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Cannes 2022: Highlights of the Return of the Legendary Film Festival

The general consensus of those at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival was that the selections were “fine.” Many chatting in line anxiously awaited some giant breakout film, finding that premieres from masters and newcomers alike were at best underwhelming, at worst disappointing. These proclamations are, of course, separate from the whims of the jury, let alone the generally arbitrary decisions to include given titles in official competition or to relegate them to another section or sidebar.

Time will tell if the continuing hard stance on Netflix’s involvement with the festival is impacting the overall quality but given the recent financial turmoil at that company there may be a long game at play here. Still, there weren’t major releases from any of the other streamers either. The end result may be that it stacks the likes of TIFF, Telluride, and (especially) Venice with a slew of exceptional titles. Is the center of attention even more firmly shifting to the fall festivals?

All this teeth gnashing would bely the fact that there were gems to be found on the Croisette, especially if you dug around. Take “Joyland,” which played in Un Certain Regard and received a Special Jury Prize (it deserved even more than that). The first Pakistani film to ever play the festival, Saim Sadiq’s astonishing debut is so tonally precise and rich in performance and narrative that it felt almost criminal how it was outside most people’s consideration.

The shot of a man on a scooter, his face buried in the crotch of a giant standee, is what first drew me to the film. The rider is Haider Rana, played with great sensitivity and inner conflict by Ali Junejo. Living with his arranged-marriage spouse Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), his father (Salmaan Peerzada), brother (Sohail Sameer), and sister-in-law (Sarwat Gilani), the family forms a tight social unit where gender roles are slightly fluid. While Mumtaz works as a makeup artist for brides-to-be, the unemployed Haider does the dishes and cares for the kids, much to the chagrin of his sibling and the patriarch.

When a friend says there’s a job available at a local theatre, Haider encounters Biba (Alina Khan), a dancer with a retinue of young boys that dance behind her during intermission. At first, the fact that she’s transgender seems uncommented upon, but the more subtle considerations of Pakistan’s conservative society gradually come to the fore.

From here, just about every preconception you have about Pakistan and its cinema is upended, and it’s hard not to believe there’s a degree of political and social bravery in the telling of this story that goes well beyond almost any film playing the festival. Every time I feared it would descend into maudlin or predictable storytelling, things were upended, and the complexity of all of it—social relations, family dynamics, religious and cultural expectations, modes of sexuality—were dealt with in ways both subtle and profound. It’s a truly unforgettable film, and a true discovery from this year’s fest.

The same could be said for “Rebel,” Adil El Arbi & Bilall Fallah’s radical film about radicalization. Best known to Western audiences for helming “Bad Boys for Life,” Adil & Bilall have crafted what’s surely the first ISIS musical, tying hip-hop sensibilities with a dramatic, sometimes action-packed story of a family caught in the trap of broken promises.

Kamal (Aboubakr Bensaihi) is a rapping, motorcycle-riding punk kid from the tough Molenbeek community in Brussels, Belgium. When his criminal deeds catch up with him, he’s forced to escape, finding refuge of sorts in Syria in the hopes of making a new start. Figuring that his abilities with video-making can be of better use that wielding a weapon, he soon finds himself, camera in hand, capturing the atrocities of his newest group of comrades.

His younger brother Nassim (Amir El Arbi), meanwhile, begins to lean in the same direction, much to the concern of his mother (Ala Riani). She breathlessly speaks to members of all the institutions she can, both religious and state, and is stonewalled by those simply waiting for the end result rather than preventing the tragedy before it occurs. It’s a bleak yet extraordinary series of actions that perfectly encapsulate the challenges of circumstances that are often simplified for the sake of moral superiority.

As the film unfolds, the hypocrisies and deceptions from all sides coalesce. The fact that this film manages to intersperse events with the occasional dance number and acerbic rap performance, without descending into ridiculousness, is a testament to Adil & Bilal’s exceptional ability to keep even the biggest moments grounded. The film's genre blending of action movie, sociopolitical drama, and musical is phenomenal, resulting in something that feels fresh, entertaining, and intensely important.

If we look towards filmmakers more closely associated with the Cannes slate, we find a mixed bag at best. Claire Denis is beloved at this fest, and even her most middling works have achieved a level of support like few artists. “Stars at Noon,” based on the novel by Denis Johnson, is such a mess that it’s almost comical, yet unsurprisingly the jury chose to celebrate the artist rather than the art.

The original novel was set in Nicaragua during the 1980s, deep within the Sandanista conflict, and this modern-day telling hints at that location even as the Panamaian setting chosen for both COVID and security purposes doesn’t quite evoke the proper milieu. Margaret Qualley gives her all as Trish, who meets Daniel (Joe Alwyn), a white-suited employee of an oil company, and her life is upended when the two connect in torrid, self-destructive ways. Save for an absolutely bravura Benny Safdie as a consultant/CIA operative, the tonally awkward and bleak storyline becomes inadvertently comical. Lines mid-coitus like “suck me” caused ripples of laughter in the audience, and the aimlessness of the plot leaves it lifeless.

Meanwhile, David Cronenberg’s back into territory more familiar to audiences with Crimes of the Future,” tackling a tale of sexuality, horror, and artistry in deep and dark ways. Collaborating once again with Viggo Mortensen, as well as the likes of Don McKellar who is being severely overlooked when discussing the film, Cronenberg dusted off a script from a few decades ago about a man whose body is growing organs of no known use and uses their extraction as a kind of performance art. Supported by his partner and muse Caprice (Léa Seydoux in one of her most effective roles), the two fetishize surgery and entwine themselves in wild contraptions that enable them to dive into the darkest corners of the body and their psyches. Along with Scott Speedman and a committed, moody, distant performance by Kristen Stewart, there’s lots to enjoy here. It’s familiar territory, of course, and this merging of “eXistenZ” with “Crash,” “Dead Ringers” and other works may make it feel a retread. Yet Cronenberg crafts a film of philosophic resonance and a kind of spiritual quest, interrogating the very notion of desperately holding onto the past instead of letting the new flesh take over.

Christian Mungiu is another beloved talent here—his “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” took the top competition prize back in 2007, and he received other major awards in 2012 and 2016. He’s back with “R.M.N.,” a stark look at identity and integration in a small Transylvanian town, where numerous cultures collide, and xenophobia is sliced into increasingly thin segments. It’s a fascinating and rich story, with remarkable sequences, including a static shot of a community hall meeting. There’s plenty to ponder in the story’s construction, and, days later, some of its quiet moments continue to resonate. Its overt metaphors are too heavy-handed, but, as a probing look at the contradictions of a community and general rot within the heart of a European experiment (along with the undertones of ethnic cleansing) the film has a lot to admire.

I was swayed by Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, “Showing Up.” Its quiet tone and late-in-fest, late-evening slot meant that it was likely overlooked by many. Michelle Williams plays a woman named Lizzy Carr in this tale of aggressive passivity and art installations, a socks-and-sandals world where even the most complimentary of behaviors seems to be both competitive and ridiculous in equal measure. Hong Chau is fantastic as Jo, the landlord/artist whose compliments to Lizzy feel sincere and cutting in equal measure. Her mom (Maryann Plunkett) employs her daughter at the institution, while her father (a welcome return of Judd Hirsch) revels in retirement. Her troubled brother Sean (John Magaro) shows overtly how the line between art installation and a manically dug hole in the ground is difficult to discern outside a gallery environment.

In another context, “Showing Up” could play like a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Yet every time I feared that things would become too overwrought, from a cheese plate to a potentially destructive bird, Reichardt managed to rein things in, keeping the tone perfectly in tune to the quirks of these characters. Even discussions of rent and water tanks take on an absurd yet quiet intensity, culminating in a film that deserves a close look to get the most out of its subtle pleasures.

Lukas Dhont, last at Cannes with his Camera d’Or (best first feature) winning “Girl,” tells a beautiful and moving story about two young friends who begin to grow apart in Close.” On first glance this coming-of-age tale would be easily sluffed off as mere manipulative tripe, yet Dhont’s gift is in providing moments of great emotional subtlety without ever succumbing to being maudlin or overtly manipulative.

Dhont’s capacity to work with new talent is once again evident, and the subtle and attenuated performance by Eden Dambrine as Léo is one of the triumphs of this year’s festival. Gustav de Waele as Rémi is also exceptional in what is in some ways a harder task, making the slightly more straightforward character come to life. It’s a somber story of growing up, and Dhont generates so much empathy for his characters, both the kids and their parents, that it’s easy to believe in the passions and frustrations of these stories being captured. It’s a broad story told with remarkable acuity and subtlety underneath the narrative scaffolding, and I believe it will receive plenty of love from those open to the journey it takes audiences on.

Another film from the UCR slate is the boorish and brash “War Pony,” Riley Keough and Gina Gammell's winner this year of the Camera d’Or. The story of the film’s inception is the easiest part to talk about—on the South Dakota set of Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” Keough befriended two Indigenous supporting players, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob. Along with the Gammell, the four spent many years working on a storyline of life on the reservation, basing much of it on actual experiences that Reddy and Bob lived through. The result is tonally imprecise with an almost enthusiastic adoption of the worst qualities of the characters, never truly bringing us into their lives but instead feeling much more voyeuristic than anything else. 

I’ll leave it to others to say whether Keough and Gammell are the ones best to tell Bob and Reddy’s story on the big screen, but questions of representation about who gets to tell the tales of a community like this will be at the forefront of discussion. In a Europe that has long embraced Native American stories with a romanticized fascination of the noble, impoverished struggling plains-person, it’s unsurprising the film was well-received. I’ll be interested to see how it’s responded to by members of the Lakota community, as well as Indigenous people in my own country. I look forward to listening to those who have been so vocal and powerful about these vital questions of identity and storytelling.

One of last year’s under-appreciated gems was Jacques Audiard’s masterful “Paris, 13th District,” a beautiful neo-Nouvelle Vague film set in the multiethnic Olympiades community of France’s capital. That screenplay was co-written by Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, two remarkable filmmakers in their own right. Sciamma’s “Petite Maman” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2021, and it’s interesting to see how Mysius’ “The Five Devils” also plays with time and mother/daughter relationships this year, asking provocative questions about life choices while injecting just enough supernaturalism to keep things interesting.

Another Cannes fave Adèle Exarchopoulos (recipient of a unique Palme d’Or along with Seydoux for “Blue is the Warmest Colour”) stars as the mother of Vicky (Sally Dramé), a young girl who seemingly has the magical power to be able to distinguish smells. Her father (Moustapha Mbengue), a tall, imposing firefighter, gets a call from his sister Julia (Swala Emati) who has recently been released from prison and is looking for a place to stay.

Thus begins this wild tale of past and present, the intertwined relationships matched with a mix of supposed mental illness and more mystical musings. Not a single moment should work, collapsing under its own metaphysical weight, yet Mysius and her screenwriting collaborator Paul Guilhaume perform a magical trick, turning this friendship and family drama into something truly exceptional. It’s not just the extremely well-structured storyline but also the very fine performances, especially by Dramé. There’s nothing precocious about her performance, and it’s an entirely believable entry into the mind of a young girl. It’s a terrific film, one that’s emotionally rich and narratively satisfying.

And thus ends my Cannes 2022 journey. Dozens of films, pounds of steak tartar, and truffle-covered pasta gorged on with equal abandon. I saw friends I’d been missing since before COVID struck and met new colleagues that I hope to see along the festival trail. It’s once again a supreme honor to be even tangentially associated with the name Ebert at this most storied of festivals, and to have broadcast back to Canada live radio from the room where a brass plaque marks Roger’s name is a moment I’ll not soon forget.

As a kid, I dreamed of one day making it to this festival, and for this, my ninth iteration over 26 years, I never took for granted just how special an event it truly can be. From securing my front/center seats at every venue, to getting a hug from Brett Morgen following his Bowie premiere as the ovations rang out, or being tasked with asking the opening question at the “Triangle of Sadness” presser to great effect, or sitting on a couch a foot away from Seydoux as we talked at length about her love of Tom Cruise, it was another magical, exhausting, overwhelming two weeks spent at this most glorious of cinematic events.

À année prochaine!

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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