The last time director George Miller presented a new film at Cannes was in 2015, when his exhilarating “Mad Max: Fury Road” took the festival by a (dust) storm. The film played outside of the main competition, as most Hollywood blockbusters do at Cannes. But as more than one viewer observed, it felt like an unfair treatment for a work of popular art which – in its beauty and kineticism, its political acumen and formal mastery – towered over most of the works vying for the Palme d’Or that year. When a filmmaker like Miller is at the pinnacle of power, the distinctions that festivals like Cannes often reinforce — between high and low, art and commerce — simply crumble.
Miller’s stature among global authors remains intact, even if his unusual new offering, “Three Thousand Years of Longing,” which premiered out of competition Friday night in Cannes (and will be released in US theaters in late August), is not not one of his best efforts. An intimate-scale chamber drama with a cosmic and fantastical layering, the film, adapted from A.S. Byatt’s short story “The Djinn in the Eye of the Nightingale,” chronicles a fateful encounter between a literary analyst named Alithea (Tilda Swinton) and a millennial genius. (an Idris Elba with pointy ears and hairy paws). The result is another showcase of Miller’s prodigious visual imagination, his skill at incorporating stunning visual effects into his storytelling. But in this case, the film is itself a story in regards to the narrative, where its specific problems begin.
The meeting between Alithea and the Djinn, as it is known, takes place in the same hotel room in Istanbul where Agatha Christie wrote “Murder on the Orient Express”. And as with Christie, there are mysteries to solve and riddles to ponder. The Djinn, longing to be freed from the glass prison Alitha unlocks him from, begs her to make three wishes, but the skeptical Alithea is not content to be careful what she wishes. As a professional narratologist, specialist in genres and mythic archetypes, she knows that every wish-fulfillment fantasy – including the one she finds herself in now – is essentially a cautionary tale, a reminder that life’s shortcuts often result in shortened life.
Or stretched to an ungodly length, as is the immortal Djinn, an outsized and extravagant figure that Elba effortlessly invests with glimmers of humanity. Pleading his case to Alithea, the Djinn transforms Scheherazade, telling tales of his former masters and the centuries of imprisonment he endured due to their lust and greed. The individual tales, while adorned with all sorts of fabulous CGI flourishes, are too busy and uninvolved, and “Three Thousand Years of Longing” ultimately feels hunched and cluttered in that self-conscious way that stories about storytelling often do. . The best way to pay homage to storytelling, really, is to tell a damn good story, not to keep clearing your throat in the relentless expectation of a story.
And for better or worse, by design or not, this defensive attitude towards storytelling for its own sake is particularly symbolically heavy at this year’s 75th Cannes Film Festival. Due to its stature as the most important event of its kind, Cannes often represents, or is supposed to represent, something bigger than itself and generates headlines that resonate far beyond the world of cinema. A selection of films is never just a selection of films; it offers a snapshot of the medium and speaks to the prevailing winds in the global film industry.
Along the same lines, a red carpet that has long been a symbol of glamor and tradition has in recent years become a #MeToo battleground – a place where female filmmakers protest their lack of inclusion (and the sexism of Cannes fashion protocols). This year’s protests went much further: on Friday, ahead of the gala premiere of ‘Three Thousand Years of Nostalgia’, a member of the French activist group SCUM took to the red carpet to speak out against sexual violence against women in Ukraine. .
And on Sunday, protesters linked to the documentary “Feminist Riposte”, which premiered at Cannes, unfurled a scroll listing the names of 129 recent French victims of “feminicide”, the intentional killing of women because they are women. The demonstration came just before the competition premiere of “Holy Spider,” Ali Abbasi’s controversial thriller about serial killer Saeed Hanaei, which targeted sex workers in the Iranian city of Mashhad in the early 2000s.
Elsewhere in Cannes, the ongoing setback between the festival and Netflix – which, protesting its de facto ban from the event’s main competition, hasn’t brought a film here since 2017 – may have gone a bit cooled in recent years. But it remains a well-demarcated front line in the war between theatrical cinema and the so-called streaming revolution. As the festival turns 75 this year, a milestone that coincides with the industry’s long, slow exit from a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the box office, it’s no surprise Cannes likes to position itself as a proud defender of tradition, one of our last remaining bastions of cinematic artistry and integrity.
This image hit a snag last week amid controversy over the festival’s new collaboration with TikTok, a media partnership intended to maximize exposure for TikTok’s star personalities and introduce Cannes and its cinema to a new generation of viewers. social media users. Acclaimed Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh (“The Missing Picture”) has temporarily resigned as jury president of the festival’s inaugural TikTok short film competition, claiming the platform tried to interfere with jury decisions. TikTok backed down and Panh joined the jury, but the conclusion was clear: The fiery pursuit of referral dollars and social media “relevance” can be expensive. This can be especially true when it involves partnering with a company whose products – short, easily consumable Internet videos – would seem antithetical to the theatrical cinema that Cannes exists to promote.
But promoting Cannes cinema does, not just through the rhetoric of ad copy, but in its not-too-subtle programming decisions. The festival opened Tuesday night with Michel Hazanavicius’ “Final Cut,” a rickety remake of Japanese black comedy “One Cut of the Dead” and a sometimes touching and heartfelt homage to the joys and failings of no-budget independent cinema. A more satisfying opening night selection would have been the upcoming “Top Gun: Maverick,” which landed at the festival on Day 2, and made its own deeply felt argument for theatrical cinema greatness — an argument said mostly by its star, Tom Cruise, who was rewarded for his efforts with an honorary Palme d’Or.
Speaking of Palme: The competition, although still in its infancy, has already produced a number of solid selections. The biggest attention grabber so far is “Triangle of Sadness,” a viciously entertaining new social satire from Swedish filmmaker, Ruben Östlund, who has made it a career specialty. Östlund shot to international prominence at Cannes years ago with the deservedly acclaimed ‘Force Majeure’ and won the Palme in 2017 for ‘The Square’, a barbed and playful investigation into the world of modern art. In the blunt, sprawling nearly 2.5-hour “Triangle of Sadness,” it soars to new levels of moral disgust while sinking to new lows of topical unsubtlety. It’s a pretty good compromise.
Östlund’s target here is, surprise surprise, the One Percent – or rather, the various members of the One Percent, including arms dealers and Russian oligarchs, who find themselves on an extremely ill-fated yacht trip. Among them are two sexy young models (played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean, both terrific) who received free tickets in exchange for social media exposure, which of course is a fun thing to see in a film festival that trades on social media exposure to an unprecedented degree and takes place next to a harbor full of yachts. But such ironies and incongruities are nothing new at Cannes, where every day you can don a tuxedo and step onto a star-studded red carpet to watch a film exposing the excesses of the Western world.
Still, “Triangle of Sadness” is the sharpest, grandest excoriation we’ve had in a while, etched in Östlund’s beautifully composed shots, which he then brilliantly puts through once the boat sails in turbulent, pirate-infested waters. From there, the director pours on acid — and diarrhea and vomit — in some of the most remarkably modulated and toned down comedy scenes in recent memory. A violently bursting toilet is one of the few links between this film and the Palme d’Or winner “Parasite”, one of the many satires of eating the rich that have proliferated in recent years.
What will jurors at Cannes this year think of Östlund’s mix of buñuelian mayhem and ‘Gilligan’s Island’, with Woody Harrelson as the increasingly drunk skipper? Will they take notice, as I hope, of Dolly De Leon’s telling performance as a yacht housekeeper that nails her own “I’m the captain now” moment? Stay tuned. There are even more movies to see, and yes, more stories to tell.