There was a static charge in the air at the Cannes Film Festival this year, the currents of change as perceptible as any electrical shock. The first predominantly female Competition jury since 2014, a red-carpet stand-in demonstration from 82 legends of the industry protesting the disproportionate representation of men in the festival’s selection (just three films in competition were by female directors), the fliers informing attendees of the sexual harassment hotline to be dialed in the event of anything untoward — it all contributed to a sense of agreeable political upheaval. It was borne out once more by a fiery speech from Asia Argento, delivered as the festival closed on Saturday, condemning Harvey Weinstein while warning his sympathizers. ‘In 1997, I was raped by Harvey Weinstein here at Cannes. I was 21 years old’, she said. ‘This festival was his hunting ground.’
But when the Cate Blanchett-led jury took the stage at the Lumiere Theatre on Saturday evening to announce the recipients of this year’s awards, the Palme d’Or did not go to one of the few Competition films with a woman behind the camera, or even a film organized around a timely subject. Many of their other picks followed these through-lines: Alice Rohrwacher shared the Screenplay prize for her off-beat Happy as Lazzaro and Nadine Labaki took the third-most-prestigious Jury Prize for her drama Capharnaum, while Spike Lee’s incendiary BlacKkKlansman picked up the second-place Grand Prix.
But it was Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, an expertly realized, deeply moving portrait of a makeshift family of small-time grifters making do along the margins of their society, that came out on top. While certainly not undeserving, the pick still came as a surprise to many spectators, if only because past juries have erred on the side of films with messages in all-caps bold print. Last year’s Palme winner, Ruben Östlund’s The Square tackled the whole of modernity, from clickbait to safe spaces, and the year before, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake took the bureaucracies of the UK government to task on behalf of the little guy. Kore-eda’s latest, by contrast, was described by some critics as ‘light,’ not as a slight against the film but more as an objective assessment of its gentle tone and humble ambitions.
Kore-eda returns to two of his oeuvre’s guiding themes with this masterstroke, pushing his compassion for the bonds connecting parents to children and his policy of patient understanding for a flawed lower class to new heights of pathos. Osamu (Lily Franky) and Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) are barely getting by with assorted quick-dollar hustles, but when they happen upon the young Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) alone and defenceless, they can’t deny her a hot meal and a bed. This act of unalloyed kindness throws Osamu and Nobuyo’s patchwork household into disarray, mostly via the police and the girl’s parents, both of whom have some rather unfriendly questions about why Yuri has seemingly been abducted. Through what might sound like a high-glucose melodrama on paper, Kore-eda maintains careful control over the touchy-feely quotient, using restraint to make the ultimate fate of Yuri and her surrogate clan all the more bruising.
The jury’s unprecedented choice to award a ‘Special Palme’ to Jean-Luc Godard for his unclassifiable, genre-busting video essay The Image Book was an early hint of a commitment to art for its own sake. But the off-beat Kore-eda pick sent a powerful if possibly unintentional message that mastery of craft and cinematic effect still trumps commentary-bandying. Kore-eda’s film is great for all the usual, unsexy reasons: purposeful, subtle direction from an artist with an eye for economical composition; remarkably naturalistic acting from no fewer than six members of the cast, two of whom happen to be non-professional children; a minimal score plucked on an acoustic guitar that might as well be strung with heart tendons. He hasn’t forged a thundering statement of fearless truth-to-power urgency. He has merely made an excellent film that utterly mangles the emotions of all who sit through it.
Without fail, every single year brings grumbles from someone or other that such-and-such a movie got ‘robbed,’ and this year will be no different. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning set a new record on Screen Daily International’s critical grid with a score of 3.8 out of 4 aggregated across the board of ten critics, and yet left the Palais des Festivals empty-handed. But it’s tough to argue against this year’s victor (which came second in the Screen Daily International’s poll with 3.2), so immediately pleasing in its serenity and empathy, so richly deserving in Kore-eda’s evident mastery of form. He’s made a film about wayward souls grasping for a little wisp of love, a film that opens up its own heart just as willingly. It asks only that you love it back.
Main image: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Shoplifters, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Cannes Film Festival