Today while walking through the Palais du Festivals I saw Chaz Ebert. She was walking across the second floor, heading for the escalator. I stepped on behind her. We slowly rode it down to the lower floor. She stood in front of me not having any idea who was, of course, but I knew so much about her. She was wearing an elegant caramel-colored suit but her expression carried a slight look of worry — and was it sadness I sensed, or was that something I was projecting onto her. Ebert was always such a fixture in Cannes, long before I ever came here. He leaves behind a legacy, and his wife who now must see this crowded festival in a different way. What a difference a year makes.
Was it last year or the year before when I saw Ebert and Chaz walking across that same floor in the Palais du Festival? Then she was smiling. You never saw them apart. Things have changed here at Cannes in some ways. In other ways they haven’t. After four years of coming here I now recognize so many of the faces of people I’ve seen before but don’t yet know. They are distinctive in that European way of letting nature take its course. In America we try to beat back age.
I saw the face of a woman I’d taken a picture of two years ago. When I’d seen her I’d assumed she was a patron, maybe, or a tourist. She stood out because she wears her gray hair unchanged. She is maybe in her mid 60s. And she’s still a journalist coming to Cannes to work the festival. We see what we want to see.
Last year the Weinstein Co. gave Cannes participants a chance to see clips from some films that had never before been seen — The Master, Django Unchained and Silver Linings Playbook. This year, most of what they were offering had already been seen so the Weinstein Co had to up their game slightly and they did so by having some of the stars from their forthcoming films show up unannounced, Grace of Monaco’s Nicole Kidman and Fruitvale’s Michael B. Jordan.
Media people and other types flooded into one of the back rooms of the Majestic hotel. One well-dressed woman headed for a gala screening later that night was pleading with a publicist to let her in, showing her an invite (someone else’s) on her ipad. There had to be hundreds in that room as trays of champagne made the rounds and guests dined on fried fish, pate, and other sorts of tiny hors d’hourves. It wasn’t particularly fancy but it was a nice break from the usual free coffee in the wi-fi room.
William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is the thrust of Asghar Farhadi’s Le Passe (The Past), which screened today at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Past is the kind of film that leaves you changed by the time the credits start to roll and like everything else in this filmmaker’s style, the credits take their time, disclosing a moment that is as important as every other. Farhadi’s A Separation was among the best reviewed films of the year when it debuted two years ago. That film was about the new and old Iran, about separating from an oppressive culture that could not move forward. The Past is about another kind of separation, how we let go of past loves, how children learn to cope with new families as they pick up the pieces from broken marriages.
Like A Separation, The Past dives in and out of different storylines, filling in seemingly meaningless bits of information until each one is put together like pieces of an intricate puzzle, one that ultimately reveals a vivid truth. The film opens with two people reconnecting after time apart. We don’t know anything about them except that they knew each other once. An excellent Berenice Bejo, displaying ten times the range she showed in The Artist, plays the lost love of Ahmed (Ali Mosaffa) who has come back for reasons unknown. Those reasons take their time to be divulged because Farhadi prefers to have us get to know the characters before we hear of their troubles.
You see a lot of movies and most of them are pretty ordinary. Once in a while you see one slightly above average and it’s a cause for celebration. On rare occasions you see something truly outstanding and you’re reminded why you love cinema in the first place. It’s the nourishment that keeps you going through the day-to-day ordinary. That happened this morning at Cannes with the debut of Asghar Farhadi’s The Past – all the more remarkable because the film comes with such high expectations following the Iranian filmmaker’s Foreign Language Oscar-winning A Separation. If anything, Farhadi has topped himself. The Past is a richly rewarding human drama of seemingly infinite depth and nuance.
The raw narrative material exploring a couple in the throes of a breakup is similar to A Separation, but Farhadi manages to dig deeper and reveal even more nuances of human experience. The emotion of The Past is also not quite so front-loaded as it was in A Separation. It’s a slow burn that reveals itself in layers, almost as a matter-of-fact mystery, each new detail reshaping the complexion of the story and upending your expectations. The pleasures come largely from these subtle turns and to itemize each plot point in an attempt to describe the film would be to ruin it.
How do you measure the importance of a life? Do you look at a man’s contributions to society, his success, his wealth, his prominence in the community? Are some lives worth more than others? Up-and-coming filmmaker Ryan Coogler addresses that question, showing both the troubled side of 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was accidentally shot on a subway platform in 2009 while being subdued by police, and the more hopeful side, a man committed to raising his daughter and living a cleaner life.
Whatever Oscar Grant’s troubles may have been — whether he’d been convicted of felonies for drug dealing, whether he’d been previously tased by police, whether or not he went to college — none of that should have mattered when measuring the value of his life. He was someone’s son, father, boyfriend, friend. Oscar Grant, by all accounts, was a good guy trying to make his way in a world that thought it already had him figured out before he even had a chance to show who he was. Black kid from Oakland? Drugs? You know the score.
The beauty of Fruitvale Station is that it shows what life is like on the other side of the tracks when the police break up a fight between black kids and what they might have done if kids doing exactly the same thing had been white. Fruitvale Station shows what can happen when cops have already made up their minds about you before they even know who you are. Most of White America has no idea what it’s like to grow up like that, to be presumed guilty of a string of crimes before you’ve even committed them. Why else would the cops have reacted in such an extreme manner? Handcuffed, thrown to the ground, never given a chance to explain.
There is construction going on all over Cannes. They are building a new train station at the bottom of the hill. I know because I usually stay up that way and use the train station, and the tunnel underneath it, to find my way. The tunnel smells like urine mixed with cigarettes. This was my fourth year to Cannes and I was planning to show my expertise to my friend Craig Kennedy from Living in Cinema who was coming along for his first ever Cannes Film Festival. We’ll take the shuttle, I told him. It should give us plenty of time to get to the press office and get our badges.
We’d flown out of Los Angeles on the red-eye to Zurich. Neither of us were successful at requesting aisle or window seats so we sandwiched ourselves between other travelers and tried not to sleep. “If you stay up most of the night you won’t be as jet lagged,” Craig had said. I fell asleep two thirds of the way through Psycho and didn’t wake up until Swiss Air was ready to serve breakfast.
In twenty years or so — after we sift through the rubble of three decades of self-help, the fifteen minutes of free-for-all fame, with the Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan monuments to vapid designer-fueled high-living and camera close-ups to catch it all — we might finally see what the milking of our narcissistic tendencies on social networks has done to our priorities. It’s never been defined as brilliantly as Sofia Coppola lays it out right here. While some will always maintain Lost in Translation is her best work, on the contrary, The Bling Ring represents a far more ambitious move for this filmmaker. For once, she has stepped outside her comfort zone of portraying the languid wistfulness of disaffected youth in “atmosphere” films about the well-to-do.
Coppola knows this world well. Herself a muse and model for Marc Jacobs, a famous director’s daughter who grew up among kids just like those in The Bling Ring — the privileged cliques accustomed to being worshiped like gods and indulged like royalty — it is quite something to see her slice that world wide open, split it down the middle and expose the insides. She does this not by criticizing the thieves who felt it was almost their birthright to seek out celebrity homes and rob them, nor does she blame the Paris Hiltons of the world outright. She does it by allowing us to observe that almost no one gets away from this thing clean.