Postcards from Cannes, Part 2: Jeune et Jolie, Fruitvale Station, A Touch of Sin

Features, FILM, Film Festivals
Queues and quotations at the Festival de Cannes; plus, François Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie, Fruitvale Station, and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.

I had been warned before Cannes that one should ensure their shoes are waterproof and sturdy. You do a lot of queuing. A side-effect of the queuing is that you frequently miss out. It seems that the entire film world was in the queue (or a queue) for Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, the first film I lost an hour waiting for to no avail. By all accounts, I saved myself an extra hour.

There has been a fair amount of interest, by me at least, around Coppola’s and Claire Denis’s films not making it into the main programme (instead, receiving the snub of appearing in the secondary “Un Certain Regard” section). Film as a commercial industry, despite its reputation for apparently fighting the liberal cause, is arguably the most structurally sexist institution in the Western World. Male actors have a far longer “shelf life” and have to conform to fewer stereotypes than their female counterparts, while female directors are so few and far between that people still use the word “female” as an adjective to describe a filmmaker. There is no chance that anyone could accept the pitiful percentage of female directors in any other profession. Politicians, business leaders, lawyers, and so on—while all still having a glass ceiling—have nowhere near as small a percentage as mainstream cinema.

Cannes last year received a lot of flak for including no female directors in its main competition. This year, there’s a solitary effort in Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Un Château en Italie. It’s a structural inequality that few seem interested in confronting. Obviously, a major part of the issue lies with production and financing; but there’s no shortage of quality. My all time Top Ten could easily be filled with the likes of Akerman, Chytilova, Muratova, Denis, Deren, etc.—and that’s not even giving a sop of token acknowledgement.

Things weren’t so smooth today at the festival’s behemoth headquarters. It’s hardly the most elegant space—very un-French, even. Frequent power cuts and surges (and a failure to hit Ctrl S enough) caused anguish in the computer room and turned the corridor lighting into slow disco accompaniment. The free Nespresso machine kept on breaking down, but then Nespresso packaging is incredibly wasteful, so a karmic balance was achieved in some respect. Queues into the various films managed to form whirlpools at their worst, estuaries at their best. Even the sponsor’s water wasn’t making it past the security officials today, as journalists and industry folk felt the indignity of proving they weren’t a security threat. I managed to sneak my homemade lunch in, hiding from the beady eyes of foreign journalists with bigger budgets or eating disorders, and the French journalists who wouldn’t do anything so coarse as to eat lunch on the public stairs. After all, the Festival de Cannes, like all proper French institutions, has a strongly delineated lunch break.

The day’s viewing began with François Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie (Young & Beautiful). Isabelle (Marine Vacth), a bored, well-to-do 17-year-old, decides to become a sex worker, which seems as simple and complex a way of describing the film. With a storyline that could have gone either down the salacious and/or moralistic route, Jeune et Jolie could easily have fallen flat. But the detachment—or more accurately, banality—of Ozon’s approach works to focus the story on teenage rebellion and experimentation. Ozon refuses to judge or “punish” Isabelle (à la Hollywood depictions of sex work), or valorise some sort of lost “innocence”. He does point out the hypocrisy of her mother and hints at potential capitalistic issues around sex work, but Isabelle’s emotional turmoil in becoming an adult and discovering her desires is the primary focus. Vacth has an intensity reminiscent of a Pialat character, and Ozon allows her space and ambiguity to add depth. Her physical and mental transformation as the film progresses (structured in the narrative by the four seasons) is subtly done. It’s a small film, and there’s a strong feeling that it doesn’t transcend beyond its limits to form something truly resonant, but it was certainly passable.

Fruitvale Station (formerly Fruitvale, first reviewed by James Robinson for Lumière earlier this year) caused a buzz in Sundance for its intense subject matter. Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) plays a one-off criminal who is looking to go legit. However, on a fateful New Year’s Eve, he is subject to arbitrary police violence. The film uses the tropes of common and well-worn genres, namely the “urban” street film (code name for films featuring violence by or against black people) and crims trying to go legit but falling into old traps. Filmed in an urgent but non-irritating manner, the story recounts the last 24 hours of Grant’s life. What makes the film memorable is the dynamite performance of Jordan in the main role. Jordan, who won major plaudits in America, is certainly a riveting presence. He has that same dangerous energy of De Niro or Pacino when they were young, and he’s hard to take your eyes off. He first came to attention as Wallace in The Wire; here, he is bulked up, volatile, and ultimately a star in the making. An actor’s film perhaps, but worth it for the performance alone.

One advantage of being the lowest of the low when it comes to critics (i.e. from websites—just you wait print media, most of you are on the verge of death soon anyway) is that you have plenty of time to socialise. We are the “yellow” badged folk (in relation to, in descending order of importance, the “white”, the “pink”, and the “blue”). Coupled with the long waiting periods, it has proven to be a great way to meet young, passionate film folk from around the world. You can see the alliances of tomorrow being formed now, and it almost seems a natural way to form contacts and do that classic French pastime of talking: if you feel like a whinge, then you can whinge about your status, or if you feel like joy, you can discuss the world of cinema. It’s a nice human touch in a festival, which because of its sheer scale, can be otherwise hard to find. I have also found a use for business cards beyond spare paper you use to jot down phone messages. Of course, I don’t have any with me. A fun part has also been witnessing a few of the yellow folk thinking they are better than the rest by trying to push in and generally cause chaos—a natural consequence when social hierarchies are put in place. Psychologists could have a field day watching film critics.

Jia Zhangke’s new film, A Touch of Sin, takes three real-life murders and one suicide, fictionalises the background events, and then forms one of the most incendiary pieces of political cinema I can think of. Jia’s usual thematic concerns form the backdrop: the rapid modernising of contemporary China, the people left behind in the rush towards the future, communal vs. individual motivations, and the physical transformations of cityscapes and landscapes. Only this time, Jia’s focus is explicitly on the individuals who don’t quite fit into the new world of wealth inequality, rampant capitalism under the guise by communist practices, corruption, job insecurity, misogyny—or at the very least, the body being subsumed into the new capitalist social relations—and anomie. Atomised individuals struggling to cope within a transient and violent world. Sounds heavy, but it’s brilliant stuff.

Jia’s eye remains as strong as ever. The four stories allow him to concentrate on different visual symbols—each, for example, has alternating landscapes (mountains, rivers, forests, and sea), alternating cityscapes (the cities become progressively modernised as the stories shift location), and alternating modes of transport in focus. Many of the characters are mobile. The first story largely takes place in the one village, while the last features a young man travelling from province to province in search of a fulfilling job. Jia offers an incredibly vast and complex set of contrasting images to convey the modern China. In a way the country is indescribable and slippery, but in many other ways, it’s a very specific environment in which its citizens are forced to interact.

Where Jia may get himself into trouble is through the use of wuxia and other traditional Chinese artistic tropes to tell the story. The title itself is a clear homage to the granddaddy of the wuxia films, A Touch of Zen. Wuxia essentially relies on a strong moral code within a chaotic and anarchic world. As one of the most popular genres in China and elsewhere, it frequently features people forced to commit violence in order to “save” society. Jia makes an explicit link between his murderers and the wuxia heroes through costuming, animal symbols (tigers, snakes), and mise-en-scène. In other words: violence is sometimes necessary. And when the victims in the film are Communist officials, town leaders, successful businessmen, or those cruel to animals, it’s hard not to gulp at how this might be read.

Genres likes wuxia, and in America, Westerns, worked because they allowed outsiders with a strongly identifiable moral code to hold the powerful to account. However, these were always set in the past, and as a result, were less dangerous. Such an explicit modern setting, as in this film, will perhaps be interpreted in far more provocative ways. A more gentle reading of the film is to suggest that Jia is exploring the inevitability of violence, the recurring brutality throughout history, the impulses that cause victims to victimise, and the clash between impotence and action. And of course, despite its explicit Chinese setting, it would be ridiculous to think that the film’s concerns with the downtrodden don’t have a resonance for those on the outside. A Touch of Sin is nothing short of masterful. Whether the Cannes jury have the guts to acknowledge such a provocative film is another matter, but it’s further proof that Jia is without doubt one of the best directors working today.

One consequence of our instant society is that film critics are expected to give their opinion either during or immediately after a film. Walking out of the cinema, I have been confronted twice by cameras asking for an instant quote. For a film as devastating as A Touch of Sin, it was difficult to think of anything worthy to say within a minute. I also found myself pondering unimportant questions such as when interviewed, do I look at the interviewer or the camera? Maybe art marketing has always been about quick and pithy sound bites, even centuries ago, and I’ve only slowly come to realise it. It is the edifices, the art itself, such as I hope A Touch of Sin will be deemed one day, that truly last.

The 66th Festival de Cannes is Brannavan Gnanalingam’s last assignment as The Lumière Reader’s Europe correspondent. He has also covered international film festivals in Venice, Rotterdam, and Berlin. Previously based in Paris, he returns to New Zealand in the Winter.