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Cannes 2024: The Apprentice, The Shrouds

Ali Abbasi's "The Apprentice," a portrait of the friendship between Donald Trump and Roy Cohn, leaves little doubt about who is top dog. The film is so thoroughly owned by Jeremy Strong, who plays Cohn, that the ostensibly headline-grabbing notion of having a Trump biopic compete at Cannes almost seems beside the point.

With a screenplay by the reporter and author Gabriel Sherman, the movie makes the (often-made) case that Cohn, the notorious former aide to Joseph McCarthy, shaped Trump's transactional way of dealing with the world. And while the men's attack-dog strategies don't need to be seen as zero-sum, "The Apprentice" argues that there came a point in which Trump's coldness exceeded even Cohn's. This is a movie in which Cohn's funeral in 1986 is crosscut, "Godfather"-style, with Trump getting surgery to adjust his ab fat and bald spot.

Described that way, "The Apprentice" sounds like a parody, and when Strong isn't onscreen, it sometimes plays like one. The other casting—Sebastian Stan as Trump; Maria Bakalova (of "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm") as Ivana; a mustache-sporting Martin Donovan as Fred Trump—is convincing enough, but the film doesn't always avoid the sensation that it's presenting "Saturday Night Live"-adjacent mimicry. That's not to say that the movie is funny; much of it is dead serious. It has already caused controversy for a scene that depicts the future president raping Ivana. (According to a widely cited story in The Daily Beast, Ivana Trump accused Donald Trump of rape in a divorce deposition but later said that she did not want her "words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.")

It's no news that Cohn is a plum role for any actor (although someone should cast Strong in an "Angels in America" revival, pronto). But Strong's quotable malevolence ("Don't tell me what the law is," his Cohn says to Trump. "Tell me who the judge is." Of a party he's throwing: "If you're indicted, you're invited") raises the stakes of a movie that in some ways treats Trump with kid gloves. When Stan's lovestruck Trump wants to marry Ivana, Strong's Cohn is the one who proposes he seek a prenuptial agreement (“Would you sign away a contract giving away half of your assets?”). "The Apprentice" also perhaps inadvertently bolsters the mythology of Trump as a savvy businessman, particularly with regard to his maneuvering to revamp the Commodore Hotel by Grand Central Terminal. His ventures in Atlantic City, a place Cohn warns him "has peaked," aren't covered in detail.

That's because "The Apprentice" is not a panoramic biopic but a movie about a friendship. In some ways the conventions of the genre demand that at least one character's reputed ruthlessness be tempered. (The depiction of Cohn softens considerably—relative to, say, that in "Angels"—once Cohn begins dying of AIDS.) The action is set into motion when Trump and Cohn lock eyes at 21 Club in the early 1970s; the movie concludes with Trump reciting Cohn's lessons, unattributed, for potential inclusion in "The Art of the Deal." Prince Hal and Falstaff these two are not.

David Cronenberg's "The Shrouds" is best viewed in pure auteurist terms. With hair that unmistakably resembles the director's, Vincent Cassel stars as Karsh, the proprietor of a high-tech burial business that allows the bereaved to keep an eye on their loved ones' decaying corpses. The headstones have video screens, and there's even a smartphone app that allows users to watch remotely. Shots aren't limited to "the classic wide-angle view," and the resolution has been upgraded to 8K. But when nine of these smart graves are vandalized, Karsh must figure out why, which means coming to terms with his own demons.

Karsh's wife, Becca (Diane Kruger), died of cancer, and he has an obsessive relationship with checking in on her buried skeleton, which lately seems to have developed some odd nodules. Karsh's own bone structure is also deteriorating, even in life. "Grief is rotting your teeth," his dentist tells him in the opening scene, offering to send him JPEGs of Becca's old dental X-rays if they will have therapeutic value. Compounding Karsh's sense of living with the dead is the fact that Becca's sister, Terry, looks just like her—and in fact is played by Kruger, too, as is "Hunny," the Siri-like digital personal assistant who manages Karsh's life. Flashbacks show Karsh and Becca as they come to grips with how cancer surgeries progressively mutilate her body. In the present action, Terry insists that, despite looking like her sister, she has a body of her own. The sense that Terry is a sort of simulacrum of Becca—almost the same, but not quite—leads to what is at first an unacknowledged erotic tension between them.

Having spent a career depicting live flesh in various extreme states, Cronenberg now turns specifically to the question of what it means to film bodies that life has departed. The concept is hardly new to his work. "The Fly" has long been seen as a cancer and AIDS allegory; "Crash" posited a link between sex drives and death drives; and "Crimes of the Future," which showed at Cannes two years ago, pondered the psychological impact that physical mutation can have on intimacy. 

But "The Shrouds" finds Cronenberg at his most arid, talky, and intellectual. That was fine by me, although it took some time to get on the movie's wavelength. While the ideas—notably the intimation that the dead could enable hackers to surveil the living—are provocative, the execution can be shaky. Guy Pearce, as Terry's ex-husband, turns in an irritatingly mannered performance. But maybe having a fully vital version of "The Shrouds" wasn't the point.

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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