Cannes serves up a parade of ageing maestros and a Tarantino masterclass
From our special correspondent in Cannes – The final stretch of the world’s premier film festival has seen Cannes roll out the red carpet for a cavalcade of veteran auteurs, including two-time Palme d’Or laureate Ken Loach, past winners Wim Wenders and Nanni Moretti, and fellow Italian Marco Bellocchio, whose magnificent “Kidnapped” joined the list of frontrunners for this year’s top award. Meanwhile, the 1994 laureate Quentin Tarantino delighted his Riviera fans with a lengthy chat about his taste for violence in movies – provided no animals get hurt.
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The 76th Cannes Film Festival has witnessed a number of modest breakthroughs for the world’s premier movie gathering, most notably in the abundance of African films on display and the number of women directors competing for the coveted Palme d’Or.
Italy’s Alice Rohrwacher wrapped up that contest on Friday with her latest folk tale “La Chimera”, about Italian tomb raiders who hunt ancient graves to find artefacts to sell. It followed the premiere of French director Catherine Breillat’s new erotic thriller “Last Summer”, centred on the fallout from a woman’s relationship with her stepson.
But for all the talk of a welcome shift towards greater diversity, this year’s edition has also featured an impressive array of old-guard veterans, from 80-year-old Martin Scorsese to 86-year-old Loach, who is having a record 15th shot at the Palme d’Or.
The veteran Briton first won at Cannes in 2006 for his Irish civil war drama “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”, before repeating the feat 10 years later with “I, Daniel Blake”. His latest entry “The Old Oak”, which he has described as his last, is about an English pub struggling to survive amid tensions caused by the arrival of Syrian refugees.
Other silver foxes this year included 77-year-old Wim Wenders, the 1984 Palme laureate for “Paris, Texas”, whose “Perfect Days” – about a Tokyo toilet cleaner – was widely hailed as a gem. Critics, however, were distinctly harsher with another festival darling, Moretti, whose “A Brighter Tomorrow” was described by some as a dud.
Outside the main competition, the revered Spanish director Victor Erice made his long-awaited return to Cannes at 82 with the highly rated “Close Your Eyes”, a meditation on memory and ageing, while fellow octogenarian Martin Scorsese provided one of the festival’s red-carpet highlights with his “Killers of the Flower Moon”, starring fellow travellers Robert De Niro and Leonardo Di Caprio.
A grim Western, Scorsese’s movie exhumed a dark chapter in America’s past, focusing on serial murders among the oil-rich Osage tribe in the early 20th century. It was one of several period dramas to screen in Cannes this year – some shedding light on little-known episodes from history, others bringing to the fore the characters (mainly women) who were left out of the history books.
The festival’s journey into the past began with Maïwenn’s curtain-raiser “Jeanne du Barry”, about French king Louis XV’s scandalous relationship with a lowly courtesan, starring Johnny Depp as the monarch in a high-profile comeback that generated plenty of controversy.
Brazil’s Karim Aïnouz paid tribute to the resilience of Catherine Parr in his thrilling “Firebrand”, starring Alicia Vikander as the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, though it was unfortunate to see his heroine upstaged by an uproarious Jude Law as the paranoid and bloodthirsty English king.
Two other period dramas caused a stir at the Riviera film gathering, joining the frontrunners in this year’s race for the Palme d’Or. One was Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz-set “The Zone of Interest”, a chilling look at the idyllic family life of a German officer stationed at the Nazi death camp. The other was Marco Bellocchio’s “Kidnapped”, the harrowing tale of a young Jew who was abducted by papal authorities in the 1850s, on the eve of Italy’s independence.
A sinister Vatican tale
“Kidnapped” is based on the true story of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Jewish boy from Bologna who was taken from his parents and raised in the Catholic faith on the grounds that his maid had baptised him in secret. His appalling story, which eventually became a cause célèbre of the liberal camp in the nascent Italian state, was far from isolated.
Historians have documented numerous cases of forceful conversions of Jewish children, a practice encouraged by widespread antisemitism in the Church. In Mortara’s case, the family’s strenuous efforts to recover their son eventually led to a national scandal and a trial, involving the pope himself in a rear-guard battle to uphold religious dogma and the Vatican’s privileges.
“The dislocation of the Papal States”, which Bologna was then part of, provides the backdrop to “Kidnapped”, turning the Mortara family’s private tragedy into a political tussle, Bellocchio told a press conference in Cannes. His film is also a deeply troubling study of child abuse, detailing how the young Edgardo’s extensive brainwashing led him to become a priest and a lifelong partisan of the Church.
The 83-year-old Italian director, whose 2002 Cannes entry “My Mother’s Smile” was banned in Church-owned Italian cinemas, insisted that his latest work was not an “anti-clerical” statement. At the festival presser he said it was “not a film against the pope or the Catholic Church, but against intolerance.”
A fixture of the Palme d’Or contest, Bellocchio is yet to win a prize in Cannes – aside from the career award he picked up two years ago for his lifetime achievements. His lack of success here stands in stark contrast with that of another Cannes stalwart, Quentin Tarantino, who showed up for a masterclass on Thursday before an ecstatic crowd of several hundred, packed inside the Théâtre de la Croisette.
The superstar director of “Pulp Fiction”, who won the Palme at his first attempt in 1994, is currently at work on what could be his final feature film. His Cannes talk came two months after the release of his book, “Cinema Speculation”, in which he recounts his first steps as a film buff and details his love of the movies.
Tarantino kicked off the talk with a surprise screening of John Flynn’s “Rolling Thunder”, an obscure movie about a Vietnam veteran pursuing the criminals who killed his family – which he introduced as “the greatest revenge flick of all time”. With its gun-blast violence, lyrical badmouth, and cathartic final bloodbath in a Mexican bordello, it had all the hallmarks of a Tarantino favourite.
The screening of “Rolling Thunder” was a chance for the filmmaker to reflect on his approach to on-screen violence, a subject he touched on in his book, describing how his mother would take him to the movies as a young boy and let him watch violent films – as long as the violence was contextualised and “understood”.
Morality should not dictate the aesthetics of a film, Tarantino argued at the Cannes talk. The most important thing is to “electrify the audience”, he added, quoting American director Don Siegel. He did, however, draw a red line at on-set violence against animals, noting that “killing animals for real in a film (…) has been done a lot in European and Asian films”. The taboo applied to insects too, he quipped, eliciting laughter from the audience.
“I'm not paying to see death for real. We’re here to pretend, which is why I can put up with all this violence,” he explained. “We’re just being silly, we’re just kids playing, it’s not real blood and nobody gets hurt.”
A final film?
Tarantino also asserted his preference for edgy and divisive directors, as well as those – like Flynn from “Rolling Thunder” – who never got the credit they deserved.
“Everyone loves Spielberg and Scorsese, there was no question of me joining the club of the most popular guys, that’s not my style!” he said, echoing a theme he mined in his book, in which he detailed his love for Brian De Palma’s more divisive movies. “Part of my love for De Palma came from the possibility of getting into trouble defending him, sometimes to the point of coming to blows,” he added.
Touching on his last Cannes entry, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (2019), Tarantino said his primary motivation for making the film was to “avenge” Sharon Tate, the actress who was brutally murdered by members of the ‘Manson Family’ in the 1970s, by imagining an alternative ending to the tragedy.
He was distinctly less chatty when quizzed about his new project, the forthcoming film “The Movie Critic”, billed as another ode to cinema. “I'm tempted to give you some of the characters’ monologues right now. But I’m not going to do that, no, no,” he teased the audience. “Maybe if there were fewer cameras.”
Tarantino has repeatedly suggested his tenth feature film is likely to be his last, based on his belief that filmmakers only have a limited number of good films in them. Whether or not he quits as a director, the conversation about movies will go on, he added, wrapping up the talk with a simple, “To be continued”.