Cannes 2019 – The First Friday

Today started with the usual early mad dash to the Palais, this time to catch a film I could’ve seen last night, if only Elton John hadn’t popped up and started singing. By contrast to the exuberance of one of the world’s campest stars, Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, as expected, is enough to bring anyone back to Earth with a bump. It’s a hard-hitting drama about how the desperate quest for enough cash to survive has a destructive effect on the family at its heart, with a loving and supportive couple trying to keep their children on the straight-and-narrow, while struggling with low-paid jobs that don’t value them.

One of the few lighter moments of Sorry We Missed You, as Ricky’s daughter helps him deliver some parcels

This is familiar territory for Ken Loach, but it’s notable that unlike his previous film, the 2016 Palme d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, which tackled the effects of the benefits system, this time, he examines the plight of the working poor. Whereas the previous film felt a little like Loach was trying to hit the government over the head with a frying pan, this is less of an attack on the government than it is an indictment of a society that accepts a race-to-the-bottom to keep prices down for everyone, at any cost. And the cost to the family at its heart is huge. After a string of dead-end labouring jobs, Ricky starts afresh, working for a delivery firm – or as it’s structured, working for himself, in a van he’s had to buy himself, to deliver packages for a delivery firm. While there’s good money to be made if he meets his targets, almost anything that goes wrong will just lead to fines that will make it harder to make the payments on the van, before he can even think about saving the money to buy the home of his dreams. With his wife having sold the car to fund his van, she now has to get the bus to visit the elderly people she works with as a carer. The family’s financial problems almost pale into insignificance compared with the growing delinquency of their teenaged son and the desperation of their young daughter to help them keep things together. Rather than the government being the antagonist in this intimate chamber piece, it’s the gig economy that puts its workers last. With strong performances, particularly from Kris Hitchen as Ricky and Katie Proctor has his daughter, there are heartfelt moments as the heavy cloud of despair hangs over Ricky’s hope of a new future. Whether it’s the responsibility of bringing up a family or trying to appease a no-nonsense boss, there’ll be plenty for most viewers to identify with in this domestic tragedy.

Taron Egerton embodies the spirit of Elton John, rather simply doing an impression of him

The next film of the day was somewhat more uplifting, despite its protagonist being an alcoholic cocaine addict for much of the period portrayed. Rocketman follows a young Reginald Dwight, whose newfound talent for the piano provides him with the escape he needs from his uncaring parents. Before long, after renaming himself Elton John, he’s built a thriving career as an international pop star, but with success come the trappings of success – drink, drugs and having the people around you turn against you as they try to piggy-back your talent for their own ends. Dexter Fletcher, who recently finished off the Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody after the producers fell out with the original director Bryan Singer, here turns his attention to another extravagant  1970s British pop legend, struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality and turning to drink and drugs to get through the drudgery and pressures of the everyday life of a superstar. This is the film that Bohemian Rhapsody was trying to be – this looks and feels like a journey through the life of a creative genius, rather than a birdseye view from the outside. Told in flashback, from a group therapy session, Rocketman is a true musical, with Elton John – and other characters around him – breaking into song – his own songs – to help his story unfold. Throwing caution to the wind, they’ve used the songs out of chronological order, so that the lyrics better serve the narrative. As with Bohemian Rhapsody, the real star of the show is the music, but in this case, rather than being a prop to nudge the story forward, it’s used to better effect here, as the skeleton on which the meat of the story hangs. Egerton embodies the star, rather than simply doing an impression of him, which goes some way to helping him make a more likeable central character, ensuring that audiences will find his journey more satisfying. Inevitably, as well as being a more upbeat film, Rocketman has the kind of uplifting ending that will have  you leaving the cinema with a huge smile on your face, humming Elton John’s greatest hits.

Taron Egerton said playingn Elton John had been “borderline overwhelming.”

“It’s an enormous privilege to be able to  tell his story while he’s still alive,” beamed Taron Egerton, who was almost moved to tears during the press conference that followed the film. And this is part a key part of where this film differs from its predecessor. Not only did Elton John survive, but he was around to participate in the production of the film, offering his support to the actors and directors in steering their vision. “There was nowhere I couldn’t shine my light,” enthused Fletcher. The young star of the Kingsman films, Egerton, excels as Elton John – even if at times, his singing sounds a little more Robbie Williams – from the youthful optimism of his early days working with Jamie Bell’s Bernie Taupin to the superstar queen with an entourage the size of a small army. The actor described last night’s world premiere as one of the best days of his life, as he watched Elton John and Bernie Taupin reliving their youth beside him as they watched the film in front of them. He describes the film as a celebration of the singer, but insists they weren’t trying to deify him. “He’s an extraordinary human being, but still a human being.” And continuing a theme returned to time and again in Cannes, the value of the cinema experience over streaming films online, Bryce Dallas Howard enthused about the camp grandeur and majesty of the fantasy sequences by explaining that “You don’t go to the theatre for something you can watch at home. It would be a shame to watch this movie alone.”

Two and a half thousand people watched from inside the cinema as director Jessica Hausner, actress Kerry Fox and others, arrived for the screening of the British official competition entry Little Joe.

Next, I set off to watch the new film from the Spanish cinema legend Pedro Almodovar, Pain and Glory – but I ended up in the wrong cinema and instead watched the second British film in the Official Competition, Little Joe. Coming from an Austrian director, Jessica Hausner, and with a mostly British cast, including Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw, it follows a woman who has doubts about a new flower that she’s bred when she starts noticing changes in the behaviour of anyone who comes near it. It’s a visually striking psychological thriller that’s slow but sure-footed. It was one of those odd spectacles of being the first public screening of the film but not the official premiere, which would come a few hours later – so while the actor and stars were in attendance, in their finery, there was no parade onto the stage, there were no introductions or speeches – only video of them on the red carpet beamed into the big-screen ahead of the film and a standing ovation for the team afterwards.

My second attempt to watch the Almodovar film was no more successful as I lined up for another screening in one of the smaller cinemas. The press-badge colour-scheme controversy played into this one; journalists are ranked by their importance, as judged by the Cannes press office, into yellows, blues, pinks and whites – how frustrating it is as a blue, watching the pinks march straight in, filling up the seats, while you’ve been waiting there for an hour. Still, at least today there was another film about to start in a bigger screen somewhere. I had no idea what it was about, who it was by or even what language it would be in. All I knew was that it was called The Climb and it was screening in the Un Certain Regard section. But having twice failed to see the film I’d been hoping to see, I wasn’t going back to the apartment with my tail between my legs – I was going to hold my head up high and see something.

Mounting the steps of the Debussy Theatre, head slung low, I became even more disheartened when the Cannes food police struck and stole the Coke I’d been planning to drink on my walk back to the apartment. Determined not to let it go to waste, I stood at the top of the steps, drinking as much as I could before slipping through the metal detectors. And once inside, I had my bag taken off me and sent to the cloak-room – another bain of my life, when I’m hoping for a quick getaway after a film. And why do they need to steal your drink from if they’re going to make you check your bag in, anyway?

Michael Angelo Covino said that under the American system, his debut film The Climb should never have been made.

But despite the failure to see the film I wanted and some frustrating interactions with the festival’s authoritarian jobsworths, after Rocketman, this turned out to be the second most entertaining film of the day – and for me, of the festival so far. Michael Angelo Covino’s anarchic tragi-comedy about friendship constantly throws you off-guard. Covino himself plays the central character with so much charm, that even when he’s stealing his best friend’s fiance, you still seem to be rooting for him. It’s anarchic but oddly heart-warming, when somehow, it simply shouldn’t be. Ahead of the screening, he told the audience it was “beyond a dream” to have his film playing at Cannes. Thanking his producers for helping him bring his vision to the big screen,  he noted that “In the American system, this film shouldn’t have been made.” But audiences in Cannes and beyond will be glad that it was.