May 27, 2022

Film

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

By Shane Danielsen
Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

There was no warning, just a faint rumble out to sea that deepened in the space of three short seconds to become a sudden, world-consuming roar. Standing in line for the Debussy Theatre, waiting to see the opening selection of Cannes 2022’s Un Certain Regard section, myself and the rest of the crowd (pretty much the entire Croisette promenade, in fact) found ourselves being strafed by eight fighter jets, flying in tight formation just 500 feet above our heads, trailing clouds of red, white and blue smoke. 

Everyone ducked – what the hell was happening? – and then looked up, watching as the planes headed inland and then banked left, circling over the hills toward Tanneron. “Les tricoleurs!” shouted one Frenchman, hopefully. Unkind laughter ensued.

Nice try, Gaspar. But no: this was a vulgar (though crudely effective) display of American supremacy, timed to the premiere of Top Gun: Maverick, which was taking place at that moment just 200 metres further along the Croisette, on the red carpet leading to the Grand Theatre Lumière.

Personally, I was grateful for those vapor trails, which at least rid me of my initial suspicion: that this was the Russians bombing the crap out of Cannes as revenge for the festival having beamed in Volodymyr Zelensky, live from a bunker somewhere, to address the audience at its opening night ceremony. The Ukrainian president’s speech had been well-suited to the occasion – he cited, among other films, The Great Dictator and Apocalypse Now! – and quietly moving. Its themes of courage and resistance were, however, rather lost on the two journalists sitting beside me, who remained soundly asleep throughout. 

Listen, we’ve all been there. Let he who is without sin, etc. But the dozing hacks provided a nice visual metaphor for a festival that has occasionally struggled to reconcile the difference between the urgent and the frivolous. The opening night ceremony was a case in point, veering between long, impassioned speeches (from Zelensky, from jury president Vincent Lindon), variety-show kitsch (including an especially shitty piano chanson) and large doses of hearty self-congratulation – though in fairness, the latter was matched by the audience, appreciably grateful that the worst of the pandemic was over, at least for the moment, and that the festival, the definitive Euro film event of the year, was back. 

Yet beneath it all lurked the sense that the festival was redefining its mission. (Sure enough, a few days in, a panel discussion sought to answer the question: “Filmmaking: What Now?”) Cannes turns 75 this year, yet despite its senior-citizen status is back to something resembling full strength. After last year’s later edition in July – a kind of paradise, sparsely attended and exceptionally programmed – this one feels more like business as usual. Screenings are more crowded; restaurants, too. But those fighter planes notwithstanding, Hollywood still feels curiously MIA. Paramount’s giant promotion for Top Gun outside the Grand Hotel is the only major movie advertisement to be found along the Croisette, which in years past has been so littered with billboards for upcoming blockbusters that it resembled Times Square. And that film and Elvis, from Warner Bros., are the only major American studio pics to be found in the program.

I’m not going to see Elvis, partly because, in the immortal words of Chuck D, he never meant shit to me, but mostly because it’s a Baz Luhrmann film, and I’ve sworn off those. (I’m still trying to forget Australia, which felt like a national epic made by a not especially bright 10-year-old.) I wanted very badly, on the other hand, to like George Miller’s latest, Three Thousand Years of Longing, which he’s seemingly made as a kind of amuse-bouche between Mad Max films – albeit one reportedly costing $60 million. Unfortunately, it was the kind of CGI-heavy, What Dreams May Come–style fantasy that’s like fingernails down a blackboard for me. Starring Tilda Swinton as a nerdy academic and Idris Elba as the djinn she frees from a bottle she finds in an Istanbul marketplace, its meditations on storytelling felt altogether too glum and self-serious and, worse still, the Scheherazade-like tales it did tell weren’t remotely interesting.


But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The festival began this year with a proper masterpiece: Jean Eustache’s 1973 drama The Mother and the Whore, recently freed from more than two decades’ worth of rights disputes, which has kept the late filmmaker’s work out of the public sphere, and now restored to pristine 4K magnificence, with every grain of Pierre Lhomme’s monochrome cinematography as sharp as a pin. At three hours and 40 minutes, and set almost entirely in various apartments and cafes, it’s a kind of carnal epic, chronicling the romantic travails of unemployed Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as he divides his attention between his live-in girlfriend Marie (Bernadette Lafont) and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun), the Polish-French nurse he meets at Les Deux Magots and begins to pursue, much to Marie’s irritation and occasional amusement. 

Most of the film is about sex. Indeed, I think it’s the greatest movie ever made on the subject – unsparing in its sadness and consolations, on the emptiness it can both relieve and amplify. Much of it consists of locked-off singles and two-shots, fixed frames for its barbed, frequently profane dialogue (seemingly improvised, but in fact tightly written and meticulously rehearsed) as the three principals negotiate the terms of their emerging ménage à trois. And slowly, from these exchanges and the incremental shifts in power and self-awareness they reveal, Eustache’s own point of view emerges. The film culminates in Lebrun’s climactic (no pun intended) monologue, one of the most unforgettable sequences in ’70s cinema, which, after her proud declarations of promiscuity, espouses a kind of radical conservatism, an unexpectedly puritanical vision of heteronormative gender relations. 

In the same way, while historically the final work of the French New Wave, the film’s pared-down simplicity of style and the stern austerity of its tone stand as a rebuke to the playful excesses of that movement, right down to its abrupt, unforgettable ending. Still a provocation almost half a century since it premiered at Cannes (when it won the Grand Prix du Jury), it set a standard that the rest of this year’s festival – and maybe the rest of the year – will struggle to equal.

Sure enough, the following two days were a little underwhelming. Scarlet, the opening film of the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, by Martin Eden director Pietro Marcello, was a dreary sort-of period romance set in the aftermath of World War One, about a poor-but-honest country girl and a handsome aviator, which came complete with a string of musical numbers so banal and tuneless that even Björk might look askance. And God’s Creatures, by Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis – whose debut The Fits was just about my favourite film of 2015 – proved a baffling disappointment: a lugubrious, almost comically solemn drama set in an Irish fishing village that not only wasted Emily Watson but offered no good answer to a question that’s been plaguing me for months: why is Paul Mescal A Thing? (See also: Aftersun, screening in Critics’ Week here, which saw him acted off the screen by nine-year-old discovery Francesca Corio. Who, admittedly, is extraordinary.)

Matters improved sharply with the premiere of Mia Hansen-Løve’s latest, One Fine Morning. Her strongest feature since 2009’s Father of My Children, it’s anchored by a superb, nuanced performance from star Léa Seydoux as Sandra, a translator and single mother who must juggle not only her career and maternal responsibilities but also the ever-more demanding care of her ailing father (Pascal Greggory), a philosophy professor laid low by the motor neurone disease that’s robbed him of much of his eyesight and a good deal of his memory. One day, at a park, she runs into an old friend, Clément (Melvil Poupaud), who’s now married with a child, and soon begins an affair with him – with understandable eagerness (he’s hot, she’s lonely) but perhaps insufficient consideration of what the relationship, her first in five years, might do to her.

Classically French in manner – there’s no structure to speak of, and little in the way of narrative “incidents” in the conventional sense – it nonetheless teems with life and detail. Few films of the past decade have so convincingly portrayed the messiness and complexity of daily living, or, for that matter, the passage of time: the drama spans the better part of a year, and by the end you’ve felt the deep, almost novelistic heft of that span. The sense of lives existing outside the frame of this particular story. The result often feels discomfitingly real – not least because Seydoux and Poupaud demonstrate the most genuinely sexy kissing I’ve seen onscreen in some time. A small detail, but one that, when noticed, makes a hell of a difference.


Over in Directors’ Fortnight, I was thrilled by Falcon Lake, the debut feature from Canadian actress Charlotte Le Bon, whose Kafkaesque short film, Judith Hotel, caused a few ripples back in 2018. Based on a graphic novel, Falcon Lake charts the sexual coming of age of not-quite-14-year-old Bastien (Joseph Engel) on a family holiday, accelerated by his relationship – first a friendship, then something more – with Chloé (Sara Montpetit), the daughter of friends of his parents; the two families are holidaying together in a cabin by the lake of the title, in rural Quebec. 

Though only two years older than he, Chloé is far more worldly and self-possessed, and Bastien is quickly beguiled. She, in turn, is charmed by the boy’s awkward, earnest sweetness. A touching sort-of romance ensues (which boasts one of the funniest scenes of the year: a masturbation joke for the ages), however the film is also filled with images of spectres and drowning, and haunted by Chloe’s own moody Todessehnsucht. (“Apparently it’s fun to drown,” she muses idly at one point.) Slowly, almost without you noticing, Falcon Lake morphs into something quite unexpected: a melancholy kind of ghost story.

Also in the same sidebar, and no less slippery, was Pamfir, an extraordinarily assured first feature from Ukrainian writer-director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk. Set in the border region of Chernivtsi, a foggy rural backwater populated almost exclusively by corrupt officials, cops on the take and thieving locals, it opens with the return of bear-like ex-wrestler Pamfir (Oleksandr Yatsentyuk) to his village, where he’s reunited with his wife Olena (Solomiya Kyrylova) and teenage son Nazar (Stanislav Potyak) after a few years working in Poland. A former smuggler, Pamfir straightened up at Olena’s insistence some years earlier, but soon finds himself drifting back into bad habits in an attempt to save his boy from trouble. 

However, what might have been a simple study of smalltown corruption soon turns into something far stranger: Pamfir, we learn, has also returned to take part in the “Malanka”, a kind of pagan folk festival that sees the local men don elaborate wooden masks and costumes of straw (reminiscent of Japanese mino capes), and enact bawdy rituals of dominance and submission. Violent, occasionally tender, sometimes amusing and always thrillingly unpredictable, it was magnificently shot in the Soviet, extended mise-en-scene style, with a roving camera and minimal cutting. A real discovery, in other words. Now let’s hope Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk lives long enough to make a second film…

With half of the Competition films now unveiled, it’s thus far proved an unusually weak selection. There’ve been few outright disasters, but also weirdly little to genuinely inspire, with hotly anticipated titles such as Tarik Saleh’s Boy From Heaven (a political thriller set inside Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University) and Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider (about a serial killer dispatching prostitutes in the Iranian holy city of Mashad) falling just short of excellence. Others, such as former Palme d’Or winner Ruben Östlund’s latest, Triangle of Sadness (a satire on “the tawdry economic value of beauty”), feel under-developed and insubstantial.

Hopes were high for David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, the master’s long-awaited return to feature filmmaking after eight years, and a film that has generated intense buzz in recent weeks – not least when its maker went on record saying he expected walkouts “within the first five minutes”, so extreme was its body-horror. (To which I say, “Bitch, I’ve seen Irreversible!”) It’s a real shame, therefore, to report that what was in my mind as I watched wasn’t so much bafflement (though honestly, there’s barely a single truly grisly image throughout), or even flashbacks to Cronenberg’s earlier, better work, but simply a line from late-period Yeats: “What can I but enumerate old themes.” It felt, in other words, like an old man’s film, an exercise in Late Style that dutifully restated his perennial concerns, but lacked the passionate intensity of classics like Videodrome and Scanners

Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) is one half of a performance art couple with his lover Caprice (Léa Seydoux). Their practice consists of Tenser consciously growing “new organs” inside his body and then publicly submitting to their extraction by Caprice, for the delectation of their ghoulish fans. Mortensen stalks around in a hooded black cape, looking like Aragorn as dressed by Rick Owens; unfortunately, what’s around him isn’t even as transgressive as one of Owens’ own videos. There are a few cute slogans in the manner of “Long live the new flesh” (my favourite: “Surgery is the new sex”), but the biggest crimes here are against the cast, not one of whom, thanks to a stagily talky script, is ever allowed to sound remotely like an actual human being. My favourite was Kristen Stewart, even nervier than usual, gulping her lines in breathy, two- and three-word snatches. Cronenberg seems to have told her to “play it like you’re Woody Allen… but also like you’re perpetually on the verge of an orgasm”. A bold choice, as they say, but like the rest of the movie, one that doesn’t quite come off.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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