The selection of the Cannes Film Festival was less exciting this year than it had proved to be in the past, but some wonderful gems stood out.
In the past, the Cannes Film Festival has set the bar for the quality of films programmed very high. The 2018 edition alone gave us a dozen striking, daring films that have stayed with me through the year, including: Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage, Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Woman at War, Camille Vidal-Naquet’s Sauvage, Philippe Faucon’s Amin, and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace.
By contrast, the 2019 selection felt strangely safe and uninspired. Most films were simply fine, and some were even predictable. But a few rare gems — several of them directed by women in Competition — stood out and made it all more than worthwhile.
Here are five of the very best ones, in no particular order.
For Sama (Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts)
Living in a conflict zone where the people who are supposed to protect you are trying to kill you is unimaginable for most of us. But this is what Waad Al-Kateab went through in Aleppo, and the footage she shot throughout the siege vividly relates the horror (both psychological and physical) of being wanted dead by people who are much more powerful than you. The film is a breathtaking portrait of resilience and sacrifice; Waad and her husband Hamza could have left the city, but they chose to stay to help the many victims of the bombings perpetrated by the Syrian government. Read our interview with For Sama directors Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts.
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)
Jean Dujardin, known internationally for his starring role in the Oscar-winning film The Artist, first became a star in France for playing a beta-male trying to be an alpha-male in the sitcom Un gars, une fille. Thankfully, he never completely gave up on his unique talent for comedy, most recently delivering one of his finest performances as an entrepreneurial but delusional loser in Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern’s I Feel Good.
In Quentin Dupieux’s lighthearted yet dark comedy, Deerskin, the actor offers a more understated riff on his persona as a man in total denial of just how lost and confused he is. We know very little about Georges (Dujardin), except for the fact that all he cares about is his new (ridiculous) deerskin jacket. This obsession quickly takes a sinister and hilarious turn when Georges decides he must be the only person in the entire world to be wearing a jacket — even if he has to murder every other person wearing outerwear. Getting rid of all the others “will probably take a thousand years,” our hero muses to himself, but that won’t stop him from trying. Dupieux’s eye for simple but amusing compositions, as well as his genuine love for all his characters, make Deerskin a rare gem and unlikely crowd-pleaser.
Atlantics (Mati Diop)
The first ever title in competition in Cannes to be directed by a black woman, Mati Diop’s feature debut, Atlantics, reveals an already masterful control of the medium. Set under the blazing sun of Dakar, by the seemingly endless expanse of the ocean, the film puts us under the spell of its peculiar atmosphere. We follow Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young girl about to enter an arranged marriage with a well-off man but madly in love with another, the young construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore). Because she’s in the throes of love with Souleiman, she barely registers the importance of the upcoming wedding, and the way it will change the course of her life forever. It finally hits her when Souleiman and his colleagues suddenly set sail for Europe in the hope of finding better jobs. The realist drama slowly takes on a more fantastical bent as supernatural apparitions begin to appear across the town. It’s as if Ada’s longing for Souleiman was magically manifested in these phantasmagoric events, which culminate in a penultimate scene of surreal beauty at the crossroads of life and death. Light on its feet, Atlantics ultimately packs a powerful punch.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Five years after Girlhood, writer-director Céline Sciamma finally returns to directing with a lesbian romance that is a welcome respite from the lazy box-ticking and you-go-girl feminism afflicting much of cinema today. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is set on a remote, deserted French island, near the end of the 18th century — an isolated place and a distant time that another director could have used as the backdrop for a love story disconnected from the social pressures of today and of the past.
Not Sciamma: the film repeatedly reminds us that this idyllic isolation is only a rare and temporary interruption from the confinement of a sexist society. Worse, this very holiday is paving the way for the depressingly cloistered future of the titular lady, Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). She is to sit for a portrait, which will be sent to a prospective bridegroom so he can decide if she will become his wife. Marianne (Noémie Merlant), the artist, gets to work, scrutinising the features of her subject. But she isn’t the first to have tried to take Héloïse’s portrait, and as a model, Héloïse questions this patriarchal dynamic of the looker and the looked-at: when Marianne is looking at Héloïse, the latter is also looking at the former.
As Héloïse sits and Marianne paints, the push-pull dynamic and profound intellectual discussions between them create a spark that will push them to make a move. Defiantly progressive in its perception of love and creation that sees the two parties on an equal footing, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is as poignant as it is invigorating.
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
The most entertaining film of the festival came from Robert Eggers, whose feature debut, The Witch, was not exactly a laugh a minute. Set in 19th-century Maine, The Lighthouse is the improbably hilarious story of two men shut up in a lighthouse together for weeks on end. Eggers once again has his characters speak in the antiquated dialects of their period, but here he mines the comic potential of this set-up. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) comes from the mainland, and his corresponding jargon feels comparatively plain next to the colourful vernacular of the lighthouse’s permanent keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Over the course of four weeks, the young and gorgeous Ephraim is subjected to the old man’s constant chatter, farts, and laziness, and forced to do most of the hard work himself. Meanwhile, Thomas has the privilege of taking care of the light.
Weighed down by boredom, exhaustion, and frustration, Ephraim soon sinks into overwhelming anguish and despair, and the film takes us down with him. Oscillating between the young man’s growing madness, and the borderline slapstick comedy of Thomas’ antics, The Lighthouse finds surprise and laughs in a sea of contrasts. Eggers and his brother, Max, the film’s co-writer, do not miss any opportunities to exploit the comic potential of drink- and fatigue-induced madness; they also know how easily this kind of fun can fall into horror. Whether the scary and otherworldly things Ephraim begins to see are real, or just visions born from a guilty (and horny) psyche, remains unclear. In any case — and to the Eggers’ great credit — it feels completely beside the point. All that is certain is that The Lighthouse is a trip.