This has to be one of the most beguiling events at Cannes, appropriately presented in the Cannes Classics section. Mark Cousins’s personal cine-essay about children on film is entirely distinctive, sometimes eccentric, always brilliant: a mosaic of clips, images and moments chosen with flair and grace, both from familiar sources and from the neglected riches of cinema around the world. Without condescension or cynicism, Cousins offers us his own humanist idealism, as refreshing as a glass of iced water.
He presents movie texts which illuminate and challenge what we imagine to be the “performance” presented to the camera by a child, what we take to be the nature of childhood and by implication the unexamined “adultness” of those grownups variously appearing in, making or watching the film. He suggests that as an artform, cinema has paid more attention to children than any other, perhaps because it is itself in its infancy. Using extracts from movies as diverse as ET: The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982), Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table  (1990), Yasujiro Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo  (1935) and Ken Loach’s Kes  (1969) – and many more – Cousins creates light-flashes of insight by the hundred which amount to a pointilliste work of scholarship.
Just as in his colossal documentary  TV series The Story of Film , Cousins takes ideas and runs with them, bobbing and weaving, hopping lightly from movie to movie, free-associating and bopping around but without ever seeming slick or glib. Cousins coolly repudiates parochial Anglo-Hollywood bias; he juxtaposes contemporary films with ones from the distant past, and places emphasis on cinema from Iran, India and Africa. Just as Puck put a girdle around the world in forty minutes, Cousins zooms happily around the circumference of world cinema in an hour and 40.
Taking as his starting point a meditation on the artistic gaze of Vincent van Gogh, and then artlessly showing us a film of his niece and nephew Ben and Laura mucking about with toys, he embarks on a subject whose impossible vastness never daunts him. His approach moves away from the conventional idea that movie kids are either horribly mannered, beribboned child stars or saintly simple souls, luminous with non-professional purity and authenticity. The truth is more complex: kids on screen are often wary, blank and guarded – it is their reserve which creates the electrical charge of drama. But they are often “performative” (as Cousins phrases it), simply showing off and acting out, and it is this entirely natural tendency which can be harnessed for the camera.
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