If the first few days of this year’s Cannes Film Festival were dominated by tech problems and a lack of clear themes, by the weekend a message had emerged from the world filmmakers gathered here – one of global income inequality and the bruising legacy of racial discrimination.
Two of the biggest standing ovations went to a pair of films in competition that used vastly differing styles to examine income inequality both in the United States and around the world.
James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” is a coming-of-age story based on the director’s memories of a childhood growing up in Queens, New York, but the director took a genre mostly known for sentiment and used it to cast a sharp eye on the rise of a gulf between rich and poor in the United States. The character who is essentially the young Gray (Banks Repeta) has privilege that he takes for granted, and he ends up in a tony private school where the people he encounters include Donald Trump’s father, Fred, and sister, Maryanne. (The school isn’t named, but Gray attended the Kew-Forest School, as did Donald and his sister Maryanne.)
And of course, the title of the film sounds a warning to the world – we are reaping what we’ve sowed.
“Armageddon Time” is a memoir as political statement, as Gray made clear during his Cannes press conference. “How’d we get here?” he said. “Where there’s, like, two people who own everything and a bunch of authoritarians trying to take over the planet?”
Ruben Ostlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” meanwhile, is satiric comedy as political statement, a movie awash in booze and vomit that situates its broadest sequences on a $250 million luxury yacht. It’s the final scene in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” mixed with Lina Wertmuller’s “Swept Away,” an evisceration of the way we enshrine inequality while insisting that everyone’s equal. (By the way, the “triangle of sadness” is apparently that spot in the middle of a runway model’s forehead that needs Botox.)
Another film that highlighted these same inequalities, while shining a light on the lack of privilege that is most people’s reality, was “Rodeo” by young filmmaker Lola Quivoron. The story follows a young rebellious woman – her own kind of sociopath – as she joins a gang of motorbike thieves in France – young men of African and Muslim origin, mostly – using crime as a way out of poverty.
Before these films, the festival has been dominated by things that aren’t on the screens of the festival’s theaters: the war in Ukraine that caused some filmmakers to criticize Cannes’ policy of not banning Russian filmmakers and journalists; a new ticketing system that created huge headaches for festivalgoers; and the spectre of COVID-19, which has been largely ignored but is definitely on people’s minds.
And then there were those fighter jets that buzzed the Croisette and rattled windows throughout Cannes before the premiere of “Top Gun: Maverick,” which brought the festival its biggest movie star, Tom Cruise, and what will almost certainly be its biggest moneymaker. Nothing like the might of the U.S. military to kick off a festival dedicated to international arthouse cinema!
(To be fair, the jets that roared over town trailing red, white and blue smoke could have been doing so to honor the colors of the French tricolore.)
For the bulk of the attendees, perhaps, the ticketing situation was initially the biggest mess. In order to prevent huge lines and control attendance, the festival did away with its old system, in which Cannes passholders could get into screenings by simply showing their color-coded badges, with each color representing a different level of access. This year, having a badge isn’t enough: now you have to go online and navigate the Cannes ticketing system to secure virtual tickets ahead of time.
But the system barely worked for the first few days, subject to what the festival said was a deliberate attack aimed at swamping the system. Eventually, things got better, first for the press and then for industry passholders, though the convenience of being able to take advantage of free time to get into screenings on the spur of the moment is sadly missed.
As for the COVID-19 pandemic, it resulted in the cancellation of the 2020 festival and the scaling-down of last year’s event, which required many attendees to take tests every 48 hours. This year, the restrictions have been lifted, but every screening begins with a recorded announcement that says “we strongly recommend” viewers keep their masks on – an empty request, it seems, since no more than a handful of people in each theater wear masks at all.
In the absence of official rules, the recorded warnings don’t seem to be spurring anybody to don face-covers, although they make more than a few of us wonder if we’re part of a safe event or a super-spreader one.
Amid all of this, of course, there’s a film festival going on. As the first weekend comes to an end, though, it’s impossible to tell what the overall personality of the festival will be, because so many of the highest-profile films have yet to screen. High-profile movies that will be premiering between Sunday night and the festival’s conclusion next Saturday include Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” David Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future,” Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up,” the Dardenne brothers’ “Tori and Lokita,” Claire Denis’ “Stars at Noon” and Brett Morgen’s David Bowie documentary “Moonage Daydream,” among many others.
For the first few days, this year’s films felt scattershot: Michel Hazanavicius’ zombie comedy remake “Final Cut” one day, followed by “Top Gun” sharing the Grand Theatre Lumiere the next day with dissident Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” a rich and grim look at the deluded (and eventually insane) woman who made the mistake of falling in love with a celebrated composer who also happened to be gay.
Some smaller films stirred up attention in the Un Certain Regard section and the Cannes sidebars, among them Lofty Nathan’s disquieting “Harka,” Davy Chou’s elegant “Return to Seoul” and a number of films from female directors, including Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s “War Pony,” Lola Quivoron’s raucous “Rodeo,” Marie Kreutzer’s “Corsage” and Emily Atef’s “More Than Ever.” Those last two films made “Phantom Thread” actress Vicky Krieps one of the clear stars of the festival so far, with a lot more of that typically Cannes DNA running through her work than you’ll find in, say, Tom Cruise.
George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” meanwhile, occupied a singular space all its own, mixing extravagant fantasy sequences with a hotel-room conversation between two remarkable actors, Tilda Swinton as a “narratologist” who is content to live by herself while she analyzes narrative for a living, and Idris Elba as a centuries-old Djinn (you can think of him as a genie if you want) who would like her to make three wishes and free him.
And in one strange way, the boldest stroke of the festival may have come from its oldest director, 84-year-old Polish legend Jerzy Skolimowski. His “Eo” is a largely dialogue-free road movie whose central character is a donkey trekking through Europe. The film’s storyline may be an homage to minimalist Robert Bresson, who did his own donkey movie back in 1966 with “Au Hasard Balthazar,” but Skolimowski uses raw, experimental camera work and sound design to plunge viewers into some approximation of the poor beast’s experience.