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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Cannes Roundup

Cannes is still the perfect staging ground for the odd, possibly controversial premiere that nevertheless holds our attention for its mastery of execution.

<em>May December</em>. Courtesy Festival de Cannes.
May December. Courtesy Festival de Cannes.

Each day at dawn during the Cannes Film Festival, an online ticketing portal goes live in the manner of a Supreme drop: an entire day’s worth of tickets become available at once, and are almost immediately snapped up by the ravenous queue, not to be seen again until the final minutes before a premiere when those with scheduling conflicts throw their treasure back into the fray. This perhaps explains the bizarre logic of an event that drives thousands of people into a vampiric frenzy each May, shirking the prime sunbathing conditions of the chic Mediterranean resort town in favor of sitting in dark rooms and staring at big screens, many of which unspool stories that can hardly compete with the welcoming waters outside. By tightly limiting access through a head-spinning bureaucratic system, for two weeks a year the programmers manage to make movie tickets the currency of the realm.

There are several types of “festival films” that help make Cannes what it is. In its Official Selection, the programming walks a fine line between politically sensitive (read: calculatedly scandalous) pictures and an all-out devotion to art for art’s sake. In a social environment that increasingly problematizes new projects before they’ve even been seen, Cannes is still the perfect staging ground for the odd, possibly controversial premiere that nevertheless holds our attention for its mastery of execution, thus changing our understanding of what’s possible when it arrives.

Two films in this year’s competition based their plot around illicit romances between a young man and a far older, more powerful woman. Natalie Portman delivers one of the best performances of her career in Todd Haynes’s May December, in which she portrays an actress studying a married couple (Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) who became involved when the husband was barely a teenager. Haynes’s off-kilter thriller contains jarring moments of comedy and is occasionally played for high camp, as Portman and Moore enact a version of Persona (1966) with southern drawls and lipstick.

By contrast, Last Summer, by French provocateur Catherine Breillat, is a slimy, bracing, and blunt encounter with a successful middle-aged lawyer (Léa Drucker) who seduces her 17-year-old stepson. Breillat frustratingly lays the foundation for a more complex tale of cyclical trauma in the background: Drucker’s character specializes in helping underage women escape sexual abuse, and she intimates that she herself was once in such a situation. Ridiculously, this aspect of the film is never called into question, and the director lets the full implications of her characters’ motivations go slack while the story plays for maximum shock value. Haynes and Breillat’s antiheroes differ from Mrs. Robinsons of the past in that their desires and frustrations are portrayed both with sympathy and psychological depth; nevertheless, it would be a stretch to call either film feminist. They may instead be examples, in the vein of Todd Field’s Tár (2022), of the latest thing in Hollywood—well-recognized abuses of power undertaken by unusual suspects, in a perverse form of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Another major trend of contemporary cinema, the monarch-as-girlboss period piece, received a full showing from Cannes this year, with early glimmers that the trend may be exhausting itself. From Olivia Coleman as Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018) to Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Spencer (2021), quite a bit of highbrow attention has been lately focused on the queens and princesses of periods past and the way they exercised soft power while bearing the brunt of constant, life-threatening misogyny. Karim Aïnouz’s Firebrand might be considered an apotheosis of the form, in both its triumphs and pitfalls. The movie begins with an epigraph that reads like watered down Saidiya Hartman—“History is largely men and war. The other parts we are forced to fill in ourselves”—allowing archival biases to justify some specious liberties in terms of historical accuracy. One thing that is spot on, historically and otherwise, are the costumes, which feel absolutely true in their combination of humble styles and sumptuous material: King Henry VIII’s crown is a gold-banded bowler hat; Queen Catherine (Alicia Vikander), his embattled sixth wife, often goes about her day in a bonnet studded with pearls.

<em>Firebrand</em>. Courtesy Festival de Cannes.
Firebrand. Courtesy Festival de Cannes.

Aïnouz’s telling of Henry’s marital and filial relationships in the final years of his life is like a thriller when seen from Catherine’s perspective; the threat of death is always near when you’re replacing five former queens. This entertaining, sometimes idle drama about wearing that mantle like a crown far exceeded the efforts of Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry, another tale of a king’s relationship with his final consort, this time set in France. In his first major film role since winning his defamation trial against Amber Heard, Johnny Depp plays Louis XV, a tasteless choice that undercuts the film’s supposedly feminist appeal. Surely they could have found someone in France with a better accent to play the King of France.

In an era where high drama and salacious twists seem best fulfilled by the structure of a slow-burning television series, some filmmakers have responded by dispensing with heady themes and heavy plot altogether, to focus instead on what makes cinema so wonderful. Absent the built-in distractions of ads and episodic breaks, a good film seen in theaters can still induce a dreamlike immersion, all the more special when it pulls us out of the staccato chaos of our daily online lives. There were several short, modest movies this year whose mesmeric character studies have stayed with me longer than the crises and controversies on which publicity spins. Fallen Leaves, by the Finnish master Aki Kaurismäki, is an indelibly simple love story set in working class Helsinki, where two weary loners (Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen) find the commencement of their romance frustrated by mundanities small and large. Inspired by Chaplin, the film is almost without dialogue, punctuated more frequently by contemporaneous reports of the war in Ukraine. Beautifully colored, its exploration of run-down neighborhoods and industrial sites is gorgeous, and the director’s trademark B-movie humor is as refreshing as ever.

My favorite film of the festival was Wim Wenders’s late-career triumph Perfect Days, which stars Kōji Yakusho as a professional toilet cleaner in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Following his routine, day and night (including some astonishing, abstractly textural dreams), the film eschews all forms of pity, instead giving us an extended glimpse of a life we may come to feel jealous of by the end. Yakusho’s dignified portrayal is filled with the tiny revelations and the quiet comforts of a simple and well-ordered life; a visit from his niece (Arisa Nakano) midway through, offers us our only glimpse of frustration or regret at his circumstances.

Somewhere between this quiet attention to beauty and the girlboss period piece sits Trân Anh Hùng’s The Pot-au-Feu, which takes place mainly in the kitchen of a grand nineteenth century French estate. The maison’s owner, Dodin Bouffant (Benoît Magimel), is a renowned gourmand, referred to by awestruck acquaintances as the Napoleon of cuisine. He himself is enamored with his cook (Juliette Binoche), who alone is capable of executing the architecturally and scientifically demanding recipes he has adapted or invented to suit his formidable palette. There’s not much scandal in The Pot-au-Feu, which shirks investigating the lopsided dynamics of its romance in favor of the raw sensuality of food itself—sumptuous dishes whose elaborate making often outshines the characters that eat them. Don’t see it on an empty stomach.

Speaking of food, I was discretely shoving a pate en croute into my mouth during the opening credits of Jessica Hausner’s Club Zero, which I soon learned I was going to regret. The film takes place at an elaborate private boarding school, somewhere in the mélange of noveau-riche Europe, where a new teacher (Mia Wasikowska) arrives with a curriculum on “conscious eating.” Taken as an elective by a small cohort of students, the class quickly develops a cult-like influence on the diets and lives of the pupils, who begin aspiring to not eat anything at all. A glancing indictment of some of the personal and political complications that can spur anorexia, it’s a straightforwardly audacious project whose potentially deleterious effects on audiences have yet to be seen. The most disturbing part may be the film’s absurdist humor, which extends self-starvation into the realm of magical realism despite maintaining a constant, cringing awareness of its existence as an all-too-real disorder. The film begins with a trigger warning for viewers with sensitivities to disordered eating and behavior control; it’s an open question whether the safest option was to avoid making the film in the first place.

I didn’t get the chance to see Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet’s slow-burn thriller, which won this year’s Palme d’Or. Between the churn of the ticket market and the strong offerings of adjacent programs, it’s possible to catch several premieres a day and still come away having missed the big stuff. The chatter at the bars and in the last-minute lines was that it was solid work, though many festival goers were predicting a triumph instead for The Zone of Interest, Jonathan Glazer’s chilling look at the private life of a high-ranking Nazi official, which took second place. I’ll have to see Triet’s film myself (almost certainly it will come our way this fall at NYFF) before I can know whether it deserved the top prize.

Cannes is currently in the midst of a tendentious process of overhauling itself for the 21st century. The oldest major international film festival, it’s archaic in many ways—from programming to its strict dress code—that make the festival seem out of touch while simultaneously lending it much of its charm. Triet is only the third woman to ever win the Palme d’Or; the second, Julia Ducournau, received the prize just two years ago. There are some old conservatives who will lament the speed at which Cannes is trying to catch up to its mandate to represent the full diversity of cinema, and who will see Triet’s Palme as less about quality than politics. Certainly, diversifying the field of directors represented here is not a threat; anyone who believes otherwise should take comfort in the large number of pale, male, and stale filmmakers who were included in this year’s selection for the umpteenth time, offering new projects that were unmistakably theirs without adding anything remarkable to their oeuvre. For the moment, though, Cannes remains split in this fashion, eager to be seen as welcoming new talent while still guaranteeing a prime spot to its graying figures of eminence.

On the final day of the festival, after fruitlessly waiting in the standby line for Zone of Interest, I consoled myself with a screening of Homecoming by Catherine Corsini. The queer French filmmaker has been showing her work at the festival since 2001, never with much fanfare, and I hadn’t heard anything about her latest project. It turned out to be a delightful film starring Aïssatou Diallo Sagna as Khédidja, an au pair who returns to her native Corsica with her two teenage daughters to care for the young children of a white Parisian family. The film has the same idyllic summer feeling that made Call Me By Your Name (2017) so special, and, while it offers a frank depiction of racial bias and xenophobia on the Mediterranean island, its chief concern is the complicated and fiercely loving dynamic of Khédidja’s small family. Homecoming received a muted reception at this year's festival (despite an overblown media scandal concerning Corsini's handling of intimate scenes during the production). Absent some special pleading from programmers or critics, it may never even get distributed in the US. Stumbling upon it was a reminder of how rich this program can be, filled with treasures far outside the purview of the Hollywood hype machine, whose once-in-a-lifetime viewings leave an indelible mark. Here’s hoping that the festival continues to make itself more inclusive—not only by bringing outsiders in, but by sharing its slate of films as widely as possible with those that lack the means for a festival badge and a dawn wake-up call.


Nolan Kelly

Nolan Kelly is a writer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY.


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