Cannes might be ‘useless and wonderful’ but this year’s crop of films offers the chance to find the next cinematic hit and celebrate some of the greats. By Andy Hazel.

Cannes Film Festival 2023

A crowd of fans and press gather by a red staircase, waiting for celebrities.
Crowds at the Cannes Film Festival await the arrival of Johnny Depp.
Credit: Andy Hazel

It is easy to imagine the Cannes Film Festival as an ugly mashup of wealth, fashion, injustice, misogyny, lies and disappointment. That’s only part of what makes it so fascinating. It is also expensive and governed by infuriatingly inconsistent rules. Despite this, it is almost impossible not to feel optimistic as you walk around the city, or queue, umbrella in hand, waiting for another chance to see what could become one of the year’s great cinematic discoveries.

In last year’s festival, Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun rose from the often-overlooked Semaine de la Critique section to become one of 2022’s biggest art-house hits. This year, critics have been scouring the program for another formally inventive and emotionally resonant feature debut. Candidates include British director Molly Manning Walker’s stylish and sensitive How to Have Sex, about a teenager’s quest to lose her virginity while on a girls’ trip to Greece, and Joanna Arnow’s wryly funny The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed. Neither match the power of Wells’s film but both announce the arrival of exciting talents.

Outside the competition section, two films have dominated conversation. Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a luminous adaptation of David Grann’s account of the killing of Osage Indians in the 1920s, and is one of the few films to win uniform praise among critics and audiences so far. Stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro deliver towering performances, but it is Lily Gladstone, as DiCaprio’s wife, who shines brightest. For those keeping count, its nine-minute standing ovation has been one of the festival’s longest.

James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny occupies the unofficial “American blockbuster” slot this year, and while it doesn’t measure up to last year’s behemoth, Top Gun: Maverick, it is a CGI-heavy thrill ride leavened immeasurably by the presence of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and a script that justifies 80-year-old Harrison Ford donning his fedora, cracking his whip and punching a lot of Nazis.

Mangold’s film is one of several that feature fascists as a major component of their stories. Along with Mads Mikkelsen’s role as Indiana Jones’s nemesis, Steve McQueen’s documentary Occupied City overlays Covid-era footage of Amsterdam with vivid accounts of coincident events during World War II. In Sean Price Williams’s grainy and dynamic The Sweet East, Simon Rex’s neo-Nazi academic, Lawrence, outlines his world view to bemused runaway Lillian, played by Talia Ryder, to hilarious effect. But it is the Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest that has the greatest ambitions. Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Martin Amis’s novel – opening just hours before the author’s death was announced – is his first film since 2013’s Under the Skin. It follows the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration camp, his wife and their children as they make a domestic paradise in their house that backs on to the high, barbed wire-topped walls of the camp itself. The power that comes from the juxtaposition of garden parties and the sounds of mass murder is magnified by the dissonance of Mica Levi’s score and seems likely to appeal to the jury president, Swedish director Ruben Östlund.

The compartmentalisation of evil and inhumanity is a recurring theme throughout the 21 films in competition. In Monster, Hirokazu Kore-eda uses a mother’s investigation into the bullying of her son to explore intolerance and tell a moving story of burgeoning queer love. Similarly, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses takes an allegation of a teacher’s impropriety to open the schisms of East Anatolian society. Also well reviewed is Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters, which explores the impact of hiring two actors to play a Tunisian mother’s missing adult children. The film shifts from a playful and sometimes emotional meta-documentary to a moving, if not especially illuminating, indictment of Arab governments’ permissiveness towards jihadism.

While there are fewer Australians involved in Cannes films this year, those who are have been extremely well received. Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy, his first film since Sweet Country in 2017, follows the arrival of an almost mute child, played by Aswan Reid, to a remote South Australian mission run by Cate Blanchett’s Sister Eileen. Boldly examining the nameless child’s spiritual curiosity and increasing obsession with a statue of Jesus, the film uses magic realism and Thornton’s aureate cinematography to tell a story that feels utterly unique, from a perspective rarely considered.

In competition, Mia Wasikowska stars in one of the festival’s most anticipated and disappointing films, Jessica Hausner’s one-note satire Club Zero. Set in an exclusive European school, Wasikowska is compelling as a woman hired to teach “conscious eating” to a small group of incurious teenagers, but their descent into mindful starvation feels like a missed opportunity to explore the world of wellness cults.

Expectations were also high leading into the festival for two American directors, Todd Haynes and Wes Anderson. In Haynes’s May December, Natalie Portman plays a television actress who comes to live with a socialite, played by Julianne Moore, her children, and her husband, played by Charles Melton, who Moore’s character started dating when he was just 13. Not as lush as Carol, but filled with moments of high camp, Haynes’s film is a Bergmanesque delight and one of the festival’s best-reviewed films.

Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, his best film since The Grand Budapest Hotel, concerns itself more with the art of storytelling than social commentary. Anyone familiar with Anderson’s milieu will see the appeal of the film’s floridly nostalgic setting: a 1955 junior stargazers convention in the titular New Mexico town. Compared with other films at Cannes, and in cinemas around the world, Anderson’s is short, bright, fun, tightly structured and provides a blessed relief from cloudy skies, minor scandals, full-blooded fascism and the human propensity to compartmentalise evil.

Shortly after seeing it, I came across this quote from Justine Triet, director of one of the festival’s strongest films, the courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall: “Cannes also celebrates a passion for something that is useless yet wonderful at the same time ... It’s useless and wonderful, and it’s what makes people look at each other, talk with each other, try to understand one another. They don’t always succeed but they try.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 27, 2023 as "Tremendous Cannes".

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