And the Palme D'Or goes to… At least on Sunday evening, the general consensus seemed to favour Michael Haneke's Happy End. The other films in competition were certainly various shades of interesting (I especially liked what Bong Joon Ho's Okja did in a "mainstream" space), but this one hit hard. It was cryptic, funny. At times, it made you go what-the-fuck-is-happening? And then, slowly, it revealed itself. It wasn't just a movie. It was… cinema. For the first time in the festival, there was the sense of experiencing an art form and not just a great story being told well.
Imagine James Joyce taking a crack at Gone with the Wind, and you have an idea of Happy End. The rich plantation-owning family is replaced by a rich industrial clan in Calais. The slaves find an equivalent in Moroccans and other refugees employed as servants (treated kindly, like in the earlier film). And there is a similar sense of soapy melodrama. The pater familias (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is losing his marbles. Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is the Scarlett O'Hara figure, trying to hold it all together while pursuing love. There's even a Melanie equivalent, with a child. I don't want to make too much of this comparison — after all, we are talking about sex chats ("I want you to piss on my face, smiling; I love your smile") and a far more political setting. It's just that the plot suggests a certain kind of sprawling inter-generational saga.
But of course, by the time Haneke does his thing, the film becomes a singular creation. Happy End carries echoes of his earlier work (some might call it rehashes) — cruel children, the pains of aging, the disruptions of technology, "who could it be?" mysteries — but the film seems fresh and what's under the cool, calm bourgeois facade is frightening. Towards the end, some of the loose threads get tied up, but as always with Haneke, there are no answers. Like what happens after the chilling final scene, vaguely reminscent of Amour? It looks like tragedy, but given the sadness everyone is burdened with, maybe this is the only possible happy end.
Barbara is the kind of movie for which press notes help — otherwise, I'd have never known that there was really a singer-actor after whom this Mathieu Amalric-directed film is named. A non-French audience, I assume, is unlikely to have the rapturous connect that spurred Amalric to make this movie — so it helps that this is no bio-pic. It is a meta movie: an actress named Brigitte (Jeanne Balibar) is cast as Barbara in a movie made by Yves Zand, who's played by… Amalric. He's thus, the director of the movie and the movie-within-the-movie.
The ruminatively melodramatic film is an ode to process — it looks like a day-in-the-life-of-a-star episode directed by Fassbinder. Brigitte watches videos of Barbara and becomes possessed by her physicality, her spirit, her mannerisms — and the boundary between star and character blurs. Hence the scene where Zand, in the midst of shooting a scene where Barbara is performing on stage, races to the audience, evicts an extra, and seats himself there. This is what a filmmaker strives for: even amidst the artifice of sets and lights and crew, the sense that what's happening is real.
Among the films I wanted to catch but couldn't. Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (Before We Vanish) — about a husband who vanishes and returns utterly transformed, loving and attentive. Sounded a lot like The Return of Martin Guerre, and I wanted to see what the Japanese auteur would do with the material. John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties — mixed reviews, but it's based on a Neil Gaiman short story, and this is a director who really needs to make more movies, more frequently. Ruben Östlund's The Square (Danish, English, Swedish) — about an installation that invites passersby to be altruistic. A bizarre premise from the Force Majeure director. Enough said.
In Promised Land, set during the Trump-Clinton campaign wars, the documentarian Eugene Jarecki hops into the Rolls Royce Elvis Presley purchased in 1963, and sets out to… The brochure puts it best. "The mission, forty years after the singer's death, is to find the country he left behind — a nation that, like Elvis, started out young, beautiful and promising, yet succumbed over time to the corrosive influences of money and power." In other words, Elvis becomes a metaphor for America. Just like a country boy lost his authenticity and became "King," his country lost her democracy and became an "empire." At least, that is Jarecki's thesis.
It's a big stretch. Sometimes, the parallels work. We nod when someone says the American Dream has become almost impossible for people from the blue-collar background Presley came from. It's true, too, that Presley built a bridge between blacks and whites in a way few had before him, by bringing "black music" to white people. But to show clips of Elvis enlisting and hint at American military power and Vietnam? Never mind. Forget that this is about Elvis as America, and the film is a mightily entertaining pop-culture collage of fame in the world's most famous country. The celebrity interjections (Ashton Kutcher, Mike Myers, Ethan Hawke, and Alec Baldwin, who says Trump will never win) work marvellously, and the final image we are left with does tie up the thesis somewhat. It's impossible to see how Elvis ended up — a bloated man in a white jumpsuit who forgot the words to his songs — and not think of Trump.