Cannes, 18th May 1968: the most prestigious film festival in the world is shut down by a group of extremists, radical cinephiles, led by Jean-Luc Godard.
Cannes, 19th May 2018: the same, most prestigious film festival in the world crowns Jean-Luc Godard with its highest recognition: a special Palme d’Or.
Exactly half a century has passed, and the institution he fought against has now fully embraced him. But did he really become part of what he despised, or is his cinematic revolution still going on? It is unquestionable that the auteur’s latest work is radically different from the films that made him legendary, in the glorious 1960s’ days of the French New Wave. Titled “The Image Book”, his latest work is actually different from any other film: to an extent, it’s not even a film… A collage of images, signs and video clips that he didn't shoot, but rather collected from the internet, with the director’s voiceover outlining his artistic manifesto. Is there a connection between the audiovisual material assembled together? I couldn't find it. I tried, very hard, mainly for the devotion I have for one of my biggest heroes. Yet, the reason behind the ensemble of extremely low-quality pixeled images, often purposefully overexposed and oversaturated leading to a very arbitrarily unpleasant viewing experience, kept hiding away. As I was racking my brain to find a reason for all this, I decided to look for clues around the room, as a student in difficulty during an exam. There were a lot of sleeping people; a journalist, sitting next to me, was snoring. Some other people around were perplexed, looking at their watches, tired of the random stream of clips. Embarrassed glances were flying in the darkness. As the credits were rolling on the screen, a silent audience started to leave the room; no comments, as nobody dared to say something negative about GODard. Once outside, the critic next to me, stretching after his nap, remarked that “it was a pure work of art, Bravo Godard!”. This is when everything started to become clearer to me. The legendary filmmaker is still fighting the system more than ever, still mocking the insincerity of the ludicrous, bourgeoise film industry circus. After all, isn’t it funny to have more than 2500 people, including the most influential figures in the business, wearing tuxedoes and evening dresses, cramming in the darkness for 90 minutes watching some random, ugly and nonsensical videoclips? And the best part is that, at the end of it, no one could even attempt the slightest form of criticism, fearing to be lynched if criticising Godard in the cinematic temple of Cannes. Through this massive “joke”, or experiment, the iconic director just proved that it does not really matter the content, but only its creator, and the reverence surrounding him: in other words, hypocrisy.
To further mock the festival, not only he did not show up on the Croisette, but he decided to hold his press conference on FaceTime; not on a big screen, not on a computer, but on a tiny iPhone, emphasising the banality of modern visual technology, forcing a myriad of journalists to line up in a queue to ask him individual questions. A joke on us, and an experiment that proved to be even more successful once he got a special Palme d’Or crafted especially for him, for a film that is not even a film.
Godard aside, the 71st edition of the French festival presented some incredible pieces of cinema. The Palme d’Or for best film went to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters”, a tender film about an underprivileged Japanese family; the story’s powerful simplicity, filmed on location and centred on the economic and moral dilemmas of the poor characters, could be considered Asiatic neorealism. Marcello Fonte won the Palm for best performance in Dogman, Matteo Garrone’s original thriller on the loneliness of a weak, defenseless man. A totally deserved award for an unknown actor who, in a standard film, would just be a side character. But Garrone makes an entire feature on him, on the everyday struggles of a basic, realistic man, far from any cinematic heroes and antiheroes, who doesn't bear anything extraordinary but his genuine concerns towards the harsh world that surrounds him. The essence of the film mirrors the actor’s condition, who, before winning the Palme d’Or, was completely ignored, hired as a keeper in a theatre. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” won the Grand Prix, an extremely entertaining and yet very reflective piece about an Afro-American cop infiltrating into the Ku Klux Klan. Best Director was assigned to the Polish Pawel Pawlikowski for “Cold War”, where he tells an impossible love story confirming his unique, impacting stylistic touch, after his Oscar-winning film “Ida”. The most addictive film is the Jury Prize winner “Capernaum”, from the Lebanese female director Nadine Labaki; an extremely intense tale about a child suing his parents for giving him life, with the 13-year-old actor whose performance would make Robert De Niro jealous. This year festival had also space for more commercial productions, such as the disappointing preview of Star Wars’ “Solo” and Nicholas Cage’s ultimate flick “Mandy”, where the once-A-lister unleashes all his renown overacting, leading to a hilarious slasher film.
Yet, the most important event of the festival was not even “Grease” 40th anniversary screening attended by John Travolta himself, but the premiere of Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”. Considered the most cursed film production in history, the visionary director spent almost 30 years in the making & unmaking of the film. Because of the infinite number of misfortunes happened on set in 2000, Gilliam was forced to abort the project in the middle of the shooting. But he did not give up. The misadventures never stopped, culminating with last month’s trial about the film’s ownership and finally a heart attack a week before the premiere. Just like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Gilliam did not stop in front of anything, following his passion as the rest of the world was laughing at his epic, failing enterprise. True, after all, the film is not mesmerizing, but rather repetitive and not that exhilarating. Maybe after all these years, the expectations are too high. However, it acquires a completely different depth if perceived as a metaphor mirroring Quixote and Gilliam’s situations: two old crazy men, fighting against all odds, pursuing their ideals. Where the film is not just 2 hours of moving images, but 30 years of efforts and dedication, when it does not end with the credits on screen, but rather with the director’s tears of joy, as he sits at the premiere whispering: “It’s over”.
It was the conclusion of his everlasting nightmare, where if anything could have gone wrong, it did. But at the end, he succeeded, proving us that it is worth fighting the giants, even if for the others they are just simple windmills. After all, aren’t all auteurs a bit Quixote? This was the festival of belief, each filmmaker fighting against his/her own giants; people succeeding over everyone who was laughing at them. I believe that this is also Godard’s feeling about it, now probably playing with his iPhone in his Switzerland house. Perhaps with a subtle smile of accomplishment hidden below his cigar, as he waits for his Palme d’Or to be delivered, with nonchalance.