Cannes Dispatch: The Center Will Not Hold

While the festival maintained its routine ostrich-like stance, some of the most intriguing films dove right into our troubled times.
Leonardo Goi

Illustrations by Maddie Fischer.

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In a welcome twist, the most pressing questions I heard on my way to Cannes this year didn’t concern the festival lineups but events that seemed to transcend them. In the days leading up to the opening night, Sous les écrans la dèche (“under the screens, the waste”), a collective of festival workers, announced it would be striking over salary increases and unemployment benefits; as I type, the strikes haven’t materialized, nor has the rumored list of new sexual abuse allegations about men in the French film industry. “Last year, as you know, we had some polemics,” artistic director Thierry Frémaux told the press on the eve of the fest, hinting at the decision to open the 2023 edition with Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry, a film that would have been forgotten a lot faster than it was had it not been Johnny Depp’s first since the trial involving his ex-wife Amber Heard. “This year, we decided to organize a festival without any [polemics] to make sure that the main interest for all of us remains the cinema. So if there are other controversies, they do not concern us.”

Nothing new to Cannes, whose attempts to keep abreast of the mood of our times are often only cosmetic. Lest we forget, this is the same festival that in 2022 decided to slash tote bags and other freebies traditionally handed out to its guests, citing environmental concerns, and then invited the French Air Force to flood the Croisette with jet fuel to welcome Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick. But it all feels unnervingly tone-deaf at a time when cultural institutions of its caliber should be grappling with their role beyond red carpets and world premieres. Granted, the main interest for all of us does indeed remain the cinema, but films do not happen in a vacuum, much less film festivals. Asked about what he would do if pro-Palestinian demonstrations were to break out, Frémaux didn’t go into much detail—and the evasiveness felt very much on brand.  

The Second Act (Quentin Dupieux, 2024).

In the midst of all this, it was curious that Cannes should kick off with Quentin Dupieux’s The Second Act. Hot on the heels of Yannick and Daaaaaalí (both 2023), the Frenchman’s latest follows in their footsteps, which is to say it offers something of an insider’s commentary on the meaning and scope of our beloved medium in these catastrophic times. But The Second Act is hardly as thought-provoking as Yannick, which turned a hostage situation into a metaphor for the contract we willfully enter into anytime we wade into the darkness of a movie theater and let ourselves be abducted for a couple of hours—or, in Dupieux’s case, seldom more than 90 minutes. The Second Act stars Yannick’s lead, Raphaël Quenard, who reprises the same deranged persona to mixed results (his banter is one of the main reasons to see this, but it also made me hope these eccentrics won’t be the only roles in which he’ll be cast). Quenard is Willy, one fourth of a quartet of actors that comprises Louis Garrel, Léa Seydoux, and Vincent Lindon. A few minutes and a fourth-wall rupture in, and The Second Act tips its hand: this is a film within a film, a pseudo–romantic comedy none of the four seems particularly stoked to star in. And how could they, when “the whole world’s fucked,” as Lindon keeps on groaning? 

Conversations around the role of cinema are The Second Act’s bedrock, as are the frequent jibes at cancel culture—can’t make trans jokes anymore!—and AI; when the production turns out to be entirely helmed by artificial intelligence, the film morphs into a kind of op-ed. “Cinema is cool because it serves no purpose,” Seydoux quips; The Second Act might be the first of Dupieux’s projects that tries to. For a director who’s long professed his allergy to seriousness—a man who once made films about sentient killer tires, oversized pet flies, and Oscar-worthy screams, and who once cast Benoît Magimel as a middle-aged insurance broker with an electronic cock made in Japan—The Second Act strains for relevance to a degree none of his previous efforts did. Perhaps that’s why, fitfully entertaining as it was, it also felt more contrived than any of its predecessors.

Law and Order (Frederick Wiseman, 1969)

A few days later, Lindon’s Cassandra-like prophecies strike me as a kind of warning for the apocalyptic tone that would radiate from many of the festival’s early titles. For if the administration sought to maintain a fence-sitting neutrality toward some of the atrocities of the past months and years, some of the most intriguing films that screened the first half of the fest most certainly did not. Few entries rivaled the topicality of Frederick Wiseman’s Law and Order (1969), unveiled in a new restoration in the Cannes Classics program. Recorded from an embedded position within the Kansas City Police Department, the documentary tracks a few officers around some of the city’s roughest districts. In his introduction, Wiseman said he’d envisioned it as a chance to indict the cops but found his stereotypes turned out to be far from the truth. Indeed, while police abuses appear throughout the film—including, perhaps most terrifyingly, a moment in which Black sex worker is put in a chokehold during a raid—the most shocking moments might be its most affectionate, as when officers babysit a lost child or help an old lady recover her stolen bag. 

This is all in keeping with Wiseman’s habitual non-interventionist approach, a strategy to shoot “everything everywhere” that makes for a more nuanced, full-rounded account, one that eschews propaganda and facile lessons to fit this or that side of the political spectrum. Which is not to say the film takes no stance, or that its moral compass is in any way demagnetized. What makes Law and Order so riveting, almost fifty years since its release, isn’t just the compare-and-contrast exercise one can draw between the police brutality of the late 1960s and its manifestations today. As with the rest of the director’s oeuvre, this is that rare film that leaves enough room for the audience to bear witness, and encourages us to bring our own values to the events we’re watching. At a time when so many movies seemingly attuned to our zeitgeist fashion themselves as cautionary tales peddling the tritest of platitudes, it’s refreshing to see one treat both its topic and viewers with so much respect.

The Damned (Roberto Minervini, 2024).

Wiseman’s wasn’t the only film to strive for a degree of neutrality toward its subject. Introducing his latest, Roberto Minervini said The Damned was designed to challenge the drabbest of war movie tropes—jejune good-guys-vs.-bad-guys dichotomies, preconceived ideas around heroism, and violent masculinity. I’m not sure it lived up to that promise. Following a string of documentaries of life in the American South, Minervini’s foray into fiction follows a convoy of Union volunteers patrolling the Northwestern frontier in 1862. We’re in the midst of the US Civil War, and these rank-and-file soldiers are trailing after an enemy that remains largely invisible, a ghost that—even as a shootout erupts to shake out the languorous first 30 minutes—Carlos Alfonso Corral’s shallow-focus cinematography keeps deliberately blurred so as to render its identity meaningless. Who and why they might be fighting, in Minervini’s grand design, doesn’t matter; powering The Damned is a point that’s been articulated by many a war film before it: the soul-numbing purposelessness of battle. 

It’s the same argument that served as cornerstone to Alex Garland’s Civil War (2024), another film that sought to avoid picking sides. To Minervini’s credit, the approach here isn’t as grating. The Damned feels neither preachy nor sensationalist, concerned as it is with crafting a more impressionistic portrait of these men and their routines. There isn’t much narrative to speak of; the journey, such as it is, unspools as a series of vignettes and conversations (about God, about war, about what it takes to be a man). It’s an anthropological approach, and Minervini’s keen ear for these intimate exchanges connects this to his nonfiction work. It’s through these chats, gradually pitched toward dread, that The Damned attempts to debunk those staid war-movie formulas, with its platoon of walking dead slowly reckoning with the futility of their mission (“There’s a reason for this war,” one muses. “God gave us a time to live and a time to die”). I can’t pretend I found them particularly illuminating—sincere as they may be, the dialogues don’t flesh out the abject hopelessness of war any better than the visuals do. By reducing these snow-capped landscapes to blurred expanses, Corral’s camerawork doesn’t just make for a stark departure from more traditional depictions of the American West; it also underscores the hopeless loneliness and atomization of these wanderers, framing them in shots that look like nineteenth-century daguerreotypes. That’s the authenticity The Damned strives for, and mostly achieves. If the whole thing is more ponderous than revealing, Minervini’s Civil War reenactment traffics in a hyper-realism that makes this a disquieting march to nowhere.

Furiosa (George Miller, 2024).

Going into Furiosa, George Miller’s fifth installment in his Mad Max saga, my biggest intrigue was whether the film would suffer from a case of prequel-itis—that nefarious tendency of many a franchise offshoot to fill in the gaps and forsake momentum in order to explain what comes after. Happily, Furiosa isn’t in any way dependent on the 2015 Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy vehicle (pun intended). In fact, this isn’t a prequel any more than Fury Road was a sequel. That chapter didn’t care much about backstory, dispatching Furiosa’s in a few evasive lines. And though this last one is, for all intents and purposes, an account of how a youngling from the bucolic Green Place grew up to be a no-nonsense, trigger-happy sand warrior roaming a post-apocalyptic desert world, it stands as its own film, retroactively improving the delirious vision of its predecessor. 

That’s in part because Miller had already written the script before the shooting for Fury Road began, which grants Furiosa a clarity and purpose you’d be hard-pressed to find in other franchise spin-offs. Yes, the Earth might be dead—a barren expanse of dunes shot by Simon Duggan as by turns forbidding and stupefying—but Miller’s magpie curiosity for this forsaken no-man’s-land is not. Furiosa relishes in its set pieces with the same gusto it pours into its mythology—just as excited to dog the War Rig (this time driven by Tom Burke’s Praetorian Jack) as it is to unspool its arcane lore. Split into five chapters, the film tracks its heroine (played by Alyla Browne as a child and Anya Taylor-Joy as a young adult) as she’s first abducted from her verdant home and handed over to Dementus (Chris Hemsworth), then palmed off in a deal to fellow warlord Immortan Joe (Lachy Hulme), and finally seen riding through the Wasteland in the company of unlikely ally and fellow War Rig driver Praetorian Jack. I can’t shake off the suspicion that Furiosa—written by Miller and Nico Lathouris, with whom the director had also penned Fury Road—typifies a recent trend that favors world- over character-building. Supporting players are often reduced to fleshy cogs in Miller’s machine—more worryingly, the feeling sometimes extends to the titular heroine. Where Theron was a commandeering presence, towering over a blockbuster whose title was fundamentally misleading (Mad Max: Fury Road was always her story), Taylor-Joy operates in a different, more guarded register; while one can root for her, she remains more opaque and fuzzier than her successor.  

This is nothing new for a saga that’s always privileged high-octane chases over character development. Furiosa, too, soars as soon as the gang hits the road, and sputters when the action moves away from it. In that, the film brought me back to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, another franchise that also tended to favor grand spectacle to the detriment of characterization. But where Villeneuve’s approach can often come across as overly pristine and calculated, Miller’s never does. Furiosa, like Fury Road before it, is a film that’s proudly beholden to its feverish vision, whose monumentality isn’t undercut by its campy flourishes and humor but is made more vibrant and alive by them. After an admittedly lukewarm start to the fest, Miller’s latest was a jolt of electricity, an incandescent reminder of the thrills that come from watching a director firing on all cylinders and pursuing his dreams on the grandest possible canvas.

Megalopolis (Francis Ford Coppola, 2024).

Which brings us to Megalopolis. To say that Francis Ford Coppola’s latest was Cannes’s most anticipated would be a polite understatement. A self-financed $120 million passion project that Coppola began tinkering with in the early 1980s, this behemoth grafts all the opulence and decadence of Ancient Rome onto near-future New York, unfolding as a Succession-style clash of plutocrats fighting over the city and its future. A fable—per its subtitle—Megalopolis is powered by two assumptions: that the moribund American republic of 2020s isn’t so dissimilar to that defunct civilization of antiquity, and that “an empire dies,” as Laurence Fishburne warns in one of several musings delivered in voiceover, “when people stop believing in it.” So far, so timely. Seen in the context of our chronically polarized society, in which more than 40 percent of Americans believe a civil war may break out within the next decade, the film accrues a certain topicality. But of all the things that Megalopolis aspires to be, a warning isn’t among them. 

Ruling over New Rome is Mayor Frank Cicero (Giancarlo Esposito), whose grip over the city is threatened by Caesar Catalina (Adam Driver), a megastar architect, inventor, and polymath who not only discovered a revolutionary material able to recreate and bend organic matter (the “Megalon”), but can also stop time at will. As befits that “fable” disclaimer, Megalopolis conjures a grandiloquent, oftentimes nonsensical folly that melds timeless preoccupations with present-day references, where fabulously named characters (see Aubrey Plaza’s television personality, Wow Platinum) speak in baroque and clunky pronouncements, some of them delivered in Latin, some culled straight out of Hamlet. Which is another way of saying that Megalopolis unfurls as a wacky, bloated pastiche, saddled with all manner of literary and visual citations. Yet it’s also, just as importantly, defiantly committed to being its own garish thing.

Exhilarating as it can be to witness a director take all kinds of risks, financial and artistic, I left the premiere wondering if Megalopolis measured up to a plea Driver’s Caesar bellows, which for a while struck me as the film’s overarching project: to have “a debate about our future.” Coppola’s vision of what that might look like is, curiously, somewhat antiquated. If the technology of Megalopolis harks back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), so do its class politics. Coppola posits that change will only come about from the ruling elite; for all the corruption and backstabbing in which this sordid cast of tycoons and politicians routinely engage, it is they who shape the future and topography of New Rome, not the masses swarming a few hundred meters below Caesar’s gilded skyscrapers. (This is to say nothing of the film’s retrograde views on women, which make this an old guy’s movie in more ways than one.) Even the visuals, for all the astonishing amount of cash that must have been funneled into the VFX department, are beamed from a tomorrow that looks already dated; I wonder how much of that can be chalked up to our current media regime, with increasingly sophisticated AI imagery that frankly surpasses some of Coppola’s grandest CGI vistas. 

And yet, a few days after the film’s premiere, these charges now feel misplaced. Partly because Megalopolis, like its politics, is just too garbled for one to read present-day allegories into it. Coppola’s latest is one gargantuan experience, a cinema of ideas that raises more questions than it provides answers. Is that a fault? To chastise something this amorphous for failing to yield any concrete lessons is to play into Coppola’s hands; to demand that art should teach, demonstrate, and pander is no less retrograde than Megalopolis’s own politics. It is also to miss the disarming sincerity the film radiates throughout. Whether or not Coppola will complete a new feature (during the press conference, he hinted at new projects and mentioned he may revisit this one the way he did with Apocalypse Now: Redux [2001]), this is the work of a director testing the limits and possibilities of a medium he’s mastered. I don’t think I’m forsaking my duties as critic if I say his latest transcends qualitative binaries. To say that Megalopolis can’t be assessed in terms of “good” or “bad” isn’t a cop-out; it’s a testament to its singularity. On second thought, it’s not the lavish excesses that stun. It’s the film’s surprisingly moving tone: that of a filmmaker who’s not looking ahead so much as looking backward, convinced that our redemption won’t be delivered by otherworldly technology or supernatural powers, but something far more ancient: our innate capacity for love. How’s that for a hopeful ending?

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CannesCannes 2024Quentin DupieuxFrederick WisemanRoberto MinerviniGeorge MillerFrancis Ford Coppola
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