June 2, 2023

Film

Cannes Film Festival 2023 highlights: part one

By Shane Danielsen
Image showing a group of people standing and sitting together in a green field near a body of water.

Still from Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Image courtesy of A24

Jonathan Glazer brilliantly conveys the banality of evil in Auschwitz drama ‘The Zone of Interest’, while Martin Scorsese’s ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ disappointed

For the first week of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it was either raining or about to rain. The sky was the colour of wet cement. A sharp wind blew off the bay. Good weather to be in a cinema – but not ideal for lining up outside of one, or trying to make your way between venues, along a Croisette packed with disappointed tourists, pissed-off gendarmerie and small, unhappy-looking dogs waddling through oily puddles. There’s a particular kind of energy to wet weather in a seaside town, and this fully embodied it. Everybody, visitors and festival staff alike, seemed irritable and fatigued, almost from day one.

But fatigue wasn’t the reason I didn’t bother seeing Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, one of the festival’s biggest premieres. It was because I’d watched the trailer a few weeks earlier, and everything about it – Seniors Card Indy, crappy CGI, a creaky air of desperation to the entire enterprise – had made me feel sad. (In my universe, there were only two Indiana Jones movies: they were both perfect, and then the franchise stopped.) Critical consensus, thankfully, seemed to have borne out my decision. I’m never going to watch that movie, and neither should you.

The other two most eagerly awaited films at the festival, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon and Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, premiered over two successive days, and proved very different experiences. Along with what seemed like about 100,000 other people, I stood in the rain for almost 90 minutes to ensure that I got a seat for Scorsese’s film. I wasn’t expecting to be disappointed, and certainly not to the degree I was. 

The reasons are both structural and practical. Scorsese and co-writer Eric Roth have shifted the focus of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction bestseller away from his primary narrative (the procedural investigation into a string of murders that helped found the FBI) and onto a broader examination of the plight of the Osage people in Oklahoma in the 1920s, and their brutal exploitation at the hands of white Americans – here personified by a crime family run by corrupt local identity “King” Bill Hale (Robert De Niro). At just over three and a half hours, it’s not only drastically overlong – incredibly for Scorsese, the pacing is funereal – but bizarrely uninvolving. Women are being slaughtered, one after another, yet you never felt the horror of these killings or any sense of outrage, or even the kind of twitchy, generalised paranoia that used to be the director’s tier. The film just sits there on the screen, looking handsome and demanding admiration.

But the film’s biggest problem is its star, Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s shockingly bad as Bill’s none-too-bright nephew Ernest. It’s a sweaty, effortful performance (weirdly reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade – all jaw and brow) that manages to communicate no hint of an interior life whatsoever. (A number of US reviewers hailed it as DiCaprio’s best work yet, which only reinforces my belief that most film critics lack either the vocabulary or the practical experience with actors to properly assess performance.) Worse, its failure means the film’s central relationship, between Ernest and Osage woman Mollie (Lily Gladstone), makes no sense whatsoever, because DiCaprio’s performance is so one-note, so without nuance, that you never for a moment believe he loves her sincerely. Instead, it’s like we’re watching a (bad) con man take an idiot for a ride. For 206 minutes.

While much of the internet had obsessed for months about the single production still released for Killers of the Flower Moon (where were the rest? what was it even about?), The Zone of Interest arrived with precisely zero advance publicity, which is just the way its maker wanted it. I’d read Martin Amis’s novel, a drama set in Auschwitz, when it was published in 2014, and thought it his best since London Fields – but knew next to nothing about the film. There were rumours that it was shot in black and white (false, it turned out), that it was entirely in German (true), and that it dispensed with most of the plot of the novel (also true – to a point). Weirdly, the day I saw it was the same day Amis died of oesophageal cancer in Florida, just as I was thinking that finally he’d been well served by a film adaptation.

Glazer’s previous film, his 2013 adaptation of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, revealed a rare talent for re-imagining source material, but this is something else again. Set mostly in a house constructed just outside the walls of Auschwitz, where camp commandant Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) raise their happy, Aryan kinder, it finds Glazer observing Claude Lanzmann’s dictum that what actually occurred within the lagers – the physical mechanisms of mass extermination – are beyond the capacity of filmic images to portray. And so the film proceeds by implication. We might notice a dark column of smoke rising from a chimney at the edge of the frame, or the red tint of the evening sky as, behind the wall, the furnaces burn throughout the night. Meanwhile, we watch as Höss and his wife entertain guests in their “paradise garden”, speculate on his chances for a promotion, and terrify their Jewish house staff. (At one point Frau Höss – who revels in her unofficial title, “the Queen of Auschwitz” – snaps at a young maid that, if the girl’s performance continues to disappoint, her husband will have her ashes scattered in a field.) 

Using fixed cameras placed around the residence, cinematographer Łukasz Żal’s images are reminiscent of surveillance footage, and as such perfectly communicate the quotidian banality of evil. But it falls to Johnnie Burn’s sound design to evoke the true horror of the situation. He crafts a meticulous, infernal tapestry of “noises off” – distant screams, occasional gunshots, the barking of guard dogs – and the effect, already discomfiting, is further enhanced by Mica Levi’s nerve-wracking score, a threnody of voices and dissonant microtones, which confirms that they’re the most talented composer currently working in cinema. The film’s tone is coolly detached, a study in choosing what in the frame to notice and what to ignore, exactly like the domestic lives it depicts – until a coda abruptly shifts the action to the present day (and the register to documentary), with shattering power. 

A genuine work of art, imbuing extreme formalism with moral force, The Zone of Interest was the finest film in Competition. Yet it didn’t win the Palme. That honour went to Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, a courtroom drama about a female novelist who may or may not have murdered her husband. (A visibly disappointed Glazer had to settle for the runner-up prize, the Grand Prix du Jury.) It was a solid, mostly popular choice, despite being a 105-minute story stretched into a 150-minute movie, and it happens to feature one of the greatest husband-and-wife arguments in recent cinema. 

But its win confirmed my feeling that something was afoot at this year’s festival: a subtle but definite generational shift. The average age of the filmmakers in Competition was 60 (and included two directors – Marco Bellocchio and Ken Loach – in their 80s), while the average age of the jury assessing them (which included American actors Brie Larsen and Paul Dano, and 2021 Palme winner Julia Ducournau) was just 44. By happy coincidence, Triet is also that age. She’s also a Cannes mainstay, having started out a decade ago in the festival’s scrappy ACID sidebar, from which she graduated, first to Critics Week and then, with 2019’s Sibyl, to Competition. The jury that rewarded her, meanwhile, was presided over by last year’s winner, Ruben Östlund (49), who to me always has the look of a man congratulating himself on getting away with something. But his Triangle of Sadness wasn’t a Palme film, and Anatomy, though rather better than that one, isn’t really either: it’s simply a smart, extremely well made French drama, with a terrific lead performance by Sandra Hüller.

Bellocchio (83) went home empty-handed, as usual. Which is a shame, because his entry Rapito (Kidnapped) was excellent, with typically masterful mise-en-scene and a muscularity to the staging of action – in particular, during some large-scale crowd sequences – which belied its maker’s advanced years. But then, his career has been nothing if not a study in consistency. Since making his debut at age 26 with a masterpiece, 1965’s Fists in the Pocket, the Italian veteran has shot 24 features and a handful of documentaries, some of them excellent and none of them less than good, and all of them noteworthy for their intelligence, craft and conviction. Last year he co-wrote and directed a five-part series for Italian TV, Exterior Night, about the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, which also demonstrated his effortless command of episodic television. Although he won an award for Lifetime Achievement at Venice in 2011, he’s never won a prize at Cannes. As a former Marxist, perhaps such honours are meaningless to him. But I suspect he was disappointed this time, and with good reason.

The other Competition standout, for me, came from Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan (64). About Dry Grasses focused on another of his prickly male protagonists, an art teacher in a remote, snowy corner of Eastern Anatolia, longing for transfer to Istanbul and believing himself superior to the yokels around him. But his arrogance is shaken when he’s accused of inappropriate behavior towards one of his favourite pupils, a 14-year-old girl with an obvious crush on him. A superb writer, clearly indebted to Chekhov (to whom he dedicated his debut feature), Ceylan is also an incredible director of actors. As the teacher, Deniz Celiloğlu is utterly magnetic, by turns vain, cruel, self-pitying and ruthless, yet never overplaying or entirely forfeiting our sympathy; his every glance and gesture seems to contain at least three contradictory thoughts. And co-star Merve Dizdar, as a fellow teacher he attempts to seduce, matches him beat for beat – so much so, in fact, that she ended up snatching the Best Actress award from odds-on favourite Sandra Hüller.

It’s a typically wordy film, built, like its predecessors Winter Sleep and The Wild Pear Tree, around a series of conversations. Ceylan films these lengthy dialogues mostly in master shots – but he also knows precisely when to cut into the scene, to close-ups and reversals that reveal the brief, almost subliminal flicker of an unexpected emotion, or signal the shifting balance of power in a scene. And while I dislike the term “novelistic” to describe cinema, no other will quite do here, such is the fine-grained richness of the characterisations and the abundance of detail, narrative as well as sensory, in this cloistered, enclave-like world. Unfolding over three and a quarter hours, it was never less than riveting. (And I haven’t even mentioned the electrifying coup de théâtre Ceylan pulls off, unexpectedly, about an hour before the end.)

Wim Wenders (77) made a return to form, at long last, with Perfect Days, a Tokyo-set chamber piece about a late-middle-aged cleaner of public toilets who finds an almost transcendental satisfaction in the unvarying rhythm of his days. Hirayama-san lives alone, dines at the same handful of places, and rarely speaks – but this precise routine is actually a bulwark against deeper anxieties and regrets; the vessel, we gradually realise, is so fine that it threatens to shatter at a touch. As played by the great Yakusho Kōji, the nearly wordless performance earned him the Best Actor prize – his victory secured no doubt with the film’s final shot, the kind of sustained tight close-up-while-emoting that most actors would sell a kidney for. 

The film’s debt to Yasujirō Ozu was clear, both in its tranquil, unhurried humanism and in the filmmaker’s decision to shoot in Academy ratio. Needle-drops abound: Hirayama listens to cassette tapes of his favourite music on his daily drive to the job. (He’s also an amateur photographer who shoots on film. He’s very much an Analogue Guy.) Alas, Wenders is not exactly one for the deep cut, and consequently some of the choices here were rather on the nose. Hirayama likes Van Morrison, so we get “Brown Eyed Girl”; he likes Nina Simone, so we get “Feeling Good”. Still, at least there was no Nick Cave. 

Elsewhere, the Competition was a mixed bag, as usual. Nanni Moretti’s A Brighter Tomorrow was disgraceful, its combination of vanity and preening self-righteousness extreme even by his standards. And Karim Aïnouz’s Firebrand, with Alicia Vikander as Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, was little better. (I’m puzzled as to why this kind of #girlboss! historical revisionism is so often accompanied by stylistic conservatism: this looked and played like an episode of The Tudors, circa 2007.) But I mostly enjoyed Catherine Corsini’s Homecoming, about two teenage sisters whose visit to their dead father’s homeland in Corsica affects them in very different ways. And I also liked Catherine Breillat’s L'été dernier, her first film in a decade, despite a third act that could be taught in screenwriting classes as an example of how not to make use of the very plot points you’ve so carefully seeded. The story of a quasi-incestuous May-December romance, it cleaved so closely to the conventions of stepmom porn that you half expected to find star Léa Drucker stuck in a washing machine.

Finally, Trán Anh Hung’s The Pot-au-Feu proved a very welcome surprise. An unabashedly sentimental gastronomical romance, it has three big things going for it: beautiful images of exquisite food being prepared (superbly captured by Jonathan Ricquebourg’s nimble, darting camera); a suitably picturesque rural period setting; and two absolutely magnetic stars, former off-screen couple Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel – both excellent. (Well, perhaps four things if you include Trán’s elegant, fluent direction, which earned him the Best Director award.) Richly sensual and quietly sexy (who would have thought the line “May I watch you eat?” would be so arousing?), this will likely be a significant foreign-language hit when it’s released. It’s a film you can take your mum to. Just make sure you buy her dinner afterward.

Shane Danielsen

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

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