Cannes 2023 Dispatch:
A Curators’ Dialogue
By Eric Hynes and Edo Choi
For the second year in a row, Museum of the Moving Image’s film curators visited the Cannes Film Festival together. In the following exchange, begun while on the ground at the Croisette, Hynes and Choi pass notes in the hall between screenings, discussing the culture of and around the festival, the occasional confusion of categories, the anxiety of trying to catch it all, and, yes, the occasional film. (Part One here.)
Edo Choi: Ick is right. Cannes often comes on less like “the church of cinema” that I recall James Gray praising movingly last year than a temple to itself. François Druet and Hubert Bennett’s Palais is an unwieldy pile of a structure, a concrete and glass edifice that seems to have been deliberately designed to overawe its visitors, while simultaneously confounding their sense of interior geography as though they were grave robbers seeking the hidden chambers of an ancient pyramid. The hierarchies of badge access, the arbitrary selection edicts, Thierry’s blowhard schtick—it’s all made to feel as opaquely significant and celestially ordained as the protocols of Versailles during the Ancien Régime. And it should all serve as a healthy reminder that this festival remains as concerned with the promotion of the French nation and its status atop the global cultural firmament, as it is with the democratic celebration of an art form.
So, credit where it’s due to Justine Triet, who used the platform of her well-deserved Palme d’Or win for the fantastic Anatomy of a Fall to call out the suppression of French workers’ protests against the pension reform sought by Emmanuel Macron’s technocratic government. Triet’s speech didn’t directly tie the festival to what she described as the administration’s “commodification of culture,” but in the larger context of the City of Cannes banning demonstrations along the Croisette for the period of this putatively apolitical event, the implication couldn’t be clearer. Yesterday, Mayor of Cannes and all-around-charming dude David Lisnard showed that he, for one, had caught Triet’s drift when he referred to her as a “spoiled child.” Still, in awarding Triet and bestowing, for once, a truly worthy film with its highest honor, this year’s festival did offer a measure of poetic justice to those who care.
I experienced a similarly symbolic satisfaction in the long-anticipated return of Martin Scorsese to the festival with the out-of-competition premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon. I hope to write more about this triumph when it arrives in U.S. theaters this October, but I’ll submit for now that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a film by an anointed Great American director that seems so worthy of its lofty ambitions. The artistic success of this film feels rare, because it’s not simply the result of a solitary artist accomplishing “his vision” but rather of a conspiratorial effort between the filmmakers and the community whose story they’ve sought to tell. By now, those reading this exchange likely already know that community is the Osage nation and that the story in question is a sad one, but the film Scorsese has attempted to assemble with and for them may well leave one with the feeling of victory.
Eric Hynes: There’s yet another film I’m bereft to have missed (le FOMO), though I was hardly alone in being shut out of the single screening of Killers of the Flower Moon. You got in by waking and dressing in a tux at the crack of dawn to queue for most of a day—a resounding retort to those who think curators and critics are too jaded. (My most heroic moment in Cannes queueing was in 2019 when I stood for three and a half hours in both the rain and sun to watch Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Such physical commitment makes for a viewing of significance, but viewing requires overcoming a compelling desire to nap.)
My most pleasurable screening experience of the festival improbably happened at 9:00 a.m., when I sat wide-eyed and perma-grinned for Todd Haynes’s May December. The soapy, ripped-from-the-headlines drama is akin to the director’s early ’90s avant-garde landmark Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, deploying irony and camp ambiguously, unsettlingly, and commandingly yet without strain, all in the service of deepening rather than flattening its characters and milieu. I look forward to everyone recanting or at least revising their dismissals of Natalie Portman, who’s the closest thing the film has to a villain as well as the closest it has to a relatable audience conduit, and who enters the Haynes universe as if she were born to be there. I also swooned over Fallen Leaves, Aki Kaurismäki’s latest work of mannered, minimalist deadpan. The filmmaker’s aesthetic may have previously peddled in notions of cool, but here and now it’s an exquisitely constructed tableau of bleeding-heart romanticism. A simple, seemingly pedestrian four-shot sequence towards the end brought me to tears; Kaurismäki does more with fewer moves than a chess master.
I share your enthusiasm for Anatomy of a Fall, which would form a nice diptych with last year’s Saint Omer of courtroom dramas that aren’t really about the drama in the courtroom. You had to leave the festival before the premiere of Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera, which furthers the Italian director’s fascination with slightly refracted reality, in which she captures fully lived-in environments—here containing a ragtag group of grave-robbing troubadours—within tales just tall enough to beggar belief. Also screening late was Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer, her first feature in a decade and a worthy addition to her nearly half-century store of frank and fiendish tales of sexual perversity/liberation. The last thing Breillat’s going to do is limit the range of what women might want, do, say, or desire, so you can imagine how fearlessly she’s entered into the May/December discourse. She’s also made a sturdy, compelling movie that, were we not living through a creatively fallow and economically skittish period of art-house distribution, could colonize the IFC Center or Angelika all summer long.
Finally, now that I’m suddenly giddy with excitement over much of what I saw—what a long, strained trip it’s been—I have to mention my happiest surprise of the festival, the old-fashioned, tastefully Francophilic, handsomely produced piece of middlebrow catnip, The Pot-au-Feu. It’s not really fair to toss those qualifiers at Tran Anh Hung’s film, which I actually found rather daring, formally and narratively, as it starts with a 35-minute nearly real-time garden-to-table sequence and proceeds thereafter without an arc of conflict. But it was also Hung’s committed ease within the film’s narrow, domesticated parameters that contributed to my excitement. Rather than drag this tale of a 19th-century master chef and his beloved live-in cook (former real-life lovers Benoît Magimel and Juliette Binoche, both exquisitely alive) into metaphorically ripe or contemporarily relevant terrain, he exults in the moments at hand: the chopping, stirring, sautéing, instructing, tasting, describing, serving, enjoying, the process of making and the art of critiquing. It’s 134 minutes of unapologetic snobbery, as well as an exultation in artistry and critical discernment. Considering where I was and what I was doing all week—not to mention what we do for a living—of course I loved every second of it.