Twenty years ago, Roger Ebert wrote that “going to see Godzilla at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a Satanic ritual in St. Peter’s Basilica.” If only Twitter been invented, the joke would have gone viral. Ebert’s use of a religious metaphor to contextualize the world’s holiest film festival was itself in a prestigious tradition: In 1955, the legendary film theorist and critic Andre Bazin described Cannes as a kind of seaside monastery where movie lovers from around the world could go to get saved by cinema.
This same lofty rhetoric was present in the recent flare-up between the festival and Netflix, which resulted in the streaming giant taking its ball and going home, as well as in ridiculous-sounding but apparently earnest controversies over the presence of flat shoes and selfie sticks on the red carpet. For anybody with deep personal or professional reasons to care about film culture, these petty grievances take on larger dimensions than they should, but the reality is that Cannes — and the kind of cinema it means to represent — is still very much a niche concern. The presence this year of a fundamentally review-and-tweet-proof movie like Solo: A Star Wars Story — which is showing out of competition, like many other Hollywood mega blockbusters before it — illustrates why Cannes matters (as a bulwark against the Star Wars–Marvel-Pixar trinity) and the relative narrowness of its sphere of influence.
Anyway, the politics and prestige of Cannes are one thing; the movies themselves are another. For this week’s column, I looked over the past few years’ worth of festivals and found some excellent films that are available on a variety of platforms. Think of it as getting to go to church without leaving the comfort of your living room.
The Assassin (Netflix)
Stillness is the move in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s martial-arts masterpiece. If there’s a calmer, more serene wuxia movie in existence, I haven’t seen it. I mean this as a compliment, because what The Assassin lacks in velocity it makes up for in sheer visual beauty: This is the sort of film for which the old cliché “every frame a painting” was invented. It’s not for nothing that a Cannes jury headed by Joel and Ethan Coen gave Hou Best Director for his work. The brothers know gorgeous craftsmanship when they see it. Set in the ninth century, toward the end of the Tang dynasty, The Assassin subsumes momentum to mood, luxuriating in the textures of China’s imperial court, where orphan turned contract killer Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) has been dispatched to murder a military official who also happens to be her former betrothed. The tension between the heroine’s conflicted emotional impulses and her mercenary skill set gives the story some weight even as its most memorable images — like a conversation photographed through flowing, brocaded curtains or an encounter on a misty mountaintop — are as light as air.
Family ties are like a noose around the neck of Marco (Vincent Lindon), the sailor at the center of French director Claire Denis’s bristling neo-noir, which played Cannes in 2013. As the film opens, Marco has put an ocean’s worth of distance between himself and his sister, but when her husband is killed, Marco returns to Paris with vengeance in mind. Denis, whose new drama, Let the Sunshine In, is one of the year’s best-reviewed films, is a heady, political filmmaker, but she’s also got a knack for bloody, unrepentant pulp. Bastards is seriously harsh stuff: The script seethes with rage at the white-collar executive-class villains behind the crime as carries a sense of helpless, free-floating frustration. Denis’s thesis is not only that crimes pays, but that virtue is worthless, and the film’s coda — scored by the Tindersticks’ haunting cover of the disco chestnut “Put Your Love in Me” — is peerlessly bleak.
Cosmopolis (Amazon Prime)
Last year, the word was that Robert Pattinson gave the best performance in any film at Cannes in the Safdie brothers’ after-hours thriller Good Time. Some critics acted as if the former Twilight star’s breakthrough in a gritty, challenging role was a surprise. I myself loved Pattinson as the lead in David Cronenberg’s misunderstood and very funny 2012 Don DeLillo adaptation Cosmopolis, a Toronto-shot, New York–set tale about the literal insulation the wealthy and privileged seek from reality. Like Peter Weller in Naked Lunch, Pattinson makes for a hilariously deadpan eXistenZial antihero, observing the world dispassionately from the backseat of a limousine and then gradually coming alive — and unhinged — when he’s forced to abandon his luxury ride and experience the city IRL.
The older Cronenberg gets, the more he’s embraced comedy, and Cosmopolis’s fleet pacing and screwball-paced dialogue are funny stuff, topped off by Pattinson’s po-faced discomfort during the most extended prostate-checking scene in movie history. There was more critical love for A History of Violence and A Dangerous Method, but this sly, stylized, semi sci-fi joke fest is the late Cronenberg to beat.
It’s possible that Elle is Paul Verhoeven’s best movie — and yes, I’ve seen RoboCop (and written a book about Showgirls). The Dutch director likes to push buttons, and this 2016 drama, which left Cannes empty-handed despite featuring the greatest performance of Isabelle Huppert’s career, is basically a flaming keyboard. Huppert plays Michèle, a video-game designer who is sexually assaulted in her Parisian home and opts, for reasons that will become clear, to avoid the police. In a clichéd rape-revenge thriller, that refusal would mean taking things into her own hands — and she does go shopping for some weapons — but as in his American hits, Verhoeven is more interested in stretching and subverting conventions than submitting to them.
A wondrously elastic cinematic object, Elle keeps shape-shifting into other genres, from bad-and-bourgeois comedy to sleek corporate satire to bedroom farce, all while keeping Michele’s trauma in the back of her (and our) minds. Now in his ’70s, Verhoeven shows the wit, verve, and energy of a much younger artist keeping so many variables in play. At the same time, the shock tactics of his past have ripened into a fuller artistry: While his basic instincts for provocation remain in place, he’s tempered them with something like mature wisdom.
Sleeping Beauty (Sundance Now)
Arriving at Cannes in 2011 without much hype, Julia Leigh’s startling Sleeping Beauty left town as one of the decade’s most auspicious debut features. Set in contemporary Australia and photographed to seem as sleek and underpopulated as any sci-fi futurescape, the film essays a quasi-prostitution scheme with fairy-tale undertones. Willing young women travel to a country estate where they work as servers at high-society parties. After dinner, a select few are knocked out with drugs and left splayed and naked in a king-size bed for well-monied men to fondle and fawn over — anything short of sexual penetration, which would damage the merchandise and violate the fetishistic spirit of the entire enterprise. Leigh’s strategy is to take the basic scenario of Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata’s 1961 House of the Sleeping Beauties and switch the perspective from an elderly client to one of the putative concubines. One of those women, Lucy, exhibits a willingness to monetize her body early in the film, but that feeling is challenged by a dawning, gnawing desire to know exactly what’s going on during her blackouts. As a creepy critique of control-freaky masculine desire, Sleeping Beauty is on target, but it’s the way Leigh dramatizes Lucy’s capitalistic complicity in her own exploitation that gives the film its bitter, suspicious aftertaste.
This Is Not a Film (Kanopy)
Smuggled from Tehran to Cannes on a flash drive inside a birthday cake, Jafar Panahi’s 2011 video diary — shot and edited while the director was under house arrest and banned from filmmaking by his country’s theocratic government, which accused him of “anti-regime activities” — is admirable as an act of political resistance. As cinema, it’s surprisingly sublime. A fierce social critic whose previous features were committed to near-documentary realism, Panahi leans into his circumstances, playing up the details of his exile for grim humor (a shot of his DVD shelf reveals a copy of the Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried) and speaking passionately about the movie he would make, if only he were allowed on location.
Throughout, Panahi walks a fine line between provoking the powers that be and surpassing the limits of their censorship, culminating in a sequence that juxtaposes personal defiance with patriotism — and maybe reveals an escape hatch for Panahi and other artists working under duress.
A Touch of Sin (Fandor)
Jia Zhangke rules. If I had to pick the world’s best active filmmaker under 50, I might choose the guy who made A Touch of Sin. Separated into four stories, each set in a different region of China, and each concerning cash-strapped characters either driven to or victimized by horrific acts of violence, Jia’s 2013 Cannes prize winner (for best script, though it should have been a Palme D’Or) constitutes an attempt to take on the dark side of the country’s much-touted 21st-century social and economic progress. In one episode, a laid-off miner acquires a rifle and goes hunting for scapegoats; in another, a sauna receptionist (Jia’s wife, Zhao Tao) takes up a blade to sever difficult personal ties. It’s all bold, shocking, and brutal, a tonal departure from the director’s typically dry, minimalist work, although just as attuned to gradations of class as his much-praised earlier films.
Even if it’s unlikely that Martin Scorsese — a big Jia fan — actually lifted the coda for The Wolf of Wall Street from A Touch of Sin’s final scene, the two sequences are similar enough that they suggest an epic double bill: two morbid millennial visions with moments so hopeless that you’re not sure whether to laugh or gag.