Agnès Varda was a leading light of the French New Wave, puckish and inquisitive, the creator of Vagabond, Le Bonheur and Cleo from 5 to 7. Critics called her the movement’s grand-mre but she wound up outlasting the bulk of her peers, scooping an Oscar nomination (her first) at the age of 89. She died in 2019 and was promptly buried at Montparnasse cemetery.
Now Varda is back, after a fashion, in the form of a dedicated cinema at the Cannes film festival. The Salle Agnès Varda sits on the beach behind the concrete Palais and will host what the French refer to as “séances” (screenings, to you and me) throughout this event. Formerly known as the Salle du Soixantième, the place has always been Cannes’ most rambunctious, unruly venue: a glorified wedding marquee, buffeted by the wind and echoing with voices. Wherever she is, I reckon Varda would approve.
The ghosts of films past make merry at Cannes: peering from posters, slapping their names on stray cinemas. It’s as if the festival is built afresh every year by a band of busy spirits. On the opening day the grounds are still a construction site, full of balsa wood and underlay, ringing to the sound of distant hammers. The first red carpet arrival is the rolled carpet itself. The staff lug it up the steps and then unfurl it with a flourish, like conjurers performing a magic trick. I half-expected François Truffaut’s ghost to hop out.
Cannes’ resurrection, of course, is TikToked and televised, with paparazzi at the Palais and punters on the promenade. Covid put paid to the 2020 festival, while last year’s event was a ghoulish masked ball. Now it’s back in its usual May slot, and we seem to have returned to the full-fat days of yore; that old manic juggle of the good with the god-awful, the political with the frivolous, the sacred with the profane. At the opening ceremony we’re whisked, in the space of 10 minutes, from a cheesy celebrity singalong, via a video hook-up with President Zelenskiy in his bunker, to the premiere of a zombie comedy, Final Cut. Such changes of pace could give a contortionist whiplash.
First off the rank in the main competition is Tchaikovsky’s Wife, from the dissident Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov. This marches into the auditorium in a stiff, regal manner (all starched collars and wire-frame skirts) only to become more demented by degrees, roiling and raging about the composer’s car-crash of a marriage. He’s a clenched control freak with a lusty eye for the lads. She’s his hapless castoff turned chief tormentor. The film wallows in female suffering but it weaponises it, too. Poor Antonina Tchaikovsky wields her peculiar brand of devotional love as though it’s a kind of retributive cudgel.
On balance, I much preferred Armageddon Time, pungently set in the real estate boomtown of 1980s Queens, New York. Michael Banks Repeta plays Paul Graff, a Jewish plumber’s son farmed through an elite private school on the insistence of his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), who was himself funnelled through Ellis Island as a kid. James Gray’s coming-of-age tale manages a nice blend of sentimentality and grit. It doffs its yarmulke to EL Doctorow’s World’s Fair; shows how immigrant dreams can be twisted and thwarted. Notebooks out, students, for some important life lessons. The system is rigged, betrayal’s the norm and the crown king of Queens is a smirking Fred Trump.
By the middle of day two, the tap’s been turned on and the films are in spate. We get a dose of social-realist roughage courtesy of the impressive Harka, spotlighting the illegal petrol trade in hardscrabble Tunisia. We see a wash of wasted elegance in the fetching, self-admiring Corsage, which ties Vicky Krieps in all manner of knots as the pensive Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Then comes along The Eight Mountains to administer the injection of undiluted arthouse majesty with its tale of a decades-long friendship forged on the Alpine peaks of northern Italy. This film is deliberate, unhurried – a poetic meditation on the deep time of nature and the shallow time of human lives. But its vast airy vistas (literal and figurative) cast a spell that’s hard to shake.
This year’s jury president is Vincent Lindon, the dashing workhorse of French cinema, co-star of the Palme d’Or-winning Titane. He tells me that he first came to Cannes back in 1987 when a film crew trailed him around town for a TV documentary. Lindon recently saw footage of himself ringing his mum on an old rotary phone to excitedly report that he could see the Palais from his hotel. He says: “Now, 35 years later, I’m the president and my parents aren’t here any more, not here to witness it. Or maybe they are. ” He gestures vaguely at the Palais windows, mentally filling two other ghosts alongside all the rest.
According to the pundits, Cannes faces some hard choices. But it strikes me that pundits say the same thing every year. They say it’s stuck in the past, or that it’s sold out, or that the big films are migrating to Venice. All of which may be true; the industry is in flux. And yet Cannes endures. It maximizes its mystique, resets the clock and lives to fight another day. The end credits, I’m betting, are many decades away.
Cynics hunting an emblematic movie for the festival’s first week may therefore plump for Michel Hazanavicius’s opening film, Final Cut – a rollicking film-biz farce, all about a calamitous production infested by the undead. But I’m tempted to go with Top Gun: Maverick, one of the few Hollywood behemoths to make the trip; a film I expected to hate and wound up relishing. It is a big, battle-scarred, retro-fitted blockbuster; the sort of spectacle that demands to be viewed giant-sized. Tom Cruise returns as the now-ageing flying ace, haunted by his past and surely courting disaster. “The end is inevitable, Maverick,” he told by the admiral. “Your kind is heading for extinction.”
Top Gun: Maverick shouldn’t work and yet somehow does. It loves planes, motorbikes and sleek, vintage Porsches. It’s a great, gilded memorial to hazardous carbon toys. But if the film is Ozymandias (that “colossal wreck” from the Shelley poem) it at least knows it; leaning into its own obsolescence, embracing its inner dinosaur and this, perversely, is what makes it fly. Top Gun: Maverick, in other words, takes fossilized remains and converts them into rocket fuel. It comes roaring off the ramp, bold and vital, trailing clouds of glory, much as Cannes has itself this past week. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Coming attractions: week two, Cannes 2022
The festival will go full Vegas on Wednesday for the premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis Presley biopic, a saga drenched in sweat, studded with rhinestones and described by its creator as “the Apocalypse Now of musicals ”. Austin Butler plays the King; Tom Hanks is Colonel Parker. Sceptics, please park suspicious minds at the door.
Hopes are high for the latest lo-fi artwork from Kelly Reichardt, that industrious chronicler of America’s hidden corners, who casts Michelle Williams as a sculptor in Oregon’s hippy quarter. Expect something hand-tooled, fragile and worth a price above rubies.
While the Cannes competition typically snubs genre entertainment, an exception has been made for Ali Abbasi’s serial-killer thriller, creeping through the ink-black underbelly of modern-day Iran. The killer, we’re guessing, is a political metaphor of sorts.
Crimes of the Future
Medics at the ready for David Cronenberg’s body-horror: a tale of organ transplants and performance art, starring Viggo Mortensen and Kristen Stewart. The director promises multiple walkouts in the first five minutes plus an ending that will leave the remaining survivors in bits.