What’s Up Doc: Cannes Review Round-Up Edition

Agnès Varda and JR in Faces Places
Courtesy of Cannes

By Pat Mullen

We’re one week into this year’s Cannes Film Festival. While no films have yet to set the Croisette completely ablaze, word on the tweet is generally positive in terms of what folks are seeing. The favourite on the documentary front looks to be Agnès Varda and JR for their collaborative portrait/travelogue Faces Places (Visage Villages), while fellow French legend Claude Lanzmann polarizes festivalgoers with Napalm. Reviews for Vanessa Redgrave’s directorial debut Sea Sorrow range from respectful to derisive, but at least her first doc looks to be better than Terrence Malick’s doc debut.

Here’s a round-up of what critics are saying about docs at Cannes:

Faces Places:

Synopsis: Agnes Varda and JR have things in common: their passion for images in general and more particularly questionning the places where they are showed, how they are shared, exposed. Agnès chose cinema. JR chose to create open-air photographic galleries. When Agnès and JR met in 2015, they immediately wanted to work together, shoot a film in France, far from the cities. Random encounters or prepared projects, they will go towards the others and get them to follow them on their trip with JR’s photographic truck. The film is also about their friendship that grows during the shooting, between surprises and malice, laughing of their differences.

What the critics are saying:

David Ehrlich at Indiewire: “If this is to be her last film, then it will be one of cinema’s most extraordinary sendoffs…But nothing lasts forever. We see that during the touching sequence in which Varda blows up a photo of her deceased friend, Guy Bourdain, and slathers it over a bunker that’s crashed onto the world’s most deserted beach — when they return the next morning, the photo has been washed away by the tide. That ephemeral feeling strikes again in the film’s heartbreaking final sequence, which plunges into the depths of cinema history before eventually returning with the achingly bittersweet truth that life is less fulfilling than what you see in the movies.”

Shelagh Rowan-Legg at Screen Anarchy: “Much as in The Beaches of Agnès, Varda is looking back on her life as a woman and an artist; perhaps looking to JR as the future, of someone who can do some of the same things she did in art, of connecting the larger public to that which is disappearing in France, as well as the artist and art to those, as stated, too often neglected in favour of the urban crowds.”

Alex Billington, FirstShowing.net: “If anything, my only complaint about the film is that it has no real ending. It just sort of stops, right in the middle of a great moment, and right when I was caught up in their journey, and fully emotionally invested. I wanted it to keep going…This is an utterly inspiring, gorgeous film full of happiness and optimism and connection.”

Jordan Hoffman, The Guardian “It can be funny, it can be melancholy. All that Varda and JR seem to care about is that it is honest.”

Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood ReporterVisages Villages (Faces Places) arrives as a lovely addition to the long line of personal documentaries about French life at ground level that Agnes Varda has been making throughout her entire career.”


Synopsis: Napalm is the story of the breathtaking and brief encounter, in 1958, between a French member of the first Western European delegation invited to North Korea after the devastating Korean war and a nurse working for the Korean Red Cross hospital, in Pyongyang, capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Nurse Kim Kun Sun and the French delegate had only one word in common, that both could understand : « Napalm », hence the title. Claude Lanzmann returned to Korea without the permission to film and each take represents an extraordinary victory over the permanent control of the regime’s political police. He discovers the real reasons for his return, sixty years later, in the peninsula of this extreme North.

What the critics are saying:

Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: “ flawed, self-indulgent but still fascinating effort….”

Jordan Hoffman, Screen: “The story drifts ever on, with further episodes involving a clandestine rowing trip and a poignant and revealing exchange in which the nurse’s one non-Korean word explains the film’s title… As self-mocking as this ramble sometimes is, it not only fills an inordinate chunk of the film, but also comes across as raffishly romantic in a slightly self-serving way. So his wish to kiss her “pear-like breast” represented “an act of chivalry”? If you say so, monsieur…”

Jordan Mintzer, The Hollywood Reporter: “Lanzmann may definitely be in love with his own voice — some viewers will surely find the film’s latter half too long — but he’s also a supreme storyteller who has relied on first-hand accounts throughout his career to bear witness to some of the darkest periods in modern history. In Napalm, he uses his own experience to fuel the narrative, mixing his visit in 2015 with memories of the past. What results is a unique look at a place and people who we have mostly known through news reports or government propaganda, but rarely in movies through such a human point of view.”

Richard Porton, The Daily Beast: “It’s difficult to know what lessons, if any, the audience is supposed to derive from Napalm’s synthesis of romantic despair and terminal narcissism.”

David Stratton: A Cinematic Life:

Synopsis: Critic David Stratton’s love affair with Australian cinema led him to understand himself and his adopted country. This is the glorious story of Australian cinema and its creators, told through the very particular gaze of a international cinephile.

What the critics are saying:

Stephen Dalton, The Hollywood Reporter: “All this cosy mutual flattery becomes tiresome at times, but thankfully there are exceptions…For a film notionally about criticism, A Cinematic Life is oddly uncritical, offering zero insights into Stratton’s working methods, private life or broader cultural and political views.”

Sarah Ward, Screen: “As an ode to Stratton’s impact and the transformative power of film, Aitken’s documentary succeeds handsomely. As a survey of the Australian movie landscape, it should inspire viewers to seek out the titles covered.”


Synopsis: It’s a rare person who would give up fame and fortune to toil in obscurity for someone else’s creative vision. Yet, that’s exactly what Leon Vitali did after his acclaimed performance as Lord Bullingdon in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The young actor surrendered his thriving career to become Kubrick’s loyal right-hand man. For more than two decades, Leon played a crucial role behind-the-scenes helping Kubrick make and maintain his legendary body of work.The complex, interdependent relationship between Leon and Kubrick was founded on devotion, sacrifice and the grueling, joyful reality of the creative process. By entering their unique world we come to understand how the mundane gives rise to the magnificent as timeless cinema is brought to life at its most practical and profound level.

What the critics are saying:

Tim Grierson, Screen: “Filmworker suggests that there are hundreds of unsung people like Vitali throughout the film industry selflessly giving of themselves so that another artist’s vision can thrive. That’s a poignant point, but for a documentary that tries to bring attention to one such hidden figure, Zierra’s movie ultimately feels like it’s more about Kubrick than Vitali.”

Joseph Owen, The Upcoming: “Leon seems genuinely fulfilled by his life’s work and to that end it is hard to castigate him for his devotion. Yet there is something fundamentally wrong with his treatment and ultimate self-abuse, and this suggestive picture gleefully plays to the chorus, one that loves to conflate genius with sociopath while excusing being a bastard for being a talent.”

Ben Kenigsberg, RogerEbert.com: “Although it’s great to hear Vitali’s insights into Kubrick’s personal manner—he suggests the director ran hot and cold on people with a chess player’s eye toward the end result—this is fundamentally the story of two men, and having only Vitali alive to talk to leaves the documentary with a lack of balance.”

Sea Sorrow:

Synopsis: Sea Sorrow marks Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a film director and is a very personal, dynamic meditation on the current global refugee crisis through the eyes and voices of campaigners and children mixing past and present, documentary and drama in its reflection on the importance of human rights.

What the critics are saying:

David Sexton, Evening Standard: “A terrible tale told badly…no formal qualities as a film…an amateur polemic…”

David Ehrlich, Indiewire: “No offense to the likes of Sally Struthers, but Vanessa Redgrave brings a rare gravity to this kind of thing; when she speaks on behalf of the stranded children who are being denied the value of their own lives, it’s hard to imagine that even Theresa May couldn’t be stirred by the moral clarity of her demands.”

Benedict Seal, Vague Visages: “There are deviations from the to-camera interview form and they bring a welcome change of pace. Emma Thompson makes an appearance reading a letter Sylvia Pankhurst wrote to a newspaper in 1938 regarding two Jewish girls who were refused refuge by the British Government. Once again, however, Redgrave goes to no great lengths to experiment cinematically. Instead, this whole segment is shot with a single camera, with Thompson reading to viewers, as if on a stage.”

Allan Hunter, Screen: “Sincere and wide-ranging but never hectoring, Sea Of Sorrow [sic] is a worthwhile attempt to shine a light on a complex issue and to find reasons for hope in a situation that seems eternally disheartening.”

Guy Lodge, Variety: “Shot on rudimentary digital, it’s more extended PSA than cinema, but one senses the filmmaker herself knows her message outranks her method. As such, Sea Sorrow should ride ancillary waves to reach its audience after its Cannes premiere.”

*All synopses courtesy of Cannes.