CANNES, France, May 22, (Agencies): Elvis Presley’s car has broken down and a cowboy’s career is over. In the days of Donald Trump, movies showing at the Cannes festival are taking a long, hard look at the American Dream.
Film-makers from France to China — as well as at home — are finding fertile ground in a country whose politics is itself a daily drama.
In “Promised Land”, a documentary almost as brash and bold as the US president, award-winning film-maker Eugene Jarecki takes a road trip around America in a gleaming 1963 Rolls-Royce once owned by the king of rock ‘n’ roll.
For Jarecki, who saw the film premiere to strong reviews at the world’s biggest film festival this weekend, there is no better metaphor for America than Elvis’ demise from global sex icon to a tubby Las Vegas performer who died on the toilet.
“America had become a fat Elvis,” the leftwing US director told AFP. “We had been beautiful once, and we rose to a height too young too fast.”
Part music documentary and part blistering indictment of the state of the nation, “Promised Land” was shot during the 2016 presidential campaign.
It sees a series of interviewees reflect on America’s problems, from working-class residents in Presley’s Mississippi hometown to Public Enemy rap star Chuck D and actors Alec Baldwin, Ashton Kutcher and Ethan Hawke.
Trump looms large over the film, which intersperses footage of the then-candidate with performances from musicians crammed into the car as it trundles around the country. The symbolism is lost on no one when the handsome Rolls breaks down on the road.
Jarecki has spent years interviewing people warning that America was broken, but he is not the only director at Cannes to tackle life on the margins.
French film-maker Vladimir de Fontenay was inspired by his own US road trips to make “Mobile Homes”, the tale of a young mother and son who live between motels on the Canadian border and unoccupied houses that they break into to sleep.
The idea of America as a land of opportunity is stripped bare. The eight-year-old boy in the film, named Bone, is never at school; his education consists of his mother, played by British actress Imogen Poots, teaching him to flee diners without paying the bill.
In “The Rider”, director Chloe Zhao also paints a picture of insecurity as she follows aspiring rodeo stars in Trump-voting South Dakota.
Brady — played by real-life cowboy Brady Jandreau — is a talented bucking bronco rider who faces giving up his dreams for a job at a supermarket checkout after suffering a near-fatal accident. At home is a father who drinks and gambles, frittering away cash that could otherwise be used to support his mentally-disabled sister.
Zhao calls herself “as liberal as a person can get” but said she wanted to use a personal story to show a different side of a US heartland demonised for backing Trump.
“Brady and a lot of young cowboys did not vote for Trump, but their parents did,” the Beijing-born director told AFP. “Some of the most hard-working, generous people I’ve met in my whole life didn’t really want to vote for him, but did.
“My calling is to step onto the other side and humanise and portray the struggles of many Trump voters,” she said, adding she has “a lot of compassion” for rural and rustbelt Americans who feel their identity is slipping away from them.
Zhao’s America is far away from what she called the “white picket fence” ideal, but she rejects the idea that her film shows a country without hope.
One of her characters, she points out, is a cowboy friend of Brady’s who has been paralysed after his own riding accident — yet insists he will one day return to the saddle.
“What I love about America is not necessarily the American dream but the fact that there’s so much spirit of fighting to continue to dream once the dreams are broken,” Zhao said.
Jarecki too, while describing Trump as “a monster at the helm”, said there was reason for hope.
“Trump is a cry for help by America,” he told AFP.
“It’s only been a hundred days and this guy has been torn apart by the press, by everyday people showing up at town hall meetings, by protests of hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The courts have stood up to Trump.
Michael Haneke is up to his old tricks in “Happy End,” a movie that finds the chilly Austrian maestro returning to obsessions that have haunted his earlier work — from cultural nihilism to bourgeois solipsism, cold-hearted murder to compassionate end-of-life solutions — and in at least one case, continuing a story left unresolved in his previous film, “Amour.”
Although it reunites Jean-Louis Trintignant and Isabelle Huppert in uncannily similar father-daughter roles, “Happy End” hardly qualifies as an “Amour” sequel. In fact, if there weren’t already a film called “Loveless” in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, that would have made an apt title for Haneke’s latest. Certainly, there’s almost no trace of the humane, empathetic sensibility that somehow snuck its way into “Amour” to be found here — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering the director spent most of his career spelunking the ice caves of his own cynicism, successfully unsettling us with what he found there.
Audiences not already familiar with the demands of Haneke’s more misanthropic work could be put off, if not entirely confounded as the director returns to his austere conceptual roots, reuniting with DP Christian Berger — whose rigid formalism set the look of “Cache” (2005) and “The White Ribbon” (2009) — to catalog this new family’s dysfunction at a distance, all but announcing that their sins are those of Europe at large (another similarity with Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” which did the same for Russia).
For Haneke’s longtime admirers, it will come as no surprise to learn there are no happy endings ahead for the Laurent clan. Let it also be said, however, that nothing so grim as the climactic group suicide of “The Seventh Continent” (1989) awaits them either — although the downbeat implication remains that malcontent Europeans might be better off dead than living in such a screwed-up world as this.
That seems to be the view of bitter 84-year-old Laurent family patriarch Georges (Trintignant), who snuffed his own wife some years earlier and now seems eager to join her (his idea of a happy end?). Georges finds no comfort in sharing his Callais home with his two avaricious children, manipulative real-estate developer Anne (Huppert) and twice-married doctor Thomas (Mathieu Kassowitz), but can’t find anyone to assist his exit — until, conveniently enough, the ideal (yet horrifyingly inappropriate) candidate arrives at his doorstep.
Georges’ desire for euthanasia is but one of many thorny themes under scrutiny here, several of which extend beyond the Laurents’ generally selfish personalities to include the plight of local immigrants, from the “Moroccan slaves” who serve the family to the nameless Africans they pass on the street — echoes of “Code Unknown” (2000). Depending on how you see it, Haneke’s new film is either a “been there, done that” rehash of old themes or an exciting return to form, demanding real effort from already sophisticated festival and art-house crowds as they attempt to untangle the cinematic equivalent of the ultra-tricky Saturday crossword puzzle. Either way, “Happy End” amounts to a complex, minutely detailed mystery in which every member of the Laurent household contributes to the movie’s almost suffocating sense of malaise.
Our discomfort begins with a series of lo-res Instagram Live-style videos. In the first, someone spies on a woman’s predictable nightly toilette routine, after which a twisted kid tries an experiment on the family hamster, feeding it mom’s antidepressant pills to see what happens (hint: the American Humane Society would not approve). After nearly six minutes of such clips, Haneke cuts to security-camera footage of a massive construction site, which seems calm enough until a freak accident brings one of the walls crumbling down on top of the workers below.