Elvis arrives in Cannes late, ushered in by screaming hordes. He says: “My daddy is a good man” and “It’s gonna be OK, mama”. He sings Hound Dog on stage and all the girls turn to puddles. The festival initially wanted Baz Luhrmann’s biopic for the opening night, two Tuesdays ago, but the film is a diva and divas make us wait. Have we gobbled down enough movies and drunk too much rosé? Have we achieved a state of perfect peak excess? Only then, finally, does the King deign to show.
Like Elvis, this year’s festival set out full of vigour, with a spring in its step and a wiggle in its hips. Now it’s bloated and sagging, just beginning to rot. All such events, I suppose, have a natural lifespan, an arc. This one’s gone to Graceland, dateline 1977.
Detractors say Cannes is escapist, but the films show the world, sometimes the one right outside
Elvis, then, gives us the debauched monarch that Cannes’ end times deserves: greedy and distractible, its heart rate permanently jacked on pills. Luhrmann’s big creative decision here is to frame his story as a kind of Judas gospel – Colonel Tom Parker’s self-justifying memoir of how he plucked a raw talent from America’s spit-and-sawdust circuit and duly spun him into gold. Which is a neat idea so far as it goes. But the film takes its fascinating ingredients and farms them haphazardly through Luhrmann’s chemical toilet. This infernal machine has, in the past, flushed away Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby and the history of Australia. Poor Elvis Presley barely stands a chance.
Actually, newcomer Austin Butler proves entirely serviceable as the tale’s dopey gifted galoot. The real problem is Tom Hanks’s Colonel Parker, who slinks through the wings as a fat Nosferatu, even going so far as to cackle at times. “We’re going to Vegas!” he roars, thereby cueing up the movie’s neon-washed final act, one ghastly last encore before the lights go out for good.
On the ground, on the site, the 75th Cannes film festival has been a blast – a jubilant antidote to several years of despond. In the cinemas, though, the atmosphere has been more sedate, with a decent crop of competition titles that have only rarely touched the realms of the sublime. Park Chan-wook’s Decision to Leave is a sensual, swooning Hitchcockian mystery, perfectly played by Tang Wei and Park Hae-il as the cat-and-mouse lovers; Tarik Saleh’s Boy from Heaven an engrossing tale of state-sponsored skulduggery at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. I also liked Claire Denis’s humid, rackety Stars at Noon, in which Margaret Qualley and Joe Alwyn’s doomed lovers (her a sort-of journalist; him a shady oil consultant) come horribly unstuck in the Nicaraguan tropics. Shot during Covid (adapting an 80s-set novel from the great Denis Johnson), it’s a film in which everyone (literally or metaphorically) is masked.
If the critics can’t find a masterpiece, they’ll settle for a turkey, some calamity to unite them. But the jury is out; we’re in disarray. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Forever Young is undeniably tiresome – a breathless remembrance of her 80s acting class – but it’s just a little too perky to count as a genuine dud. God forbid anyone suggests that David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future isn’t good. It’s a cerebral sci-fi about organ harvests and nature’s freaks, starring Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux as a performance artist and his surgeon. All the same, this felt like familiar Cronenbergian territory, the equivalent of comfort food – albeit in the form of a warm broth made from body parts.
Detractors say Cannes is escapist, but that’s only half true. The films show the world, sometimes the one right outside. The immigrant kids in the Dardenne brothers’ Tori and Lokita: they’re contemporaries of the destitute who sleep in many of the shop doorways nearby. The chilling Holy Spider, meanwhile, spotlights an Iranian killer who preys on sex workers. Ali Abbasi’s thriller is set in the grubbier ends of Mashhad. But this town has its own seedy underside and its own illicit, exploited workforce, especially active during festival time. Cannes physician, heal thyself.
Or take Ruben Östlund’s hilarious Triangle of Sadness, the most entertaining film in this year’s competition, which turns its satirical eye on a luxury cruise. It contains class war, vomit gags and Woody Harrelson as the self-loathing, drunk captain. Afterwards, some sniffed that the comedy was over the top and borderline crass, little more than a remedial game of millionaire whack-a-mole. But this screened for the elite inside the Grand Théâtre Lumière, sandwiched between the oligarch yachts and the high-end boutiques. If you think the target’s too cheap, most likely the target is you.
By Thursday, the festival is already winding down. Down in the market, most of the sales agents have fled. The Cannes film marché, which sits at the back of the Palais by the sea, is abuzz with activity during the opening week. Now it’s a mausoleum of abandoned stalls and empty desks. I wander past the wreckage of Jackrabbit Media, Aria Animation and TriCoast Worldwide. An envelope left on a table reads: “Sorry I missed you!” – but who, if anyone, is going to come and pick it up?
Let’s not allow Elvis the last word here in Cannes. The festival’s final stretch included some more worthy latecomers. Saeed Roustayi’s Leila’s Brothers provides a mountainous buffet of family intrigue as Taraneh Alidoosti’s heroine (a deep-cover matriarch in patriarchal Iran) runs herself ragged around her idiot menfolk. Belgian director Lukas Dhont’s Close – also in competition – is better still: a devastating tale of boyhood friendship and its eventual ruin. Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are 13-year-old soulmates, tossed into a new school and toiling to adapt. Then Léo rejects Rémi and the decision will haunt him for years. Close is sun-dappled, airy, but there is real human pain at its core. We staggered out of this one tear-stained and in bits.
And then there’s Showing Up, from writer-director Kelly Reichardt, which closed the main competition on a quiet note of wonder. Michelle Williams plays glum Lizzie Carr, a struggling sculptor on Oregon’s arts-and-crafts fringes, glazing sad, twisted dancers for a forthcoming show. There is no thunderclap drama; not a great deal is resolved. But what a bespoke treasure this film is all the same. Reichardt neither invites us to see Lizzie as an unsung, troubled genius, nor dismiss her as a joke. She’s OK; she’ll do. The show might change her fortunes? Then again, maybe not.
I love the way in which Reichardt demystifies art – gently lifting it from its pedestal to view its creation as just another daily chore. Sometimes it’s good; mostly it’s a drag. But the lonesome, dogged process has a value in itself. After all the pomp and ceremony of the past fortnight – the bling, the hype, the ovations, the gongs – that strikes me as a fine final message to send. With a minimum of fuss, the movie reminds the Cannes film festival of its abiding core principles. It resets the compass and directs us all back to work.
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Cannes rock docs
Ethan Coen ambled onstage to introduce Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, a softball account of the rock’n’roll pioneer. Brett Morgen hosted a midnight screening of his impressionistic Bowie spectacular Moonage Daydream. Coen gave us too little; Morgen arguably too much. Both, in their way, came to print the legend.
Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men was an ambient folk-horror set on a creepy Cornish island (tin mines, lichen, standing stones). Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun spun a weightless, heart-piercing tale of a dad and daughter’s holiday, beautifully acted by Paul Mescal and Francesca Corio. On the evidence of this skimpy sample, British cinema appears to be doing fine.
On the red carpet, a dozen women set off smoke grenades to call attention to the 129 femicides committed in France this past year. Elsewhere, the Three Thousand Years of Longing premiere was disrupted by a topless gatecrasher protesting rape-crimes in Ukraine. Which inevitably brings us to…
The war constantly broke cover, with a dedicated Ukraine Day in the market and various films on the schedule. Director Maksym Nakonechny demanded air-raid sirens at the premiere of his Butterfly Vision, while Sergei Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction gave us the history of aerial bombing during the second world war. In March, the film-maker Mantas Kvedaravicius was killed by Russian troops. His unfinished documentary – Mariupolis 2 – played in Cannes as a wake.