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Cannes 2024: The Weirdo Films of Cannes

With so many films playing in Cannes, from the competition to the sidebars like UCR and Fortnight, right through to the special presentations and other premieres, it’s often a point of amazement to ponder the sheer diversity that you get from these selections drawn from around the world. Despite the vast differences in production scope, narrative intent, and so on, certain key elements do (coincidentally or not) promote a kind of collective theme, a way of seeing the disparate as part of a continuous whole. Obviously, this is the benefit of curatorial programming. Still, they only have the pieces to play with that the filmmakers have provided, and even though thousands are culled down to hundreds, it remains remarkable there are shared elements at all.

This leads to one of the inadvertent themes of this year’s festival: There are a whole heap of Weirdo films to choose from.

It’s not as if the bizarre or avant-garde is a stranger to this festival, but with the success of the likes of Yorgos Lanthimos (here with his latest, "Kinds of Kindness," a middling effort that’s still charming), or even Cronenberg (whose style helped fuel previous Palme winner "Titane," and whose latest, "The Shrouds," marks his seventh return), there’s a drive-by so many to go for the mindbogglingly odd as there is for those crafting more sedate, traditional art film fare.

Coppola’s "Megalopolis" is another weirdo, landing somewhere between the biggest act of cinematic hubris in history and a gloriously maximalist closing statement from one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. There’s Audiard’s unhinged but supremely effective Mexican musical "Emilia Perez," a story of transgender transformation and the inner life of a crime lord. Another potential future Cannes award winner, Coralie Fargeat, proves that the French school system is doing wonders of channeling young women to be in touch with their inner Cronenbergs, pumping up the festival with "The Substance"’s Jazzercise body horror brilliance.  

If there’s one geographic center of this year’s weirdness, it surely is Winnipeg. It's that sleepy town in the middle of my country known for cold winters, an affection for Hockey, and a seemingly unquenchable creative drive from those stuck at home with nothing to do other than to let their imaginations run wild.

Guy Maddin is the king of all Winnipeg Weirdos. Along with collaborators Evan and Galen Johnson, he presents at this year’s Cannes "Rumours," a big-brained satire of the G7 summit complete with bog monsters and talk of Canadian parliamentary prorogation. Cate Blanchett heads an eager cast. Yet it is someone from the next generation, Matthew Rankin, who has firmly taken up the torch and, with his latest, proves more than deserving to be on the world’s stage.

"Universal Language," debuting as part of the Director’s Fortnight selection, is a quiet yet bleakly humourous look at Rankin’s hometown, shooting it with the precision of a Wes Anderson and the sardonic bleakness of Tarkovsky. We’re thrust into a kind of Mxyzptlkian world where Farsi is the dominant language of Manitoba, Métis leader (and founder of Manitoba) Louis Riel appears on the currency, and Quebec is little more than a Soviet-style bureaucratic hellscape.

This is a city where Kleenex boxes are currency, earmuffs are a form of PPE, and turkeys wander the street in somewhat seductive ways. Rankin himself stars as Matthew, a nebbish of a man who quits his job with the province of Quebec to return home to visit his mother. Negin (Rojina Esmaeili) and Nazgol (Saba Vahedyousefi) are students in a French immersion class who, after finding one of those Riel notes buried in ice, seek out an axe to free it to pay for new glasses for Omid (Sobhan Javadi), who lost his when one of those turkeys ran off with his pair. Then there’s Massoud (Pirouz Nemati), the local tour guide who takes visitors to local highway interchanges or a bench where a briefcase was once left.

Superficially, one may think of this as weird for weirdness's sake. But like the grand constructions of Jacques Tati or the somewhat somber whimsy of Jacques Demy, "Universal Language" manages to provide some pretty profound commentary. There are obvious reflections on the Canadian multicultural mosaic. Still, in deeper ways, it reflects the prosaic architecture of the prairie town, the beige and grey-bricked buildings forming angular pathways that seem as forlorn as they are aimless.

While "Rumours" calls forth Winnipeg-raised Neil Young for its poetry, native sons The Guess Who buttress Rankin’s tale, “These Eyes,” proving the perfect baroque ornamentation for this off-kilter yet inviting world. As characters wander streets and narratives intersect, a huge amount of warmth is revealed within the frozen setting; the end result is a truly sublime bit of surrealist satisfaction.

Beyond the glitzy red carpets and beach parties, many nonfiction films vie for audience attention at the fest. While some, like Ron Howard’s Muppeteer doc "Jim Henson: Idea Man" and Oliver Stone’s "Lula" about the left-wing Brazilian president, get much of the attention thanks to their Hollywood directors, there are many other, quieter films absolutely deserving of notice.

One of these is "Belle de Gaza," a supremely timely, if likely controversial, look at the transgender and sex worker communities in Tel Aviv. These are real people telling their stories, and given all that’s going on in the world, it’s a discussion that many are not ready to engage in truly, given much of the intransigence witnessed by many following the events over the last several months in the region. 

At its heart, this is the journey of a filmmaker (Yolanda Zauberman) who years earlier captured images of a transwoman who claimed in Arabic that she had walked up North from Gaza to escape her life. Attempting to find this woman and hear her story firsthand, Zauberman and her crew descend into some of the seedier streets of the Israeli city, attempting to track down the figure in the photo, hearing stories along the way of those whose own journeys may not live up to the romanticized idea of a Gaza-to-Tel Aviv migration, but are no-less emotional and engaging. 

The film is both unflinching and supremely sympathetic, allowing the participants to express their histories in ways too rarely expressed, complicating not only those dismissive of the entire community but even those who profess to advocate for the marginalized to speak their whole truths. There’s almost nothing leaning toward polemic or overtly political exercise in Zauberman’s film, save for the sheer act of pointing her camera in the direction of those so often either vilified, objectified, eroticised, or, perhaps worse, ignored.

Speaking of avoiding exoticization, Eryk Rocha and Gabriela Carneiro Da Cunha's "The Falling Sky" does its utmost to de-National Geographicize the story of the Yanomami people, an indigenous community in Northern Brazil. These Amazonians are at the crux of a changing environment, where outsiders are creeping into their territory, causing both disease and loss of their traditional lands.

What sets the film apart is its focus on Davi Kopenawa, a community leader who expresses how he cut his hair, learned the dominant language, and used his voice to speak directly to those negatively affecting his people. Through his eyes and voice, we learn of his people and their plight while also witnessing the complexity of the situation and what’s being done to try and change the conversation both within Brazil and globally.

The film is centered on a reahu, a ritual funeral that brings together many members from disparate areas. In preparation, we see the universal act of preparing communal meals. But we are also privy to radio messages from farther-flung areas warning of errant miners or forestry workers trespassing on these lands.

With sumptuous photography and its exotic locale, it’s easy to dismiss as mere travelogue or anthropological adventure. Yet by centering on Kopenawa, the film avoids many of the obvious pitfalls of this type of story. At one point, the filmmakers themselves are interrogated, laying questions as to what exactly we're supposed to get from this invited yet invasive introduction of a crew into the community. Screened here, beside the mega yachts, scantily clad models clambering up red-carpeted stairs, and harried filmmakers and journalists, the contrast between here and the quotidian lives of the Yanomami couldn’t be more overt. 

And yet, thanks to some patient yet probing filmmaking and the generosity of its subject, "The Falling Sky" truly does manage to raise awareness and appreciation for these individuals from the other side of the world, brought closer thanks to the magic of cinema and the widely diverse projects that screen here during the festival.

Jason Gorber

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

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