Love, beauty, violence
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Love, beauty, violence

The Cannes Film Festival pushes female-focused stories of all stripes further up the emotional spectrum

Love, beauty, violence
The Substance.

Last year, the world embraced Barbie and Poor Things, two outstanding films that tapped into the state of female consciousness in the 21st century. At the 77th Cannes Film Festival, which ends tomorrow, women-driven stories of all stripes are pushed further up (or down) the emotional spectrum. A noticeable number of titles premiering at the influential festival feature female protagonists in varying states of joy and distress -- and to varying results. Powerful acting by female talent also injects life and spirit into those stories, hailing from all corners of the Earth.

Whether or not this is scripted narrative in a year Cannes named Barbie director Greta Gerwig as jury president is not the point. The point is the discussion of gender, prejudice and women's role in society remains in the focus of male and female filmmakers.

Two films that bagged the biggest buzz at Cannes this year centre women's ordeals, and may win their leads the Best Actress award.

First, Coralie Fargeat's body horror The Substance, the year's goriest, bloodiest, craziest shocker starring Demi Moore as an ageing superstar who injects a super-serum to regain her youthful beauty. This is what all anti-ageing products promise, but you know this one is not going to end well. The film flaunts midnight-madness flesh-slicing gore, and pushes it to the visual and conceptual extremes, to make a point about beauty standards and women's mortal fear of looking old. Is this a feminist or a misogynist film? The debate will continue for the whole year, I guarantee, but for now The Substance has emerged as one of the hottest titles in Cannes this year (in addition to a Demi Moore comeback).

The other contender for the Best Actress award -- here in Cannes and who knows, maybe the Oscars -- is Mikey Madison in her role as an expletive-mouthed whore in Sean Baker's Anora. Madison bares all -- heart, body and soul -- in a chaotic comedy about a prostitute who sort-of accidentally gets married to the son of a Russian oligarch, a mishap that leads to an all-night madcap run around New York. Baker began his career making indie films about the American working-class (Tangerine, The Florida Project), and Anora has now pushed him into the mainstream. The focal point will be Madison's performance, especially the final scene that encapsulates the entire meaning of her character. We'll get to see it in Thai cinemas soon.

On Becoming A Guinea Fowl.

Other female characters suffer more, literally. In Magnus von Horn's The Girl With The Needle, a poor seamstress in 1921 Copenhagen is brutalised by men, women and society, not necessarily in that order. Shot in black-and-white, this is a bleak tale of high-gruesomeness based on chilling baby-killing crimes that terrified Denmark in the 1920s. At the narrative level, the film follows the downward spiral of Karoline (Vic Carmen Sonne) from a factory girl to an ether addict and distraught mother. But at its heart, the film is actually about violence against women and children. Expect Denmark to submit this film to the Oscars early next year.

Without flying the #MeToo flag, the most #MeToo film in the festival is Rungano Nyoni's strangely moving On Becoming A Guinea Fowl. Nyoni is a Zambian-Welsh filmmaker whose first film I'm Not A Witch is a breakout hit. Her new film premiering at Cannes is set in a town in Zambia during a funeral gathering of a large family after the death of its senior male member, one odd Uncle Fred, found dead as a doornail on a street outside a brothel. On Becoming A Guinea Fowl begins on an irreverent, comedic note but soon, almost without us noticing, peels off the dark corners of a rigid patriarchal society. The film's authentic eye, off-the-cuff humour and respect as well as criticism of African traditions make for a feminist film that is at once melodic, scathing and powerful.

Caught By The Tides.

Teenage girls have a tough time growing up everywhere in the world. In the French film Wild Diamond by Agathe Riedinger, a teen girl in the south of France is so obsessed with her own social media self that she strives to become a person that she is not. She would die to become an "image" of herself as her Instagram followers see her -- a hyper-sexulised, X-rated bimbo -- rather than what she really is -- an innocent child who has no sexual experience. French cinema has never been short of troubled youth, boys or girls, and though Wild Diamond doesn't tell a new story it does capture some truth in the growing pains felt by a lot of young people today.

Likewise, a 14-year-old girl is at the centre of Andrea Arnold's social-realist drama Bird, set around a squat in the English home county of Kent whose inhabitant speak with an accent that can hardly be understood without subtitles. Arnold is an honest poet of the British working-class, a tender, more feminine version of Ken Loach, and her quest to wrench out beauty and hope in the most depressing, sometimes violent spots in England can be seen as either naïve or noble. Bird is not her best film, but it flies you along with the performance of the young lead Nykiya Adams, playing a teenager going through an emotional and physical transformations while contending with her coked-up father (Barry Keoghan, with a centipede tattooed on his face) and a stranger in town who calls himself Bird (Franz Rokowski).

Bird goes from chaotic and reflective, loud to observant, while its grainy, rough-edged 16mm image captures the brutal authenticity of the place and its people. We will certainly hear more about this film in the coming months.

The 24-year journey of a character and an actress -- in this case you can't distinguish the difference, or there is no point in doing so -- is played out in all its simple gloriousness in Caught By The Tides. Jia Zhanke is back in Cannes with this film starring his wife and actress Zhao Tao, in which he combines old footage going back to 2001 with newly-filmed material. From rough DV images to crisp HD, the result is a portrait of a woman spanning two decades -- the film is at once a fictional tale of a character who traverses the drastically changing landscape of 21st century China in search of her lover, and a personal diary which the director has cobbled up in dedication to his muse.

Cannes is known for its celebration of European and American actresses who book their places in cinema history through their films showing here. So it's only fitting that they're also celebrating Zhao Tao, an actresses who has clearly made her mark in film history at Cannes.

Kong Rithdee reports from Cannes for the Bangkok Post.


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