Tom Cruise smiles. He has just walked the red carpet for the world premiere of his new blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick, and fighter jets are roaring overhead, trailing French tricolour smoke in their wake. The Ukrainian film producer I am speaking to winces as the boom ricochets across Cannes. “My brother is a soldier, and my father” – she gestures to a stout man standing behind us in the queue solemnly tapping at a phone – “is responsible for keeping Russian propaganda from European satellites.” For the first “normal” Cannes Film Festival since 2019, this year’s iteration holds a lot of surprises.
Born in reaction to Benito Mussolini’s decision to overrule the judges at the 1938 Venice Film Festival to reward Nazi propaganda, Cannes is again being shaped by responses to oppressive regimes and international conflict. As festival head Thierry Frémaux said of Ukraine in his prefestival press conference, “this war ... is unfolding a three-hour flight away from Paris”.
The opening ceremony features a video appearance from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “Will cinema stay silent, or will it talk about [the war]?” he asks the audience. “If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, again, it all depends on our unity. We need a new Chaplin who will prove that, in our time, cinema is not silent.”
The opening night film, Michel Hazanavicius’s Final Cut – its name hurriedly changed from the recently problematised Z – is a lightweight remake of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s innovative Japanese zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead. Unlikely to be anyone’s favourite pick, Hazanavicius combines a family-friendly comic tone, slapstick horror and the charisma of actors Romain Duris and Bérénice Bejo in a way that continues Cannes’ tradition of upbeat, star-driven opening-night films.
Conversely, the first In Competition screening, Tchaikovsky’s Wife, is an ideal example of what many people deride as “typical” Cannes fare – lugubrious, beautifully photographed, European humanitarian drama. Dissident Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov’s exploration of the composer’s decision to hide his homosexuality by marrying a woman who obsessively loves him drew less press attention than his defence of one of the film’s backers, disgraced oligarch Roman Abramovich, and his argument against a ban on Russian culture. This year there is no Russian pavilion or delegation. Anecdotally, it also seems to mean fewer superyachts and vodka-fuelled parties.
After the 2020 cancellation, last year’s heavily regulated festival was more a demonstration of spirit than a showcase of the world’s best cinema. But this year’s slate of films, regarded as the best in many years, is creating a mood of sunny optimism.
When it comes to judging what you see, it is often difficult to separate the film from the experience of watching it. By the time you’ve travelled to the south of France, secured whatever accreditation or sought-after ticket allows you into the queue and passed the teams of security guards and metal detectors, the cinemas themselves are awe-inspiring. Huge, immaculate, absurdly comfortable, with astonishing acoustics and vast, crystalline screens, every part of your cinephilic being wants the film to be worth the expense and effort of everyone involved.
In Cannes, the experience is close to a religious apotheosis. Reactions tend to be heightened, walkouts are dutifully noted, vocal interjections from offended or excited cinephiles are not unusual and standing ovations are so common the only newsworthy aspect is their length (Top Gun: Maverick, five minutes, Final Cut, four). Despite this reverence, it often feels that the films serve as backdrops for the fashion show happening on the red carpet and along the seaside boulevard La Croisette. Many of the 230,000 people at the festival won’t see a film at all.
One of the biggest changes since 2019 has been the explosion of TikTok, both as a social media force and as a medium for filmmaking, after the platform increased the length of videos from three to 10 minutes. In sharp contrast with the difficulties of seeing festival films, entries for Cannes’ inaugural TikTok short film competition were watched about 4.5 billion times. The decision to partner with the Chinese media giant became controversial after the temporary resignation of Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh as chair of the jury. In an echo of the reasons Cannes was born, Panh cited undue influence from TikTok, before rejoining the jury just before the award ceremony.
By the end of the first week – and with many of the festival’s biggest titles yet to play – five films are leading the race for the festival’s highest honour, the Palme d’Or. The current favourite is Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N., a taut and powerful account of prejudice in a bucolic but poor Romanian village.
One of the most anticipated films of the festival, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future (ovation: six minutes), is set in a near future in which humans are growing organs for unknown reasons, pain has been eradicated and surgery has become “the new sex”. In the hands of the king of body horror this should soar, but Cronenberg’s film is more exposition than exhibition and its ideas are not fully explored.
Park Chan-wook is best known for his twisting thriller Oldboy and elegant erotic crime epic The Handmaiden, but Decision to Leave (ovation: five minutes) – a neo-noir focusing on the romance between a policeman and the woman he suspects of murdering her husband – may be his most intriguing and layered work yet. Swedish director Ruben Östlund, another previous Palme d’Or winner, is also in a strong position. Triangle of Sadness (ovation: eight minutes) is a piercing take on the lives and ethics of the ultra-wealthy. The initially witty character studies become heavy-handed, but it is difficult to fault Östlund’s skills and purpose.
Completing the Palme d’Or frontrunners is James Gray’s Armageddon Time (ovation: seven minutes), a Belfast- or Roma-like account of the director’s childhood in early-1980s New York. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Strong and Anne Hathaway, the film is sentimental, lovingly observed and tackles thorny issues with kid gloves.
Outside competition, Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning is much better than its plot – beautiful yet lonely Parisian woman has an affair – suggests. The Bergman Island director finds a way to make the story feel fresh and the characters utterly engaging. Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells’s debut Aftersun is a deceptively simple story of a young father who takes his 11-year-old daughter to a Turkish resort, as remembered by the girl 20 years on, and has deservedly earned the best reviews of the festival so far.
In 2021 Justin Kurzel’s Nitram was the sole Australian feature film in official selection. This year Australians are everywhere, from the festival’s poster – a scene from Peter Weir’s The Truman Show – to Ruby Challenger’s imaginative and moving short film MumLife. At the Palais, George Miller drew mixed reviews for his adaptation of A. S. Byatt’s The Djinn in The Nightingale’s Eye. Miller’s film, Three Thousand Years of Longing (ovation: six minutes), is a two-hander between Tilda Swinton’s narratologist, Dr Alithea Binnie, and Idris Elba, who plays the djinn she inadvertently releases from a bottle. What follows is a time-travelling romance that takes in storytelling, wishing and freedom.
In the festival’s Un Certain Regard section, Australian director Thomas M. Wright’s thrillingly tense true-crime drama The Stranger rightfully won rave reviews, particularly for its lead actors Joel Edgerton and Sean Harris. But the biggest Australian presence here is Baz Luhrmann. Luhrmann’s Presley biopic, Elvis (ovation: 12 minutes), brought the Hollywood glamour to keep Cannes in the headlines and generate the social media buzz that organisers see as essential to the future success of the festival.
Away from the cinemas – amid the crosshatch of harbourside lanes thronged with film professionals and journalists in dark glasses and swinging lanyards tapping on their phones – there is a sense of the town that hosts this opulence. Beyond a widely ignored recommendation to wear masks while in the cinema, Covid-19 measures are almost non-existent. Ukraine is the topic of conversation, posters, panel discussions and protests.
Paramilitary units in army fatigues slowly walk the lanes toting machineguns, but after the jarring first sight of them, they too blend into the background, along with the rows of cafes, hotels, restaurants and the local market. “I don’t really go to the movies,” a soldier tells me, resting his chin on the butt of his FAMAS assault rifle. “I prefer gaming. My girlfriend,” he says, grinning, “she prefers TikTok.”
Venues throughout Melbourne, June 1-12
LITERATURE Queensland Poetry Festival
Venues throughout Brisbane, June 3-5
EXHIBITION On Stage: Spotlight on Our Performing Arts
National Library of Australia, Canberra, until August 7
MUSIC Cronulla Jazz & Blues Festival
Cronulla Park, NSW, June 2-5
EXHIBITION Nih! Yeyi Yorga Waangkiny | Listen! Women Talking Now
Fremantle Arts Centre, WA, until July 24
EXHIBITION Dylan Mooney: Blak Superheroes
Museum of Brisbane, until May 29
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Cannes do".
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