Cannes Film Festival 2022: politics mixed with moments of grace

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The 75th Cannes Film Festival rolled out the red carpet for Tom Cruise on Wednesday as French fighter jets roared overhead sending out trails of red, white and blue smoke. Once again, the festival and Hollywood had joined forces to affirm their common values: freedom, equality, fraternity, publicity! — while delivering a militaristic spectacle that instantly became global news. The message was deafening and strategically relevant: After a few tough years, Cruise was back in full force and so was Cannes.

Cruise was at the festival for a special screening of “Top Gun: Maverick,” the sequel to his 1986 blockbuster breakthrough. While his appearance at the world’s most prestigious film festival may seem odd, it was part of this event, where cinephilia runs deep. And although this love is sincere, Cannes has always relied on the stars to generate public relations and circulate capital. Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” was in competition at the first festival in 1946 (he won), a few months after France and the United States signed an agreement opening France to American products, including films.

“Show me the money!” as Cruise said in “Jerry Maguire,” one of the films featured in a tribute video to the star on its premiere night. At over 13 minutes, this highlight reel bounced back from Cruise’s decades-long career. He also quickly entered confusing semiotic territory when he launched the triumphant overture to Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra”, which memorably plays in “2001: A Space Odyssey” when the ape-man realizes that a bone can become a weapon. Was Cruise the new man or the child star? I was wondering. Or was it a nod to Kubrick, who directed Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut”?

Either way, Cruise took to Cannes on Wednesday, answering questions at an event and lingering on the red carpet at its premiere, where he smiled at fans and signed autographs. By the time he entered the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the 2,300-seat hall of the festival’s headquarters, the screening was late and the public – who are watching the red carpet entries live on the big screen – were pumped. After festival director Thierry Frémaux summoned the star to the stage, Cruise thanked everyone and noted that he could see everyone’s faces (“no masks”), prompting big laughs.

I did not participate, not that anyone knows the difference as I was wearing an N95 mask. This is the first Cannes I have attended since 2019; it was canceled in 2020 and resumed in person the following year with various Covid-19 protocols. Recorded announcements ahead of screenings continue to encourage festival-goers to wear masks, but face coverings and regular negative tests are no longer required. And while attendance is apparently up this year, the festival and the surrounding streets of the city feel noticeably less crowded than they did pre-pandemic.

In terms of public health, the absence of Covid protocols is questionable, even if it goes in the direction of easing restrictions throughout France. If Cannes is eager to emerge from the pandemic, it is partly because it depends (financially and otherwise) on continuity, including in its role as an advocate for cinema. The streaming, the pandemic, a war in Europe, the show will go on, and it will be screened. “We love movies on the big screen,” Cruise said just before Frémaux presented him with an honorary Palme d’Or. A day earlier, Forest Whitaker — he and Cruise were in “The Color of Money” — also received one.

Cruise aside, the first few days of the festival (it ends May 28) have been relatively quiet, despite groans from attendees struggling to navigate the online ticketing system. Although ticketing has improved, at least for journalists, I’ve heard that several programmers have taken to looking at links in their rentals here. It may sound funny, but it’s a drag because being with other people, masked or not, is crucial in Cannes, where films are not only screened and discussed, but also bought and sold. And, as the pandemic has underscored, being around other people can be really enjoyable.

The festival’s relatively low-key vibe is also partly a function of the films that have screened so far. Other attendees were more favorably disposed than I was to Michel Hazanavicius’ zombie comedy “Final Cut,” which opened the festival on Tuesday and confirms that some things, including humor, don’t translate. The film was easily overshadowed on its big night by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who addressed the audience via satellite. Zelensky quoted “the great dictatorthe 1940 film in which Chaplin satirizes Hitler. The following year, it was denounced as warmongering propaganda in the United States Senate.

In Cannes or Hollywood, politics are always part of the cinematic mix, whether it’s a feature film ode to the military-industrial complex like “Top Gun: Maverick” or a critique of Russian mythology like ” Tchaikovsky’s Wife”. Directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, “Wife” tells the story of the marriage between the composer Piotr (Odin Biron) and the young Antonina Miliukova (a superb Alyona Mikhailova), the main character. Deeply ill-suited to each other, the two quickly spiral into hellish coexistence before going down mutually unhappy paths. It becomes a national monument; she sinks into poverty and mental illness.

Serebrennikov (“Leto”), who has been subject to official Russian censorship, takes a hard-nosed approach to this material. Although the film begins with smiles and pretty dresses, the mood and visual style change once Pyotr and Antonina get married. What she doesn’t understand—what she can’t grasp, partly because the idea is incomprehensible to her—is that Piotr isn’t interested in women. He lives in a man’s world, a world that nourishes him artistically, intellectually and, although the film is discreet, sexually. A feeling of claustrophobia descends and the palette dulls amid the buzzing of flies.

“Tchaikovsky’s Wife” is easier to admire than to love. The film’s unrelenting gravity may be brutally true, but it also doesn’t give the viewer much leeway. As Antonina languishes in a hovel with her tuberculosis lover, who masturbates while coughing up blood onto her pillow, you might long for a little “Nutcracker” to help ease the pain. But Serebrennikov has made a complex film to wrestle with, one that explores intolerance, repression and – at a fundamental level – the brutal price some are forced to pay when a culture elevates its great men.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch, “The Eight Mountains” centers on a friendship between two boys – one from the city, the other from the countryside – that begins in their bucolic childhood. Growing up, Pietro (Luca Marinelli) and Bruno (Alessandro Borghi) separate, reunite, fail, succeed, and stumble again. With pastoral beauty, a deep sense of nostalgia, allusions to the 2008 economic crisis, and a few too many montage sequences, the film explores questions of identity in a world where everything has been reduced to its economic value.

In “Scarlet,” director Pietro Marcello bridges time and the story of a World War I veteran and his daughter. The dead still litter the fields when Raphaël (Raphaël Thiéry, amazement) limps home, returning to a small village with unsympathetic faces. His wife is dead and his little girl, Juliette, is cared for by a local woman, Adeline (the wonderful Noémie Lvovsky), who lives in a small enclave outside the village. There, Raphael – a talented woodworking craftsman – nestles in a small, welcoming community and painfully tries to resume something like a normal life, despite his heartbreaking losses.

“Scarlet” is a gripping, slippery film filled with lyrical beauty, acts of barbarism, moments of magic, and unexpected hope. The first half focuses on Raphael, a huge, heavy man with a protruding forehead and hands the size of hams. As Juliette grows (and is eventually played by Juliette Jouan), the narrative center of gravity shifts from father (a product of the 19th century) to daughter (a woman of the 20th century). As he did in “Martin Eden,” Marcello takes an expansive and visually adventurous approach to a story about people and the historical forces that define, imprison, and sometimes liberate them. I’m still grappling with the movie and can’t wait to see it again.

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