Cinema comes roaring back at Cannes 2022
Shine on, you crazy diamond: this past week, the 75th Cannes Film Festival celebrated its glittering, bejeweled anniversary with blood, guts, vomit, and crap. Bodily fluids keep setting the unsettling tone. Opening Night zombie comedy gorefest, Michael Hazanavicius’ Final Cut, kicked everything off with its gleefully gross movie-in-a-movie take on the crimson-covered undead. Ali Abbasi’s Iranian serial-killer movie Holy Spider had a pious Muslim head-butting, punching, and strangling whores with his bare hands. Quentin Dupieux’s WTF superhero lark Smoking Causes Coughing spends its giddy opening minutes dousing its mock-Avengers with the pulpy viscera of a rampaging humanoid turtle. Black-tie audience members wildly applauding decapitations and rat puppets drooling green goo? It’s a vibe.
If film festivals capture a cultural zeitgeist, then Cannes is holding up a mirror to a sickly world. Of the competition entries so far, Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness exemplifies that reflection with funhouse-mirror excess: the most satiric, the most overtly political, the most entertaining, the most overbearing. Over the course of 150 minutes, Ostlund’s Grand Statement satire uses a bickering fashion-model influencer couple and a luxury yacht cruise gone awry to skewer low-hanging thematic fruit like economic inequities, fickle consumerism rot, power dynamics between the sexes, and Lord-of-the-Flies survivalist instincts. Easy targets, wickedly rendered.
Its centerpiece is a rollicking Captain’s Dinner on the turbulent high seas that quickly becomes a vomitorium. At the helm: Woody Harrelson as the boat’s self-loathing alcoholic steward, smiling wanly as the moneyed elite around him heave out their haute cuisine in a firehouse of queasy overindulgence. Still not disgusted? The passengers flee to their cabins and overflow their toilets with explosive diarrhea. And as the boat literally goes to shit, Harrelson gets drunk with a Russian oligarch, the two of them trading capitalist critiques and communist jibes in a one-upmanship parlor game of pithy aphorisms. And then terrorists attack, unintentionally blowing up an entitled arms-dealing couple with their own grenade and causing the survivors to fend for themselves on a dog-eat-dog tropical island.
About that Russian oligarch. Russia’s war on Ukraine keeps seeping into the festival—sometimes overtly, such as Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise 10-minute video message at the opening ceremonies; and sometimes unintentionally, like when Anthony Hopkins’ warm immigrant grandpa talks about his Ukrainian mother fleeing the Cossacks in James Gray’s affecting coming-of-age autofiction Armageddon Time.
A pro-Ukrainian protester even crashed the red carpet arrivals for George Miller’s trippy romantic fantasy Three Thousand Years of Longing. Shaking off her dress, the topless woman sporting granny-panties screamed at the photographers and bared her body-painted chest, which had the words STOP RAPING US in the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine’s flag, while red paint was smeared like blood on her thighs and SCUM was written on the small of her back. It was the only real jolt of surprise at that premiere, which otherwise offered a visually sumptuous but oddly unconvincing romance between an ancient Djinn (Idris Elba) and a bookworm narratologist (Tilda Swinton).
If only Tom Cruise were a real American hero enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine instead of just being the world’s most charismatic movie star. His signature best-of-the-best fighter pilot made his big-screen return last week in Cannes with the international premiere of Top Gun: Maverick. That rabidly entertaining piece of global entertainment is, of course, so finely calibrated not to ruffle any political feathers that Maverick’s leather jacket had its Japanese and Taiwanese flag patches altered. And don’t expect a rematch against MIG jets—this time the enemy they face is a nefarious plutonium-hungry nation state known simply as “the enemy.” No matter: Cannes still showered him with standing ovations along with a surprise honorary Palme d’Or.
Outside of the theaters, Cote d’Azur’s famous sun-bathed and yacht-choked beach resort makes Covid-19 feel like a mirage. Festival organizers keep strongly recommending that people mask up in movie venues, although everyone chronically ignores the warnings. It’s a bare-faced, going-commando liberation that’s equal parts defiance and denial—and maybe it’s just plain pragmatism, considering how France’s already-low infection rates are continuing to trend downward, festival registration is hovering around 35,000, and overall attendance is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. But the event feels alive like never before, with the streets packed, fireworks lighting up the skies, and screenings full of rapt attendees clapping thunderously at the return of cinema with a capital C.