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Cannes 2017: A festival grapples with class, but not all movies are created equal

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Susi Haneke, left, Michael Haneke and Isabelle Huppert on the Cannes red carpet for ‘Happy End.’
(Ian Langsdon/EPA)

Call it Woke Cinema, Cannes-style.

Class issues have roiled European and American public life for several years ‎now, so it’s no surprise that the artists steeped in that life — or even some intent on breaking from it — are pouring those concerns into their work.

But at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, that Brexitian interest may be reaching new heights. Or, at least, breadth. A number of trends are apparent at this year’s edition of the movie world’s most prestigious gathering, which comes to a close this weekend. None are as prominent as the abundance of works about privilege and upper-class disconnection.

As many of these kinds of films have screened at this year’s Cannes than at any edition I can recall over the last decade — and in as many different ways, too. Genre exercises, moral parables, inter-generational dramas, naturalist kid movies — all have had as their theme the gap between working and upper classes, the benefits of opportunity and the toll of its absence. As the Cannes director Michael Haneke told The Times, succinctly, “What else is there to talk about in the world today?”

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But there are fundamentally different angles from which these have-and-have-not questions can be approached. And Cannes, inasmuch as it offers a weather vane for where film is going, points to one very fresh and one very chestnut-y tack.

You’ll be seeing some of these movies in the coming months, so just a quick run-down on some of the most high-profile.

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In Haneke’s formally rigorous, narratively minimalist “Happy End,” multiple generations of a French industrialist family have almost become blind to the working man, a malaise that the two-time Palme d’Or winner suggests creates disconnection not only toward the North African immigrants and other working-class people who wait on them but among each other.

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In Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square” — one of the most talked-about films of the festival (and, as of Sunday night, its big winner)— an upper-crust curator finds himself confronted with the limitations of his own compassion when he is forced to look at the disadvantaged all around him in bifurcated Stockholm; the themes reach their most explicit (and surreal) apex when a group of black-tie types fail to do anything to stop an injustice playing out brutally before them. (This is not-so-subtly also aimed at Cannes’ well-heeled audience — “I love thinking that people in a screening sitting silent in tuxedos are watching people on-screen sitting silent in tuxedos,” Ostlund said in an interview.)

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” meanwhile, examines an estranged Russian couple whose pursuit of their own desires and comforts has led to them neglecting their son, with disastrous consequences. Tellingly, Zvyagintsev last took on the topic of government corruption with his Cannes hit “Leviathan,” here’s it’s the delusions brought on by materialism that are on his mind.

And Yorgos Lanthimos’ horror-inflected “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” finds a perfectly coiffed American suburban couple (Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman) stricken with a terrible plight because of an act of negligence — an act that stands in as a symbol for their general upper-class complacency. The entire film is articulated in a detached tone, form mirroring content.

But for all the merits of these movies (and I’ll admit in particular to being seduced by the baroque genre charms of “Sacred Deer” and the second-person confrontation of “The Square’s” moral puzzles) there is one element lacking in all these movies: members of the underclass themselves.

It’s not that there aren’t any such people in these movies; they’re there, in some more than others. It’s just that, from a character-depth and screen-time perspective, the underprivileged are strangely scarce. You could almost start to think they’re suffering the same neglect that the movies are ostensibly here to condemn. As your Mom always reminded you, it’s much easier to point out a problem than it is do anything about it, and the idea of privileged filmmakers (let’s face it, nearly all at Cannes are‎) making movies primarily about the stratum from which they come seems to be doing just that — merely pointing out the problem.

Taking a view from the bottom, on the other hand, is much trickier. Fortunately at least three Cannes filmmakers have done that. All three, I’d argue, have come up with better works than their eagle-view counterparts, at least on the basic metric of the class themes they’re here to explore.

In Sergei Loznitsa’s weighty social comment “A Gentle Creature,” a woman in the Russian countryside quietly sets out to deliver a care package to her (presumably wrongfully) imprisoned husband and encounters such heavy obstacles that would play as satire if they weren’t so dramatic.

Her fight against the bureaucracy is part Kafka, part “Frantic.” But the indomitability of her spirit is not sentimentalized. Nor are the procedural hurdles she’s up against dissected or politicized or even explained; as one of the many apparatchiks she comes upon tells her, “I’m not an information bureau.” In fact we almost never see anything in the movie that the main character isn’t seeing, which lends an intimacy to a disadvantaged character rarely found in any movie, East or West.

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“Good Time,” Josh and Benny Safdie’s look at a desperate New York man’s attempt to break his brother out of jail, is a propulsive chase movie taking place mostly over one night. The movie has (rightly) drawn acclaim for its performance by Robert Pattinson as the hustling protagonist.

But for all its fugitive conventions, the film is at heart a social-realist tale about the toil of the working man. Pattinson’s character is a bright but oppressed sort who has been given a raw deal, charged with taking care of his mentally handicapped brother with no easy economic way out of his predicament. Again, social forces aren’t identified, not explicitly. And the hero’s struggle isn’t presented for our easy sympathy; even phrases like “dignity” connote a patronizing quality never in evidence here. The Safdies are keen “to make a movie,” as Benny told The Times in an interview, “that isn’t about left or right but about the people caught in the middle.”

Finally, in one of the most lived-in works at the festival — so authentic it feels almost documentary-like — Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” examines a single mother and her young daughter living hand-to-mouth at a rundown motel with other similar incomplete families. Baker chooses not to indict the forces that brought these people here — he assumes the audience will make their own moral accounting — and instead thinks the best remedy, or at least story, is a simple human portrait.

The funny thing is this latter approach is at times favored even by those not taking it. Asked about the dichotomy between these two tacks, Haneke said, “Personally I find a movie from the so-called third world more interesting than the ones about our own [European] countries.” He added, with a note of self-chastisement, “The first world engages in navel-gazing and the rest of the world licks its wounds.”

Or as an executive at another major festival said in response to this Cannes glut: “I’m much more interested in seeing the view from the bottom up than the top.”

Many of these films will come out in the months ahead. Even more of them will influence a future wave of filmmakers; these Cannes titles have a way of getting into the water and changing how everyone thinks.

You can expect a lot of these movies to take on the subject of the underclass. Here’s hoping we actually get to see some of its members on screen.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT


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