Harlan Jacobson reports from the 76th Cannes Film Festival

May 25, 2023 Cannes - The most anticipated film this year at the 76th Cannes Film Festival was Killers of the Flower Moon directed by one of just about every cinema lover’s modern heroes, Martin Scorsese, adapted from New Yorker writer David Grann’s 2017 historical account. I don’t begrudge Marty another Mob movie, it’s what he does and what often needs being done. Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki in his new small gem of a film, Fallen Leaves, in Competition here, rather elegantly added to his stories of cracked working class cuckoo clocks failing even at suicide until they find something like love. So why shouldn’t Marty do another kind of mob film? Killers of the Flower Moon plods through three hours and 26 minutes, however, of 1920’s cow country mobsters of no apparent interest knocking off members of the Osage tribe whom the government unhappily displaced to a patch of worthless ground that happily was ground cover for oil. A lot of oil. This is about murder, however, not The Beverly Hillbillies, though the white guys are stupid in both. 

In a supporting role, Robert DeNiro’s mission in re-creating the historical Bill Hale is to disguise treachery that practically has arrows overhead pointing to it in the film, if not in the Oklahoma where Hale masqueraded as a civic-minded benefactor of the Osage. Hale’s confederates are paper thin, his victims are lambs, and Scorsese’s recurring leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, as Hale’s nephew Ernest Burkhart, is charged with gradually registering a glimmer of recognition that he may be involved in a mortal sin but can’t quite place it. Every time he’s in closeup, you look to see if Makeup used glue strips to hold DiCaprio’s mouth downward into a permanent trout pout, through which DiCaprio must then try to grunt assent to effectively murdering the wife it occurs to him he loves. 

Lily Gladstone’s performance as Mollie, an Osage woman married to Burkhart, conveys both the power to find Calvin Coolidge on the street in Washington to plea for help in stopping the wave of Osage killings back home, and a kind of guileless trust in her husband, the white man in her own house, that lands her in a poison coma. Tantoo Cardinal, as her mother, is one in a series of murders including her sister that sets the chain of murders in motion, all orchestrated by Hale to wipe out the line of inheritance of the oil property that fell to the Osage by gross government confiscation and miscalculation.

The story is a cowboy ambush tale that advances beyond Native American genocide and displacement to the stealth murder of lucky strike wealth. We respect resources and dollars around here, however accidentally but legitimately arrived at, thus murdering for inheritance triggers the interest of J. Edgar Hoover’s nascent Bureau of Investigation. Putting Hoover and the FBI into some kind of original context has unique resonance for a contemporary reader and is one of the book’s achievements. Scorsese’s film version compresses that backstory simply to Jessie Plemons arriving in Oklahoma way deep into the film as agent Tom White to investigate and secure justice, as a matter of course. The breadth of the narrative plies among genres: a Western, a police procedural, a racial justice and a crime family film. In any historical film something has to give, and it was Grann’s flip on Hoover’s FBI.

It is Scorsese’s film in pursuit of his larger reading of the mob in America. The want-to-like on a Marty movie is always high. Applying Mob fascination to white killers of Native Americans may buy the film street cred here on the Croisette and earn it just one of the lengthy but de rigueur standing ovations in the presence of directors and cast for which Cannes, first among film festivals, is notorious. The film is made for media approval. Marty’s Killers of the Flower Moon grafts mob dynamics onto the intractability of race hatred however to arrive at a kind of film Frankenstein. It lumbers, it wants love, it wants to save the little girl who trusts, it wants to do right by her family, it’s the story of bad white men run to the ground by a guy in a White hat, and it finally corrals the varmints whose spiritual heirs will turn out to be Oath Keepers. You can add Killers of the Flower Moon to Marty’s project of zeroing out the American Mob, in all its forms. But it moves like a stranger in a strange land. 

You can see it in October from Apple Plus films. 

Jonathan Glazer’s fourth film, Zone of Interest had its premiere here in the Competition on the heels of the death of British author Martin Amis, on whose 2014 novel the screenplay is based. The story lulls one into the everyday domestic stresses of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz, and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Huller from Toni Erdmann) and children who live in a pleasant manor house with gardens and a pool, which Hedwig points out -- in a plea to reverse Rudolf’s transfer to HQ in Berlin -- is how they’ve always wanted to live since they were 17. That is if you ignore the main tower of Auschwitz just over the garden wall, the chimneys billowing smoke, the ashes floating down through the family’s river swimming hole, and the low hum of the 24-hour ovens in the background. Which they do. Hoss and representatives of what must be Siemens and IG Farben work in the drawing room on a new ring design to boost the efficiency of the poison and burn rate, while making note of the need to patent it. Distilling to its essence Hannah Arendt’s post-war principle of the banality of evil, the film assumes its place in the basic Holocaust canon. A24 releases it later this year. 

In director Steve McQueen’s Occupied City, also an A24 project, McQueen and Dutch writer Bianca Stigter, his wife, use the boarded-up aesthetic of this Pandemic to peel the skin back from modern Amsterdam, McQueen’s adopted city for the last 27 years, to surface its history beyond Anne Frank during its Occupation in WWII. The torrent of research here is told in straight ahead narration by actor Melanie Hyams of the Nazi erasure of Amsterdam’s Jews culled from Stigter’s book, Atlas of An Occupied City, Amsterdam 1940 -1945. “Demolished” is how the script pauses to finish the many vignettes that result in complete obliteration. 

There are few classic concert halls as comforting as the Royal Concertgebouw, where I have loved settling into its antique 19th Century portal to hear Mahler, only to be reminded in the litany in Occupied City that the NSB, the Dutch Nazi Party, was berthed next door, enlisting every possible institution and citizen to squeeze the life out of the city’s 80,000 Jews. The Royal Concertgebouw purged its orchestra of Jewish musicians and the names of Jewish composers from its ceiling medallions that line the hall. Sent to Sobibor. Demolished. Sent to Westerbork. Demolished. The film’s Demolished has the same cadence in reverse of Dayenu, Enough, in the Seder service of the miracles God performed to free Jews from Egypt, but in Amsterdam marking each instance in which Jews were erased.

By the time this hypnotica of shame ends, punctuated by moments of quiet heroism, I was wrung as dry as I was by Claude Lanzmann’s seminal Shoah. But that’s only half the story here.

Scenes of the Occupation are intertwined with recent scenes of protest about the Covid 19 Pandemic, as the police turn water cannon on protestors, do crowd control on horseback and fire tear gas that sounds like cannon, as the city is once again boarded up. At the street level, the two lockdowns echo each other. How much of what Occupied City does in pairing Amsterdam’s buried Nazification with the Pandemic lockdown is prompted by their boarded up, denuded similarity? How much is McQueen also making a political comparison? Both eras are built on the drive toward social purity. The last period of years in our culture has seen a gathering and growing mania for purity, culminating in the pandemic. It’s what McQueen and Stigter have knit together in Occupied City, which leaves us reeling between then and now.  

One could do this exhumation of ghosts in many a city in Europe, including Cannes, where one could perhaps still find bullet holes in buildings on our path to contemplate all manner of murder on film, retail or wholesale, in the festival’s main Palais du Cinema. Occupied City came about during the Pandemic when McQueen and Stigter started seeing at home what they had not seen before. The excavation of Amsterdam during the war years came to McQueen, he said pre-screening, as an artist who looks for things delivered to him “under my bed or on my doorstep.” Dayenu. Demolished. 

The rise of Authoritarianism has threaded its way through films here in one form or another. Why not a playful one? In playing the what-if-history turned out differently game in the case of Nazism, the way Quentin Tarantino did as part of his extended adolescence with Inglorious Basterds at the 2009 Cannes, director James Mangold steps in for Steven Spielberg to do Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Shown out of competition at 2.5 hours, this fifth chapter brings Harrison Ford back as Indy, first as the adventurous archaeologist in his mid-30s in 1944, thanks to the amazing reconstruction of the young Ford from the digital library of his past performances, and then as a huffing and puffing academic biding his time in 1969, boring all but one of his students into a stupor. That’s when the professor is called back into the fray as Indy. Here’s the plot twist: he’s racing against time to make sure Adolph Hitler lives.

In The Dial of Destiny, Indy is locked in a race with Danish star Mads Mikkelsen’s Jurgen Voller, a Werner Von Braun Nazi rocket scientist stand-in who wants to retrieve two parts of a de facto time machine gearbox buried in far flung locations made by 3rd Century BC Greek mathematician, Archimedes of Syracuse. The pretty girl who jumps around in time with Indy, Helena Shaw, is played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, first as the one sharp student in his class who isn’t slumped over in a chair, then as Indy’s own goddaughter by his confrere Basil Shaw, played by Toby Jones, and then finally as nothing like an age-inappropriate paramour for Indy but as his goddaughter who is undecided about whether she wants Archimedes’ dial to cash out or to meet him. Guess which impulse is stronger.

Even stronger than money however is the desire to control history. Mikkelsen’s Jurgen Voller wants the dial to return to August 20, 1939, to assassinate Hitler on the eve of WWII. What could be wrong with that? As is all too evident in our own time, we all have our reasons: Voller doesn’t mean to prevent Hitler’s war but to take his place as the competent Fuhrer that Hitler wasn’t and avoid all the ego-blind mistakes the crazy one made losing it. You can almost see Mikkelsen rehearsing a musical number, Summertime in Germany for Hitler, if Mel Brooks had gotten the gig rather than Mangold. Who made it into a good enough fifth and perhaps final Ford chapter in the franchise.

It’s not every day the special guest star is Archimedes, who might inspire parents to explain to their children that thing about water displacement by using the smart phone in the bathtub trick. 

The Disney and Paramount film is using its Cannes bump to open stateside June 30.

I’ve been in the Todd Haynes camp, more or less, since the get-go, Safe, 25 years ago, Velvet Goldmine shortly thereafter and right up through his last Cannes entry, Velvet Underground, which I wrote rapturously about in 2021, the Covid Cannes moved to July of that year. It had a decent shot at the Palme D’Or, I wrote, and rooted for it alongside Drive My Car and The Worst Person in the World. So, of course, in the long tradition of disrupting the old order of things, and as if the Velvet Underground hadn’t done heroic work in that regard back in the day, Titane, with its soap opera psychology and its Motor Trend – Anatomy 101 course in aesthetics, won the Palme.

Haynes competition film this year, May December, from a script by Sammy Burch, interestingly steps into the same frame of reference as Catherine Breillat’s Last Summer (L’Étè Dernier), also in the Competition this year. But where Breillat is sincere in taking Anne, played by Léa Drucker from Closea high-powered attorney through the costs of an extra marital affair with a young boy who falls into her lap, Haynes and Burch condescend to their characters, a suburban mom, her baby husband and children, with a mean streak of snark that the NY TIMES, throwing the film a lifeline in a story from Cannes, later redefined as satire. “Some viewers,” the Times said, “may read the film in a straightforward way.” Not likely. The film’s clumsy contempt is its point. This is precisely the sort of uh-oh gambit Pauline Kael would’ve been all over. 

Haynes’ career-long alter ego, Julianne Moore, returns as a mid-50’s suburban housewife, Gracie, who two decades earlier shocked the good burghers of some predictably wretched suburb by having an affair with Joe, a 7th grader with whom she exercised her libido in the stock room of the local pet store where they both worked. Breillat’s Anne, by contrast, is seduced by Théo (Samuel Kircher), her 17-year-old stepson who is dropped on their doorstep to live with his father, Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin), a rather sweet but oblivious professional himself, and their young, adopted children. You can depend on Breillat as a cinema provocateuse to amp up the stakes of the carnal offense with step-incest. Why, after all, hold back, when you mean to morally examine what has been the private game preserve of male privilege, the family busting affair? Why not go for broke? Breillat’s script more nearly and subtly approaches reality than Haynes’ pet store cartoonery that triggers all the sniggering.

Gracie and Joe followed the Woody-Soon-Yi model and have set up shop as a married couple, as Gracie follows through by leaving her meat and potatoes husband and four kids to marry Joe, at some point after getting out of jail. Twenty years on, Gracie’s fuse is short. She is not to be messed with. We’re a little shy of Mommie Dearest territory with her, without the hanger beatings. She might think such thoughts --  Moore is adept at letting us read them in her face. Her Gracie possesses an emotionally legislative iron will that has for 20 years directed the show, everyone’s show, their actions and emotions inside her zone of interest. We should appreciate in Gracie the great control she exercises on herself for having saddled herself with unexpected child raising duties that has not been recognized until maybe now. 

In addition to the twins she had by Joe, she’s also had to raise Joe himself, who at 33 or so comes across as being the thing Gracie has bitten off and now has to chew on. Joe likes to flop on the couch, minister to his butterfly collection, and other assorted interesting kid things. Yet he has a certain self-possessed grace about him in his adult body that carries him forward to meet the actress who comes to dinner. 

That’s when Natalie Portman shows up as Elizabeth, a Grade B actress playing a surgeon in a TV doctor series, whom everyone in town recognizes. She’s there to shadow Gracie in a film about the scandal, which Haynes delivers quickly in backstory by paging through tabloid headlines. (The mind does wander off in this sequence about ways other than a cascade of Enquirer covers to have delivered the juice.) Gracie mostly thinks that being shadowed by a famous grade B actress for a film about her fearless flip for love is her due. My god, she’s paid for it by receiving boxes of turds on her front step! And hate mail! For the past 20 years since the pet store thing!!!  But Nice Joe, has an innate understanding of what is happening with Elizabeth’s arrival by getting to the heart of her acting career as absurd: “I saw the one where you operated on an elephant,” he grins. Elizabeth in the conceit that actors have of being cultural therapists, is an open membrane: what is it about Joe that drove Gracie mad with lust in the first place? It’s what you call an accident and a scene waiting to happen. 

May December is a meta-industry self-flagellation project that hates its characters in a way that Robert Altman’s The Player did, but Altman had more finesse in turning the audience against itself. This being Cannes and all, one wonders if the handlers for French President Emmanuel Macron, who famously lived out some version of a May December drama of his own at 15 with the 39-year-old teacher who became his wife, will book either May December or Last Summer direct from Cannes for Elysée Palace screenings. (Maybe not.) The film wants it all ways, to point a camera at characters deemed from frame one as vapid in a culture it x-rays as spineless to gain the viewer’s trust that the film hates everything they do: the dream life where now women can be as bad or worse than men were for centuries and get famous for it.

Gracie, Elizabeth, Joe and the Peyton Place Twilight Zone they all live in may be the resurrection of a Mad Magazine style satire of suburbia and cinema. In which case the filmmakers will get a payday. It may also find a bonus audience in the Chinese military, where the generals are busy trying to gauge whether America still has what it takes to fight a war on two fronts. After taking in May December, they could decide it’s goodnight, Gracie.