Malaysian tweens earn their ‘Tiger Stripes’ in Cannes coming-of-age body horror

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From our special correspondent in Cannes – A young girl’s experience of puberty gets the body-horror treatment in Amanda Nell Eu’s playfully rebellious “Tiger Stripes”, the first feature by a Malaysian female director to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. FRANCE 24 spoke to Eu about the making of the movie and its universal message.

A bold and stirring debut feature, “Tiger Stripes” offered an original take on the experience of menstrual metamorphosis – and a welcome distraction from the relentless rain that has dampened the mood here in Cannes.

Its Cannes screening, part of the Critics’ Week sidebar, was met with warm applause from a large and varied audience that included teenage pupils on a school outing.

One student said she saw a “universal message” in the film, noting that “difference isn’t always accepted – in France, too”. Another said it was important that male students saw it as well, though joking that “the boys in the class probably didn’t get the message”.

There are hardly any male characters in this female-centred movie, aside from a sweet but apathetic father and a charlatan guru who takes it upon himself to “drive the monster” out of the film’s menstruating protagonist – live on social media.

“Tiger Stripes” is powered by an exhilarating trio of TikTok-savvy first-time actresses whom Eu and her casting director initially reached out to on social media, owing to Covid-19 restrictions.

From left to right: Feisty trio Piqa, Deena Ezral and Zafreen Zairizal in Cannes for the premiere of “Tiger Stripes”. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Set largely in the strict environment of a Muslim school for girls, it explores the wildly shifting dynamics at play between feisty 12-year-old Zaffan (Zafreen Zairizal) and her two best friends once she gets her period and starts experiencing other, frightening bodily changes that lead to her ostracisation.

Rejecting or taming the “monster” in Zaffan is as cruel as it is futile, the movie points out, in a defiant call to lift taboos on the female body and sexuality.


Can you talk us through the premise of your film and why you chose to draw on the monster genre?

I love to tell stories that are inspired by my own body and emotions, and that’s how it really started. I was thinking about what it was like when I was growing up, with puberty. It’s my weird sense of humour that to me puberty is like a body horror [film], because one night you look one way and then the next day you wake up and things have grown on you – and if you don’t know what’s happening to you it can be quite terrifying. I remember it was quite violent the way I rejected my changes and really didn’t want it to happen.

As a young girl you’re always told that you’re emotional, you’re hysterical. But you’re really going through a lot of things and sometimes you’re labelled as a monster. And so I thought, ‘Let me show a young girl who really does turn into a monster and what a monster really is’.

Why did you opt for a rural Malaysian setting?

I really wanted to tell a fairy tale and in that sense you never really know in what village or part of Malaysia it is. It’s always this idea of ‘once upon a time there was a young girl who lived far, far away’. Of course we have the jungle, society surrounded by wild nature, and I thought that was a nice idea for a fairy tale.

“Tiger Stripes” director Amanda Nell Eu. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

What would you say is specifically Malaysian, or Southeast Asian, about your film, in terms of its setting, themes and influences?

There’s the idea that monsters, ghosts or spirits – we have many names for them – are very much part of our community, and they’re also very much linked to nature. We believe there are many spirits living in trees, in waterfalls, in rivers. That was very inspiring, because I absolutely love the power that nature has. And to have that represented in a young girl was very exciting.

Of course the folk tales, the monsters, even the prosthetics were an homage to Malaysian B-movies from the 1950s and ‘60s, by the Shaw Brothers in particular. Those movies were always very gnarly and strange, and that was definitely something that I wanted to show on-screen.

How much did the film’s young cast inform and shape your movie during filming?

A lot! Of course I wrote the script and had my ideas of how it was going to be, but you throw all that away when you start auditioning and meeting talents. I love that they would always surprise me with their own personalities, their own experiences. It was very important to be with them every step of the way, moving with them, because they have so much energy that they want to unleash.

It’s also very much part of my personality. I do like crazy colours and bizarre things, and my personality worked well with the girls’ energy. I’m so connected to the girls; we could share and open up on whatever we were feeling. When we watched the film together yesterday it was so emotional just looking at their faces.


 

There’s a lot of love and hate between the girls on-screen; was it important to show that sorority is not a given?

I grew up in all-girls schools, so I know the experience where you love and support your best friend but you also really hate her and there’s jealousy and miscommunication. They go hand in hand and I love exploring female friendships that way. That was the balance of the film: to show both love and jealousy, and differences, and how you overcome that and support each other.

Zaffan’s is a lonely journey but it was important to show that you’re not alone if you share your experiences and stand proud.

It’s a universal message?

Telling the story of what happens to young girls is incredibly universal. There are so many parts of the world where women or young girls fear their own bodies or don’t have ownership of their bodies. There [are] people in power always dictating what they’re supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to wear, what they’re allowed to do and how they’re supposed to behave. It’s not just in Malaysia, it’s all over the world.

How does it feel to be the first female director from Malaysia with a feature here in Cannes?

It’s a mixed feeling. I don’t want to be pinpointed as a woman and yet at the same time I represent that voice and I’m so happy that I get to have my crazy voice represented here, because we don’t have that many female directors back home. It has also been many years since a Malaysian film has been represented in Cannes and so I hope this will help pave the way for more films that make it to the international market.

 

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Cannes Film Festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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Cannes’s ‘essential workers’ stage Carlton protest as French pension battle hits festival

From our special correspondent in Cannes – A relentless downpour threw a wet blanket on the world’s premier film festival on Friday, but it did not stop Cannes’s “essential workers” from staging a protest outside the Riviera town’s most emblematic palace hotel – a prelude to a larger rally scheduled on Sunday.

France has been roiled by months of mass protests – the biggest in several decades – against a deeply unpopular pension overhaul that President Emmanuel Macron’s government rammed through parliament without a vote.

The protests, some of them violent, have prompted the local authorities in Cannes to order a ban on demonstrations within a broad perimeter around the Palais des Festivals and the town’s palm tree-lined boulevard, the Croisette.

Opponents of the reform, however, have warned that they won’t sit quietly during the festival – a prime showcase for France and one of the world’s most publicised events, luring visitors and media organisations from all corners of the world.

“Cannes isn’t just about glitter and bling. It’s about workers too, people without whom the festival wouldn’t even take place,” said Céline Petit, a local representative of the CGT trade union, which is spearheading the resistance against a reform Macron has already signed into law.

Having failed to overturn the protest ban in the courts, the CGT found a way around it, staging a small rally of hospitality workers on private grounds, just outside the front porch of Cannes’ best-known palace hotel, whose guests this year include the film icon and festival darling Martin Scorsese.

The protest took place a day after the world premiere of the fifth and final installment in the “Indiana Jones” saga. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The use of a private hotel meant the rally was technically allowed, on condition that the protesters – a mix of union representatives and workers from the hotel and catering industries – numbered no more than a few dozen.

Braving the rain, they unfurled a large banner that read, “No to pension reform”. The glitzy setting, with the entrance to the recently refurbished Carlton in the background, made up for the lack of numbers.

“Hotel staff don’t normally have a voice,” said Ange Romiti, a CGT member representing staff at the Carlton hotel. “This is our chance to get our message across when the eyes of the world are on Cannes.”

No porters, no festival

Macron’s flagship pension overhaul raises the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffens requirements for a full pension, a move the government says is required to balance the books amid shifting demographics.

Unions, however, say the changes are profoundly unfair, primarily affecting women with discontinuous careers and low-skilled workers who start their careers early and have physically draining jobs – the very “essential workers” who were feted during the Covid pandemic.

Without the Carlton’s 680 staff, and the thousands more employed in the Riviera town’s crucial hospitality sector, “absolutely nothing would happen in Cannes”, said Romiti. “But cleaners, porters, waiters, cooks – they’re all exhausting jobs, it’s impossible to keep going until 64,” he added.

The government has also faced fierce criticism over the timing of its reform, coming on the heels of the pandemic and amid a crippling inflation crisis.

“It certainly wasn’t an opportune move, let alone a classy one,” said Romiti. “Neither was it democratic,” he added, referring to the government’s use of special executive powers to get around parliament, despite an overwhelming majority of the French rejecting the reform.

>> Read more: ‘Democracy at stake’: French protesters vent fury at Macron over pension push

“Our democracy has taken a hit,” said the union representative. “It’s important that people keep up the fight and remind the government that this is not okay.”

Job insecurity

The protesters gathered outside the Carlton said the government’s controversial pension push threatened to exacerbate structural problems in an industry that is already grappling with severe shortages.

“Young people are abandoning these professions,” said Romiti, pointing to hiring difficulties. “They’ll be even less inclined to do them if it means lifting mattresses and carrying heavy trays at 64.”

The film industry itself faces a haemorrhage of jobs, said Mathilde, a festival worker who showed up at the Carlton protest in solidarity with hospitality staff. She is a member of the Collectif des précaires des festivals de cinema, which has launched a campaign to raise awareness of growing job insecurity in the industry.

Changing with the times?
Changing with the times? © france24

Mathilde said recent government cuts to unemployment benefits had made life impossible for the seasonal workers on whom film festivals depend, while the latest pension overhaul will make it harder for workers with interrupted careers to qualify for a pension.

“It’s just not worth it to work in festivals any more, and festivals can’t cope without us,” she said.

It’s a message the CGT also put forward ahead of the festival as it threatened to cut power during the 12-day film extravaganza, as well as at Roland-Garros and the Formula One GP in Monaco, in protest at the pension reform. The union hasn’t pulled the plug on Cannes, so far, but the threat remains.

Hollywood walkout

Often described as a celebrity bubble removed from the social context around it, the Cannes Film Festival has a long and rich history of social and political activism – from its pre-war roots in the left-wing Front Populaire to the May 1968 unrest that saw the likes of Jean-Luc Godard pull the curtain (literally) on the festival.

A founding member of the festival, the CGT still has a seat on the administrative board. It has planned another, larger protest on Sunday, this time further away from the Croisette. It will also host a screening of the 1988 documentary “Amor, Mujeres y Flores” (Love, Women and Flowers), about the effects of pesticides on women working in Colombian plantations.

This year’s festival is unspooling against the backdrop of labour unrest on both sides of the Atlantic, with US screenwriters staging a rare walkout.

The Writers Guild of America is seeking better pay, new contracts for the streaming era and safeguards against the use of Artificial Intelligence in writing scripts – a demand Hollywood studios have rejected.

Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

The walkout has been a recurrent topic of discussion during the numerous press conferences in Cannes, with jury members throwing their weight behind the strike on the opening day of the festival.

“My wife is currently picketing with my 6-month-old, strapped to her chest,” said juror Paul Dano. “I will be there on the picket line when I get back home.”

On Thursday, Ethan Hawke wore a shirt that read “Pencils Down” during the presser that followed the screening of Pedro Almodovar’s 31-minute queer Western “Strange Way of Life”, which garnered rave reviews.

The next day, veteran actor and activist Sean Penn described the studios’ stance on AI as “a human obscenity” during a press conference for his new film, “Black Flies”, a gritty drama about New York paramedics directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire.

“The first thing we should do in these conversations is change the Producers Guild and title them how they behave, which is the Bankers Guild,” he said. “It’s difficult for so many writers and so many people industry-wide to not be able to work at this time. I guess it’s going to soul-search itself and see what side toughs it out.”

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‘Indy’ mania grips Cannes for Harrison Ford’s last crack of the whip

A year after celebrating Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” comeback, the Cannes Film Festival paid tribute to another beloved icon of the 1980s with the world premiere of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”, returning Harrison Ford to the French Riviera to the delight of fedora-sporting Indy fans lining the Croisette.

Donning Dr Jones’ iconic fedora, leather jacket, safari shirt and khaki trousers, 39-year-old Marco Vendramini of Italy looked every bit the part as he stood outside Cannes’ Palais des Festivals early on Thursday, patiently waiting for his childhood hero to show up on the red carpet later in the day.

A lawyer by trade and Indy fan at heart, Vendramini arrived in Cannes at 3am after a six-hour drive from his hometown of Padua. He napped for a few hours in a nearby carpark before hitting the Croisette in his Indy outfit, joining other early birds in a fast-growing queue of fans of the world’s best-known archaeologist.

It’s not the first time this Indy buff went out of his way to catch a glimpse of his favourite film star. In October 2021 he flew to Sicily after finding out that the crew were shooting scenes for the film in the picturesque town of Cefalu. The gamble paid off, as evidenced by a photograph of him posing with Ford and other Indy lookalikes.

 

Firstcomers waited up to 12 hours for a chance to see Harrison Ford up close on the red carpet. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

 

“If I can get an autograph on this picture, it will make my day,” he said, holding up a large print of the photo from Cefalù. “If he takes me inside for the screening, it will be even better.”

In Maverick’s wake

The marquee red-carpet premiere at this year’s festival, James Mangold’s “Dial of Destiny” got the “Top Gun: Maverick” treatment with a special, out-of-competition gala screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière.

Disney, which now owns the rights to the “Indiana Jones” franchise, is hoping the world’s glitziest film festival will serve as a springboard for its latest instalment – much as it set the stage for the “Top Gun” sequel’s blockbuster success.

At the very front of the queue outside the Palais, in the exact spot where she stood last year, Cannes fixture Martine said the “Top Gun” premiere – which saw the French air force honour Tom Cruise with a spectacular fly-past – ranked among the highlights of her decades-long love affair with the festival.

The peppy 79-year-old blonde, nicknamed “Sharon Stone” by her friends, also recalled the last time Ford showed up in Cannes, almost a decade ago for a screening of the “The Expendables”, riding a Soviet-era tank along with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other arthritic action heroes who had surely known better days.

“It was an extraordinary spectacle, the Hollywood show at its best,” she gasped with a sparkle in the eye. “Stallone insisted on greeting every one of us before stepping inside – I hope Ford does the same today.”

Honorary Palme

Just like Cruise last year, Ford was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation at Thursday’s gala premiere, and honoured with a special Palme d’Or for a long and distinguished career that saw him play some of the most iconic roles of the past 50 years, from Han Solo in the “Star Wars franchise” to Rick Deckard from “Blade Runner”.

 

Harrison Ford poses on the red carpet in Cannes ahead of Thursday's gala premiere.
Harrison Ford poses on the red carpet in Cannes ahead of Thursday’s gala premiere. © Joel C Ryan, AP

 

“I’m very touched. I’m very moved by this,” he told the audience, visibly emotional as he looked around the vast theatre. “They say when you’re about to die, you, you see your life flash before your eyes. I just saw my life before my eyes.”

At 80, he has described the fifth instalment in the “Indiana Jones” franchise as his final one

“Dial of Destiny” sees Dr Jones come out of retirement to help his goddaughter track down an ancient treasure, even as diehard Nazis – inevitably – get in the way. The film uses de-aging technologies to shave several decades off Ford in flashback scenes set during World War II.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge plays the goddaughter, joining a star-studded cast that includes Mads Mikkelsen, Antonio Banderas, Boyd Holbrook, John Rhys-Davies, Shaunette Renee Wilson and Toby Jones, to name but a few.

The franchise’s fifth instalment is the first one to be directed by someone other than Steven Spielberg, though the veteran director is still involved as an executive producer, along with George Lucas. John Williams, who has scored each “Indiana Jones” film since the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, also returned to compose the film’s score.

 


 

Released back in 1981, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was a triumph at the box office and scooped four Oscars. Its two sequels – “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) – built a legend that has inspired theme parks, video games and a spin-off TV series about Indy’s youth.

Though widely panned by critics and fans alike, a fourth instalment released nearly two decades later – “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” – proved to be another commercial hit, bringing the combined box office takings to nearly two billion dollars.

‘Indy will end with Ford’

Coming on the heels of the “Star Wars” saga, Indy’s runaway success cemented Ford’s standing as the most profitable film star of the late-20th century, capping an extraordinary turnaround for a man whose long-stuttering career as an actor forced him to take up a day job as a carpenter – until a chance encounter with Lucas resulted in him landing Han Solo’s part.

Ford could easily have missed out on Indy’s part too, with Lucas initially opting to give Tom Selleck the role – until TV series “Magnum P.I.” got in the way. That’s how the adventuring archaeologist ended up with Ford’s iconic chin scar and roguish grin, rather than an iconic moustache.

To imagine another actor taking on the role, in the manner of the James Bond franchise, would be absurd, said Vendramini, back on the Croisette. “Indiana Jones is intimately – and exclusively – tied to Ford,” he explained. “The character will therefore end with Ford.”

That day surely isn’t far off. But for now, Cannes and the wider world of cinema are eagerly clinging on to the industry’s most iconic – and bankable – characters.

As one film critic observed after the “Top Gun” premiere last year, for a film industry battered by the Covid pandemic and gnawed by self-doubt, Maverick’s triumphant return was “as comforting as an old leather jacket”. So is Indy’s final crack of the whip.

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Scandal at the palace: Cannes 2023 kicks off with Johnny Depp’s royal comeback

The 76th Cannes Film Festival kicked off on Tuesday with the red-carpet premiere of French director Maïwenn’s historical drama “Jeanne du Barry”, about French king Louis XV’s scandalous relationship with a lowly courtesan, starring Johnny Depp as the monarch in a high-profile comeback that has generated plenty of controversy.

Scandal is a clichéd word in Cannes, commonly slapped onto just about anything that causes a stir on and off the screen.

There are the many sexist scandals, of course, such as the 2016 “Heelgate” controversy that saw women in flat shoes barred from the red carpet. That was followed a year later by the controversial airbrushing of Claudia Cardinale on the official poster for the 70th festival edition.

Naturally, the movies have sparked their fair share of clamour. Four years ago, Abdellatif Kechiche’s sexually-explicit, three-hour-long nightclub extravaganza “Mektoub my Love: Intermezzo” triggered a walkout by the lead actress during its gala premiere. The film has since vanished from the radars, still unreleased.

Other, older fracas are now part of Cannes folklore. They include the uproar that followed the unsimulated fellatio in Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” (2003) or the gorging-to-death in Marco Ferreri’s “La Grande Bouffe” (1973), which saw people spit on the director as he exited the screening and jury president Ingrid Bergman reportedly throw up.

Fifty years on, another Swede – two-time Palme d’Or laureate Ruben Ostlund – heads the jury of the festival’s 76th edition, which opened on Tuesday with the screening of Maïwenn’s “Jeanne du Barry”, about an explosive scandal that roiled the court of Versailles in the 18th century.

It stars Johnny Depp as the French king Louis XV in his first role since his short-lived marriage with actress Amber Heard was raked over in lurid detail during a defamation trial in the United States.


 

Depp, 59, was feted by fans as he arrived at the Palais des Festivals, sporting a ponytail and shades. He spent several minutes schmoozing with the crowd, posing for selfies and signing autographs, before heading up the film world’s most famous red carpet for the gala premiere of Maïwenns curtain-raiser.

‘Impunity’

The film revolves around the king’s tumultuous relationship with his final mistress Jeanne du Barry, played by Maïwenn, a commoner and courtesan whose admission to the gilded palace of Versailles naturally causes an almighty scandal.

Depp signed up for the role of Louis XV before the start of a legal battle with his ex-wife involving bitter accusations of domestic violence that threatened to derail his career. He has since been axed from Harry Potter spin-off “Fantastic Beasts” following Heard’s abuse allegations, though he is a long way from being “cancelled”.   

The US star long beloved of the French has secured a record $20 million deal to remain the face of Dior fragrance, according to Variety last week. He is also set to direct Al Pacino in a biopic of artist Amedeo Modigliani later this year. Still, the decision to hand his comeback movie pride of place at Cannes has inevitably raised eyebrows.

In remarks to the press on Monday, Cannes director Thierry Frémaux defended the choice, praising Depp’s part in the film and saying he paid no attention to the trial. “To tell you the truth, in my life, I only have one rule, it’s the freedom of thinking, the freedom of speech and the freedom to act within a legal framework,” said Frémaux. “If Johnny Depp had been banned from acting in a film, or the film was banned, we wouldn’t be here talking about it.”

Johnny Depp pictured on the red carpet for the Cannes premiere of Maïwenn’s “Jeanne du Barry”. © Joel C Ryan, AP

Although the film is playing out of competition, members of the Palme d’Or jury were also asked about Depp’s presence during their traditional opening press conference. Outspoken MeToo supporter Brie Larson, star of “Captain Marvel”, looked flustered as she took a question on the subject, curtly replying: “I don’t know how I feel about it”.

Depp’s fall from grace is not the only controversy surrounding “Jeanne du Barry”, whose director has been a critic of the MeToo movement, once stating: “I hope men will catcall me in the street for the rest of my life”.

In March, a well-known French journalist, Edwy Plenel of the investigative news website Mediapart, lodged a criminal complaint for assault against Maïwenn, accusing her of approaching him in a restaurant, grabbing him by the hair and spitting in his face.

Maïwenn has admitted the assault in an interview on French TV, without going into details. Plenel said it may have been motivated by articles about the rape allegations surrounding Maïwenn’s ex-husband and father of one of her children, director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”), whom she married aged 16.

Her Cannes curtain-raiser comes just days after prominent actress Adèle Haenel (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), a French icon of MeToo, announced she was giving up movie acting to “denounce the general complacency in our industry towards sexual abusers”. It prompted a group of 123 French film industry workers to denounce the festival in an open letter published by Liberation newspaper on Monday.

“By rolling out the red carpet to men and women who commit assaults, the festival demonstrates that violence in creative circles can be exercised with complete impunity,” read the article, whose signatories include Julie Gayet and Laure Calamy among other prominent actors.

Back to Versailles

Still only 47, Maïwenn already has a distinguished record at the world’s premier film shindig, having won the Jury Prize in 2011 with her breakthrough film “Polisse”. Four years later, her follow-up feature “My King” earned Emmanuelle Bercot a best actress award.

ENCORE!
ENCORE! © FRANCE 24

 

A grand costume affair shot on 35mm film in the Palace of Versailles, “Jeanne du Barry” signals a radical change of scale and style for the French filmmaker, whose $20 million movie was part-funded by Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Film Foundation. Its classicism is as rigid as the court protocol of Versailles, shirking the naturalism and improvisation that characterised her past work.

The film is also bizarrely chaste, limiting the famously libertine king’s last passionate love affair to playful giggles, adoring gazes and the odd kiss.

In a world where “gallantry” and rape are scarcely distinguishable, choosing to be a libertine “is one way of being a woman and also of being free”, says the voice-over narrator early on in the film, describing Jeanne du Barry as a “daughter of nothing, ready to do anything”.

Depp, who was previously married to French star Vanessa Paradis, gives a solid physical performance, though his dialogue is kept to short phrases that help disguise his American accent. Benjamin Lavernhe plays his stoic valet La Borde, while India Hair excels as the king’s daughter Adélaïde, hell-bent on expelling the “scandal” her father allowed into the royal palace.

There’s also Melvil Poupaud in the role of Jeanne’s earlier lover and pimp, the charming and ruthlessly self-serving Comte du Barry, though his and other parts remain underdeveloped in a film that is entirely absorbed with its titular character.

Maïwenn has described the film as the fulfilment of a 17-year dream. She said her interest in Jeanne du Barry came from watching Sofia Coppola’s Versailles-set “Marie Antoinette” (2006), in which Asia Argento played Louis XV’s mistress.

Like Coppola’s lush art album, “Jeanne du Barry” is set in a cocoon, a self-contained world of indulgence, lavish costumes and architectural wonder that shuts out the external world. But it lacks the boldness and inventiveness that powered “Marie Antoinette”.

It also lacks the deeply moving intimacy of Albert Serra’s haunting “The Death of Louis XIV” (2016), starring New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud in an absorbing, candle-lit account of the Sun King’s final days in the palace he built.

A witty, working-class woman hungry for culture and pleasure, Jeanne du Barry is undoubtedly a more interesting character than poor-little-rich-girl Marie-Antoinette. But while Maïwenn’s own fascination with Louis XV’s favourite mistress is all too obvious on the screen, the film doesn’t quite make it contagious.

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How the Mighty Fall: Berlinale is No Longer an A-List Festival Anymore | FirstShowing.net

How the Mighty Fall: Berlinale is No Longer an A-List Festival Anymore

by Alex Billington
March 7, 2023

This has been bothering me for the past few years, and it’s finally time to get this off my chest. I have been attending the Berlin Film Festival (known as “Berlinale” locally) for 10 years, it’s one of the oldest film festivals in the world, and I’m bummed out by how this fest has lost their way and . Berlinale is no longer an “A-list” festival, and should stop being considered one of “the most important film festivals in the world.” They’ve lost that title. They’ve lost their relevance, they’ve lost their importance, and they need to wake up and realize this is happening instead of go on pretending nothing is different. The 2023 edition of Berlinale was its 73rd, the festival has been around for a long time, but that doesn’t automatically make it A-list. Ever since they hired the most recent directors – executive director Mariette Rissenbeek & artistic director Carlo Chatrian starting with the 2020 edition – things have gotten much worse. The line-up has become extremely niche, more obscure, filled with mediocre-to-bad films (and a very limited selection of good ones), which is the key factor in their demise. If they wish to be relevant again, they need to completely rethink the festival.

I believe it is an important part of art analysis to criticize festivals – not just their line-up. However, this is considered a huge taboo within the film community – critics especially are afraid of being honest or critical about the festival experience. We can talk all day about the films, but don’t dare say anything bad about the festival itself – unless their ticketing website doesn’t work. I have been running FirstShowing for 17 years so far, and I have been attending festivals for 17 years as well. My first trip to Sundance was in January of 2007 (driving from Colorado / sleeping on my brother’s couch), my first trip to Cannes was in 2009, my first trip to TIFF was in 2007. I have spent almost 20 years of my life dedicated to traveling around this planet to the world’s greatest film festivals to watch world premieres of the world’s best films. I have seen the industry change first hand; evolving with the times, with good & bad decisions. I have participated in conversations, I have spoken with others in the community, and most agree – Berlinale is no longer an important or relevant festival. They are – and I would like to emphasize this – still a very successful big city festival and should be compared more accurately to the Rome, Zurich, Vienna, and London Film Festivals – not Cannes or Venice.

I also have a deep personal connection with this city and this fest. In 2014, I was invited by Fox Searchlight (as they were once known) to fly to Berlin to cover the press junket & world premiere of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. We had to get a press badge to be able to attend the screening, so I also caught a few other screenings while I was in town. I wrote a glowing recap of my experience, raving about it so much that Berlinale invited me back again as a “guest” of the fest – offering me a comp hotel room. After returning for a few years, I fell in love with the city of Berlin. It was these trips to Berlin every February that convinced me to finally move to Berlin in 2016, leaving New York (I could not afford it on my blogger budget). Ever since, I’ve been attending Berlinale as a “local” and it’s different. Not only do I go home to my own apartment and sleep in my own bed every night, I also don’t have to spend any extra money to attend. Over the years, my excitement has faded watching so many bad or forgettable films. I keep wondering why they keep making bad picks. I see people spending money to come to Berlin and I want to tell them: don’t, it’s not worth it. But I always hold my tongue – many cinephiles do find good films at this festival and do enjoy coming here. I love Berlin and really, if they want to enjoy a trip to the city and catch some new films, by all means go for it.

Berlinale was struggling for years before the current leadership, too. German film critic Dieter Kosslick was running the festival from 2001 to 2019, and while they tried to bring some major films to the festival, they could never maintain any momentum. I remember being at Berlinale to cover the premieres of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2014), Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special (2016), James Mangold’s Logan (2017), Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (2018), Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2020). Nearly everything else at the fest in the last ~10 years has not gone to any major prominence. This German festival used to be a place for major works of cinema to premiere. Did you know all these films were major premieres at the Berlin Film Festival: the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (in 1998 – after first premiering at Sundance), Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (in 2014), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (in 2000 – after it already opened in the US), Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (in 2011 – after originally premiering in Iran), Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (in 2002 – after it already opened in Japan), Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (in 1989 – after it already opened in the US). This era is over, however, and Berlinale is now insistent on programming mostly bland, forgettable artsy films that rarely make an impact on cinema outside of their very small festival runs.

At the end of 2017, a powerful group of German filmmakers published an open letter in German newspaper Der Speigel (read it here) criticizing Kosslick and his leadership. They were worried the fest was losing its prominence and its reputation was dwindling. In their letter, they stated they wanted to find new leadership that could “lead the festival into the future on an equal footing with Cannes and Venice.” Sadly, they failed to achieve this. Under the current leadership, the festival has faded even more, year after year burying itself with its selection of niche cinema rather than making ambitious picks. They hired the wrong directors. I would be very curious to talk to any of these German filmmakers (a list including Maren Ade, Fatih Akin, Ulrich Köhler, Volker Schlöndorff, Christian Petzold, Franz Müller, Margarethe von Trotta, Julia von Heinz, Christian Wagner) nowadays and ask if they feel if the festival has improved. The sad thing is that Berlinale was still somewhat meaningful and relevant when it was run by Kosslick, now they have drifted further from any importance. Among the many reasons they didn’t gain any new ground is a refusal to change anything regarding the fundamental structure or timing of the film festival. The various categories at the fest make no sense, and hosting the festival in February is no longer a good idea – but I’ll get into this issue more later on.

Most of the problems that Berlinale had, still exist with its current directors – Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian. They are wrong for this festival and it was a mistake to hire them. I sincerely hope that they do not extend their contracts, as it will only doom this festival further into irrelevance. Get them out… jetzt! Carlo Chatrian comes from the Locarno Film Festival, located in Switzerland – I’ve been once before in 2014. The Locarno and Rotterdam Film Festivals are both outstanding festivals within the world of cinema, but they’re not right for most people. They show extremely artsy, super strange, very weird, mostly experimental films. They are niche festivals for niche cinema lovers. They are minor in the grand scheme of things. It just so happens that the film critics that love these niche films also work for mainstream outlets, so they rave about these extremely niche films in a way that makes it seem like they’re important. But most people won’t ever watch these films, and that’s totally fine. Let them run as these niche fests, let the films play to niche audiences, but it isn’t worth trying to argue and defend Locarno and Rotterdam as if they’re that important. Letting Chatrian run Berlinale the same as he ran Berlinale is turning it into an unimportant, niche festival.

Berlin Film Festival 2023

The best film at the 2023 edition of Berlinale was Past Lives, which already world premiered at Sundance a month before. The festival’s position in February is becoming a hindrance. They’re right behind Sundance, which is an A-list fest that gets all of the best films; and they’re just a few months before Cannes, with most filmmakers choosing to wait until Cannes (or later until TIFF / Telluride / Venice) rather than premiering too early in February. None of the Golden Bear winners from the last 5 years have gone to become a success outside of the film festival circuit. Stop referring to the Golden Bear as one of the big three prizes – it’s not that major. The top festivals in the world are: Sundance, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, New York, Busan (in Korea). These are the only fests that can truly be considered A-list in 2023. There are tons of other great festivals that run each year – SXSW, AFI Fest, Sitges, Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, Tromso, Tallinn Black Nights, Melbourne, San Sebastian, Santa Barbara, Seattle, Tokyo, IDFA, CPH:DOX, True/False, Marrakech – but none of them are as prominent as the A-listers. Neither is Berlinale anymore.

“Berlinale is a festival where films go to die,” one friend remarked. Another colleague who has covered the festival for more than 20 years and studies German cinema is also tired of the lack of quality and worthwhile films year-after-year. This review of a film in the competition this year includes a line that sums up the fest: “a glum piece which feels like a relic of a European cinema that is no longer really attuned to the times.” Perfectly said. While there are always a few good films that can be found at any festival, much of the line-up from 2020 onward has been annoyingly mediocre, if not downright bad. Why do they choose these films? Where do they even find them? And why are they so opposed to playing better films instead of trying to highlight so much “artsy” trash? Most film critics agree – I spoke to many during the festival this year and they all feel the selection is consistently lackluster, nothing really stands out, save for one or two gems. It has become disheartening to talk about Berlinale without addressing the elephant in the room: it’s just not a top festival anymore. Yes, I adore “foreign films“, innovative indies, and artsy cinema – but I also want to watch good films, no matter where they’re from. Experimental cinema isn’t as good as it used to be.

My main suggestion on how to make Berlinale “A-list” again: move the festival to June or July. And most importantly, get rid of Chatrian as soon as possible. Replace him with an ambitious leader who can focus on more than obscure, niche films that a few people will ever watch or enjoy. All film festivals go through good times and bad times, and Berlinale needs to admit: they are going through a bad time… The best Berlinale experience I’ve ever had was in 2021 during the pandemic. They canceled their in-person event in February, and only let critics and jury members watch online screeners. Then waited until the summer and hosted a series of screenings at a number of gorgeous, outdoor venues around Berlin. I bought tickets to see a few of my favorites again, and a few others I missed, and it was wonderful. (Here is my full recap of that summer event.) It would be so much better if Berlinale moved out of the snowy, cold February timeframe and instead played the best of Sundance & Cannes in June, showing better films that aren’t world premieres, because that is what is most important – getting all the great films. This is why the Around the World in 14 Films event in December is now Berlin’s best festival. They are the ones who show all the best films, not Berlinale.

I certainly expect some critic colleagues to get angry and tear me down for saying this. I also expect the fest to get upset. Though I do think it’s important that the festival reflect on their prominence. If cinephiles want to fly in and see some experimental films, that’s great. However, Berlinale needs to step back and recognize that they aren’t an A-list fest and instead position themselves next to Locarno and Rotterdam. The European Film Market (“EFM“) drives a lot of the buzz during Berlinale – many industry members fly in to schmooze, take meetings, go clubbing, sell films, and maybe catch one or two of the main festival’s selection. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s worth coming to the Berlin Film Festival – there is not much worth seeing there, most of it truly is uninspired and insignificant. Even the best films won’t be talked about outside of Berlinale. Did anyone see Alcarràs? What about Synonyms? Everyone knows showing Tar months after it opened in every other country and celebrating Steven Spielberg with a German premiere of The Fabelmans even though it’s already out on Blu-ray in the US was an obviously desperate attempt to feign some relevance. It won’t help. Until the fest improves, there is a German word that nicely describes the relevance of Berlinale now: egal.

Find more posts: Berlinale, Editorial

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