Cannes 2016 – The Second Thursday

With the market all but over, all that remains is the tail end of the festival, which means there’s not much else to do other than watch films – odd as that might sound for a comment about the world’s most prestigious film festival. It was particularly frustrating, though, that one of the most useful aids to covering Cannes – the daily editions of Variety, the Hollywood Reporter and Screen International – don’t seem to make it this far.

A publicity shot of a doctor on the phone is hardly going to draw audiences to a slow take on London
A publicity shot of a doctor on the phone is hardly going to draw audiences to the Dardenne’s slow latest take on social injustice.

The first film of today was a catch-up of yesterday’s early morning film, The Unknown Girl – the seventh film in competition from two-time Palme d’Or-winning pair, the Dardenne Brothers. It was a perfectly competent film, but perfectly Dardenne. Adèle Haenel plays Jenny, a doctor who feels guilty when she discovers that a woman she refused to let in to her surgery after hours was later murdered. The police have no idea who the victim was and when Jenny hears that she’s going to be buried without anyone ever even knowing who she is, she sets out to go behind the police’s backs to try to uncover the girl’s identity. The basic premise feels a little arch to hang a film on and the stakes aren’t high enough to ratchet up any tension. It seems to be a little coincidental that many of the possible suspects happen to have a link, of sorts, to Jenny or her surgery, while others who turn against her because of her investigation seem to be able to do so with impunity, even after it emerges that they are red-herrings. The Unknown Girl is, by turns, basic, clunky, obvious, uninspiring film-making – showing us rather more doctoring that we require – OK, I get it, she’s a doctor, there are many long scenes with little movement, there’s almost no music, even under the closing credits, characters often just turn up to announce something important and then go away again, and it’s certainly too slow and lacking in anything much to have a running time just shy of two hours. The central performance makes the film perfectly watchable, but it’s tremendously spartan film-making that very much feels like an extension of the brothers’ vision.

Cristian Mungiu's latest look under the surface of live in Romania in Graduation
Cristian Mungiu’s latest look under the surface of live in Romania in Graduation

Then, after a screen break, to stop staring at a cinema screen and instead stare at a computer screen, while I caught up on some writing, I headed back to the main Grand Theatre Lumiere and had another fight with security who were, this time, trying to steal my Snickers bar. Once again, one enterprising security guard suggested hiding it close to the entrance to the red carpet and hope that it’s still there when I return to collect it. So I did. And it was. The film was the latest from a previous Palme d’Or winner, Cristian Mungiu. Bacalaureat – or Graduation – follows a respected Romanian doctor, Romeo, whose daughter, Eliza, is attacked, the day before she’s due to begin sitting a series of tests which could earn her a scholarship in London. But when, still in shock, she’s told she has to sit the exams anyway, she’s not performing her best, so her father starts trying to pull in some favours. Despite being on the long – and slow – side, this is an intricately woven and well-planned story that builds in everything from intergenerational relationships and marital infidelity to low-level complimentary corruption. It also provides an interesting glimpse into the lives of Romania’s upper classes. The film is successful in keeping the audience interested, despite having no villain, other than the system, bad luck and an attacker, who’s never seen on screen and whose presence in the story is almost entirely absent. That said, it’s interesting that the protagonist, who you will genuinely find yourself rooting for, is the one who – arguably for the right reasons – is most guilty of corruption. Most directors would have made Graduation about how the authorities traced Eliza’s attacker, but Mungiu makes it more about how the system responds to the attack it can’t have planned for. I bet Romeo could pull a few strings to get a Snickers into the building.

Many sales agents have long since packed up to return home
Many sales agents have long since packed up to return home

With some time to kill after the screening, I took a walk through the ever depleting market stands of the market. Most had the posters ripped down, advertising material packed into cardboard boxes. Emerging from the other side of the Riviera, I took a stroll past the national pavilions of the Village International and they were equally quiet. Meeting places such as the UK Film Centre, which until yesterday were heaving, were almost entirely empty, with almost no events being left this late in proceedings. It makes you wonder why people don’t take advantage of being on the Riviera and stick around to relax in the sun for a couple of days before returning to such climes as the UK’s.

It was only a speculative visit to the further part of the market, the Pantiero, which lines the north-side of the harbour, where I stumbled across a relaxed late light lunch being thrown on the terrace of the French Film Commission. For the first time in Cannes, the security around the food was lax enough for me to get a mini-plateful of bread, cheese and carrots – hardly haut cuisine, but perhaps at least putting an end to that myth that there’s no such thing as a free lunch – unless you want to start debating the meaning of the word “lunch.”

Then – to illustrate the unpredictability of the Cannes experience – an invite came in for villa party – which, after a twenty minute walk into the hills above the city, turned out to be more of a relaxed gathering of a small group of friends at the house that two of them had rented – while, eyeing up the swimming pool, everyone else was wondering whether they could get in and rent it for themselves next year.

With one more day of my trip to come, over dinner, I studied a handful of brochures to plan tomorrow’s (confectionary?) attack on the festival, but the final illustration of how the Cannes Film Market had already gone into hibernation for another year was that when I returned to the seafront at just 10pm, where I had been expecting to hear karaoke at the American Pavilion, instead I found a crowd of people who’d just been ejected from the venue. I guess the fat lady had finished singing before I arrived.