation. Nothing concrete is happening at that moment but through the length of the shot, the beautiful composition of the image and the magical touch that the snow adds to that scene, it is suggested that anything can happen to that character. Alonso allows us to see at the same pace as that police officer. We, together with her, are encouraged to imagine an outcome to that situation which in most movies (or at least commercial movies) would have been accompanied by loads of action and dramas. Do you remember that scene? Did you get the impression that this could be said of the film in general?
Giancarlo: Narrative threads in contemporary arthouse cinema tend to be more elastic than your average story. The dialectic between the content and form is negotiated very differently in Alonso’s films. The narrative is minimal, but not insignificant, it can be said to enable these images, some of which really do stay in the mind for long, and work with them, taking the characters to unimaginable places. What I remember the most was the feeling of being slightly confused and disappointed during the first minutes of the film, when Viggo Mortensen and Chiara Mastroianni show up in what appears to be a western in black and white. The plot is bare bones and the oddness of how people indiscriminately die is highlighted through the film’s staging. But then Alonso pulls the rug from under our feet and we pivot to a series of slightly connected narratives with different cinematographic qualities. The image you described is, seen very technically, on the second part, where we follow a police officer and people around her. The dialogues between these parts slowly reveal their narrative significance, a Western, where indigenous Americans are only offering their land to be part of the background of the white man, gives way to an exploration of contemporary indigenous American beliefs and troubles with, again, drunk white men or active shooters.
Then we pivot to Alonso’s most ambitious foray into philosophical issues. The third part is set in Brazil, we crucially get there through a transformation which enables the change of setting. And we follow a former member of a religious community as he escapes, works, escapes again, and ends up being taken care of by people at his destination. It’s ambitious because throughout the two second setting he is aiming at a material contradiction between the western and the people who are actually living there now, but as the third part sets in his interests become more abstract. The function of labor, the white man, and religion become more pronounced themes. His mise-en-scene is also more complex, having to deal with the jungle as a setting where our worker is going through. But by doing this, he is also indulging in an arthouse version of narrative tourism, jumping from place to place to explore more abstract topics with a penchant for archetypes (the Brazilian boss being one of them) and it is this abstraction in the last section which pushes him further from a serious consideration of the material conditions of his topic. In a sense, the western and the Brasil section have more in common than one thinks, just not in a manner that feels intended and rather self-defeating.
Giancarlo: That being said, we have already discussed a lot of films from the festival, do you have any other highlights or lesser seen films you’d like to mention?
Clara: The films we have mentioned above fall under the box of arthouse cinema; there are three short films that are worth mentioning for their experimental and more radical nature: The Daughters of Fire by Pedro Costa is a triptych; three women sing by a volcano in Cape Verde. The film is an experimentation and preparation for a feature film that Costa is planning to accomplish, unlike Trailer for a Film that doesn’t exist by Godard which is both a trailer and the end product of a long career. Man in Black by Wang Bing follows a chinese composer in an empty concert hall in France; the composer is naked and talks about his experience as an artist in China, his voice often being overlapped with the music he creates.
I enjoyed both Godard’s and Costa’s films but find it complicated to add something meaningful about them as I’m not very familiar with either of their work. Experimental cinema can also be intimidating to talk about as it enters into the realm of the conceptual and that, in order to grasp its value, one has to have dedicated some time into understanding the nature and purpose of such oeuvres. You’re quite familiar with their work; did you enjoy these films?
Giancarlo: I think so. Though enjoyment and excitement are not commonly associated with both filmmakers, watching these films in this setting, packed La Croisette cinemas, does have something magical to it. Of the Costa film, for example, I had already heard rumblings of it having to do with singing, which made me automatically more interested in it, given that music is an element I am very interested in when talking about film. The fact that this was a screen test for a larger film made me feel more excited about what Costa is achieving here. The triptych, as you call it, has three “sisters” singing about work and the woes of their existence. But work, and every time they sing the word, becomes a guiding preoccupation as they walk around what appears to be the inside of a volcano. These are accomplished images, utilizing some of the tenebrism, dark shadows and colours, he is used to, but the musical dimension – they are singing lyrics that go with a melody of an old Ukrainian lullaby – adds a different sense of pathos that is relatively new for him in this form. Here I feel he was reaching for a transcendence that is seldom part of his materialistic approach to film. All of this, of course, is dependent on whether you enjoy the music, but even his approach is interesting. Adding lyrics to an old Passacaglia and having them sung by non-white bodies, black bodies, adds a different dimensions to his modernist practice of quoting and decentering. With the triptych form I had less of a problem with because it was clear that there was some repetition and minimal movement the audience was supposed to understand, which placed the song and its concerns with work, tightly bounded with existential issues, on the foreground. A lot of these themes are highlighted now, more than ever, in any literature dealing with the meaningfulness of life and work, most notably Martin Hägglund’s latest book.
But if we are talking about books, then there is no-one better than Godard to make you feel like you have not read enough. I have seen the film three times by now and although it is tempting to tie it with the preoccupations of his latter work (language and its relation to revolutionary vocabularies, and the problems with these, for one), there are a lot of details that, by the nature of this being a sort of sketchbook, point to a “new” work that will never exist and therefore representing a sort of break. This is especially notable when he tentatively mentions doing a film “like he used to” with what he knows now. The multiple concerns with the human face and its deformations as well as his recovery of forgotten revolutionaries, not to mention his long standing problems with Israel, deserve more detailed consideration and a reading that probably necessitates revising Histoire(s) du Cinema and the late works (as well as reading his conversation with Nicole Brenez, who help put this together). If all of this sounds like homework, it’s because it is. And there are enough Godard admirers that will watch this rather carefully. The “sketch” form awards more details that one can count, inevitably recalling the necessity to pause the film which became “democratized” through video, something Godard knew all too well. But this is all a monumental task for which one needs time and a “serious” engagement with him and all of his problematic elements. The question naturally arises: should we be giving more time to Godard now? Answers are not so easy, but it depends on whether one has time (money) and persistence to understand what he was getting at. Or, to put it simply, it is a question of politics and priorities. There is a case to be made for the fact that it’s good this is his final film and founded criticisms that get to the core of cinephilia’s male fixation with great figures. On the other side of the scale is an almost forgotten figure, Wang Xili, the subject of Wang Bing’s Man in Black. What did you make of it?
Clara: It seems like Wang Bing identifies with Wang Xili in the sense that both of them are concerned with Chinese history and politics but have decided (in the case of Bing) or been forced to (in the case of Xili) to live abroad. Bing is said to be a rather shy person, his selflessness inspires trust to the subjects he’s filming; Xili’s excessively talkative and expressive nature fills the space Bing leaves through his silence. The camera centers on the composer in an empty room yet the composer fills up the space with his voice and music; his presence becomes almost overwhelming. I found it interesting how the camera was occasionally circling around the subject, zooming on some of his members and highlighting the traces that life left on his skin, to then zoom out and show how small he is compared to the volume of the room he finds himself in. I feel like this is a way for Bing to contribute to the conversation or to re-distribute the conversation to us. The intensity conveyed by the character is sometimes intensified even more by a diegetic addition of the composer’s music and sometimes it is diminished by the distance the camera takes with him; power is alternatively given to, and taken away from him. The fact he’s naked also strips away his identity to place him in a broader realm as an individual defined by a broader oppressive reality.
GC: And with that we conclude our Cannes‘ articles. The whole experience was rather mixed for me. On the one hand, getting to experience the festival first hand was something I never thought I would do. After many years reading reports, tweets, and reviews coming out of la Croisette I always thought it’d be impossible to go. But being in Cannes, I got the sense the films themselves were rather short-shrifted in favour of the spectacle of it all. That aside, I couldn’t really find my footing amongst all of them. The role of hype is something I often think about regarding film discourse and with Cannes I had the feeling that reached a sort of personal end point. Being there helped me concretized what type of films I enjoyed and what I personally find interesting about film festivals. Not the glamour, the stars, the interviews, the press screenings or anything of the sort, but the fact small, relatively unknown films, directors, and teams, can have an audience and attention, if at least for a week. However, this is nothing compared to the attention other films get, for example some french films in Un Certain Regard, so gravitating to smaller film festivals might be a consequence of this experience. Being the first at watching something may not be that interesting if you don’t enjoy the films being projected there and have no skin in the game when it comes to generating hype or attention. So it feels like, if I were to go there again, I would have to create a path around Semaine de la Critique and the Quinzaine, with selected films from Un Certain Regard. My interest in watching another white male established auteur before anyone is null. How about you? what impression did Cannes leave you?
Clara: Cannes surely resonates with glamour for most people and I do get where that comes from. It has built its reputation upon the apogee of the careers of people like Brigitte Bardot or Alain Delon, their trips to Saint Tropez (back then still a fisher’s village) and their respective over-mediatized love stories. But neither Brigitte Bardot nor Alain Delon aged well; the first is an anti-abortion activist and the second is depressed because he’s lost his youth-related “iconic, classical beauty”. I have the feeling that the Cannes film festival has followed this old-fashioned path in many ways. The global atmosphere of the festival felt kind of outdated to me. I think people from our generation are way less illusioned by the images around fame and glory; not only do we want change, but it feels like more than ever, we need it. It is true that the side programming of the Quinzaine or Un Certain Regard offer some freshness by spreading new voices and I’m sure that being present at Cannes offers these talents loads of new opportunities. But that’s the thing; I see this festival more as a place for networking as anything else. Obviously that’s the case for most festivals and networking is not only important but it can also be very fruitful. Still, festivals like the Berlinale make it friendly for visitors that are not part of the cliquish film business and I appreciate that more than the exclusiveness of Cannes.
- 1Cinémas libertaires, au service des forces the transgression et de révolte
- 2Cayeux, Charlotte, Armand Gatti et “l’expression multiple” du cinéma, Cinémas libertaires, p.100