Words and Images by Travolta Cooper
European Cinema and Independent Sensibilities
Cannes, France —- I don’t really get a chance to see as much cinema from Europe as I would like to while living in America (Los Angeles, California) and the Caribbean (The Bahamas). This is just another reason (of many other reasons) why I look forward to the Cannes Film Festival each year. It is not easy to pin down what exactly “European Cinema” is. There isn’t really a “Eurowood” per say. So whether that is ‘euro cinema’ from Pedro Almodovar (this year’s Jury President) of Spain, or Maren Ade of Germany (also on the jury this year), movies from this continent and region don’t really come with any conventions. The one common denominator they all share is simply this: they are not at all Hollywood films. Though this doesn’t mean that Hollywood isn’t like;y to adapt these films (as we’re seeing in the case of Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdman” which is getting a Hollywood remake starring Jack Nicholson). But it is never the other way around. Europe is not making a European version of a Hollywood movie. I had the honor of viewing two films back to back by two of Europe’s most venerated filmmakers. The films are Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing Of Scared Deer.” And they are two of the best movies at the festival.
Michael Haneke is an Austrian auteur (you may have seen his film Amour) and Happy End is another stone in his crown. In the press junket for the film, there isn’t some Hollywood type “logline” describing what the movie’s plot is. Instead there is a picture of a European family and beneath the photo is a quote that states: “All around us, the world, and we, in its midst, blind.” Then it adds: “Snapshot from the life of a bourgeois European family.” With that said, in the movie we meet the Laurents, an upper middle class French family who all share one commonality: despite all the wealth around them, they live lives of quiet desperation. The movie stars last year’s Elle breakout (well, Hollywood breakout, because Europe has known and loved her for years), the French acting goddess, Isabelle Huppert. Ms. Huppert plays Anne Laurent, the chatelaine of a magnificent house and estate in Calais, having taken over the lucrative family construction and transport business from her ageing father Georges (played by French acting maestro Jean-Louis Trintignant). He is suffering from incipient dementia, and is waited on like a dispossessed Shakespearean king by the family’s Moroccan servants Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) and Jamila (Nabiha Akkari) – who are periodically subject to racist condescension. Anne herself is getting engaged to the British lawyer handling a new UK deal: Lawrence, played by Toby Jones. Anne’s drunken deadbeat son Pierre (Franz Rogowski), supposedly a site supervisor, has through negligence allowed a catastrophic accident, which puts the firm in line for a huge civil suit. Meanwhile, Anne’s brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) has secrets of his own and must now look after the 12-year-old daughter of his previous marriage and accept her into their creepy manorial family compound. What a family!
Yorgos Lanthimos is a Greek auteur that you might know from last year’s breakout hit “The Lobster”. In the press conference this morning one critic thanked the filmmaker for “shaking things up” in the cinema. Mr. Lanthimos is competing for the Palm d’Or with The Killing Of Sacred Deer. It tells the story of Steven Murphy (a very good Collin Farrell) a charismatic and somewhat strange surgeon who is an equally strange friendship with a 16 year-old boy named Martin (played by outstanding newcomer, Barry Keoghan). This is all I will say about the movie’s plot. Why? Well know this: this film is amazing. It is a wholly original piece of work. To describe its story and plot makes me feel like I’m robbing you of an experience. And it is that experience, Mr. Lanthimos storytelling and his relationship to his audience, that is key to Deer’s greatness. This film isn’t so much a cerebral experience (it is mostly a metaphor like its title suggests) as it is a visceral one. And The Killing Of Scared Deer is the very definition of the word “creepy.” After the screening, I heard comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and Eye Wide Shut. Speaking of Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman also stars as Ann Murphy, the wife and matriarch of the Murphy family. It is one of her very best performances. Ms. Kidman spoke in the press conference this morning about reading the script and being hypnotized until the very end. That script translated to the screen with ease it seems.
Coming to Cannes each year is tons of work for me but it is also a retreat of sorts from all things Hollywood. I encourage all working filmmakers to come at least once and experience how this festival revives one’s passion for the cinema. And it is movies like Happy End and The Killing Of Sacred Deer that revive. While both movies tell the story of a family, they couldn’t be more different in styles and tone. And this is key to understanding cinema in Europe. These movies and their filmmakers work from the inside out. It is what the French call the “mise en scene.” To put it simply, European cinema is what we call “independent film” in America and the Caribbean. It is this very independence and sensibility that has inspired some of the indie filmmaker’s we hold dear in the North Americas. Quentin Tarantino will tell you how much Jean Luc Godard inspired his early work. And last year’s breakout star, the director of the Oscar winning Moonlight, Barry Jenkins (who’s also present here at Cannes on a short film jury) will tell you that his favorite filmmaker is France’s auteur Claire Denis. Barry, who grew up in the Miami projects, would grow up and make a film about the Miami projects all while injecting a French cinema influence. And with it he took home Hollywood’s biggest prize this year. This is the cross-pollination and sensibility that is at the heart of the power of the cinema, Europe and otherwise.