Jordan Cronk on the 75th Cannes Film Festival

FOR ITS DIAMOND JUBILEE, the Cannes Film Festival marked the occasion the same way it does every year: by celebrating itself. Indeed, only at Cannes could an opening night video introduction by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, quoting at one point from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, double as a tribute to a medium—and, by extension, a festival—finally returning to relative normality after two years of pandemic-related setbacks. (“We are Cannes,” festival director Thierry Frémaux reportedly said when asked how he managed to arrange Zelenskyy’s cameo.) With none of the health restrictions of last year’s edition, Cannes 2022 was a noticeably livelier, more convivial affair—though it wasn’t long before this year’s uneven selection confirmed how atypical 2021’s deceptively robust backlog of quality titles really was. If the big names remained, so did the festival’s questionable adherence to a certain brand of contemporary auteurism that continues to pay decreasing dividends. Competition mainstays such as Hirokazu Koreeda (Broker), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Tori and Lokita), and Cristian Mungiu (R.M.N.) all turned in predictably didactic, stylistically stulted work, while regulars like Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave) and Kirill Serebrennikov (Tchaikovsky’s Wife) squandered interesting setups and subjects by playing into their most self-conscious impulses.
A new generation of filmmakers took a lion’s share of the top prizes. Winner of his second straight Palme d’Or, Sweden’s Ruben Östlund personifies Cannes’ self-congratulatory house style. Like The Square (2017), Triangle of Sadness takes satirical aim at a range of easy targets: In place of the former’s art-world elites is a cross section of influencer arrivistes and monied aristocrats who, in a series of one-joke set pieces, converge on an ill-fated luxury cruise captained by a drunken Woody Harrelson. The film spends ample time heaping distain on its characters: Carl and Yaya (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean Kriek) are fashion models whose relationship is based on “likes” more than love; if just once Yaya would offer to pay for dinner! Once on board, the couple meet a Reagan-quoting Russian fertilizer tycoon, an elderly British arms dealer, their wives, and a harried crew concerned that Harrelson’s character won’t sober up in time for the captain’s dinner. Set during a raging storm, this centerpiece sequence makes no bones about Östlund’s feelings for these characters. One by one they fall sick, vomiting and shitting their way from the restaurant to their rooms, literally swimming down the halls in their own bile and excrement. For sheer commitment to the bit, the scene one-ups The Square’s rampaging monkey-man banquet, but by the end it can’t help but feel as shallow as the people it lampoons. Never one to leave well enough alone, Östlund then shifts the story to a desert island where the ship’s Filipina housekeeper (Dolly De Leon) turns the tables on the guests, using basic survival skills to become the matriarch of the group, and forces Carl to become her sex slave. Pandering and preaching to the converted, Triangle of Sadness is a film engineered to win awards at Cannes.

Claire Denis, Stars at Noon, 2022, color, sound, 135 minutes. Daniel and Trish (Joe Alwyn and Margaret Qualley).

The same might be said of Lukas Dhont’s Close, cowinner of the Grand Prix. Manipulative and sentimental, it’s the kind of middlebrow arthouse film that reduces knotty subject matter—in this case, adolescent suicide—to maudlin melodrama. That Dhont, whose first two features have won three prizes at Cannes, shared the award with Claire Denis, who returned to competition for the first time since her 1988 debut, Chocolat, was more than a little jarring in light of the latter’s stupendously strange Denis Johnson adaptation Stars at Noon, which looks and feels unlike anything the director has ever made. Linear and detached where her films are typically elliptical and intimate, Stars at Noon—a movie shot in Panama and set in Nicaragua, starring Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn as an American journalist and English oilman embroiled in a not-entirely-explicated political quagmire—is built around contradictions and seemingly counterintuitive choices that generate a fascinating tonal dissonance that, while arguably muddling its themes of neocolonial extraction, is disorienting enough to suggest that there may be something perversely pointed in Denis’s unorthodox approach to the material. If nothing else, in a selection of largely conventional offerings, it stood alongside David Cronenberg’s austere body horror fable Crimes of the Future and Jerzy Skolimowski’s EO, an audacious update of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966), as the main slate’s most unusual entries. (It’s worth noting that these works came from the competition’s three oldest filmmakers.)
In a nice bit of scheduling synchronicity, many critics made a mid-fest double bill out of Crimes of the Future and De humani corporis fabrica, the one great film in this year’s Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, which otherwise offered up more modest delights from Pietro Marcello (Scarlet), Mia Hansen-Løve (One Fine Morning), and João Pedro Rodrigues (Will-o’-the-Wisp). Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, De humani resembles the duo’s earlier landmark Leviathan (2012) in its immersive descent into a uniquely tactile, frighteningly volatile environment. Shooting over a period of years with specially made cameras at a number of Parisian hospitals, the filmmakers accumulated hundreds of hours of surgical footage that moves in and out of the human body with bracing immediacy. Intestinal tracts, rectal cavities, splayed spinal cords, exposed breast tissue, cavernous prostates—each are examined in-depth and at length, accompanied by conversations between surgeons that range from the technical and banal to the surprisingly humorous. Long passages of flesh and fiber become hypnotic displays of color, texture, and motion, calling to mind Stan Brakhage’s hand-painted celluloid frames as readily as Peter Gidal’s experiments in Structural/Materialist Film or Luther Price’s 35-mm glass slides. Broken up by images of grungy basements, anonymous hallways, and sequences of elderly patients moving listlessly through endless corridors, the film slowly reveals itself as an institutional portrait as much as an exploration of the dialectic between corporeality and virtuality.

Kelly Reichardt, Showing Up, 2022, color, sound, 108 minutes. Lizzy (Michele Williams).

Ending things on a high note were two competition films scheduled late in the festival: Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up and Albert Serra’s Pacifiction. In Showing Up, a sculptor prepares for an important gallery show as various everyday dramas distract her from her work. In Pacifiction, rumors of nuclear testing in Polynesia prompt the arrival of a French government official. Differences in scope notwithstanding, the two films present an interesting case study in narrative incident, or lack thereof. Set in and around an art school in Portland, Oregon, Showing Up focuses on the kind of aspiring artist rarely depicted in cinema. Lizzy (Michele Williams) is talented, but isn’t famous; like many in her orbit, she will likely spend her life toiling away creatively without much recompense. Lizzy’s colleague, Jo (Hong Chau), is also her landlord, and is too busy prepping her own exhibition to fix Lizzy’s hot water. Meanwhile, the two are nursing an injured pigeon and dealing with family issues. A master minimalist, Reichardt infuses her threadbare narratives with uncontainable longing and a delicate sense of intimacy. Like her prior collaborations with Williams in Wendy and Lucy (2008), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), and Certain Women (2016), Showing Up is a quietly daring tale in which an otherwise mundane experience can take flight at a moment’s notice.
At 165 minutes, Pacifiction simmers and sprawls where Showing Up quietly ambles. Starring Benoît Magimel as High Commissioner De Roller, Serra’s latest opus—his first in the official competition after years of placing films in nearly every parallel program—ripples with political tension as a constellation of Tahitian locals and governmental types talk in circles around the potentially disastrous issue at hand. Drifting languidly between the island’s beaches and bars, De Roller indulges as much as he intellectualizes, losing himself in the rhythms of this tropical paradise. Merging historical realities with louche surrealism à la Story of My Death (2013) and Liberté (2019), Serra here creates a kind of waking dreamscape that doubles as a meditation on colonialism and atomic anxieties. As it proceeds, the narrative increasingly surrenders to moments of pure, exultant cinema: an extended mid-film sequence of gigantic waves breaking diagonally across Artur Tort’s widescreen frame as boats and surfers float precariously in the foreground collapses space in a manner as breathtaking as anything I’ve ever seen in a movie; later, there’s a nearly wordless nocturnal denouement in which pulsing club music, neon lights, and the sounds of silence bring the film to the brink of abstraction. Watching Pacifiction unfold in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, with perfect picture and sound in front of a rapt audience, is the kind of experience that makes film festivals like Cannes unique, even “necessary”—and that’s something worth celebrating.

The 75th Cannes Film Festival took place from May 17 to May 28.

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