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Cannes 2018: Stanley Kubrick's 70mm space odyssey and Gaspar Noé's dance party

Nolan, Keir Dullea, Jan Harlan, Katharina Kubrick and Cannes head programmer Thierry Frémaux at Sunday night's screening of "2001: A Space Odyssey"

Before Sunday night, it was tempting to wonder whether Cannes Film Festival remembered how to project film. Digital has been the standard format at Cannes for at least a decade, and the rare movies that have screened on 35 millimeter—Laszlo Nemes's "Son of Saul" and Manoel de Oliveira's posthumously shown "Visit, or Memories and Confessions" in 2015; Xavier Dolan's "It's Only the End of the World" in 2016—have always stood out as newsworthy exceptions.

And that's 35 millimeter. It's been more than a decade since Cannes has shown anything in 70 millimeter, the wide-gauge format that has enjoyed a modest revival (mainly with "The Hateful Eight" and "Dunkirk") since Paul Thomas Anderson used it for "The Master" in 2012. Projected on a large screen, the increased image area of a 70-millimeter frame yields a breathtaking amount of detail. And "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of a handful of films ("Lawrence of Arabia" is another) that, to my mind, should never be seen any other way. Scale is too important to appreciating its hypnotic power and the precision of its design and special effects.

Thankfully, Cannes pulled it off. Sunday night's presentation contained the best 10 reels I'll see at the festival—which would be the case even if they weren't the only 10 reels I'll see here. Nolan has been calling the latest prints of the film, from a new negative, "unrestored" versions: They were made with processes available in 1968 and designed to replicate the original viewing experience as closely as possible. Introducing the film alongside its star, Keir Dullea; Katharina Kubrick, who is variously described as Kubrick's daughter and stepdaughter; and Jan Harlan, Kubrick's brother-in-law and longtime collaborator, Nolan noted that the Debussy theater in Cannes was one of the few in the world that could play the original sound arrangement. (The audio coming from the behind the screen sounded unusually symphonic; a projectionist friend tells me that Nolan may have meant that Cannes's Debussy theater had five channels behind the screen instead of three.)

Having seen the movie countless times and three times before in 70 millimeter, I must say that I've never heard such a broad range of tonalities in the scoring that accompanies the "star gate" sequence. More to the point, the occasional scratch or pock mark from the negative didn't prevent "2001: A Space Odyssey" from looking strikingly modern, even with color grading that to my eye looked more muted and perhaps more period-appropriate than what I remember from the 70-millimeter prints I saw in 2001, 2013, and 2014. As Roger Ebert wrote in 1968, "There is not a single moment, in this long film, when the audience can see through the props. The stars look like stars and outer space is bold and bleak."

Few films remain so fresh after 50 years. Especially on a big screen, where HAL's eye fills the giant frame, it's possible to notice peripheral touches that escaped your attention on previous viewings. The suspense as HAL's derangement is revealed still takes hold. And on a simple visceral level, hearing an audience's reaction to individual cuts—the famous flash forward from the dawn of man to the stars; the cut to the intermission card after HAL reads Dave and Frank's lips—makes this version of "2001," which opens around the United States on Friday, an unmissable film experience.

Another highlight of Cannes so far has been "Climax," the latest provocation from professed Kubrick fan Gaspar Noé ("Enter the Void"), who this time premiered his work in the parallel Directors' Fortnight program instead of the official selection. Given the content of Noé's last film, the hardcore 3-D movie "Love" (2015), "Climax," about which little was known in advance, promised a scandal quite different from the one it actually offers. 

"Climax" is not only Noé's least juvenile, most accomplished movie but also a much more enjoyable trolling from him than usual, drawing its surprises from structural fillips and formal mastery rather than outrage-bait content. After the closing credits open the movie (as they did in Noé's "Irreversible"), "Climax" begins with footage of dancers talking about their hopes and ambitions on a tube TV. The appliance is surrounded by what's probably Noé's video collection. (It includes "Suspiria" and "Hara-Kiri.")

The next stretch of the movie shows them dancing as a group, at an event that apparently doubles as a rehearsal for a competitive tour and a rager of a party. The sequence opens with (what looks like) a single take as dexterous and sensational as the choreography. ("Climax" is basically a musical set to a constant DJ throb.) By the time the hilarious opening credits—which use symbols instead of "edited by," "director of photography," and so on—start about 45 minutes in, it's possible to think that Noé's game might be to give us an entire movie of dancing before dropping a horrific hammer.

Clues and red herrings abound: We're told the film is based on real events from 1996. An early title card calls "Climax" a "French movie and proud of it." The dancers' evening is marked by occasional outbursts of patriotism ("Come on guys, to France! Let's slaughter those Yanks!"), homophobia, and xenophobia. Is this movie an expression of nationalism? A critique of it? Neither?

Noé lets those questions dangle for much of the film. "Climax" is best experienced fresh, with as little foreknowledge as possible. It's already earned comparisons to movies as diverse as the "Step Up" movies, Darren Aronofsky's "Mother!" and Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom." To those I would add Luis Buñuel's "The Exterminating Angel" and Jack Smith's "Flaming Creatures," though the vicious streak is pure Noé. It's not a spoiler to say that in the Noé-verse, a child getting locked in an electrical closet and a woman announcing that she is pregnant are the sorts of developments that should inspire terror.

The films actually had an unofficial bridge, Ramin Bahrani's new version of "Fahrenheit 451," starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Sahnnon and playing on HBO this weekend. It features both Sofia Boutella, the star of Noé's film, and, in a bit part, Dullea. Visually, "Fahrenheit" looks as aggressively digitized and cutting-edge—in a way that I suspect will poorly—as "2001" looks analog and timeless.

Ben Kenigsberg

Ben Kenigsberg is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. He edited the film section of Time Out Chicago from 2011 to 2013 and served as a staff critic for the magazine beginning in 2006. 

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