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From the highs of Godard to the lows of Lars von Trier
Young talent shines at Cannes film festival, while some more experienced filmmakers miss the mark

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Saturday, May 26, 2018 – Page R9

CANNES, FRANCE -- At Cannes, when two films employ Glenn Gould playing Bach, is something in the air?

If those two films are Lars von Trier's self-styled scandale, the tedious and abhorrent The House That Jack Built, starring Matt Dillon as a serial killer who performs a double mastectomy on one of his victims, and Pawel Pawlikowski's ambitious, elliptical Cold War, a time-hopping love story, that something turns out to be sheer coincidence.

The tasteful Pawlikowski reserves Gould's performance of The Goldberg Variations for his credit roll at the end, while von Trier interjects clips of Gould performing his rapid, harpsichord-like Bach Partitas throughout his film to help make an analogy between art and extermination. (Gould's estate should worry that the pianist's Bach is getting a second outing with a psycho, after Hannibal Lecter.)

More on von Trier's puerile project anon.


Several films set in the past fashion themselves as portents and warnings of current intolerance and authoritarianism. Manto, Nandita Das's biopic about the liberal writer Saadat Hasan Manto, may be set in the 1940s during the time of the partition of India, but the film obviously addresses issues - religious and artistic freedom, Muslim-Hindu hostility - meant to reflect those that currently rive her country under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Ognjen Glavonic's impressive The Load revisits one of the gruesome revelations of the Bosnian War but in such a withholding manner that most audiences will be left baffled by Glavonic's intention to remind us it could happen again.

No surprise that BlacKkKlansman, Spike Lee's treatment of another true story, the incredible one of Ron Stallworth, a black undercover detective in Colorado Springs who infiltrated the local Ku Klux Klan in the seventies, should deliver an agitprop alarum. Set in the era of the Black Panthers and Richard Nixon - "Now More Than Ever" trumpets a poster for the impeachable president at a Klan investiture - Lee's film insistently connects the dots between racism then and its toxic resurgence under Donald Trump. Lee's Klansmen mouth Trumpian phrases such as "America first" and "make America great again," preparing for the film's polemical coda. Reversing the structure of his Malcolm X, where footage of the Rodney King beating prefaced the film, Lee saves his documentary material for the finale of BlacKkKlansman, in which he deploys coverage of last year's Charlottesville white-supremacist tiki-torch march, pairing it with a KKK cross-burning in the seventies.

Lee's occasionally cartoonish but affecting BlacKkKlansman works best in charting the endurance of American racism, opening with the famous crane shot of an infinite field of Civil War casualties in Gone With the Wind and ending with the killing of a sole figure, the Charlottesville anti-racism activist Heather Heyer.


Cannes runs a number of ateliers and residences for neophyte filmmakers, which this year paid considerable dividends. The directors of Girl, an intense portrayal of a transgender teenager studying to be a ballerina and impatient to become a woman, and The Harvesters, a compelling but ultimately confused depiction of a religious Afrikaans farming family struggling to integrate a drug-addicted adoptee, both in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, emerged out of the festival's admirable training system.

The respective directors, Belgian Lukas Dhont and South African Etienne Kallos, looked like they could be carded at the liquor store, but their films revealed far greater emotional maturity and formal control than many of their elders, especially those of aging enfants terribles Gaspar Noé and Lars von Trier.


While much commentary on Cannes has focused on the #MeToo movement's effect here - the festival has instituted a hotline to report sexual harassment and jury president Cate Blanchett led a red-carpet protest targeting the festival's history of ignoring female filmmakers - the most salient thematic pattern in films this year focuses on fathers.

The festival's opening film, Asghar Farhadi's Spanish-language Everybody Knows, pivots on a question of paternity. As with Farhadi's The Salesman, the film governs the victimization of a woman solely as an issue to be dealt with by husbands and fathers offended by the crime (rape, kidnapping), suggesting that Iranian and Iberian patriarchies are not dissimilar, despite their cultural differences. On the other hand, at least three films portray fathers of fathomless generosity and understanding - the mothers are variously absent, calculating or self-concerned.

In the aforementioned Girl, the dad is a sole parent, a taxi driver who exhibits undying patience with and compassion for his transgender daughter, even as she falls into increasingly selfdestructive behaviour. In Mohamed Ben Attia's fine Weldi, a Tunisian retiree who has struggled to maintain a close relationship with his taciturn, migraineprone son discovers that he doesn't know him at all when he suddenly decamps for Syria to fight for the Islamic State.

The festival's critical favourite, which won the Palme d'Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters features a father figure who has cobbled a family, baby to granny, from grifters, thieves and shirkers, all of them carrying a dark secret. When compared with other iterations of criminal families in Japanese cinema, such as Yuzo Kawashima's Elegant Beast and Nagisa Oshima's Boy, Shoplifters is pretty tame - but then, it intends to be.


Jean-Luc Godard's The Image Book and von Trier's The House That Jack Built both feature a parade of famous paintings, the former to offer a humanist restitution for the bombardment of barbarity it portrays, the latter to put a philosophical-aesthetic gloss on mass murder, suggesting that Gothic cathedrals, the poetry and etchings of William Blake and paintings by Botticelli, Klimt, Rembrandt, Doré and (especially) Gauguin are somehow related to the art of murder.

Godard has previously employed imagery of the Holocaust, as von Trier does in his latest, but the moral compasses of the directors point in opposite directions. Von Trier is a callow provocateur, taking infantile pleasure in suggesting that mass extermination has artful analogies. Godard fashions what he calls "a brief history of the mass extinction of species," but his Book is in itself so beautiful that it lays glorious claim against that very eradication.

James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.

Associated Graphic

Director Lars von Trier arrives for a screening of The House That Jack Built on May 14 in Cannes, France. The film features a parade of artworks to put a philosophical-aesthetic gloss on mass murder, suggesting Gothic cathedrals, the poetry and etchings of William Blake and famous paintings are somehow related to the art of murder.


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