About 6,000 miles separate the boardwalks of Los Angeles from the beaches of Cannes. It’s not just Han Solo, an army of celebrity ambassadors, and the intangible “Hollywood influence” that have crossed that vast distance this year. So, too, have the major aftershocks of an ongoing reckoning: the breaking of silence, the fall of powerful men, and the belated acknowledgement that this business remains at best stacked against women, at worst actively hostile toward them.
The #MeToo movement hangs over Cannes, as heavily as it hung over Oscar night. The festival couldn’t ignore it. There’s a new sexual-harassment hotline, announced by the organizers last week, and it certainly counts as a conscious choice that this year’s competition jury—presided over by Cate Blanchett and including director Ava DuVernay, actors Kristen Stewart and Léa Seydoux, and Burundian singer-songwriter Khadja Nin—is majority female. But the fest still has a long way to go. As a dramatic reminder of its gender imbalance problem, Blanchett last night led 82 women up the red-carpeted steps of the Palais, with one marcher for every female director to make the cut in 71 years of Cannes main-competition lineups. (By comparison, 1,645 films by men have been selected.) “Women are not a minority in the world,” she told a hushed crowd of peers and paparazzi. “Yet the current state of our industry says otherwise.”
After the demonstration, the crowd piled indoors for the world premiere of French filmmaker Eva Husson’s Girls Of The Sun (Grade: C+), one of only three movies from this year’s comp lineup to be directed by a woman. (Remarkably, that’s an improvement over the norm, and the best showing since 2011.) It couldn’t have screened at a more opportune moment, really. Here, after all, was a drama about an all-female platoon of sexual assault survivors wrestling their country back from their extremist abusers. Their rallying cry? “Women, Life, Liberty!” Whatever else might be said of Girls Of The Sun, there’s no denying that its subject matter—and its spirit of stirring resistance—holds a timely resonance.
But what of the movie itself? Husson’s debut was the laissez-faire teenage sex drama Bang Gang. Here she makes a sharp left turn, sending bereaved, shell-shocked, eye-patched war journalist Mathilde (fellow French filmmaker Emmanuelle Bercot, whose Standing Tall opened Cannes three years ago) into battle-ravaged Kurdistan, where she’s embedded with a unit of hardened commandos, all escaped former prisoners of ISIS. The squad is led by Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani, from Paterson and About Elly), whose harrowing experiences the film conveys via overwrought flashback. When not trading traumatic backstories, the squad is charging into ISIS strongholds, guns blazing.
Husson modeled the characters on actual all-female fighting forces in Kurdistan. This bombastic bid for respectability mostly left me thinking that their courageous, inspiring inspiration deserved a better movie, one with more nuanced plotting and a less overbearing score. Failing that, couldn’t Girls Of The Sun have let the pots righteously boil? Husson shows the kind of muscular action chops—reminiscent, in moments, of competition jury member Denis Villeneuve’s work—that could easily land her a Hollywood franchise gig. In the meantime, I won’t be too shocked (or even upset) if she ended up winning the Palme D’Or. (Only one female filmmaker, Jane Campion, has won before.)
Girls Of The Sun isn’t the only movie in competition this year to chronicle the perseverance of persecuted women. The great Iranian director Jafar Panahi (Offside, Crimson Gold) has made that a subject of 3 Faces (Grade: B), the latest critical but humane national portrait he’s managed to smuggle out of Iran and into a film fest. Convicted of making anti-government propaganda in 2010, Panahi has spent the last few years defying the lifetime filmmaking ban placed upon him. Each new forbidden project, from This Is Not A Film to Closed Curtain to Taxi, has inched him further back into the outside world, and with 3 Faces he takes advantage of his relatively recent freedom to move around the country—though not to leave it, alas. (A seat remained empty in his honor at Cannes.)
It’s by far the least constricted of the director’s post-arrest films, most of which make their limitations the subject. (This Is Not A Film just wouldn’t work as a title for this one.) 3 Faces even adopts something of an urgent narrative device. The opening scene is a cellphone video recorded by a teenage girl (Marziyeh Rezaei) so distraught over her family’s refusal to allow her to pursue a career in filmmaking that she hangs herself on camera. The message is addressed to Panahi and the famous Iranian actor Behnaz Jafari, both playing themselves, who doubt the veracity of the footage (“Do that rope and branch look real?”) and decide to drive out to the girl’s village to investigate. Panahi has frequently blurred the line between cinema and reality; here, he builds the search for that line into the work itself, even flirting, playfully, with a self-critique. Is there something untruthful and manipulative about staging fiction to look like nonfiction? It’s a question implicitly raised by Jafari, who begins to suspect the director may be in on the girl’s plan.
All of that turns out to be something of a bait and switch, however. 3 Faces, which defuses its dramatic stakes quicker than you might want, is less a mystery than another of the director’s ambling, episodic examinations of life in modern Iran, this one built around the expectations and restrictions put on women of all ages. (The title refers to characters of three generations, all artists or aspiring ones, all imprisoned by their culture’s gendered double standards.) As in the recent Taxi, Panahi is also paying heartfelt tribute to his late creative collaborator Abbas Kiarostami, borrowing not just the familiar image of people talking in a car winding its way down country roads, but also particular shots and plot developments. Kiarostami, to be honest, might have chased the real/not real question into knottier, more thought-provoking territory—Panahi is, ultimately, less conceptually adventurous than his departed friend and countryman. But there’s still plenty to chew on in this lovely film, which fights for the liberation of multiple parties, the maker and his subjects.
Writer-director Ramin Bahrani also took a stroll down Kiarostami’s path with Goodbye Solo, a kind of spiritual relative to Taste Of Cherry. So how’d he end up where he is today, sitting at the helm of a slick, anonymous HBO movie? There’s little of Bahrani’s or Ray Bradbury’s voice in the premium-channel-bound Fahrenheit 451 (Grade: C), which grinds the sci-fi novelist’s satirical 1953 novel into thinly topical dystopian mush. Certainly, there are parallels between the dark future of the book—a not-so-distant America when firefighters burn books and the government rewrites history—and our current very scary age of Fake News and proud anti-intellectualism. But Fahrenheit 451 connects those dots in clumsy, obvious ways, augmenting its chintzy, budget world-of-tomorrow with emoji and livestreams and Alexa anxiety. What the film fails to do, most critically, is dramatize the intellectual awakening of true believer Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan), whose growing, secret love affair with the written word remains completely abstract. (Admittedly, that’s a hard element to make cinematic.) And while Michael Shannon is solid, playing a much more complicated villain than his Shape Of Water heavy, Jordan is surprisingly flat as another tortured antihero with daddy issues. Cannes-goers looking for a fix of the actor’s fiery charisma would have been better off catching a screening of Black Panther on the beach earlier this week.
Tomorrow: Holy crap is Gaspar Noé’s Climax a thing to behold. I’ll get into that. Plus: this year’s SXSW winner Thunder Road, and another of the main competition titles, TBD on which one.