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How the Cannes Film Festival Made Movies Exciting Again — Critic’s Notebook

How the Cannes Film Festival Made Movies Exciting Again — Critic's Notebook

The Cannes Film Festival is an elite cultural affair disconnected from the way most people watch movies. Anyone who wasn’t in the south of France this month had a very different relationship to cinema, which is celebrated as a diverse art form at this grandest of film gatherings even as its future remains an open-ended question. 

The masses still flock to superhero movies, while television remains an even bigger draw, giving Cannes the aura of a fantasyland where highbrow cinema remains a major player in the cultural landscape. This year, however, the scene on the Croisette provided a number of reasons to expect much about its insular environment to affect the rest of the world — from the movies in the lineup to the conversations they stirred up. Here are a few highlights that helped make medium exciting again. 

Earning a Length 

The worst hazard of the festival environment is its cluttered schedule, an issue particularly notable this year due to so many titles with longer running times. The 21 films in the main competition clocked in at an average length of two hours, with a few running closer to three, and all of them were tasked with justifying it to bleary-eyed audiences. 
The stamina issue came up on the very first day, when the 153-minute Romanian drama “Sieranevada” screened to a mixed reception. But for those willing to engage with the challenge of watching a dysfunctional family bicker under one roof, the movie offered a fascinating meditation on contemporary relationships. 
Meanwhile, Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” runs just 11 minutes shorter and never wastes a frame; the freewheeling, expressionistic road trip odyssey about a bunch of hard-partying youth traveling the midwest would never work at 90 minutes. It’s less focused on plot than experiential storytelling, as Arnold soaks in the details of her hedonistic young characters.

The same goes for Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” a widely beloved 142-minute drama in which a young workaholic copes with her estranged father stalking her. Ade spends an hour simply establishing her character’s world before injecting it with a plot twist that continues throughout. It’s worth the wait: By first getting acclimated in her world, the drama of her father’s attempts to help her has resonates to a greater degree. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Studio Ghibli-produced “The Red Turtle” doesn’t run over 80 minutes. This gorgeous, dialogue-free saga of an island castaway who discovers the deeper meaning of life has no fat on its bones, just a steady amount of spellbinding images. Again, it’s an example of the moving image that belongs exactly as it currently exists. 
None these titles would succeed as serialized content. They’re uniquely cinematic — meaty, singular accomplishments unfathomable any other way. 

New Blood is Good Blood

“We must champion smaller films,” says Pierre Rissient in “Pierre Rissient: The Gentleman Critic,” a straightforward look at the legendary cineaste who has advocated for dozens of seminal directors over the years that screened in the festival’s Cannes Classics sidebar. 
Rissient himself couldn’t make it to the festival this year, but if he had, one would hope he’d be advocating for “Raw,” unquestionably the standout among potential smaller discoveries in the latest program. One of the 10 features selected for Critics’ Week, “Raw” was the other allegorical cannibal tale at Cannes, and it deserved way more attention than Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon.” The French-Belgian debut from Julia Ducournau offers a surreal, deliriously twisted coming-of-age story that suggests “Heathers” by way of “Dogtooth.” The plot only skirts the surface of its strange narrative: a young woman joins her sister at a massive veterinarian school campus, where she’s subjected to a series of humiliating hazing rituals and discovers her taste for human flesh. 
Wait a minute. Veterinarian schools have campuses with hazing rituals? And…cannibalism? Writer-director Ducournau’s memorable first feature takes its off-kilter logic at face value, developing a mesmerizing look at the experience of a young woman waking up to her desires in a world of peculiarities. Alternately beautiful and grotesque, “Raw” is the kind of visionary work that proves new filmmaking talent is always lurking around the corner and waiting for the opportunity to get discovered. 

Playing to the Crowd

When Paul Schrader introduced his slap-happy crime caper “Dog Eat Dog” at Directors Fortnight this year, he encouraged audiences to “go with it,” rolling with the punches of this wildly entertaining tale of bawdy criminals (two of which are played with gleeful insanity in check by Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe). It was a fitting introduction to the vivid, sometimes aimless tale, which opens with an ironically upbeat murder scene resembling something out of “Natural Born Killers” and closes with Cage doing his best Bogart impersonation in the fog. 
So eager to please at every moment, “Dog Eat Dog” functions less as a cohesive narrative than a series of vulgar exclamations, but it’s a slick package woven together with such endearing showmanship it’s impossible not to get swept up by the giddy mayhem. Schrader, a filmmaker who has struggled in recent years to figure out the marketplace for his work, seems to have found a compelling niche here with the idea of genre experimentation. It’s a heady movie about the endearing aspects of gangster characters as pop culture objects, but it’s also a solid example of the very thing it aims to dissect. “Dog Eat Dog” examines the possibility of entertainment as a Trojan horse for other concerns. 
A similar feat could be found in “The Handmaiden,” South Korea’s kinky tale of lesbian lovers and double-crossing that screened in competition. While technically a commentary on Korean society in the 1930’s, Park’s elegant thriller delivers a series of dynamic sex scenes and violent showdowns designed to enhance the shock value at every corner. Viewers drawn in by the wilder bits may not realize they’re absorbing so much more. We could use more movies rich with ideas delivered under the guise of immediate, visceral entertainment. Cannes is a pretty good place to look for them. 

Uncompromising Visions

It’s always exciting to encounter the work of a filmmaker who reliably produces great material but never the same way twice. So far, that’s the trajectory for Chile’s Pablo Larraín, who followed up last year’s “The Club” with “Neruda,” a wondrous riff on the famous poet that begins as an artificial melodrama before transforming into a sly commentary on just that. Two steps ahead of his audience, Larraín knows how to keep them watching, which bodes well for his upcoming English language debut. 
But no film in this year’s lineup offered a more engaging example of uncompromising storytelling than Albert Serra’s “The Death of Louis XIV.” Starring the legendary Jean-Pierre Leaud as France’s beleaguered king, who died from gangrene in 1715, Albert Serra’s engrossing followup to inventive Casanova drama “The Story of My Death” maintains a clinical air as it tracks the regal character slowly fading from existence. While the king’s closest advisors swirl around him, speaking in frantic, whispered tones about their options, “The Death of Louis XIV” evolves into a nuanced treatise on the aimlessness of wealth and power in the face of mortality. 
Like most of Serra’s work, the movie’s spare, contemplative approach is not engineered to impress everyone — and yet “The Death of Louis XIV” played quite well at Cannes, igniting interest from buyers drawn to its haunting atmosphere and historical vision.

Serra, an iconoclastic filmmaker who works entirely on his own terms, seems to have made a movie with some commercial potential for that very reason. It’s a welcome reminder that the future of cinema matters less than relying on artists to figure out ways of keeping it relevant in the present. 

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