Bong Joon-ho has become the first Korean ever to win the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or – the top film prize in the world – for his film Parasites, the extravagantly wacky story of a poor family that infiltrates a rich household by taking all their service positions, an employment victory that has unexpectedly bloody results.
The win was hugely popular among critics, but unexpected. All the smart money was on Pedro Almodovar’s semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory. Now 69 and threatening retirement, Almodovar was thought to be a sure-fire winner.
In fact, as jury chairman Alejandro Gonzalez Iniarritu made a point of telling the audience at the awards ceremony, the decision for director Bong was unanimous. Parasites was a genre fable, but it was also a critique of current politics “and spoke in a funny way about something so relevant and urgent and global in such a local film with efficiency”.
Pain and Glory came away with a best actor gong for Antonio Banderas, playing a version of the director who is consumed by his memories along with the pain of his middle-aged elements.
This was noticeably the first year of the #MeToo era. Of the four films by women in the competition, three won prizes. Celine Sciamma won the prize for best screenplay for her austere period romance Portrait of a Woman on Fire, which had also been suggested as a possible Palme d’Or.
Austrian director Jessica Hausner ventured into sci-fi – without ever quite letting go of her customary formalism – to tell the story in Little Joe of a mood-enhancing plant that turns out to be a kind of body-snatcher; Emily Beecham scooped the best actress prize for her performance as an enthusiastic geneticist. Finally, the Grand Prix went to Mati Diop, a French-Senegalese actress and director whose film Atlantique put a magical poetic spin on a Senegalese women’s campaign for fair pay when their men mysteriously disappear. Once again, demonic forces are on the loose.
More than anything, the 72nd Cannes Film Festival will be remembered as the year when genre filmmaking achieved peak respectability. Both the festival competition and the parallel Directors' Fortnight opened with gleefully trash-aware genre films: the main program with Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die and the Directors' Fortnight with Quentin Dupieux’s Deerskin, a story of a man’s possession by the fringed leather jacket of his dreams in which The Artist star Jean Dujardin gives the scintillating comic performance of a lifetime.
Then we had more zombies from master of excess Bertrand Bonello in Zombie Child; Babak Anvari’s Wounds, which has Armie Hammer as an ineffectual slacker whose brain is infiltrated by evil thoughts via a stray mobile phone; and witchcraft summoning up the dead in young Brazilian director Alice Furtado’s Sick, Sick, Sick – all in the Directors' Fortnight.
Furtado said in an interview that the horror genre is the vernacular for our times. “Maybe it has to do with our stage of society … and our stage of capitalism. There are a lot of conservative values on the rise and maybe the horror and nightmares and monsters are a way to try to understand this reality from a fantastic point of view.”
In the competition, Bacurau by Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles (whose previous film, Aquarius, was about as different as it could be; the subject there was the skyrocketing price of houses in Sao Paolo) depicts an imaginary town in Brazil's impoverished north-east where rich Americans come to hunt the locals for sport, supervised by regular movie madman Udo Kier. It won one of two jury prizes; the other went to first-time French director Ladj Ly for his fast-moving story of a police shooting in a black district of Paris, Les Miserables. This may not have been a bumper year for incontestable masterpieces, but you certainly couldn’t call it dull.
Outside the cinemas, however, Cannes has gone rather grey. The sun barely showed its face, which certainly lowers the mood, but there were seemingly fewer people – leaving some press screenings barely more than half-full, which never happens – and certainly less money. For the first time anyone can remember, the Carlton Hotel didn’t have the usual three-storey promotional display for some upcoming Hollywood blockbuster.
There were no crazy promotional stunts: what happened to the days when Jerry Seinfeld would be shot into the air by a giant cannon while dressed as a bee? And while there were parties, of course, none were in the Gatsby mode. Even the eccentrics who used to descend annually on the Croisette, like the Italian man with performing cats on his shoulders, have disappeared.
“It’s changed immensely,” said Jim Jarmusch during an interview about The Dead Don’t Die. “Cannes has gotten more staid and a little less vulgar. I liked the vulgarity because I like contradiction. I remember in the `80s being in Cannes and you’d see some magnificent Romanian film or Chinese film – I didn’t know anything about them – and then go outside into the sun and there’s a naked girl in a parachute descending into a circle of paparazzi on the beach. And I thought that was kind of amazing, you know.”
There are still reasons to be amazed on the cinema screens in Cannes, of course. A last-minute addition in the form of Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo by Tunisian-French provocateur Abdellatif Kechiche, gave weary critics a talking point late in the festival. Was it the 16-minute scene of gynaecologically explicit oral sex in a dance club’s toilet that was truly shocking, or was it the effrontery of asking audiences to sit through 3½ hours of young women twerking to bad techno? At least Cannes can still reliably produce a scandal – the world’s greatest film festival isn’t over yet.