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Of the controversies associated with this year’s Oscars, the absence of women among many of its categories — especially Best Director — have highlighted the inequity of this award’s process. And of the many women creators considered, Little Women director Greta Gerwig‘s omission has often been cited in the media as most egregious one. Nonetheless, the film’s lead Saoirse Ronan, who plays Jo — the sister who writes the book that all is based on – was nominated for Best Actress; Florence Pugh got a Best Supporting Actress nom and Gerwig got one for Best Adapted Screenplay.
When Gerwig emerged on the scene, she was known as an actor but she has admitted that her control freak nature drove her to finally make her own movies. Lady Bird, her first feature, surfaced to great notice and and award noms, proclaiming her as a new face among female directors. So when talk stirred about the making of a new cinematic Little Women (there have been several before this), Gerwig clamored to be the one to make it a reality. It also offered a considerable challenge for anyone to make a new version distinct from those earlier versions.
Author Louisa May Alcott’s classic 19th century novel reflects what is still a very progressive take on young women and their own self-determination. But really, it’s no wonder since Alcott’s own parents were very much part of progressive movements of their own time. And Louisa May’s own life took shape on her own terms; she was an abolitionist, feminist and remained unmarried throughout her life. Her debut novel detailed the life of four sisters and surprised its readers at the time. Her book emerged shortly after the Civil War, becoming a significant text for a generation whose world have been overturned by an overwhelming war.
Acknowledged the tall 30-something in an interview, “I am a Little Women nerd. There is so much of the book that struck me as wildly modern and so important to tell right now. My love of the book was where I began — I read it so many times when I was a girl, but in reading it as an adult I thought, ‘This is even more alive than I had remembered.’ In reading it as an adult I kept underlining passages and writing, ‘Do people know this is in this book?’
Though seemingly targeted to young women of the day, it addressed issues in a refreshingly adult manner and cogent in ways that other such books of the time weren’t for audiences of all stripes. It not only didn’t look down on its characters, it challenged women to see themselves in a new light which stirred strong feminist leanings.
Gerwig added, “My guiding light became was, ‘How do I not change what’s in the book, but bring out what’s already there, and make a film that Louisa May Alcott would have liked?’ I was able to do things like have the publisher say, ‘Frankly, I don’t understand why she didn’t marry the neighbor.’ I know that everyone for all time has asked that question and because of the way I structured the film, I was able to actually have someone say that.
“When I read the book as an adult I was struck by the sections when they are adults because, being an adult, I read them in a new way. They were amazing and incredibly compelling: sister Amy in Europe, contending with whether or not she is a great artist is completely fascinating and interesting; the oldest, Meg, is married and has children and is what you’d consider to be narratively closed as a character because she’s married, is dealing with domestic frustrations, being left alone with her young children and spending too much money and not telling her husband about it. The youngest, Beth is at home alone in her childhood dealing with what she knows is her own [impending] death. I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, this is fascinating.’ And then I realized once those girls are all separate as adults they are never going to be all together again. The thing they miss is already gone. They’ll never get it back.
“I found that to be very moving, and it allowed the thing that they are looking back at and that they are yearning for in some way to be the thing that the audience is also yearning for. It was something that occurred to me also because there’s so much doubling in the book between the first half and the second half. The most obvious one, the initial one that I was moved by, was that, the magic of childhood is [illustrated] when Beth gets sick, she [then] gets better. But in adulthood, when Beth gets sick, she dies.”
The smiling Gerwig told a crowd before the film rolled. “I grew up with this book; a lot of people did. They felt like my sisters. Their adventures felt like my family’s. In some ways, when you grow up with literature like this, it becomes part of your internal life. It’s always been my dream to make this before I even had the option.”
At a special screening where Gerwig did a Q&A, she was asked, in what way did she put her own stamp on the film; how did she “Gerwig-ized” it? “I would say that 90% of the dialogue is either directly word for word from the book or from a letter or journal that Louisa May Alcott had written. If there’s a Greta Gerwigness in it, I would say it’s been the speed of delivery more than anything else. I actually think you’d be surprised. Most of the lines are — even some lines that you don’t think are — in the book, which is the reason I wanted to make the movie. like with Marmee’s line, ‘I’m angry almost every single day of my life.’ That’s from the book. When I reread it, I underlined it and wrote beside it. ‘Marmee’s been angry for a 150 years?’ It was more about pulling things out of the book that I felt hadn’t really been explored fully. And then speeding it all up, because part of the pleasure to me was taking these lines that had been embroidered on pillows and having them raced through.”
As for her incredible cast, she noted in another talk, “What they did was they so tenderly brought each and every character to life. They did that magical thing that you can do [in a film like this] — they make them live and breathe in front of you.
“One of the things that struck me when I was working on it, was how much these women as adults meant to me, in going through their adulthood. The way I have structured the movie is about how we are always are walking with our childhood selves in a way. As a young girl my heroine was Jo, and as a young woman, my heroine was Louise May Alcott.”
Change is a coming, and so it did at the 2018 Cannes film festival. Right from the start the festival felt different: The 12-day festival began on a Tuesday, not the traditional Wednesday, and it ended on Saturday instead of Sunday. This new schedule, coming a year after the 70th edition, has two overt purposes: opening a day earlier will give one more film a red carpet premiere before the weekend, and the festival brass feels that closing on a Saturday night instead of a Sunday night makes the event more gala-esque. Though with two red carpet screenings every night, it seems to me that there’s enough “gala” going on every day. And seriously, when you are at the Cannes film festival, one day melds into another. For those on the ground, there is no difference between a weekday and the weekend.
The second reason seems the more urgent issue: Press screenings of competition films now occur simultaneous with the premiere red carpet screening – or the morning after. This prevents bad reviews (previously appearing before the gala premieres) from raining on the red carpet parade. Many critics went a little wild when this new plan was announced, but everyone got with the program and survived.
Of course, it was 50 years since the events of May 1968 in Paris came a calling in the South of France and shut down the festival. These “events” began as protests by students and workers, and it was several filmmakers representing the French New Wave who forced the festival to close before it ended. The next year, Quinzaine de Realisateurs, or Directors Fortnight, was established in order to give a breath of fresh air to the proceedings. And because of the Directors Fortnight, other sections cropped up, official (Un Certain Regard) and independent (Critics’ Week).
While the festival didn’t seem to do too much to mark the occasion, It did show a documentary, “La Traversee/On the Road in France” made by filmmaker Romain Goupil, who won the Camera d’Or for best first film in 1982 for his film “Mourir a trente ans/Half a Life.” And probably coincidental to the festival, but perhaps not to the 50th anniversary of May ’68, railroad workers demonstrated on the streets of Cannes, with police at the ready.
“La Traversee” is a journey across France to see what ordinary people from all walks of life are doing with their lives, and trying to see how the events of May 1968 brought them to where they are. They interview intellectuals, farmers – oh, and another very ordinary person, president Emmanuel Macron. In fact, they interview Macron over a casual coffee. Goupil and his fellow traveller on this journey, Dany Cohn-Bendit, debate what any and all of it means, and if the changes wrought by the demonstrations 50 years ago still hold.
It is interesting to note that the demonstrations and riots in France were not only students, but also workers, and their rage reached as far as a film festival, which was forced to shut down. At the same time in the U.S. demonstrations really remained with university students. And it would never have closed down a film festival. Coincidentally – or was it? – railroad workers took to the streets of Cannes on the final weekend to protest conditions. The police were at every corner in riot gear, just in case. One wonders about the same images 50 years before.
While “La Traversee” was a very interesting film to watch at the Cannes Film Festival, by chance I was able to see Goupil’s 1982 Camera d’Or-winning film, “Mourir a trente ans” back in New York recently at the Alliance Francaise. While the recent film is not a follow up to the first film, One can see the trajectory of the social structures of France, and also the growth of the filmmaker. In 1968 Romain Goupil was in high school, but became very involved in the revolution that was fomenting.
While Dany Cohn-Bendit, who travels through today’s France with Goupil in “On the Road in France” was a student leader in 1968, Goupil’s mentor in his younger days was Michel Recanati, another leader of the student protests, who lost his fervor, as well as his will to live and committed suicide ten years later. Goupil tells his own story of growing up radical from a vantage point a dozen years afterwards. While he may have a calmer perspective, the energy and chaos of those early years rings through.
And it is a pointed counterpoint to the current day debates Goupil has with Cohn-Bendit in the later film. As someone who came of age in the 60s, and for whom 1968 was a pivotal year, to remember the energy and rage of my youth makes me want to rage against things now – and there are plenty of things to rage about. So here’s to the 50th anniversary of a revolution: time to revolt again.
It’s always interesting to note the afterlife, as it were, of an award-winning film. Some of the Cannes award winners will get U.S. distribution, have great runs and perhaps even wind up in the Oscar awards race come the following year. Others may languish, never get domestic distribution and only get a few more festival slots. It can happen. But right now all the winners will be celebrated, at least for this moment.
Belgian first time director Lukas Dhont won the Camera d’or for his first feature “Girl.” It should be noted that Victor Polster won the acting prize in Un Certain Regard, the section that presented the film. [The Camera d’or award for first feature film can be awarded to a film from any section at Cannes: competition, Un certain regard, Directors Fortnight, Critics Week. Each of these sections has their own juries and awards for everything else.]
“Girl” is the story of a young transgender dancer that caused some controversy for casting a male actor in the lead role of Lara (some felt it should have been a transgender actor, perhaps?), but 15 year old actor Victor Polster won the best acting award in the Un Certain Regard section. So there.
The screenplay prize was shared this year. Alice Rohrwacher (“Corpo Celesto,” “The Wonders”) took the award for “Happy Lazaro” while Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon, “The Circle”) took it for “3 Faces.” “3 Faces” is the fourth film Panahi has made since being handed a 20-year ban on making films by the Iranian government in 2010.
Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida”) received the directing award for his black and white study of artistic freedom, or lack thereof, during the Soviet age in Poland. In addition to great cinematography the film boasts fantastic music that spans genres and generations.
Headed by Cate Blanchett, this year’s jury included directors Ava Duvernay, Robert Guediguian, Denis Villeneuve and Andrey Zvyagintsev; actors Chen Chang, Lea Seydoux and Kristen Stewart; and musician Khadja Nin. The group gave out three “special” or “grand” or simply “jury” prizes leading up to the Palme d’Or, which was awarded to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s extended family drama “Shoplifters.” This story of petty thieves who take in a lost child speaks to what constitutes a family.
As for the rest, a Special Palme d’Or went to Jean-Luc Godard for his latest film (which he claims will be his last) “Image Book.” I believe Godard receives awards now just for being him, so this award could have nothing to do with the film itself.
Spike Lee’s stunning “BlackkKlansman” received the Grand Prix. This is generally though of as the second place prize, and it’s usually awarded when the jury may not be unanimous in their decision for the Palme d’Or. Given that Nadine Labaki’s “Capharnaum” about a young boy suing his parents for divorce, got a jury prize, it may just be that the jury wanted to spread the wealth.
In another nod at shaking things up this year, the Closing Night festivities ended with a concert on the steps of the Palais. Sting was there, as well as Lenny Kravitz. They rocked the red carpet as the jury, prize winners and guests boogied out of the hall.
Some of these films have come out of Cannes with U.S. distributors, some went in with distributors. Others may find deals down the road. Let’s hope they all find a way to U.S. shores, as each is definitely a winner.
In addition to the official selection of films, the Cannes Film Festival has a tribute or two or three. These are small, casual events honoring people in various aspects of the 7th Art. Among the special events this year was an evening honoring cinematographer Ed Lachman, and a program remembering the late Pierre Rissient, who passed away just before the festival began.
In addition to his work as a DP, Ed Lachman is a huge cinephile. I’ve had the privilege of watching and discussing films with him during many editions of the New York Film Festival. On May 18th the Cannes festival presented the Pierre Angenieux Excellens award to him.
Given since 2013, the award is given by the Angenieux Lens company to distinguished cinematographers. Lachman has worked with major directors, including Todd Solondz, Ulrich Siedl, Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, Sofia Coppola, Paul Schrader, Mira Nair, Susan Seidelman, Wim Wenders and Todd Haynes, who was on hand to honor him.
After remarks from friends and colleagues both present and via video and a clip reel (the same one I worked on with Jump Cut Creative for last year’s Gotham Awards tribute to Lachman in New York City), Lachman was presented with a high-end camera lens with his name engraved on it as a trophy.
At the same time, the company gave what is titled ‘Special Encouragement’ to young Chinese cinematographer Cecile Zhang. Zhang is a recent graduate of the Beijing Film Academy and will have her choice of an Angenieux lens for her next project.
In his remarks, Ed summed up the importance of cinematography in the filmmaking food chain. The work of the cinematographer is, he said, “responding to time, space and light.”
I generally fly to Paris for a day or two before taking the train to Cannes for the festival, and my itinerary was no different this year. On Saturday night I had dinner at a French journalist friend’s home. Other friends who were in the business were there as well, one of whom had just visited Pierre Rissient earlier that day. On Sunday night, at another friend’s home for dinner (this time an American filmmaker), we were mourning Pierre, who had died suddenly that morning. His death on May 6, just two days before the festival opened, gave Cannes the opportunity to pay tribute to a man who was instrumental in introducing so many filmmakers to the world through the festival. Pierre was one of those film people whose exact job (at least later in life) was difficult to describe. Film programmer, publicist, scout: He did all of those things and more, sometimes in an official capacity, sometimes not. But he brought untold amounts of filmmakers to the attention of the Cannes festival and therefore to the world, including Clint Eastwood and Jane Campion.
He started out talking himself into a job as a film programmer at the MacMahon cinema in Paris when he was a teenager. He went on to become a publicist - along with friend Bertrand Tavernier. And he developed his keen ability to discover new talent.
I met Pierre at the New York Film Festival many years ago. I’d been working with the festival for just a couple of years so was young and still a bit inexperienced. Pierre had a big deep voice and very strong opinions, but even though we disagreed about a short film that was being shown, he enjoyed listening to me and debating the film with me. I’ve always appreciated that about him.
In Cannes on May 14th, some of his great longtime friends reminisced about Pierre. Thierry Fremaux, head of the festival, Tavernier, and writers Scott Foundas and Todd McCarthey all shared memories. This impromptu tribute was followed by a screening of the 1982 film “Cinq et la peau,” one of two films he directed.
Pierre was indeed a fixture at Cannes. He will be missed. And he cannot be replaced.
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