The New (and Old) Flesh At Cannes

Cronenberg, Elvis, Bowie, Kelly Reichardt–and Léa Seydoux highlight a great week at the festival

Skin is in this week at Cannes, with movies about mere mortals and their remarkably revealing human forms. Think of flesh as a conduit for potential and pitfall: as manifestation of transcendence, as exotic plumbing, as the lightning-rod for emotional bliss, as a prison for fraught personalities, as the tie that binds. BODY IS REALITY, proclaims a video monitor in cine-existentialist David Cronenberg’s deliciously on-brand Crimes of the Future. In other words: Let’s get physical.

Crimes of the Future is a brilliant burst of ideas from the 79-year-old Canadian auteur, a symphonic summary statement about our essential, and inescapable, fate as Darwinian animals. “Human bodies are changing,” we’re told, as performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) grows extra parts in his belly. He’s got Accelerated Evolution Syndrome, and his removal of traditionally inessential organs makes for arresting theater in a near future that has all but eliminated pain and people perform desktop surgery for amusement—or even arousal. “Surgery is the new sex,” says Timlin (a hilariously jittery Kristen Stewart, emitting Renfield vibes). She’s a low-level lackey for the National Organ Registry, a nascent government outfit charged with regulating what they call “evolutionary derangement,” and making sure people don’t stray from what they consider the “human path.”

Cronenberg has never been more vibrantly original, or as wryly funny, than in this entrancingly meditative thriller. “Careful, don’t spill,” says Tenser after he gets a zippered abdomen. Prepare for biomorphic coordinators, idiopathic organs, registration tattoos, a BreakfasterChair, and a little boy who eats plastic garbage cans. It’s also wildly sensual thanks to Léa Seydoux’s succulent performance as Tenser’s partner Caprice. “Watching you filled me with the desire to cut myself open,” she purrs at a rival artist. Long live the new flesh!

Debuting on the same day as Cronenberg’s philosophical feast was, aptly enough, De Humani Corporis Fabrica, from experimental filmmakers Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. Their latest is a structural rhapsody of graphically detailed surgeries on the human body: removing cataract removals, scraping out intestinal organs, delivering cesarean-section births, shoving tubes into penises. Doctors are essentially plumbers, the film stresses, as it chronicles quotidian life at various French hospitals and clinics, capturing doctors’ adroit techniques along with their staffing snipes and gripes. We’re all meat, miraculously animated, unsettlingly banal.

Transcending their corporeal forms? David Bowie and Elvis Presley. Both musicians had films detailing their virtuosic-rocker lives and ethereal legacies, and in doing so made strong cases that, indeed, we are all made of stars. Moonage Daydream, Morgan Neville’s swoony archival-blender approach to hagiography, limits its voiceover narration to the man himself ruminating on all those chameleonlike physical ch-ch-ch-ch-changes: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke, the Elephant Man, plus other myriad identities from his “Let’s Dance” ’80s superstardom to his Lazarus coda with “Blackstar.” And Baz Luhrmann’s fawning, feverish biopic Elvis petitions the King of Rock ’n’ Roll for eternal relevancy as it reincarnates the man for a potentially new generation of 21st century fans. The preternaturally talented, scandalously sexual, pelvic-swiveling, leg-wobbling proto-punker gets an eerie avatar in the form of Austin Butler, whose eerie evocation is virtuosic.

Less comfortable in their own skin are the clammy characters in two lo-fi alt-art odes, Owen Kline’s Funny Pages and Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up. The raucously anxious, delightfully lewd Funny Pages follows a high school screw-up (Daniel Zolghadri) and his flop-sweat attempts to escape his middle-class life and become an underground comic book graphic artist. It’s an instant cringe classic full of desperation and cascading bad choices that—no surprise—counts the Safdie Brothers among its producers. Showing Up could not be more different in style, a quiet though no less awkward portrait of a sour sculptor (Michelle Williams) succumbing almost too easily to petty slights, both perceived and real, that come from all directions in her insulated Portland art community. It’s a slow-burn study of an insistent frump, prickly and put-upon, and an empathetic tribute to creative misfits wrestling with their own chronic perturbation.

We are who we come from, and two of the festival’s most affecting films explore poignant dynamics between fathers and daughters. Mia Hansen-Løve’s luminous and deeply moving One Fine Morning stars Léa Seydoux—the de facto queen of Cannes, with multiple films here—as a widow raising a young daughter and finding new love, plus a newfound appetite for carnal desire, with a married friend of her dead husband. She’s also tending to an ailing father (Pascal Greggory) who suffers from a neurodegenerative disease made all the more heartbreaking due to his career as an acclaimed philosophy professor. The film renders her travails, familiar ones for adult children tending to their own kids while watching their parents become infantilized by age, with clear-eyed tenderness and a profound poignancy.

Most devastating, though, is Aftersun, Charlotte Wells’ modest minor-key masterpiece of childhood recollection. The film is an 11-year-old Scottish girl’s memory of a summer vacation with her divorced dad Callum (Paul Mescal, muted and wan), just 30 but feeling like his life is already over. Body language, in-jokes, fleeting moments of joy amid lingering clouds of seeping unspoken despair—Aftersun delivers a penetrating x-ray of father-daughter bonds, painfully poignant and achingly affectionate. And Frankie Corio, in her debut as the precocious preteen Sophie, convincingly shows an edge-of-adulthood maturity still wrapped in childhood innocence. Wells’ drama is a wise, winning look at a flesh-and-blood connection—unshakable and unforgettable.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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