Docs at Cannes: Review Round-up

The Image Book

By Pat Mullen

This week’s “What’s Up, Doc?” series is a special Cannes edition! The glitzy festival doesn’t offer enough documentaries to merit a flight to France, so we rely on the good words of the critics who see the films in contention for the L’OEil d’Or. 17 documentaries compete for the non-fiction prize at Cannes this year, including Jean-Luc Godard, the unseen villain of last year’s L’OEil winner, Faces Places. It says so much about the growing stagnation of the festival that Godard’s latest feat of cinematic ranting (based on what we read) is the only doc in competition for the Palme d’Or. Cannes rarely lets docs compete in the main competition—even Agnes Varda had to settle for an out of competition slot for Faces Places.

The other docs in competition this year include a promising portrait of Orson Welles, not one but two Ingmar Bergman documentaries, a Pope profile that has few critics singing “Hallelujah!”, and an eight-hour endurance test from Wang Bing. Upcoming films include a new Whitney Houston doc from Oscar winner Kevin McDonald (Marley) and Susan Lacy’s Jane Fonda doc.

Here’s a round-up of what critics are saying about docs on the Croisette:

The Image Book (Le Livre d’Image)

Dir. Jean-Luc Godard | Official Competition

John Bleaside, Cinevue
As the old saying goes, there’s a lot that’s new and interesting in Godard’s The Image Book. Unfortunately, what is new isn’t interesting and what’s interesting ain’t new…But this finger-wagging has been going on ever since Le Chinoise in 1967, to diminishing returns.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
It is bewildering. I’m not sure I understood more than a fraction and of course it can be dismissed as obscurantism and mannerism. But I found The Image Book rich, disturbing and strange.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety
In the ’60s, he made real movies, even if he insisted, almost from the start, on fragmenting them into academic baubles. The fragmentation then took over, and the pretense that Godard was “purifying” cinema by converting it into a playground for allusive brainiacs become more and more annoying…Speaking to us on the soundtrack, in a voice that’s now so low and sonorous and croaky with import that he sounds like Charles Aznavour crossed with Gollum, the 87-year-old Godard says, “War is here.” He means that it’s here, and also that it’s coming.”

Jason Gorber, Dork Shelf
So consider this a near ringing endorsement that this author didn’t hate The Image Book, meaning of course that those that only revel in his anti-audience works may find this a softened version of his usual onslaught and thus not a major addition to his oeuvres. Sure, for the casual audience this is still poison, yet as a kind of rambling journal entry that incorporates a myriad of film clips, some traditional Godardian stylizations and an apparent fascination with terrorism, we’re at least treated to a concise (under 90 minutes!) incorporation of much of what the filmmaker has stood for in his latest period.

Kevin Maher, The Times
It’s not often that a film provokes a spontaneous round of applause before it even begins (especially here in Cannes, home of the world’s most vociferous critics). And yet such is the depth of love and respect for the 87-year-old French maestro Jean-Luc Godard that his new film, The Image Book, in this year’s Cannes competition, almost brought the house down before the first frame of film had flickered into life. Which is nice. Because everything after that was close to unmitigated agony…

Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
Following his most recent full-length works, Goodbye to Language and Film Socialisme, this one consists entirely of pre-existing footage — clips from fictional films mixed with mostly brutal documentary and news reportage — with a layover of music and mordant commentary from Godard himself. As with his previous idiosyncratic, often inscrutable late works, this will be seen only by a highly select audience of dedicated Godardians, and genuinely liked by just a fraction of those; one can essentially name them. [Note: the Cinema Scope review was not yet online.]

Rory O’Connor, The Film Stage
What contradictions. What ego. Yet there is something quite reassuring about the fact that — infuriating as it sometimes may be — he has not lost that particular passion nor that roving eye, and that maybe, though he might not admit it, that love of images, too. Godard certainly ends Le Livre d’Image with a moment worthy of such love; he even cuts the audio for full effect. It’s an old black-and-white film of a group of buoyant dancers, one of whom falls to the floor at the end either from exhaustion or ecstasy — an image to make you feel something, perhaps. Sometimes cinema is just that simple.

Barbara Scharres,
Godard is one of the few directors today who has truly created art with the technology of surround sound. Just as he repurposed 3-D in Goodbye to Language, in The Image Book he has composed and mixed his soundtrack to play with the entire capacity of the surround sound system as no director has ever done before. His narrating voice crosses stereo channels, left, center and right, booms out of the surround speakers at the back of the theater, and speaks to itself in intricate overlays. He plays with volume and aural shading. Like whack-a-mole, sounds and voices can jump out from any part of the theater. This movie magician never loses his power to challenge and confound. The Image Book is a film that can be analyzed minutely for hidden meanings, or it can be enjoyed as a barrage of sound and image meant to wash over the senses.

Stephanie Zacharek, Time
If you’ve ever wondered what Jean-Luc Godard’s Pinterest board would look like, The Image Book, playing in competition here in Cannes, will give you some idea. At this point, it feels wrong to call the 87-year-old Swiss-born Godard, perhaps the crankiest of all the fathers of the New Wave, a living legend…Godard the cracked genius, old but still vital, and still very, very strange, has gone rummaging around in the jumble of his mind’s basement, and this is what he has come up with. This isn’t a warm film—it’s like a Chris Marker documentary-essay without soul.

The State Against Mandela and Others

Dir. Nicolas Champeaux, Gilles Porte | Special Screenings

Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter
The State Against Mandela and the Others adds little essential to the vast library of documentaries about Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle. All the same, this is a heartfelt, humane and visually inventive tribute to a fading generation of giants whose principled sacrifices ended up changing history. Several interviewees, including Ahmed Kathrada and Winnie Mandela, died before the film was completed. Which only adds extra poignancy to the closing scene, a face-to-face reunion of Rivonia trial survivors, a kind of Buena Vista Socialism Club replaying their greatest hits one last time before the final curtain falls.

Allan Hunter, Screen
The real coup for The State Against is access to the 256 hours of audio recordings from the trial. These include not only Mandela’s cross examinations but diverse testimony, lawyers’ statements and comments from presiding judge Dr. Quartus de Wet, whose decision not to apply the death sentence now seems such a crucial and unexpected moment in Mandela’s story. You are struck by the calm, reasonable, grace under pressure manner of Mandela and the defendants and, by contrast, the patronising superiority of those intent on vanquishing them.

Pope Francis – A Man of His Word

Dir. Wim Wenders | Special Screenings

Andrew Barker, Variety
Granted access to the pontiff in several sit-down interview segments — staged Errol Morris-style, with Francis staring directly into the camera and largely speaking in his native Spanish — as well as some up-close coverage of his trips to everything from a Brazilian street mass to a Central African Republic children’s hospital, a Philadelphia prison, a Greek migrant camp, the UN, a joint session of Congress, and a Jerusalem Holocaust remembrance ceremony, Pope Francis allows as intimate a glimpse at the spiritual leader as a film crew is likely to get…for all its access, and for all the inherent empathy of its director, Wenders’ film is never able to completely connect the dots between the man and the figure.

Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
More a gloss than an insightful dissection, this documentary frustrates by sticking to the man’s surface, reducing his words to commendable sound-bites rather than deeply exploring them…The filmmaker provides occasional melodramatic, impassioned narration that voices his concerns about our ever-coarsening society and his hope that Francis can help stem the tide of anger and cynicism. Wenders’ subject is an effortlessly engaging presence — kindly, thoughtful, even funny — but Pope Francis doesn’t show much interest in the forces that shaped such a remarkable individual.

Christoph Strack, DeutscheWelle
No film has ever captured a Pope so intimately — until now. German film director Wim Wenders’ documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is a journey to and with the current the head of the Catholic Church, an encounter and meditation with this unusual man in the filmmaker’s best style…Wenders, a Catholic, has dared to make an almost tender film about — or also with — this Francis who is for him a “very unique” figure. It is not a film about the Church, and yet it shows that this nearly 2,000-year-old institution, this community of believers that is sometimes a violent global power system and sometimes a global movement of change will never be the same — can never be the same after this one man.

The Eyes of Orson Welles

Dir. Mark Cousins | Cannes Classics

Kaleem Aftab, Cineuropa
There is barely a mention of Citizen Kane, as the drawings give Cousins new insights into some of Welles’ less celebrated works, such as Mr. Arkadin (1955) and his 1948 adaptation of Macbeth, in which the director also played the title role. These are films that barely get a mention in discussions of Welles’ oeuvre, but Cousins demonstrates how the edgy, scrappy nature of these movies are mirrors to the way in which the famed director looked at the world visually.

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
Welles painted and drew indefatigably from his teen years to his bearded age: fiercely energetic, muscular lines of charcoal, pencil and paint, which were ideas for set design, movie storyboards, sketches of faces, and just visions. Cousins makes a convincing case that his movies were an extension of his (unrecognised) brilliance as a graphic artist, and the people who love the literary filigree of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet or Henry V will never like the more muscular, broad-brush concepts that Welles created for his Shakespearean movies.

Ray Kelly, Wellesnet
Like [Cousins’] 15-hour The Story of Film opus, The Eyes of Orson Welles is a globetrotting affair loaded with insight and punctuated with moments of wit. Quite simply, it is one of the best Welles documentaries released since his death in 1985.

Alicia Malone, Film Struck/vlogger:

Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
Drawing his many insights and ruminations into something of a conclusion, Cousins takes the view that for Orson Welles the filmmaker, right now would have been the ideal time. As history plainly shows, there was little room for a radical independent like Welles in the Hollywood studio system. He and his brilliant Citizen Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland dreamed of a time when “there would be no film in the camera,” just light. Eyes makes the argument that Welles could have thrived in the current environment, shooting (i.e., sketching) as much as he pleased, spending little money in the process, beholden to no studio, taking whatever time he needed and showing only what he ultimately wanted to present. It’s not difficult to imagine one of today’s stupefyingly successful cable or streaming outlets giving a Welles virtual carte blanche to do more or less whatever he wanted on an ongoing basis. His sketches, in other words, could ultimately have blossomed into finished works.

Be Natural: The Untold Story Of Alice Guy-Blaché

Dir. Pamela B. Green | Cannes Classics

Leslie Felperin, The Hollywood Reporter
Elsewhere, the decision to include quite so many interviews from such a random selection of filmmakers is a little odd and arguably needlessly time-consuming, especially since most of them don’t really say anything interesting apart from disingenuously asking, “Who is Alice Guy-Blache?” and then proceeding later to praise her work based on footage the filmmaker has seemingly just shown them. No doubt the assembled names add a little marketing fairy dust, but it’s hard to imagine hordes of Evan Rachel Wood (Westworld) or Peter Farrelly (There’s Something About Mary) fans storming the specialist cinemas or scouring the cable schedules to catch a documentary about a silent film innovator. Mind you, props to producer Gale Anne Hurd (The Terminator) for being one of the very few Americans interviewed here who had heard about Guy-Blache well before anyone approached her for this.

Pete Hammond, Deadline
Try to find a review of it in the trades or anywhere and you will have to search hard. Those critics apparently would rather rush to see the new Lars von Trier or the Gaspar Noe, than give notice to this incredible woman who not only started it all for her gender in movies, but really pioneered it for everyone — man or woman. This film needs to be seen and distributed, and after blowing off the main competition film and attending its one — and only — screening (other than privately for potential buyers) at the 71st Cannes Film Festival on Friday night, I immediately told every heavy-hitter distribution and studio person I saw an hour later at the Hotel Du Cap Lionsgate party to try and find it and see it if you care at all about movies, women, groundbreakers and great documentary filmmaking.

Bergman – A Year in the Life

Dir. Jane Magnusson | Cannes Classics

Owen Gleiberman, Variety
When you see a typical documentary about a filmmaker, much of this stuff often ends up on the cutting-room floor. But Jane Magnusson’s Bergman — A Year in a Life, a portrait of Ingmar Bergman in the pivotal year of 1957 (though it covers his entire life and career), is one of the most honest and overflowing portraits of a film artist that I can remember seeing. It’s one of two Ingmar Bergman documentaries at Cannes this year (the other, which has yet to screen, is Margarethe von Trotta’s Searching for Ingmar Bergman), and it captures Bergman as the tender and prickly, effusive and demon-driven, tyrannical and half-crazy celebrity-genius he was: a man so consumed by work, and by his obsessive relationships with women, that he seemed to be carrying on three lives at once.

Dead Souls

Dir. Wang Bing | Special Screenings

A.A. Dowd, AV Club
It would be dishonest to suggest that Dead Souls isn’t sometimes a tough sit; there were moments, as it sprawled towards a distant horizon, when even the sheer importance of the project couldn’t keep my attention from wavering a little. But cinematic time is relative, and the truth is that even a very short movie can feel like a small eternity.

Owen Gleiberman, Variety
Wang, like Claude Lanzmann in Shoah, isn’t just making a historical documentary; he’s using oral memoir to forge an artifact of history. Dead Souls has its longueurs, and it may not be as staggering a work as Shoah or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, but it does just what a movie that’s this long should: It uses its intimate sprawl to catalyze your view of something — in this case, how the totalitarianism of the 20th century actually worked. (One is tempted to say: quite well.)

James Quandt, The Globe and Mail
No film at Cannes can equal the immensity in length, importance and impact of Chinese auteur Wang Bing’s harrowing eight-hour-plus documentary, Dead Souls. Wang is intrepid and relentless in his exploration of a taboo subject: the Maoist regime’s campaign against rightists launched in 1956, a precursor to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution a decade later…In a heroic act of historical memorial, Wang tracked down more than 100 aged survivors of the camps and recorded their accounts of imprisonment. Most inmates died from starvation, the pursuit of food and the agonies of constipation inevitably becoming governing motifs in Wang’s welter of interviews. Wang also revisits the past by trudging through the tufted dunes where the camps once stood, his camera gazing intently upon the evidence of countless enforced deaths: skulls scattered across the sand, a femur here, a leg bone there. Whether Wang can ever return to China after the revelations of Dead Souls, under the increasingly oppressive control of Xi Jinping, appears questionable.

Clarence Tsui, The Hollywood Reporter
Despite its mammoth length — the film premiered at Cannes in two parts, with an hourlong intermission in between — Dead Souls is thoroughly focused and tightly structured. And it is an immensely perceptive piece about the history of China and its multitude of discontents. The marathon screening time, the emphasis on eye-witness accounts and the contemplation of the terrible consequences of a state-backed pogrom all make Dead Souls Wang’s very own Shoah.

Stay tuned for more non-fiction news from la Croisette!