Spending 12 days watching movies in Cannes is, for film lovers, pretty much close to paradise. And dashing from screening to screening, it’s usually all too easy to lose track of the world outside. Not so this year. Between the bombing in Manchester and rapidly unfolding developments in the Trump-Russia affair, closing out the rest of the world was impossible.
Even if nearly all critics and journalists attending Cannes dutifully switch off their phones during screenings, most of us couldn’t resist powering up immediately afterward to check for news updates. Plus, security was tighter than ever this year. The festival has always had concrete barricades lining the Croisette, but this year the authorities added more, many of them disguised, only semi-convincingly, as fat, round, oversized flowerpots. In the first week of the festival, a “suspicious package” scare prompted an evacuation of one venue right before an evening screening. At both press showings and gala premieres, the interior of every bag, be it backpack or cigarette-pack-size jeweled minaudiere, was inspected by the unfailingly polite staff, women in sleek Mondrian-style dresses that Emma Peel would have loved. Everything in Cannes—including the employees’ uniforms—is just a little bit glamorous. That’s less a way of avoiding an uncertain, scary world than an act of standing as a bulwark against it.
But despite the dazzling, parade-of-stars setting, one way or another, Cannes always brings the outside world to its screens. Many critics here consider Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless to be a strong contender for the Palme d'Or, to be awarded here on Sunday May 28. Whether it wins or not, it's one of the best movies of this year's festival competition. Loveless is the story of a set of divorcing parents (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) whose child who goes missing. But those are just the basics: Zvyagintsev—director of the 2014 Oscar nominee Leviathan—uses that plot to weave an allegory about modern Russia and the heartlessness of its government. The picture is made with a seeming chilliness that’s actually a kind of anguished warmth, and it works both as the story of a nation caught in a thorny crisis and as a fraught drama of a family torn apart by its own coldness and greed.
Another strong Palme d'Or contender is Swedish director Ruben Östland’s The Square, a sardonic, darkly funny picture about a dashing museum curator (Claes Bang) whose dysfunctional institution is a microcosm of the larger world. Can art, or the tools used to promote it, cross the bounds of moral responsibility? What does it take to jog the upper classes out of their comfortable insularity? The Square is both outlandishly funny and biting—and features a fascinating and sometimes disturbing performance by Terry Notary, the gifted actor and movement choreographer who has helped bring motion-capture characters to life in the Hobbit and Planet of the Apes movies.
But if many of the movies at this year’s Cannes struck a somber or thoughtful chord, there was joy to be found too. In Francois Ozon’s rapturously twisted, Brian De Palma-style thriller Amant Double, a young woman suffering from possibly psychosomatic stomach pains (Marie Vacth) falls in love with her therapist (Jeremie Renier), whose secret life draws her into a web of deceit and kinky sex. Yet more proof, should you need it, that the French really know how to live.
Other highlights, from both the Competition and other festival programs, include Good Time, by Benny and Josh Sadie (Heaven Knows What), which stars Robert Pattinson as a Queens lowlife who both manipulates and adores his naive, mentally challenged brother (played by Ben Sadie). The picture has a stylish, nervy energy, and Pattinson is terrific, a strong contender for the Best Actor Prize. And Nicole Kidman is pretty much the queen of Cannes this year, appearing in no fewer than four movies or made-for-television projects presented at the festival. She gives a marvelously complex performance in Sofia Coppola's superb fox-in-the-henhouse thriller The Beguiled, but she's wonderful, too, as the punk den mom in John Cameron Mitchell's How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an openhearted and boisterously entertaining interplanetary love story set in mid-1970s Croydon (and based on a story by Neil Gaiman).
As always, the movies shown at Cannes, even the highly imperfect or downright aggravating ones—maybe especially the highly imperfect or downright aggravating ones—spur more ideas than any critic can adequately process in a week and a half. And not surprisingly, a number of the films from European countries deal, in one way or another, with the menacing rising tide of nationalism. In 2014 Fatih Akin—whose 2004 Head On was one of the most exhilarating pictures of the century's first decade—brought a disappointing Armenian genocide drama, The Cut, to the festival. His new film is much better, fairly straightforward dramatically but ultimately gently moving: In In the Fade, Diane Kruger (in her first German-language role) plays a woman who loses her family to an act of terrorism and grapples with the morality—or lack thereof—of taking revenge.
And in the Un Certain Regard program, Laurent Cantet (director of The Class, which won the Palme d'Or in 2008) gave us The Workshop, a picture that seems modest on the surface but builds to a tense simmer, addressing, in an understated but affecting way, the insidious political tensions currently tearing at France. Marina Foïs stars as a Parisian novelist working with a group of aspiring young writers in a small coastal town. One student, Matthieu Lucci's surly, frustrated Antoine, expresses alarming right-wing views that alienate the group, the teacher most of all. Cantet's picture is a stirring humanist work, one that offers no easy answers.
The Cannes Film Festival always offers plenty of glamor and fun in the sun, but the dark side of the world is never far from view. Movies, at their best, offer a few rays of light and of hope too.