Books, arts and culture

  • Nicking the prize

    “Shoplifters”, a touching tale of outsiders, wins at Cannes

    by N.B. | CANNES

    TRUE TO its title, the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was stolen by “Shoplifters” while everyone was looking the other way. Not that Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s drama didn’t deserve to win. Mr Kore-Eda is one of world cinema’s most humane and skilful storytellers, and “Shoplifters” is another of his low-key, acutely observed, ultimately devastating studies of contemporary Japanese life.

    All the same, it was a surprise when it took the Palme d’Or, partly because other films at Cannes had been reviewed even more enthusiastically, and partly because there was so much talk among festival-goers about the pressing need to give the award to a female director.

  • High drama

    A devastating and brilliant adaptation of the “Patrick Melrose” series

    by K.S.C.

    THE curtain-raising moments of “Patrick Melrose” hurl the viewer into the world of their eponymous hero with brisk efficiency. A phone—black, with a rotary dial—rings. When Patrick (Benedict Cumberbatch) picks up the receiver he is slow and slurring. Unsteady on his feet. “I’m afraid I have rather bad news,” the tinny voice on the other end of the line says. “Your father died the night before last.” Patrick sways and grasps hold of a shelf to stop himself from keeling over, but not from shock. A syringe—its plunger shot home—has fallen to the floor. There’s a spot of blood at the inner elbow of his crisply striped shirt.

  • Television herstory

    Step inside a gay bar for a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” viewing party

    by A.X.S. | NEW YORK

    THREE performers take it in turns to writhe and high-kick dangerously towards the low ceiling. Most drinkers continue to chat among themselves. It is early for such an energetic show—just 7:30pm on a Thursday—and in any case the drag queens’ messy mix of bikinis, leotards and wild wigs is not the main attraction. The patrons in this rowdy gay bar in Manhattan’s West Village are really just waiting for the television screens to be tuned to the right channel. 

    Everyone is here to watch “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, a reality-television show.

  • Telling the tooth

    Our relationship with teeth is uneven, messy and grim

    by A.L.

    EYES are not the window into the soul—teeth are. They can be rotten, wise or broken; they reveal our diet, health and wealth. As babies, we learn about the world around us by munching our way through it. Teeth are the only exposed part of our skeleton while we are alive. And when we die, they will be the part of our body that longest remains on earth. If we perish in a particularly grisly fashion, our dental records may be what identifies us.

    These are all good reasons to visit the dentist.

  • The right stuff

    Tom Wolfe, chronicler of America

    by A.W.

    TOM WOLFE’s great achievement was to write prose as big as America. Mr Wolfe thought that America’s literary elite were missing the biggest story on earth—their own country. Ensconced in their Manhattan lofts and writer-in-residence programmes they were fixated on the minor doings of their own caste rather than the mega-doings of the people who inhabited the American sub-continent. “At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature,” Mr Wolfe wrote in one of his manifestos, “we need a battalion, a brigade, of Zolas to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, hog-stomping, Baroque country of ours and reclaim it as literary property.”

  • Revenge of the little hands

    France is still coming to grips with the role of feminism in May 1968

    by M.M. | PARIS

    BRANDISHING a Viet Cong flag, she stands with her torso above the crowd filling the Luxembourg Gardens. Her eyes lifted, her expression serious and confrontational, she looks like she is about to charge into the fray. Jean-Pierre Rey’s photograph of the “Marianne of ’68” was instantly recognised for its likeness to Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting of bare-breasted Liberty.

    In “Icons of May ’68”, an exhibition at the National Library of France, viewers are asked to look at the photograph as something other than an allegory.

  • Shelf awareness

    Libraries that speak loudly

    by T.A.

    THROUGHOUT May, books will be taken from their cramped, dusty confines in the old National Library of Greece and gingerly placed on trolleys. Over 2m items, including a collection of 4,500 manuscripts dating from the 9th to the 19th century, will make the trip through the busy streets from the venerable neoclassical building in the heart of Athens to their new home in the Stavros Niarchos Foundational Cultural Centre. The journey of these books neatly maps what has happened to the architecture of national libraries the world over. The books’ old home, completed in 1903, was designed as a temple of learning to be used by a limited academic elite.

  • If music be the food of love

    “Cold War” is a faultless romantic epic

    by N.B.

    YOU may hear faint echoes of “La La Land” and “Chico & Rita” in Pawel Pawlikowski’s music-based tragicomedy, in that it charts the on-off relationship of a talented male pianist/composer and a magnetic female performer. But the Polish-British writer-director of “My Summer of Love” and the Oscar-winning “Ida” has composed something unique. The best entry so far at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Cold War” is a moving and gorgeously shot period romance which recreates the mid-20th-century in flawless, unshowy detail, and which asks which siren song calls most seductively: art, love, freedom or home. Mr Pawlikowski doesn’t play a single bum note.

  • “Now we rise”

    A teen fiction sensation about race and police brutality

    by R.L.

    ZÉLIE has known persecution all her life. As a child, she witnessed the murder of her mother at the hands of the police. Her father was brutally beaten. Marked out by her hair and dark skin, Zélie is subjected to ghettoisation, punitive policies and slurs. She sees children killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. She vows to rise up, and change the fate of those like her.

    The 17-year-old heroine of “Children of Blood and Bone” may have supernatural powers and live in Orïsha, a mythical land, but much of her experience will feel uncomfortably familiar to American readers.

  • Meanwhile

    City parks belong to everyone. Right?

    by S.H. | NEW YORK

    IT IS springtime in New York, and spring happens mostly in the parks. There are cherry blossoms, suddenly, and purple tulips. Cooped-up kids are back on their bikes. There’s the haze of barbecue smoke and the smell of mulch and the sounds of birdsong and drums. It happened overnight, and it will pass just as quickly, because spring is an elusive and barely perceptible season. It will be summer soon.

    Summer in the parks. That’s the subject of a series of long-lost photographs from 1978. The eight photographers who took them were normally on staff at the New York Times, but that summer the New York press corps was on strike.

  • Sound and fury

    “Mood Music” lays bare the exploitative side of the music industry

    by J.W.S.W.

    GREAT music captures and records the most subtle and fleeting shades of human emotion. But if it is ever to reach an audience, the ineffable must not only be bottled. It must be packaged, labelled, copyrighted, advertised and finally sold for a profit—and all without losing the grain of emotional truth that made it so good in the first place. “Mood Music”, a new play by Joe Penhall (“Mindhunter”), stages the collision of emotion with tangled layers of producers, managers, lawyers and industry suits. 

    The play’s central duo of hit-making musicians, singer Cat (Seána Kerslake) and “artist-producer” Bernard (Ben Chaplin), are the twin poles of that contradiction.

  • Tonics for troubled times

    “Absolute Hell” is a eulogy for “third places”

    by N.P.B.

    IN 1989 Ray Oldenburg, an American sociologist, explored the idea of the “third place”. Life, he argued, has always been experienced in one of three settings: the home, the workplace or a “third place” such as high streets, coffeehouses and pubs. These venues are neutral, largely free from the economic pressures of the office and the domestic pressures of the home. Mr Oldenburg considered these spaces to be the heart of the community and necessary to any healthy democracy: he worried that the suburbs emerging on the edges of American cities would lead to isolation and polarisation as people commuted by car, frequenting these places and interacting with their neighbours less.

  • The ever-changing Argonauts

    “Tully” is a new look at the old question of motherhood and identity

    by F.P.

    IT WAS Plutarch who first mulled over the question. If an object has been restored, each and every piece replaced over time, does it remain the same original object? The idea, known as Theseus’s paradox, has occupied modern writers as much as antiquarian ones. It looms over Bildungsroman, and other coming-of-age novels. It is the guiding theme of “The Argonauts”, Maggie Nelson’s memoir of motherhood, marriage, gender and writing (the title is itself a reference to Roland Barthes’s ruminations on the thought experiment, which centre on a wooden ship called the Argo).

  • Void and meaning

    The art of doing something with nothing

    by T.A.

    AT THE Venice Architecture Biennale, which begins on May 26th, the British pavilion will be an empty shell. The odd wall bracket or plastered wall will hint at previous exhibitions, but there will be far less to please the eye than the display of Phyllida Barlow’s bulbous rock and metal sculptures at last year’s Art Biennale. This is not the first time that a space has been left empty to make a calculated point—it is not even the first time in Venice. Yet far from offering the visitor total interpretative autonomy, artists and curators tend to have fixed ideas about what their emptiness means.

  • Avant la lettre

    Environmentalist art before there was an “environment”

    by Y.F. | NEW YORK

    TWO centuries ago Thomas Cole arrived on American shores, bringing with him from England a new landscape painting tradition perfect for the wild expanses of the new world. Cole also brought a zeal for warning about the perils that unchecked industry posed to the natural world, establishing one of painting’s first environmental critiques. “Atlantic Crossings”, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that will travel to the National Gallery in London in June, celebrates the bicentennial of Cole’s American arrival and newly explores his transatlantic career—how both old world and new influenced his visual and intellectual rendering of the natural environment.

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