Jane Campion glows like the goddess she is in a sea of people clapping, smiling and cheering her on in this gorgeous black-and-white shot.

Lumière Film Festival

The Lyon festival celebrated new and old talent.

Photography by Romain Etienne
October 26, 202111 min Read

Lyon’s Lumière Film Festival showcased two stunning directorial debuts, Maggie Gyllenhall’s The Lost Daughter and Rebecca Hall’s Passing, along with Sorrentino’s most intimate work to date, The Hand of God. Now in its 13th edition, the film festival honored Jane Campion with the coveted Lumière Prize, complete with a retrospective of her work and a screening of her latest film The Power of the Dog.

SORRENTINO TRIUMPH AT LYON

A retrospective, a masterclass — the modest Paolo Sorrentino was the Lumière festival’s centre of attention. The highlight was the presentation of The Hand of God (December 15 on Netflix), this shy director’s moving autobiography.

Tributes stack up at the Lumière festival presentation of The Hand of God, along with rediscoveries, reassessments, and confirmations. One of the most indisputable? Paolo Sorrentino is not the talkative type. The Italian filmmaker, visibly moved in front of packed rooms, relied upon synthetic but enlightening presentations rather than off the cuff speech, and the masterclass he gave last Sunday confirmed the impression that Sorrentino is not the sort to talk much about his work. The director was nevertheless excellent, lively, often very amusing, and especially showed himself to be a charmer (“You seem to give much more importance to what I write, whereas I do not give it any,” he quipped, with a big smile).

All this may seem paradoxical from one of the very best dialogists of our time. When it comes to revealing himself, the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty director suddenly becomes silent. And that’s fine because his films speak for him, particularly his latest, The Hand of God, a youthful tale full of 80s insouciance, ripe with Neapolitan and football memories. It is an autobiography, but one which aims more at evoking than reconstructing. When presenting this work to the Lyon public, Sorrentino dispelled any form of ambiguity, saying, “Not all corresponds to reality, but it is an autobiographical story. I knew that one day or another I would have to tell it but I was just postponing the moment, a bit like postponing a dentist appointment.”

As always, when tackling a subject “inspired by real events,” truth matters less than the hero’s perception of it. That being said, The Hand of God represents a sea change for Sorrentino — this time the main character is no longer an old man in the twilight of his life but a young teenager who wakes up to the world, to women, to football. In fact, the film stands out in many ways from in its author’s oeuvre. It’s less disillusioned, less scathing, less noisy, and suddenly more welcoming. The Hand of God could well introduce its author to a much larger audience, in the same way that Napoli presented Maradona to Europeans.“

Football is not about life and death, it is much more important than that,” said Bill Shankly, one of the greatest coaches and theorists in the history of the round ball. The Hand of God perfectly embraces this conviction, as the tragedy that Sorrentino’s stand-in, young Fabietto (played by Filippo Scotti), experiences staggeringly collides with Diego Maradona’s miracle arrival in his hometown. Sorrentino thus links the fate of a young, silent teenager with that of the greatest champion of his time. This story is not only astonishing because it is true, but because it encapsulates the sublime in daily life, the immensity of the world in an ancient city, and the blues in the gaze of a young man leaving for Rome. As viewers, we finally understand the impetus for the director’s fantastical works. Paolo Sorrentino’s cinema is not about life and death. It is much more important than that.

IN LYON, MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL AND REBECCA HALL UNVEIL THEIR PORTRAITS OF WOMEN

While waiting for Jane Campion’s arrival in Lyon, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Hall previewed their first films, both delving into the feminine perspective and desires for independence.

One of the Lumière 2021 festival’s rediscoveries is Kinuyo Tanaka. If some were already familiar with the actress, the melodrama queen whose silhouette radiated from Ozu and Mizoguchi films, many are now discovering her as a director, who made six major films between the early 1950s and the late 1960s. The need for emancipation, the desire for another voice, carnal re-appropriation of intimate themes — Tanaka’s cinema is as astonishing as it is deeply political. A striking coincidence: More than sixty years later, these desires are precisely those of two great Hollywood actresses who came along to present their respective directorial debut films in Lyon.

The first, Passing, directed by Rebecca Hall, is an aesthetic tour-de-force shot in 4:3 format. It bathes in an ultra-contrasting black and white that recreates the effectively segregated New York of the late 1920s. The plot follows a young Black woman (Tessa Thompson) who accidentally encounters one of her old childhood friends (Ruth Negga), who has been living as a white woman and concealing her Black identity. It would be criminal to unveil the rest of the story, just know that the film has found an ideal home in its silent melodrama aesthetics to offer us a filmic version of author Nella Larson’s previously unadapted tragedy.

The Lost Daughter, which adapts a novel by Elena Ferrante, is closer to its actresses and more classic in its approach. Starting off as a thriller, it tells the story of Leda (Olivia Colman), a university professor on vacation on a Greek island. Her vacation will quickly be disturbed by a sprawling family’s arrival, whose young mother (Dakota Johnson) will remind her of her own past and awaken a maternal feeling made up of guilt and anguish. Maggie Gyllenhaal here subtly deconstructs motherhood’s expectations and suggests that sometimes you have to give up being a mother to become a woman.

As different as they are, The Lost Daughter and Passing propose the advent of a new, truly feminine view, offering another vision of the world, so often seen through the eyes of men. At the moment of thunderous applause concluding the presentations of The Lost Daughter and Passing, one understood that these films could be decisive for their directors. In an interview, Rebecca Hall told us this, “As women, we have never been allowed to become filmmakers. Since childhood I have been a cinephile, a fan of Hitchcock, for example. But when I wanted to learn directing, I quickly gave up — there was no model for me and very few women to inspire us.”

A few hours earlier, in front of the large packed hall of the Institut Lumière, Maggie Gyllenhaal followed suit. “As a child, I wanted to be an actress because I loved telling stories. But as an actress, I quickly realized that, even when I really trusted my director, barely 70% of my work showed up on the screen. So I wanted to be myself, wanted to take back control of my work, I wanted 100% of my vision to be finally represented on the screen. From birth, women seem to sign a pact that requires them to remain silent for the rest of their lives. That’s why I adapted The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante — when I discovered this book, I understood that the author had decided to break this pact. And my film must now bear witness to this.”

In their genre, as in their tone, Passing and The Lost Daughter are two works which are very distant from one another, perfectly distinct. But taken in this festival’s context, where the public discovers them in quick succession, they end up meeting, kissing, and never leaving each other (or us). They clearly stand out; these are portraits of women which are striking both in the delicacy of their lines and by their singularity in the contemporary landscape. Presented here are the intimate secret and social lives of heroines as strong as they are fractured, and in such a precise manner as cinema has not accustomed us to. The Lumière Prize, which will be awarded to Jane Campion on Saturday, only confirms this premonition: In Lyon the most beautiful visions are undeniably feminine.

THE CAMPION LESSON

The 13th Edition of the Lumière Festival concluded with triumph for Jane Campion, who came to receive the Lumière Prize and to present a preview of her new film, The Power of the Dog.

Lyon was waiting just for her. Her rock-star visage had dressed the city’s walls and bus-shelters for days preceding the festival. The many artists invited had only her name in their mouths. The final stretch of Lumière 2021 was entirely dedicated to Jane Campion and to the revisiting of her filmography, as compact (directing eight films in a little over 30 years) as it is memorable.

There was first the preview of her latest feature film, The Power of The Dog, followed by a retrospective of all her films (including shorts). The next day, the New Zealander offered a masterclass on the mythical grounds of the Théâtre des Célestins, in front of an audience where people and movie personalities intermingled. All seemed captivated by the filmmaker’s generosity, accessibility, and sensitivity and who confided in her “Kubrickian” cadences (“On the one hand, I’m a little lazy. On the other hand, there is something important: life.”), evoked her directorial idols (“Varda, Bresson, Fellini, and Coppola taught me everything.”) and paid tribute to new works (“I discovered Titane last night, it’s a unique film endowed with astounding energy.”). Emotion flowed from the two-century-old, storied theater for 90 minutes.

The fervor continued the same evening, with the presentation of the Lumière Prize. On stage, musicians and personalities followed one another to show their gratitude to a prophetic artist. All agreed on the fact that Jane Campion had paved the way for a slightly more feminine cinema. “You made us richer with your imagination,” explained Alice Rohrwacher (director of The Wonders). “You are the demonstration that one can be fragile and strong, delicate and wild.”

Then it was the turn of Julia Ducournau, director of Titane and now, from the height of her recent Palme d’Or, heir to a renewal initiated by Campion. She recalled to what extent the filmmaker of The Piano had shifted her destiny. “I realized that long before I became a filmmaker, long before I became a woman, Jane Campion had saved me from loneliness through each of her films.”

At the time of receiving her prize, Campion could hardly contain her emotion. And, amazed at these speeches and at the devotion of the audience, she concluded the particularly touching ceremony in this way, “I have the impression that you love the cinema as much as I love it, it is a rather rare feeling.”

That sentiment was confirmed the following day at the closing ceremony, where thousands of moviegoers of all ages came to a full Tony Garnier Hall to offer several standing ovations to the heroine of this year’s festival. Visibly unaccustomed to seeing such a crowd (5,000 people) get up just for her, the filmmaker tried to put words to her astonishment. She got away with a rather irresistible oxymoron, “For me, this is all unbearably upsetting.” And we concluded with a screening of The Piano.

How can this fervor be explained? It is first and foremost a question of attitude. Humble and relaxed, available and direct, Jane Campion does not cultivate the image of the incandescent or corseted heroines of some of her films. Her big-rimmed glasses, long gray hair, jeans and sneakers give her an irreparably cool affect, as if she was from a cult rock band of the 90s. It’s also a question of cinema, necessarily. As Julia Ducournau explained, “Through her staging, both ample and precise at the same time, linking the fury of our condition to the untamed indifference of nature, Jane Campion has shown us our humanity in what is most vulnerable and endearing about her, the pathos and the pity of our existence, but its beauty and its grace also.”

This is an artist who has taught us to be wary of appearances. In her work, the executioners are often drawn as suffering characters and the victims sometimes lock themselves in a form of chilling misanthropy. This eternal ambivalence, this opacity, is at the heart of The Power of The Dog, a depiction of a man eaten away by loneliness and self-hatred. A film where the filmmaker looks male toxicity straight in the eye to revive melodrama in different shades of gray. A work allowing itself to doubt in an era that calls for certainties.