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The Conversation: Cannes 2016 is the Year of the Cannibal

It was a markedly gruesome year on the Croisette in 2016 (including the perplexing awards recipients), with a notable slew of titles playing throughout the official selection dealing specifically with cannibalism. In the main competition, Bruno Dumont’s strange brand of slapstick comedy, Ma Loute, was a metaphor for feeding off the upper class, depicted here as a perverse band of incestuous nitwits. Meanwhile, Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon divided critics with more blunted parallels of cutthroat models in the vacuous cosmos of the Los Angeles fashion scene. In the Critics Week sidebar, Julie Ducournau’s Grave (aka Raw) surprisingly went home without any awards despite gaining the most buzz in the program, and dealt with two university age sisters grappling with a need to devour their peers. And in Un Certain Regard, Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration got an urban up-do of George Romero’s classic Martin, while South Korean Train to Busan grapples with another zombie outbreak while passengers on train try to survive the journey from Seoul to Busan.

But as a theme, predators and prey extended to a host of other films dealing with similar anxieties, many featuring characters who find they’re actually more wolf than the sheep (directly referenced in Directors’ Fortnight winner Wolf and Sheep, the first film directed by a woman from Afghanistan). Alain Guiraudie’s comp title Staying Vertical directly grapples with this, while Alessandro Comodin’s Happy Times Will Come Again features a similar subtext. And then there’s Na Hong-jin’s supremely creepy but hysterically excessive new thriller The Wailing, an uneven genre mixture of horror and comedy. Bogdan Mirica’s Dogs also starts out effectively before fading into an asinine cousin to something like Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, while Paul Schrader manages his best film in years with zany Nic Cage/Willem Dafoe crime caper Dog Eat Dog. Although these parallels are ultimately meaningless, altogether it was a program of incredible social unrest, with many artists choosing blunt shock value over subtlety (will there ever be cannibals who prefer to cook their food?).

On a lighter note, it was a great year for women directors, particularly Maren Ade, who many saw as an unknown entity prior to the fest, but for those familiar with her first two films the excellence of Toni Erdmann comes as no surprise. Despite having some issues, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey is not to be discounted, and it’s refreshing to see two of the three women playing in competition dominating conversations on the Croisette, for once. Likewise, it was a formidable year for actresses, as well, including Sandra Huller from Ade’s film, Isabelle Huppert in Paul Verhoeven’s perverse return Elle, and a phenomenal Sonia Braga in Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius.

Although every critic has their own take away, I maintain, despite some incredible disappointments (Dolan, Penn), a majority of these new works from major auteurs had their merits, and with a few other exceptions (Garcia, Mendoza, Nichols), it was an enjoyable line up, particularly since my top picks, for once, were actually in the main competition. As a side note, I am flabbergasted at the extremely positive reception of Nichols’ Loving—for me, this was on par with the half-baked awards courting social message movie Freeheld in style and tone, and I’m confused why so few want to admit atrocious dialogue and a curiously obtuse depiction of interchangeable black characters ruins the film’s noble recuperation.

And a quick note on the disappointing awards selection from the George Miller led jury. Obviously, films screening in Cannes often enjoy different acclaim or disdain beyond their initial response. It’s an extreme pity to see presumable statements being made through awards, as both the Ken Loach and Brillante Mendoza honors would indicate a wish to honor noble depictions of degradation rather than films or performances actually deserving them. Yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and dissenting viewpoints should always be welcomed and considered. But Maren Ade will live beyond this ferocious slight, and as evidenced by past miscalculated Palme d’Or wins (such as Audiard’s Dheepan from last year—and little did anyone realize how the Coen Bros. jury’s awards would seem generous by comparison), the arbitrariness of awards has made the once prestigious honor of the Palme d’Or as irrelevant as the Academy Awards.

My top five favorite films from the 2016 Cannes Film Festival:

#5. Hell or High Water – Dir. David Mackenzie (Un Certain Regard)
Mackenzie is, more often than not, a highly impressive filmmaker, and if you haven’t had the chance to see Asylum, Perfect Sense, or Starred Up, you are missing out. This heist picture features one of the best performances from Jeff Bridges in years and blends a topical scenario with tropes of classic genre.

#4. Paterson – Dir. Jim Jarmusch (Main Competition)
Jarmusch’s output is usually enjoyable, but Paterson is potentially his most emotionally gratifying film and features Adam Driver and Golshifteh Farahani as a likeable, eccentric couple in a film which many have been describing as ‘slight’ but is anything but.

#3. Aquarius – Dir. Kleber Mendonca Filho (Main Competition)
Sonia Braga, as well as the film, was robbed of deserving recognition. Here’s my review.

#2. Elle – Dir. Paul Verhoeven (Main Competition)
A glorious return for Verhoeven, this features Isabelle Huppert in a performance bound to be referenced for years to come. Here’s my review.

#1. Toni Erdmann – Dir. Maren Ade (Main Competition)
The most worthwhile item of note from Cannes 2016 is knowing Maren Ade will now be able to command international attention with future endeavors. Picked up for US distribution by Sony Pictures Classics (they also nabbed Elle), I can’t wait until I have the opportunity to see it again, in its complete two hour and forty-two minute glory. Here’s my review.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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