The mass-market movie industry must continually justify its existence by finding new ways to entertain. The Cannes Film Festival also makes a case for the medium, however contrarian: The most important movies are the hardest ones to watch.
This year, body horror landed as a double bill in the festival’s second week. In competition was David Cronenberg’s dystopian “Crimes of the Future,” which envisioned an eerie future in which performance artists grow their own organs and futz with them onstage. Down the street at the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, an even greater provocation could be found with the innovative documentary “De Humani Corporis Fabrica.”
Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel probe the intricacies of the human body with such precision that at first the film seems like dare. As the images of magnified blood vessels and brain tissue continue to dominate the screen, they take on a haunting abstract dimension. A cancerous tumor viewed under the microscope in vivid colors looks like a Pollock painting. While Cronenberg revels in the potential for the human body to become art, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel show that it’s already there.
Cronenberg predicted walkouts, but that’s overstated in the context of his movie and its intelligent tone. “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” yielded far more audiences streaming for the exits, something Paravel also anticipated; she included a trigger warning while introducing the first screening. Unsettled viewers had other options elsewhere, but those willing to take the journey discovered that gazing into its grotesque aesthetic became a transcendent, even meditative, experience about the nature of human existence. By the time the credits arrived, the movie found its audience.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel broke out on the international festival circuit with “Leviathan,” a wondrous avant-garde look at life in and around a Massachusetts fishing boat. The filmmakers sometimes went so far as to chuck their tiny cameras off the side of the ship with a string, then yank them back. Images careened from fish in the sea to soaring gulls and, finally, the metallic vessel and its seamen, with every aspect of the ecosystem encapsulated in a dizzying single shot. The pair bring a similar cosmic vision to their new film by transforming the hospital ward into a portal through which one can see the essence of humanity. The bickering and office chatter of working life sits alongside harrowing surgical procedures. The film views our species as a poetic collage of bits and pieces in search of the larger whole.
That same quest sits at the center of another Directors’ Fortnight entry, “The Dam,” which marks the directorial debut of Beirut-born Paris visual artist Ali Cherri. A virtually wordless and entrancing look at the experiences of bricklayer Maher (Maher el Khair, a professional bricklayer and non-professional actor), Cherri’s immersive saga set at a remote Sudanese river blends provincial life with news reports about civilian protests against dictator Omar al-Bashir. These updates are at once distant and part of the protagonist’s routine, which takes on mystical qualities. As Cheri develops a mesmerizing audiovisual tapestry of mud and water, the land comes to life until it seems as if Maher crafted a benevolent Frankenstein’s monster.
The conceptual implications are clear enough: New opportunities within this vacant desert can be forged by sheer will and determination. Maher dreams of melting mud figures encouraging his journey and while his actual destination remains murky at best, it’s always an immersive and memorable experience. Cheri seems to suggest that the potential for revolt goes beyond the mobilization of political and social forces, requiring more personal resolve. This enigmatic journey doesn’t argue that point so much as it places viewers inside it.
And that’s what we come to festivals for. Sure, red carpets for “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Elvis” keep crowds happy, but true cinema at Cannes wants to challenge audiences rather than coddle them. The arthouse market needs movies that people want to see, but the medium works best when it shows us the world as we’d never expect it.
That’s where “Eo” comes in. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s spiritual successor to Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar” doesn’t do much more than advertised. It’s literally about the plight of the titular donkey (“Eo” is the Polish phonetic version of “hee-haw”) as he changes hands many times over, from a circus to a farm and even becomes the life of the party at a bar.
“Eo” joins “Cow” and “Gundha” in a recent trend of activist projects that use the medium to scrutinize animal consciousness. Though heavy-handed at times, Skolimowski’s operates much like “The Dam” by prioritizing image and sound over dialogue, using the medium to question the boundaries of the natural world and encouraging viewers to look deeper. It’s worth the effort.
In Skolimowski’s case, the saga of “Eo” is also about the humans that drift in and out of the frame. “Eo” hangs around and watches the world, reacting when he must, but the people argue and brawl in an endless spiral of needless complications. This contrast makes “Eo” an even better companion piece to “De Humani Corporis Fabrica” than “Crimes of the Future.” The documentary shows that people are just individual bloody pieces, while “Eo” explains how poorly they fit together as a larger whole.
For all the frailties of the human body, there is power in the potential of the human mind. That’s a crucial message in “Aftersun,” one of this year’s undeniable breakouts, and a welcome deep-dive into what it means to think for yourself.
U.S.-based Scottish director Charlotte Wells offers a dazzling look at the memories of 11-year-old Sophie on holiday with her father (a somber Paul Mescal) in the late ’90s. The movie occasionally shifts into the present day as the grown woman continues to be haunted by the past, but “Aftersun” lingers in her subjective state and the fragile connections to small moments as they take on larger significance. As Sophie thinks and rethinks her relationship with her father, his own sad state of mind becomes a curious object of study. Wells positions us within this quest, using the quiet assemblage of moments to assess the bigger picture — how memories accrue new meaning with time, even as they retain an undercurrent of mystery. Down its masterful final shot, “Aftersun” displays a shrewd visual stylist capable of injecting profound meaning into tiny details. While some movies dare us to keep watching, “Aftersun” pushes us to look deeper.
At Cannes, this quest often sits at odds with familiar artistic visions. Defenders of Baz Luhrmann’s bloated, choppy biopic “Elvis” said the maximalist vision was “very Baz,” the sort of assessment that can sound like an excuse. It’s also the result of a filmmaker so intent on realizing his bombast that it becomes self-justification. That’s the best possible outcome for cinematic artists with genuine potential; as “Aftersun” takes flight after Cannes, one can only hope that in a few years festivalgoers will beam about a precise new work that’s “very Charlotte Wells.”
The future of cinema is everywhere at Cannes, from a two-day symposium of filmmakers to the ubiquitous posters touting its TikTok sponsorship. “What Is Cinema?” was the inquisitive title of French critic and Cannes regular André Bazin’s seminal 1967 book, and as Cannes named a screening room after Bazin, that question lingers in its confines. There are no easy answers, but after all these years, the question is still worth asking.