Cannes 2022 Dispatch:
Distance and Desire
Juan Barquin on Cannes’s queer offerings in 2022
As the credits rolled on Lukas Dhont’s second feature, Close, if one pricked up their ears one could hear the sound of critics around the world sniffling and composing themselves. The onslaught of emotional manipulation in Dhont’s previous film, Girl, which swayed Cannes’ audiences despite its overwhelming transphobia, was once again on display. Dhont’s fixation on human (and queer) suffering takes a different turn in Close, focusing on a young man who finds himself navigating deep guilt after the friend he cast aside due to a modicum of gay panic (i.e. being called gay once and giving him the cold shoulder) commits suicide. That the film won the Grand Prix (in a tie with Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon) is no surprise considering it's designed to mislead people into believing it has something important to say, steering an audience to tears and not much else.
The bulk of Dhont’s sophomore feature is preoccupied with hammering home the immense sense of guilt that his characters, despite their relative innocence, feel at all times. There is no room for joy once tragedy strikes, and what little sincere dramatic portraiture existed in its first ten minutes, which rather lovingly establishes the relationship between these two young men, is replaced with a cloying score and close-ups of young actor Eden Dambrine’s tortured face. Its visual metaphors, from the destruction of a field of flowers representing lost innocence to a cast being removed as a reminder that time heals all wounds, are obvious enough to be laughable.
Close has one statement to make, and a shallow one at that: to borrow the much-derided Wandavision quote, Dhont asks the audience, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” But his inability as a writer or director to provide an ounce of interiority for his characters is what sinks the film. He avoids investigating what makes these people tick, simply suggesting that masculinity is a prison or that queer kids are prone to self-harm. It’s less insightful observation and more an exploitation of already clichéd themes of gay cinema, milked for maximum heartstring pulling. He cares not to interrogate what makes children distance themselves from friends, or how a mother can move on after the loss of her child, as his characters are little more than vessels for pain, guilt, and tears.
Where Dhont’s film leans heavily on these facets of queer life, his greatest sacrifice is desire. Though it could be argued that this is because of the role of children in his films rather than adults, it’s not impossible to explore what desire means at that age. The film could set aside romantic desire and explore the desire to be perceived as normal, to assimilate in the fact of being othered, but Close simply settles for broad statements about the misery that queerness and suicide cause for those who survive.
Death and distance play a key role in many films nominated for the Queer Palm this year at Cannes, and many of them forgo a meaningful exploration of their characters’ desires to rather haphazardly incorporate a character’s demise. The films Rodeo and Joyland, for instance, fall prey to this (as well as a general inability to satisfyingly close out the ambitious narratives they created) despite being promising first features with singular approaches. Each seeks to interrogate the societal norms that cause men and women to submit to certain gender roles, but neither goes far beyond obvious statements about gender performance and, though not to the extent of Dhont’s tragedy porn, they end up actually punishing some of their characters for going against, or considering opposing, the status quo.
Desire is key to many of the queer texts present at Cannes, as are distance and death, particularly in three of the festival’s most intriguing works. Take Kirill Serebrennikov’s Tchaikovsky’s Wife, a film that dives into the history of Antonina Miliukova and her tumultuous relationship with composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, told entirely from her perspective. Despite taking on the subject of The Music Lovers, Ken Russell’s own exploration of their relationship from 1971, Serebrennikov takes a wholly different (and arguably more sensitive) approach.
If Russell’s film was a celebration of a tortured artist’s life that overemphasized how manic and broken all its figures were, Serebrennikov fixates on Antonina, showing how her husband, in spite of his talent, inflicted pain on her. The film’s sidelining of Tchaikovsky himself is one of its greatest strengths, as is the villainizing of both the composer and the larger society to which he conformed. Both Tchaikovsky and Miliukova were trapped in a loveless marriage, unable to healthily indulge in their desires, but only one of them exploited the other for his benefit. Firmly wedded to Miliukova’s perspective, Tchaikovsky’s Wife is a somber work full of long takes and moments of isolation.
In one of the finest performances of the festival, Alena Mikhaylova never betrays her character by leaning into the tropes that often come with depicting women accused of hysteria. There’s a nuance to the way she and Serebrennikov present her slow descent into “madness” (or something close to it). She exists in something of a liminal space, between the reality of her husband’s abandonment and the fantasy of what she could do with her life if not tied to him.
The dreamlike atmosphere that persists throughout, including a haunting dance sequence and an erotic rendezvous with muscular men, never dilutes the impact of its stark conversations (both real and imagined) or the blunt truth of the characters’ broken relationship. It’s a film that, somewhat subtly, rails against misogynistic and homophobic societal standards that drove (and still drive) many a person, regardless of gender, to hopelessness.
João Pedro Rodrigues’s brilliant Fogo-Fátuo (Will-o’-the-Wisp) also blends fantasy with reality. Not one to resist even the corniest gag, Rodrigues opens his film in 2069, with a king on his deathbed reminiscing about his youthful decision to go against his family’s wishes by becoming a volunteer fireman in the 2010s, as well as the romantic relationship that he, as a prince, developed with the firefighter who trained him. It’s a film that, at just under 70 minutes, packs a wealth of politics into its imagery, particularly in how it criticizes the inadequacy of the Portuguese government (via a fictional monarchy) and how worthless those with power are in serving the people. That it dives into interracial relationships, climate change, colonialism, queerness, and how they all intersect, is endlessly fascinating, but that it does it all while gazing shamelessly at sculpted bodies, rather boldly presenting them in ways both arousing and discomforting, is something else entirely.
Rodrigues’s sense of humor makes the film feel light despite all the charged subjects he and co-writers João Rui Guerra da Mata and Paulo Lopes Graça approach. It is why Fogo-Fátuo can casually pivot from political direct addresses about the state of Portuguese society to a montage of firefighters working out, their thighs and muscles bulging to the accompaniment of Wagner’s The Magic Flute. But no matter how hysterical any given situation becomes—for instance, the firefighters, in various states of undress, recreating paintings by Caravaggio and Bacon to challenge the prince’s intelligence and knowledge of the arts—there’s a simple beauty to the core relationship between its protagonists that the filmmaker never forgets.
It takes no time at all for Rodrigues to establish a sense of romance between the prince and the firefighter who has been hired to train him. Each of their scenes together is teeming with the unabashed eroticism and frolicking that come with a new relationship, be it an extensively choreographed dance scene in a firehouse or a training session for first responders. His lead actors, Mauro Costa and André Cabral, seem game for anything and are precisely attuned to Rodrigues’s playful and political sensibility, at one point even stroking each other’s hard cocks while engaging in race play. Their entire relationship is a brief one, as with any queer romance in a time of turmoil, but one so uniquely designed with its musical numbers and brand of sexual liberation that it’s hard not to fall as deeply in love with the characters as they do with one another.
In a pleasant surprise, another film at Cannes featured an interracial queer relationship at its core. Léa Mysius’s sophomore feature, The Five Devils, is an intimate and ambitious little oddity, intriguingly setting itself up as more of a supernatural horror film than a romance, and doing exceedingly well at both genres. The film is grounded in the perspective of Sally Dramé’s Vicky, not yet a preteen, whose otherness (particularly as a biracial child in a small white town) is readily preyed upon by other children and who finds herself in a precarious situation when her father’s sister Julia (Swala Emati) stirs up long-dormant feelings in her mother, Joanne (Adèle Exarchopoulos).
Mysius and co-writer/cinematographer Paul Guilhaume quickly dispatch with any semblance of realism, allowing Vicky to use nondescript witchcraft in order to witness the tortured queer relationship between her mother and aunt, allowing the audience to understand all the unstated tension that exists within this town. It is, to some extent, nonsensical in its concept and execution, but Mysius and her capable performers bring a humanity to this story that keep it afloat. She and Guilhaume are less interested in logic than emotion, their camera focusing on the distinct moments, minute and major, that create a lasting relationship. From the child seemingly toying with the very fabric of reality to the collection of adults repressing their real feelings due to shared trauma, its characters all exist in a fascinating moral gray zone. Its occasional melodramatic beats never detract from the ensemble’s natural chemistry, and the relationship between Exarchopoulos and Emati sings beautifully with or without words.
The way films like Tchaikovsky’s Wife, Fogo-Fátuo, and The Five Devils navigate melodrama while embracing quiet performances exists in direct contrast to one of the loudest films of the competition: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Les Amandiers (titled Forever Young in English). With every scene, Tedeschi’s film seems designed to shout what the characters are thinking at the viewer, with its admittedly talented cast performing each moment as though it was their only chance to shine. This is, in part, because the film’s theme allows for it, focusing on the relationships between a number of students accepted into a prestigious acting school, and in part because the film has no understanding of how to modulate between comedy and tragedy.
Les Amandiers isn’t so far removed from early Bret Easton Ellis novels like Less Than Zero or The Rules of Attraction in its depiction of raucous youths who are both into and at odds with each other. There’s all the sex, drugs, and violence of his work, but without any incisive commentary on what exactly draws its characters to acting other than the allure of stardom. Despite being based on a real place (Les Amadiers being a very real acting school run by Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Romans), much of the film feels like a retread. Tedeschi draws out some fascinating and committed performances from every young actor she works with here, but their characters eventually grow exhausting to watch and like the film itself, we may not be able to decide whether to hold contempt or affection for them.
These films, while overwhelmingly different from one another, only exist in conversation because of the arbitrary selection of the Queer Palm competition. But how is Cannes defining queerness here? Is it simply inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters or does it go deeper than that and into how the filmmakers approach telling stories of otherness? Cannot Tchaikovsky’s (presumably straight) wife and her experiences in a world that isolates her because of her desire be considered queer in and of itself? Cannot Albert Serra’s Pacifiction, with its offbeat comic sensibility and astute exploration of the liminal spaces created by colonialist exploitation of native lands, be considered a queering of the typical sociopolitical thriller?
Or what about those that were not in competition for this award, like David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future? That film—fixated on the euphoria, the politics, and the trauma that comes with having and changing a body—is more distinctly queer to me than anything Dhont has made. Neither I nor the ever-shifting juries in charge of selecting a winner can concretely define this term, but that’s precisely what makes the wide breadth of films in each selection so gratifying. Even when the winner is your typical melodrama, there’s a chance of discovering something as thrilling as Rodeo’s extensive BMX bike stunts or Fogo-Fátuo’s couple sixty-nineing in the remains of a forest fire.