Cannes round-up: Few stars on the red carpet, but gems aplenty on the big screen

Cannes round-up: Few stars on the red carpet, but gems aplenty on the big screen © Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival | A still from Jia Zhangke‘s “Ash is Purest White”.

It was a dismal year for the red carpet photographers, but the 71st Cannes Film Festival gave us strength in depth on the big screen – and a wide-open race for the Palme d’Or.

’ unique balance of glamour and art house cinema swung heavily in favour of the latter this year, as the race for the Palme d’Or produced a slew of excellent films but stars deserted the Croisette. Festival organisers have long been accused of running an old boys’ club stuffed with familiar faces. This time they opted for a bold selection with plenty of newcomers (but still few female directors), and the gamble paid off for critics but not for the star gazers.

For the all-important red carpet photographers, this was a dismal year only partly redeemed by the premiere of Star Wars spin-off “Solo”, which brought Chewbacca and a phalanx of stormtroopers onto the crimson walkway. They soon tired of shooting fashion models and social media starlets, for want of movie stars. Hollywood studios are increasingly shunning the Croisette (because May is bad timing for the Oscar race and their films get panned here anyway). This is a problem for the world’s premiere film festival, since Cannes is as much about the red carpet as the films.

Storm troopers stand guard during the premiere for “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Some blamed the lack of stardust for dampening the nightlife too, though John Travolta tried his best to pump up the party by showing up for a special 40th anniversary screening of “Grease” at the festival’s beach cinema. Travolta also danced on stage with rapper 50 Cent, only for merciless critics to mock his “dad moves” and trash his new mobster biopic “Gotti” (which took almost a decade to make and boasts no less than 29 executive producers on its final cut).

None of this was of concern to the film critics, who mostly revelled in the rich and diverse line-up of films competing for the Palme d’Or. As always, many revolved around tales of conflicted and disappointed love. In his beautiful , Poland’s Pawel Pawlikowski gave us a bittersweet romance thwarted by stubborn egos and iron curtains, while in Christophe Honoré’s , it was disease that kept two lovers apart.

Joanna Kulig (left) and Tomasz Kot (right) walk the red carpet with “Cold War” director Pawel Pawlikowski. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

There was plenty of off-screen politics as two directors – Iran’s Jafar Panahi and Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov – were barred from travelling to the French Riviera by their respective governments. Symbolically, their chairs in the Grand Théâtre Lumière were left empty during the screenings of and . External factors also conspired to politicise the festival’s opening night when the screening of , by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, was overshadowed by Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the landmark Iran nuclear deal.

On the big screen, the US president was the target of deliberately unsubtle jabs in Spike Lee’s uproarious satire , based on the extraordinary true story of a black detective who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. In the competition’s other overtly political film, French director Stéphane Brizé had another go at market forces and the neoliberal order in his angry shoutfest , about a French factory strike.

On this anniversary year of the May 68 protests in France, it was also deeply moving to see film legend Jean-Luc Godard – who famously helped scupper the festival 50 years ago – return to the competition with his latest cinematic essay, . Inevitably, his challenging collage of bleached-out and brutally cut fragments from film, painting, newsreels and even propaganda videos, touching on violence, the Arab world and our culpability as passive mass consumers of images, was a darling of the critics.

In this first edition since the #MeToo movement, Cannes’ jury president Cate Blanchett led an impressive by 82 female film stars and executives on the red carpet – matching the paltry number of female directors who have climbed the famous steps since the festival’s first edition back in 1946 (as opposed to 1,688 men). Sadly, that stirring display was followed by the screening of the festival’s only real dud, Eva Husson’s , a naïve and melodramatic homage to a band of Kurdish women’s epic fight against the Islamic State group.

Golshifteh Farahani hits the red carpet for the Cannes premiere of “Girls of the Sun”. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Husson’s film was rightly credited for introducing that rarest of things: a war movie by a woman in which women do the fighting. Her film also has an eye for female-specific suffering in a world dominated by men. But it was films like Jia Zhangke’s , Sergey Dvortsevoy’s “Ayka”, and Panahi’s “Three Faces” that delivered the most powerful tales of female defiance and resilience. One of several very strong entries from Asia, Jia’s latest ambitious meditation on China’s brutal transition to capitalism was a deeply moving tale of disappointed love and female courage.

Male anger and insecurity were also widely treated, as in Matteo Garrone’s desperately bleak , about a gentle dog groomer who is dragged into a hellish spiral of crime, punishment and vengeance (naturally, the film’s extraordinary canine cast picked up the annual Palm Dog award). Class-based rivalry between men was at the heart of Lee Chang-dong’s marvellous “Burning”, in which a demure country boy faces a losing battle with a handsome, suave and sophisticated “Korean Gatsby” who has snatched his girlfriend.

was the critics’ favourite for the Palme d’Or, along with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters”, an exquisitely tender take on poverty, child abuse and family ties. But the critics rarely get it right, and there was more social media buzz around Nadine Labaki’s earnest and heartfelt , set in the slums of Beirut, which mined similar themes but without Kore-eda’s subtle touch. Should the Lebanese filmmaker clinch the top prize, she would become only the second female director to do so in the festival’s 71-year history.