Ten months ago, the Cannes Film Festival held an off-season July iteration, which was unseasonably feverish and featured far too much football. This year, post-plague, the festival has returned to its usual state, having scrubbed away the traces of last year’s world order.
For the first time in living memory, Cannes was scheduled in direct competition with the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. For this card-carrying member of the trans-globalist class, at least, it was obvious which of the two events one would prefer to spend a week at. The frenetic competitive edge of Cannes had returned since last year’s malaise.
Arriving at the Croisette, one found the town’s palm-lined esplanade packed with crowds. The masking regulations had been rescinded—with the exception of the very old, no one was wearing a mask. Last year’s scrupulous hygienic regulations—obligatory and geographically sorted COVID-19 passes and grotesque saliva tests into laboratory tubes—were gone. The festival market was back to the usual business, even if Jerome Paillard, the storied patron of the festival marche, had announced his retirement after three decades helming the lucrative business side, which funds the rest of our yearly pleasures.
The villas outside of town were once more crammed with cavorting European party types as well as the markedly less glamorous rising young cinéastes. The tuxedos were out, and the designer dresses had been pressed for the red carpet (this year mini shorts were in for the ladies, while the more adventurous gents sported shiny or pink suits).
Many longtime attendees were upset that the festival had decided to cease handing out the popular festival cloth gift bags—which make for a great souvenir and status object upon returning home—citing arguments about ecological sustainability. Yet everything else seemed to have returned more or less to normal. The filth. The casual elegance. The pomp and exclusivity. The striving and yearning. The vulgarity coupled with real moments of authentic grace and glory. All of it abated by the sense that even if one got out of bed late after a forgettable evening out, one was still observing and taking part in the history of world cinema. All of it was back sans apology, self justification, and shame.
As I wrote in my previous Cannes dispatch, the gravitational pull of the Russian war against Ukraine was unavoidable. Being a Russian was a social liability this year, with the super yachts of Russian oligarchs clearly missing from the armada anchored outside of the port (the oligarchic Russian contingent was conspicuously absent at Davos this year as well, with multiple sources scoffing that their social function and obligation to fund over-the-top parties and events had been happily assumed by representatives of the Saudis). An important Russian producer—an enlightened man who thinks of and presents himself as a model Russian democratic liberal—complained to me that no European television channel or distributor wanted to purchase his newly finished documentary about a Russian ballerina. This was despite his allegedly impeccable liberal credentials (though likely also due to the lack of Russian government financing), as simply no one in Europe wants anything to do with Russia these days.
Cannes still retains its rigorous, hierarchical sense of exclusivity. It is achieved through the production of artificial scarcity of access. The electronic ticketing system that longtime festival attendees had spent years clamoring for was only inaugurated last year in response to the pandemic, when the head honchos faced the choice of joining the 21st century or canceling the affair outright. The festival had spent decades avoiding the inauguration of the sort of electronic ticketing system that one can find anywhere else in the world in order to ensure that people would spend hours in a line. The rollout of the system had made it one of the best festival years for anyone who actually wanted to watch films rather than attend meetings or go to parties. Some of the most elite film industry professionals will complain (or brag, take your pick) about only being able to watch a single film a year between meetings that are often arranged half a year in advance.
But while the ticketing system from last summer was kept in place this year, it was so buggy, overburdened, and badly designed that finding tickets for most popular screenings was for many people almost functionally impossible. The Festival App, which was supposed to provide one with access to ticket registration, was so glitchy, it never once opened on my phone. The festival ticket system also kept crashing, and a telling but totally unsubstantiated rumor circulated that the Russians kept hacking the ticketing system as part of their asymmetrical warfare against the West. Perhaps the Russian hackers also want to be in Cannes.
Two films programmed at the festival dealt with another act of aggression in Europe: the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015, in Paris. The first, November, stars Jean Dujardin (the actor made famous by The Artist) as the police officer attempting to take control of the murderous five-day manhunt. Here the material of the terror attacks was used for a straightforward, crowd-pleasing thriller. Dealing with the attacks in a quieter and more nuanced way was the film Paris Memories, which premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight section of the festival. The French Jewish director Alice Winocour takes a haunting look at the stories of the survivors, some of whom recall the horrors and some of whom have blanked out every memory of the attacks. On stage, Winocour told the audience that the film was inspired by months of conversations with her brother, who survived the Bataclan terror attack in 2015 that killed more than a hundred Parisians.
This year the Palme d’Or was awarded to Triangle of Sadness. This marked the second time in five years that the top prize would be given to the Swedish director Ruben Ostlund, who won in 2017 for his satire The Square. Ostlund is only the ninth director in history to have won the top prize at Cannes twice. The feat arguably showcases just how much the festival values his brand of high-end absurdist farce: elite screwball comedies. The story hinges on an age-old trope of the rich and poor trading places, as a fashion-model couple are invited on a luxury cruise and enter a world of astronomical wealth. Woody Harrelson is the film’s standout actor in his fantastically funny portrayal of the Captain.
The prize for best director went to the Korean auteur Park Chan-wook for his deconstructionist detective story Decision to Leave. His very popular 2016 thriller The Handmaiden established the style of slow-paced, formal atmosphere that is on view in Decision to Leave. The narrative of the film charts a love affair between a possibly murderous Chinese immigrant whose husbands have a nasty habit of dying in odd circumstances and a fastidious Korean murder investigator who falls in love with her. The movie is a lovely, poetic film that deconstructs old themes about an impossible affair. It is sort of funny, and though overlong and incoherent, it is an enjoyable and overall good film despite its narrative flaws.
This year the festival was more Hollywood-centric than usual, though this has been its direction of movement over the years. The Tom Cruise Top Gun sequel competed with the long-awaited quirky Baz Luhrmann biopic of Elvis Presley for the status of most popular normie Hollywood film among the discerning festivalgoers. The after-party for the Elvis premiere, featuring Tom Hanks, who played the Colonel, was the hottest party ticket of the year. The bacchanal was a carnivalesque debauch set on the Cannes beach, accompanied by a security detail worthy of a sitting U.S. president. Your faithful correspondent did not even bother trying to get in. A prominent British director of my acquaintance, a legendary and dissolute character who had successfully broken into beach parties for decades, was briefly successful in crashing before being snagged by security at the bar and ejected in quasi-violent fashion.
This was, it should be said, a very good summer for the King of Rock and Roll—various fashionista gents in attendance had adopted wide-flared tuxedo trousers patterned after his aesthetic. In the meantime, his granddaugher Riley Keough shared the Camera d’Or prize for her first feature War Pony, a film following Lakota boys living on a reservation.
One of my personal favorite review subjects, the Ukrainian director and Cannes perennial favorite Sergei Loznitsa, returned to the Croisette this year with his latest archival documentary on the bombing of German civilian targets during World War II. On the Natural History of Destruction takes its title from a 1999 hybrid volume penned by the exiled German writer W. G. Sebald. The book is a luminous pastiche by a great post-war European flaneur, particularly an essay dealing with the German literary memory lacuna of the Allied wartime blitz bombing of German cities. The documentary is the latest in Loznitsa’s now-favored method of digging up old black-and-white archival reels and splicing them together into new disturbing and beautiful assemblages. His previous films, like Blockade (about the Leningrad blockade), Babyn Yar, Context (about the Babyn Yar massacre), and The Trial (about the Stalinist show trials) use the same cut-up found montage technique.
The long shots of prosperous German cities before the war are followed by gorgeous black-and-white shots of Allied bombers disgorging their cargo of death. This is followed by shots of firefighters attempting to put out the flames and long, ponderous Sebaldesque sequences of ruins. Loznitsa has been immersed in the work of Sebald for a very long time and has previously worked on a film version of his Austerlitz. Loznitsa also, it should be said, landed in very similar political trouble to the sort that bedeviled the Russian filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov. Loznitsa, who was essentially kicked out of the Ukrainian Film Academy for being insufficiently patriotic, annoyed many Ukrainians with what some considered off-key commentary about Russian culture during his press conference at the festival.
But the one film that I watched this year that I will never forget was Holy Spider by the Danish Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi. The serial-killer thriller is based on the real-life story of a construction worker, a veteran of the war between Iran and Iraq, who picked up and murdered 16 prostitutes in the city of Mashhad in a personal quest against vice. The narrative follows a journalist played by the wonderful Zar Amir Ebrahimi (she won Best Actress for the role, vindicating her career after it was destroyed a decade ago in Iran via a maliciously leaked sex tape). The aesthetic of the film is noire and detective thriller at once, and the resolution of the tale—which unexpectedly turns into a court drama—has a decidedly feminist angle. Standing up to speak in the row behind me after the applause, Abbasi denounced the sexism of the regime of the Ayatollahs: “Even when people condemned these crimes 16 years ago, they never mentioned the victims, those women. I felt that with Abbasi’s film, there is a very little piece of justice being done here for them today.”
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.