History in the Forefront and the Background

Never let your guard down in Cannes. Nineteen years and you think you can handle it all. Then: you take a header – splat! – right on the Croisette, spraining  your leg, knee to foot. But at least nothing’s broken; not even your sunglasses or your iphone, both of which went flying.

Just when you have that under control (get band-aids, antibacterial ointment, ace bandage – or French equivalent – and so on) and you can take care of it all without professional assistance (ie, a doctor), you realize your credit card has been stolen and the miscreants tried to charge over $5,000 in a half hour. Now you need the professionals  - that is, your bank. The rest of the festival will be an all-cash affair.

Somehow this intrepid correspondent still managed to take in a number of films. While waiting for the bank to get on the line, there was time to consider themes and trends in what has played in Cannes so far. It’s only the third day of the festival: what can a dozen or so films tell us about the world as we know it?

History certainly looms large, and the Holocaust is never far from our minds. Competition film Son of Saul, a first feature by Hungarian director Lázló Nemes (eligible for both Palme d’or and Camera d’or) tells an original WWII tale of a Jew in a camp who tries to get one murdered boy a proper burial. 

taleposterActress Natalie Portman’s first directorial turn, A Tale of Love and Darkness, screened out of competition, puts images to author Amos Oz’ memoir of the birth of Israel. Portman also plays Oz’ mother, so we see the nation take shape through the stories she tells her son and his observations of his mother as she navigates the new country they are forming.

Politics and world events are the background for Arnaud Desplechin’s film My Golden Days which played in the Directors’ Fortnight. While the film is a memoir of young love and its lasting effect, when our protagonist (Mathieu Almaric is the adult Paul Dédalus) is stopped at the border coming back to France after years abroad, he relates how, as a teenager, he helped Jewish “refusniks” and carried out a dangerous mission while on a school trip to Moscow. The past is present, indeed.

Finally, even a new film that evokes the French New Wave – Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women, which opened the Directors’ Fortnight – has shades of the war (as in WWII) on its fringe. Actually the story of a couple in love who make low budget documentaries. Each has an affair, but they don’t want to leave one another.
Très français, non? The film is in black and white, and there are many shots of characters walking down Parisian streets (which certainly reminds me of la Nouvelle Vague). I may be making light, but I’m not putting the film down; it’s a lovely, light love story.

shadow of womenOh – and the war angle? One of their subjects, a resistance fighter, turns out to have made up his exploits! Hmmm. Sounds familiar? Sounds contemporary? Europeans are still very preoccupied with World War II and with good reason, just as we in New York will be forever linked with 9/11. And there have been more than a few French who want to be associated with the Resistance, since they turned out to be on the winning side. As we have journalists now who want their own modern-day war coverage to be more exciting than it may have been.

Other groups of films will focus on other elements – whether as a major plot line or something on the side. No matter what the story is, there will always be reality grace notes.