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Cannes 2018. Correspondences #12: A Generational Romance and Closing Fragments

The final dispatch from Cannes covers Christophe Honoré's queer relationship drama "Sorry Angel" & offers an overview of the 2018 festival.
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critics Lawrence Garcia and Daniel Kasman.
Sorry Angel
Dear Danny,
Aside from the closing ceremony, the last day of Cannes features a rerun of the entire competition slate in a number of venues across the Palais des Festivals, which gives lingering festival-goers—or mostly just the tired, sleep-deprived press corps—a chance to revisit favorites or just catch up with missed titles. That’s how I managed to watch Christophe Honoré’s under-seen, somewhat undervalued and resolutely blue (in both tone and color palette) Sorry Angel, an intimate queer relationship drama set in Paris, 1993. The setting immediately recalls Robin Campillo’s recent BPM, a film that fervently fused the political and personal in its depiction of the Paris chapter of ACT UP in the early 1990s. But Honoré’s vision is less propelled by political agitation—though ACT UP Paris is mentioned, no meetings are ever on-screen—than by the personal negotiations of queer existence that ripple across its multi-generational cast. Following an invigorating opening credits montage, Honoré’s camera captures urban spaces and finely furnished interiors, picking up on characters leaving and departing, their relationships to each other mysterious and generously open: An early passage glides along 22-year-old Arthur (Vincent Lacoste), from his (ostensible) girlfriend’s flat to his apartment, shared with his (ostensible) roommate, to a sensual twilight cruising session by a parking lot.
In a bit of cinephilic serendipity, a screening of Jane Campion’s Palme d’Or winner The Piano provides the backdrop for a meeting between Arthur (“like Rimbaud") and Jacques (Pierre Deladonchamps), a middle-aged, HIV-positive Parisian writer of some renown. (“A bit too storybook,” says Arthur of the film.) From there, the relationship moves in fits and starts—across well-placed temporal elisions, distant phone calls and florid epistolary text. Although Sorry Angel’s initial efflorescence of emotion dissipates over its considerable 132 minutes, shifting from melancholy to outright maudlin, numerous flashes of pleasure abound, from pleasing planimetric stagings (a luminous nighttime stroll and hotel-front flirtation; a phone call that collapses the space between the two lovers) to the immersive strains of its varied soundtrack (Ride, Astrud Gilberto, an impromptu burst of “Pump Up the Volume,” among others). The image that adorns the film’s poster—of three generations of gay men sharing a single bed—is a crucial one. But the film's essence is contained in what follows: that is, in its observation of one generation slipping away (“We’ll be nothing,” says Jacques at one point), so that the next may have its turn at a hard-won existence; of sorrow blossoming into fulsome, gossamer joy.
Browsing the rerun schedule also offered ample opportunity to reflect on this year's line-up itself, which was notable for the lack of marquee names and thus an opportunity for an entire slate of directors to make their mark. More often than not, however, the relative newcomers failed to deliver: poised to infuse the typically staid, austere competition with sundry genre pleasures, Critics’ Week alums Yann Gonzalez and David Robert Mitchell disappointed with Knife + Heart and Under the Silver Lake; while A.B. Shawky’s debut feature Yomeddine was panned across the board. The notable exceptions, both in the Un Certain Regard section, were Lukas Dhont’s debut feature Girl (which took home multiple prizes) and Bi Gan’s sophomore effort Long Day’s Journey Into Night (which took home none). The standouts of the official selection often saw established directors opting for either considered refinement (such as with Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro and Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Asako I & II) or, in fascinatingly contiguous ways, conscious (self-)reflection: Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White, easily the Chinese director’s most self-referential feature; Jean Luc-Godard’s The Image Book, awarded the “Special Palme d’Or” by Blanchett’s jury; Jafar Panahi’s 3 Faces, which contemplates not just his own legacy, but that of the late Abbas Kiarostami; and even Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built, whose assaultive, challenging vision might have been more productively placed in competition.
Is this evidence of the status quo being upheld? Perhaps. There were certainly a fair share of by-the-numbers art-house offerings (though of varying quality, it should be said): from Pawel Pawlikowski’s accomplished, if unsurprising Cold War, to Kirill Serebrennikov’s disposable Leto and Matteo Garrone’s single-minded Dogman. And the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week festivals offered less than usual to mull on, so discoveries in general were thin on the ground. Worthwhile entries often saw directors playing with various genres, offering either sly overturnings (Guillaume Nicloux’s To the Ends of the Earth and Jaime Rosales’ Petra); daring fusions (Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino); or brazen furtherings (Gaspar Noé’s Climax). But if there's anything that remained consistent across the parallel festivals, it's the fact that socio-political realities seemed to impinge on the Riviera more often than usual.
A film’s politics are inextricable from the conditions under which it’s made and distributed, which ultimately means that the prestige of Cannes offers the highest of stakes. And despite Cate Blanchett’s remarks about eschewing agendas during jury deliberation, the awards handed out on Saturday evening largely affirmed the inescapably political nature of the platform: Apart from the Palme d’Or being handed to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the awards each (arguably) seem to make either a symbolic, if not overtly political statement: from some fine choices (Samal Esljamova's Best Actress win for Ayka, Marcello Fonte's Best Actor prize for Dogman) to some more dubious ones (Nadine Labaki’s Jury Prize for Capharnaüm). Bemoaning the awards choices, however, is an act of futility; often, it’s the relative elevation (or devaluation) of various films for their topicality (or lack thereof) that leaves room for productive debate: Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Sergei Loznitsa’s Donbass fused political urgency with a force of vision worth grappling with; Nadine Labaki’s Capharnaüm and Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, on the other hand, were dispiriting, baldly manipulative instances of subject matter and self-importance dominating genuine artistry. Stéphane Brizé’s passionate, agitative At War seemed to resonate at its premiere, but then to dissipate in the international eye, outside the specificity of French industrial labor disputes. And where does a film like Wang Bing’s eight-hour Dead Souls, a largely testimonial documentary about the lingering effects of China’s anti-rightist campaign, even begin to enter the conversation?
So to return to a question you posed earlier: Is Cannes in fact going on the offensive in its assertion of cinema’s continuing vitality and relevance? The evident range in aesthetic vision indicates something of a necessary defensive step—so it remains to be seen whether a subsequent years will narrow that range in a productive, generative manner, or fall back to established norms. In either case, however fractured and dissonant the Cannes can be—and it often is a dizzying affair in that regard—there inevitably remain glimmers of beauty and art that resonate beyond the immediate festival bubble, bolts from the blue that crackle with implacable force of vision. To borrow from The Image Book: “Only a fragment leaves the mark of authenticity.” So as I depart from the Croisette after twelve days of veritable cinematic gorging, it’s such fragments—the sound of Godard’s guttural voice booming through the Grand Théâtre Lumière in The Image Book, for example—that I will cherish in the months (and perhaps years!) to come.
Till next time!
Lawrence

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