Cannes 2024 week two roundup – scuffles, screwballs and spellbinders

<span>Shock and awe… Dennis Quaid, director Coralie Fargeat, Margaret Qualley and Demi Moore arrive at the Cannes screening of Fargeat’s feminist sci-fi horror The Substance.</span><span>Photograph: Stefanos Kyriazis/NurPhoto/ Rex/ Shutterstock</span>
Shock and awe… Dennis Quaid, director Coralie Fargeat, Margaret Qualley and Demi Moore arrive at the Cannes screening of Fargeat’s feminist sci-fi horror The Substance.Photograph: Stefanos Kyriazis/NurPhoto/ Rex/ Shutterstock

“Which film is this?” the burly US critic asks twice, as the house lights go down inside the Bazin cinema. The first time he’s half-joking, the second time he’s in earnest. His immediate neighbours don’t know, or simply don’t want to tell him. But now the picture is starting, the festival ident is playing and everybody has settled except for this lone panicked critic. He stands in his row and implores the spectators. He says: “Can anybody please tell me what film I am in?”

What film are we in? Does it matter much any more? As the 77th Cannes film festival pitches into its final straight, the tightly packed schedule is a blur and the guests rattle between screenings in search of that elusive late masterwork. In Cannes years of plenty, everybody’s blissed out. This year they’re like survivors in Furiosa’s post-apocalyptic Australia. They’re fighting for purchase, seeking an oasis in the desert.

A literal fight almost breaks out before the Parthenope screening. It’s a dispute over seating (it nearly always is) and provides an appropriate warmup act for Paolo Sorrentino’s vulgar, declamatory Neapolitan showboater about a sexy girl in a sexy city; a picture so complacent and silly that it briefly made me question my love for the director’s The Great Beauty (2013). Parthenope is marginally more dignified than the altercation that precedes it. But only by a whisker; the two events run neck and neck.

If we can’t find a masterpiece to rank alongside last year’s The Zone of Interest, we’ll happily settle for the next best thing: a tour de force or a wild swing. Anora, for instance, is a terrific modern-day screwball comedy, fierce and funny and showcasing a breakout turn from Mikey Madison as the New York sex worker who says: “Fuck yeah, I do”, weds an oligarch’s brat and then repents at her leisure. The film’s dazzling centrepiece takes the form of an extended slapstick scene at the brat’s Coney Island pad as a pair of hapless Russian goons rock up to annul the marriage. Possibly this loses steam during the careening second half, but so what? Writer-director Sean Baker provides an acid corrective to so many bogus Hollywood fairytales. Anora sticks Pretty Woman under a UV lamp so that we can see the stains on the sheets and the dirty money that sloshes behind the hotel suites and private jets.

I also adored Emilia Perez, from director Jacques Audiard, a gaudy musical melodrama that tramples freely across the gender-affirmation debate with its tale of a Mexican drug lord (Karla Sofía Gascón) who is reborn as a crusading mother of the nation. “Changing the body changes society,” Zoe Saldana’s hardscrabble lawyer informs us in a song, which is no doubt true, although I also liked the more nuanced scene in which Emilia’s son identifies Papa’s smell on the woman he has been told is his aunt. Anticipating Cannes’s prizes is like trying to stick a pin into fog. But I suspect that the jury will be partial to Perez.

Cannes is still feeling the pinch of the Covid lockdowns, the Hollywood strike of last summer and its ripple effect

Given the choice, I’d prefer not to think about Donald Trump for the rest of my life. So against the odds, I rather relished The Apprentice in the same way that one sometimes craves a hamburger with fries. Ali Abbasi’s juicy Faustian tale plays as a twisted love story of sorts in which Jeremy Strong’s monstrous political fixer Roy Cohn teaches the odious young mogul (Sebastian Stan) how to win at all costs. Elsewhere, Kinds of Kindness finds Poor Things director Yorgos Lanthimos returning to the freeze-dried style of the “Greek Weird Wave” with a brilliantly unsettling – at times pure ghastly – triptych of US-set tales, arranging the same troupe of actors (Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe) in various states of moral and physical undress. Alternatively, those seeking a different strain of arthouse weirdness are advised to check out Miguel Gomes’s Grand Tour, predominantly shot in creamy black-and-white as it examines the backwash of empire in an ahistorical south-east Asia. Crista Alfaiate is the dying heroine who travels downriver in search of her lost fiance, through a mist that’s so thick it plays queer tricks on the senses. It’s a jaunty, dreamlike, utterly spellbinding film.

Midway through the festival, right about the point where the guests are first beginning to flag, the schedule steps in to apply the jump leads. Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance is a galvanic feminist sci-fi horror, a full-body dry heave disguised as a motion picture. It’s about fading, ageing Liz Sparkle (Demi Moore), who gives hideous birth to Sue (Margaret Qualley), her perky younger self, and now has to share her life with an entity she despises (“I need you because I hate myself,” she says by way of explanation). Raincoats at the ready for the blood-spraying climax. The centre can’t hold, the divided self eats its young and nobody, it seems, is getting out in one piece.

By a neat quirk of the schedule, the premiere of The Substance sits hard up against the unveiling of David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds. Or to put it more bluntly, the competition pits energetic young Sue against melancholic old Liz. It’s obvious that Cronenberg’s early body horrors have been a major influence on Fargeat (alongside Carrie, The Thing and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon). And yet where her work comes with a flash of youthful vigour, his movies have turned more contemplative and mordant. The Shrouds (stitched together from an abandoned Netflix series) is further hobbled by a nonplussed Vincent Cassel in the lead role of Karsh, a rich widower who has pioneered a “grave-cam” system that allows him to watch his wife’s body decay in real time. “I’ve been in a strange dark place since Becca died,” Karsh explains. And this, of course, makes two of them.

At dinner each night, usually over a glass of rosé, old hands are wont to liken Cannes years to wine years. This vintage is good; this one not so much. Because just as the grape is affected by inclement seasons, so films must be subject to similar outside forces. The evidence on the ground suggests that Cannes is still feeling the pinch of the Covid lockdowns, the Hollywood strike of last summer and its ripple effect through the industry at large. There are some genuinely great pictures out in the festival’s sidebars (Santosh, a superb, sinuous Hindi police procedural, leaps to mind). But the main competition feels softer than in previous years. It does the job, it gets you high, although it leaves most punters wanting something more.

What film are we in? That nagging, late-breaking question. In the final days we mount the stairs to the Debussy theatre and stumble upon All We Imagine As Light. It’s the first Indian picture to compete for the Palme d’Or in three decades and turns out to be a thing of rare beauty, spinning the tale of three nurses who flee Mumbai for a village on the coast. Payal Kapadia’s captivating human drama is the best kind of ghost story in that its trio are haunted by everyday phantoms: by absent husbands, lost homes and a love that violates social norms.

Kapadia’s nurses find sanctuary at a pop-up beach bar at night. There are plastic tables on the sand and a spray of stars overhead. This is the film that we’re in and I felt blessed to be there. Kapadia, I decide, is showing us how heaven might be. The bar isn’t closing; the manager dances on the beach. She says: “You can sit here for as long as you like.”

Xan Brooks’s best and the rest of Cannes week two

Best film
Late glories be damned, I’m sticking with my favourite from week one. Magnus von Horn’s The Girl With the Needle is a grim, gorgeous true-life horror movie (part Tom Waits, part Tarkovsky), pungently set in 1920s Copenhagen. But Anora, Emilia Perez and All We Imagine As Light would both be worthy Palme d’Or winners too.

Best director
Cannes prides itself of being an auteurist festival and Portugal’s Miguel Gomes is the most distinctive, inventive, unclassifiable director in competition this year. His rapturous Grand Tour leads us through a world that only he could conjure.

Best actors
In Jia Zhangke’s epic, sweeping Caught by the Tides, lead actress Zhao Tao embodies her role as a stoic seeker so fully that it hardly feels as though she is acting at all, while Shahana Goswami’s redoubtable cop in Santosh gives us a heroine for the ages. As for the men, I was gripped by Qin Hao’s performance as an actor stranded in Covid-hit Wuhan from Lou Ye’s docu-realist An Unfinished Film. Plaudits, too, for Jeremy Strong’s masterclass as the loathsome, tragic, finally broken Roy Cohn.

Best politics
The politics primarily played out on screen. Off it, this festival was a deodorised blasted heath. The jury offered some airy, non-specific mithering about peace and equality, while Cate Blanchett strode the red carpet in a dress that was read as a sly homage to the Palestinian flag. Simpler, I suspect, to make a direct statement of support for Gaza, but that’s actors for you.