Caught At Cannes: Asghar Farhadi, Cate Blanchett, And A Kimono

Thoughts on the Cannes main jury press conference and the new film from Asghar Farhadi starring Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz
Caught At Cannes: Asghar Farhadi, Cate Blanchett, And A Kimono

The jury press conference got off to a dullish start when the president, Cate Blanchett, began to answer the question: "What is a good Palme d'Or?" She said it was all things — writing, performances, mise en scène. But when the question was passed around to the other members of the jury, things got interesting. Kristen Stewart said, "On a base level, there are imperfect films that are still great. It's like plucking little clams out of whole sea. But the film should be fundamentally and undeniably moving. In ten years' time, it should still stand." How she hoped to accomplish this feat of prognostication, she declined to explain. But Ava Duvernay added, "A film should be of its time and also timeless. There should be an emotional muscularity to it. I should connect with it. Within the idea of universality, there's a specificity I look for. Hopefully we'll find something like that."

Duvernay was attired in a dress apparently inspired by the flora of the Amazonian rainforest: bursts of bright green and bursts of bright yellow. Next to her, Denis Villeneuve wore a jacket in a shade that a colour chart I later referred to called Olympic blue. (Think Cobalt blue after a few spins in the washing machine.) And next to him, Blanchett wore a pastel pink suit. The three jurors made the others look positively anaemic. Stewart, in particular, looked like she was rebelling against high fashion by opting for her high school uniform: there was no other explanation for the jacket. Or maybe she knew no one was going to ask her anything, so why bother! The questions kept going to Blanchett. With so many new filmmakers, how would the jury sit in judgement of the new Godard film? "With an open mind," Blanchett said. "By trying to remove names and pasts and just dealing with the present."

She sounded just like she does in her films: that purring voice, with its whiskey-warm lower registers and hints of a finishing-school accent. I don't know why I found this surprising. Who else would she sound like if not herself? And I wasn't surprised when I heard George Clooney sound like himself at a similar press conference in Berlin. Maybe it's because there's an air of mystery about Blanchett. Maybe that seductive voice doesn't fit that stern face and you think it was something she affected only for her films. Just chalk it up to the mystery of the movies. As the conference went on, her replies got more interesting. When asked about the importance of red-carpet razzmatazz in the post-Weinstein #MeToo era, she simply said, "Being attractive does not preclude being intelligent. Cannes, by its very nature, is glamorous and spectacular. Those aspects of the festival should also be enjoyed."

To the question on why cinema is still important, Villeneuve said something confusing. "Media truth is in danger, so cinema is needed to present the truth." I wished he'd explained how, as a fiction filmmaker, he hoped to achieve this. Duvernay said it better. "As a Californian, film helped me understand the humanity of a family in Iran or Shanghai." She also left no doubt on where she stood on the Netflix issue. "A film is a story told by a filmmaker and the way it is presented to audience doesn't matter." Finally, how do you find a film that appeals to everyone in the jury? Calling Cannes a cultural, international melting pot, Blanchett said there were bound to be differences in opinion between the members of the jury, the critics and the audience. As a general viewer, even she might go by word of mouth and not particularly care whether a film won a prize. She then realised the irony of the jury president saying she was not interested in awards. She did the only thing she could. She laughed.


Standing on the terrace outside the press area, I looked at the street below and saw people holding up signs that said things like: "One ticket please for the Asghar Farhadi film. (Heart) (Heart) (Heart)" And then, just like that, a man passed by, attired in a kimono and wearing a bowler hat. I had to share that image with you, dear reader.


Asghar Farhadi's Everybody Knows (Todos Lo Saben in Spanish) contains one of the most beautiful sequences of his career. A man we do not see — we only glimpse a gloved hand — is cutting out from newspapers and magazines articles about a kidnapped girl. The crunch of a pair of scissors running over crisp paper is amplified to the extent that each cut sounds like the cracking of a walnut shell. And then, a diffuse cloud of smoke, presumably from a cigarette, floats over that picture, as though to say: "Poof! She was gone in a puff of smoke." Everybody Knows can be seen as a companion piece to the director's About Elly, which was about a woman who vanishes mysteriously — but without the existential poetry. This is an Agatha Christie whodunit crossed with the soapy mechanics of a telenovela. Sounds fascinating. But Farhadi doesn't pull it off.

For the first time, Farhadi's plotting comes off like formula. But what's really  surprising is how off the film is tonally, how insistent it is in preparing the audience for what's to come. The problems begin with the writing. The wedding sequence that opens the film rivals, in length, the one in The Godfather, but all that's conveyed is a series of character introductions and an overdone air of familial happiness that makes it clear tragedy will follow. Farhadi's strength — character psychologies revealed through genre mechanics — deserts him here, despite moving performances by Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz. I walked out remembering another Iranian filmmaker who made a non-Iranian film: Certified Copy by Abbas Kiarostami. It felt like the new language had liberated him. With Farhadi, you sense imprisonment. But that's fine. After three stunners — A Separation, The Past, The Salesman — one doesn't begrudge a great filmmaker a slip. Nobody's perfect.

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