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Cannes 2023: Asteroid City, The Settlers

"The French Dispatch," which showed at Cannes in 2021, was one of Wes Anderson's most divisive movies. I fell into the camp that thought it was way too busy, and that all its competing narrative conceits drained it of energy, especially in the second and third chapters. Viewed from that perspective, Anderson's latest film, "Asteroid City," which premiered in competition today, is almost movingly low-key.

The trailer made "Asteroid City" look like Anderson's version of an atomic-age alien-invasion picture, but that's not quite right. In a black-and-white intro, a host (Bryan Cranston) informs viewers that they will be watching a rehearsal for a play called "Asteroid City," set in a fictional American town. This allows Anderson to pay homage not just to "The War of the Worlds," "Invaders From Mars," and their ilk but to another, almost opposite mode of storytelling in the 1950s: the work of the Actors Studio on Broadway.

Edward Norton plays the playwright, who is quite clearly modeled on Tennessee Williams. Willem Dafoe is a Lee Strasberg–like acting teacher named—wait for it—Saltzburg Keitel. Adrien Brody may or may not be playing a stand-in for Elia Kazan, with a touch of Marlon Brando thrown in. (It is a little odd, given the subtexts of both the stage works and the movies of the period, that "Asteroid City" doesn't ever raise the issue of the blacklist or fears of Communism, save for one possible nod to "The Crucible." But Anderson's films are always so dense that it's possible I missed it.)

The backstage gossip that Anderson cuts to as asides and during breaks in the show—"Asteroid City" the play has an optional intermission written in—nicely complements the play's content, presented in color and widescreen. In it, a group of people descends on the town of Asteroid City for the anniversary of a meteor's impact there, which is also an occasion for a convention of teenage science stars. The visitors include a photographer, Augie Steenbeck (Jason Schwartzman), and his children—a teenage "brainiac" son, Woodrow (Jake Ryan), and three daughters (Ella Faris, Gracie Faris, and Willan Faris). Augie's father-in-law (Tom Hanks) soon joins them. 

The other significant arrival is that of Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson), a movie actress, and her daughter (Grace Edwards), and the prospect of romance between Augie and Midge is just one of many aspects of "Asteroid City" that is unusually melancholy for a flying-saucer tale. But don't worry—the movie (play) also has a town under quarantine, a general played by Jeffrey Wright, and an astronomer played by Tilda Swinton.

Very little new can be said about the eye-popping production design in Anderson's films (a '50s cafe is a standout here). But his ability to use pans and tilts not just for gags but also as a storytelling device has only grown more refined with time.

Unless you count the desert-set "Asteroid City" or "Killers of the Flower Moon" as Westerns, the best example of that genre at Cannes this year is "The Settlers," a debut feature from the Chilean director Felipe Gálvez that was shown in the festival's Un Certain Regard section. It dramatizes an episode from Chilean history in the first decade of the 20th century.

In a borderline-lawless area of Tierra del Fuego (the film kicks off with a man being shot for losing an arm because, without it, he's useless to work), Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a Scot and former soldier in the British army, is asked by his employer, the landowner and sheep baron José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), to cut a route to the Atlantic for the sheep. MacLennan takes along a mestizo, Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), whom he views as his most capable possible backup, and, at Menéndez's insistence, an American named Bill (Benjamín Westfall), who doesn't trust Segundo because Segundo is biracial. "You never know who they're going to shoot," Bill complains—and this is a mission with frankly genocidal aims toward the Indigenous population.

The early scenes—when it's just three men and the elements trying to figure out each other's loyalties—have the feel of a Budd Boetticher picture. But "The Settlers" quickly turns weirder and more violent. There's a massacre in the mist (after which MacLennan demands that Segundo rape a woman to prove his loyalty), an encounter with a British colonel (Sam Spruell), and finally, an epilogue that addresses, in a hauntingly oblique way, another massacre that MacLennan is said to have perpetrated. "The Settlers" feels at once classical and original. It's a real discovery in a festival whose loyalties often run to brand-name auteurs.

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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