Cannes 2022: De Humani Corporis Fabrica, Crimes of the Future, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, Les Amandiers
The man sitting two seats over had averted his eyes from the screen a few times before he finally hit his breaking point. I saw a penis and a drill of some kind coming right for the urethra and heard a doctor saying that he was going to put the device on the “Kalashnikov setting.” What, I wondered, might that mean? When the drill started pumping away and blood spurted, the poor guy had had enough and exited swiftly, and I absolutely couldn’t blame him. This was the second screening of the instantly infamous De Humani Corporis Fabrica that day; after the first, Twitter responses made it clear that this is a movie you go to watch the walkouts as much as the film itself. My only real squeamishness is about watching bodily internal organs, and I was fully ready to bail myself and call it a day for self-preservation rather than indulging in cinemachismo for bragging rights. But, after all that buildup, Fabrica turned out to be (mostly) smooth sailing; whatever Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab leaders Lucien Castaing-Tayler and Véréna Paravel (Leviathan, Caniba) are up to, being visual edgelords isn’t the primary assignment, and if anything I ended up wanting more surgery.
Alternating that material with the more mundane daily work of multiple Parisian hospitals, Fabrica toggles between something like Fantastic Voyage and a particularly grody Wiseman documentary. Defamiliarizing images on the former front include a camera being inserted deep inside….whatever (I don’t want to know) that made me wonder why I’ve never seen a sci-fi set sculpted to look like it was made out of tripe, and an eye surgery where the iris has the intense yellow of a very fresh egg yolk. The most grueling imagery is frontloaded; as what remained of the audience settled in, it became clear that there are indeed correct places to laugh, especially when a doctor observes, during a prostate surgery, “It’s getting a bit abstract.” Arguably more harrowing than the surgery is footage of the caretaking of dementia patients, among the overwhelming tasks for a staff that bitch about being underfunded and underappreciated, a sense of everyday workingman solidarity easy to get behind. Very smart viewers at this festival think De Humani is a masterpiece—I can’t get there, but it’s definitely valid in its extremity.
Comparatively, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future was downright cuddly, the writer-director’s welcome return to working from his own original material for the first time since 1999’s eXistenZ. This is prototypical Cronenberg from the characteristic opening credits sequence, with titles over mysterious red backgrounds backed by Howard Shore’s typically/refreshingly moody score. Characters with names seemingly ripped from some obscure Québécois pulp sci-fi novel (Scott Speedman plays “Lang Dotrice”) deliver near-impossible dialogue that could’ve been generated by a Cronenberg algorithm bot (“Sex is the new surgery”) and slimy, vaguely breathing objects interact with bodies in ways that don’t seem like they could possibly be good. Performance artist Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) has, for years, been self-generating organs that don’t resemble any in human history; he transforms these alarming expulsions into art, with his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux) tattooing and removing them in happenings surrounded by caricatured gallery types, some wielding Bolexes. The plot, along Videodrome lines, has Saul and Caprice navigate interactions with sundry interested factions, some more overtly sinister than others.
No lines are overtly comic in the sense of being meant as funny by those delivering them, but the audience always knows when to laugh at a particularly weird exchange even as Shore’s score keeps a straight face. The pulsating furniture is, for viewers, clearly repugnant and sinister, but beloved and fetishized by the characters; that gap—the ability to perceive the not-yet-perceived-by-most sinister implications of objects or ideas that have been normalized—is one mark of the futurist’s predictive clarity. (A clip recently making the online rounds has Cronenberg noting, with almost unfortunate glee, the recent discovery of microplastics in all our bodies. Being vindicated isn’t always a good thing!) A lot of the dialogue is unapologetically Big Picture thematics, repeatedly drawing links between suffering and its ability to generate art while wondering if the two are really inextricable. But this thematic flexing, which is simultaneously direct and vague (and hence seemingly infinitely suggestive without actually committing to anything), is less absorbing than Cronenberg’s style, a finely honed, mysterious ability to make medium-shot coverage of characters talking on chiaroscuro-shaded stage builds weirdly entrancing.
An oft-used highbrow critical cliche, taken from Roberto Rossellini’s admiring appraisal of Charlie Chaplin’s A King in New York, is to describe a work unpalatable to most and thus laudable for its idiosyncracy, as “the film of a free man.” That definitely applies to Ethan Coen’s sketch of a music documentary, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind: freshly split from brother Joel, Ethan is here further freed from narrative, or even the need to shoot footage at all. This is an almost all-archival affair, its most recent material shot in January 2020 to document a recording session produced by executive producer/longtime Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett. Its assembly was undertaken during the pandemic by Coen and his editor wife Tricia Cooke in the spirit of, in her words, “a home movie project”—he didn’t have to generate anything at all.
The Coens’s fiercest critics regularly complained that their work was too clever and airless, devoid of any surprises and airtight to a fault. No one could levy that charge against Trouble in Mind, which proceeds, in no particular thematic or chronological order I can discern, through the life and career of Lewis, as important a musician as he is appalling a human. The film’s subtitle is misdirection: it does, inevitably, mention that time Lewis married his 12-year-old cousin, as well as the time he shot his bass player, but not a lot of other things that even a very cursory skim of his wiki could bring up. Coen’s film is thus doubly the work of a free man, because he seems to feel no obligation to actually delve into the moral meat of its subject’s transgressions and instead guiltlessly dives into his interviews and musical performances, both showcased at lengths that are, thankfully, relatively untruncated compared with music doc norms. This is fine by me: surely no one needs to be told Jerry Lee Lewis is problematic. This is as unambitiously amiable a timekiller as you might expect from Live Nation Productions, a logical extension of the Coens’ penchant for being deeply invested in popular American music history that otherwise sheds no light on their previous work.
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Les Amandiers takes its title from the still operating theater where, beginning in 1982, Patrice Chéreau was a director. (While it’s understandable that there was a desire for a different English title, since that isn’t common knowledge outside France, I absolutely refuse to use the official English-language title, Forever Young, with its unfortunate and irrelevant connotations of both the Alphaville song and the 1992 Mel Gibson movie. Should any English-language distributor pick this up, they really must come up with a replacement.) Tedeschi was a student at the school, and—alongside cowriters Noémie Lvovsky and Agnès de Sacy—draws on personal reminiscence in her sixth feature as a director. It’s been pointed out that the plot—following 12 students selected to join the ensemble and their ups and downs over the course of a year under the direction of Chéreau (Louis Garrel)—bears a marked resemblance to The Souvenir, as one of the aspirant thespians, Etienne (Sofianne Bennacer), is an addict whose love affair with protagonist Stella (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) is the main throughline. I’m choosing to believe this is a coincidence, given that all junkie stories are fundamentally the same. (In the press kit, Tedeschi acknowledges that this character is based on someone from her youth, without specifying further, and cites Panic in Needle Park as a reference point.)
The film belongs to the category of dramas whose arc means it’s a lot of fun until, by design, it’s not, and that deflation unfortunately arrives sooner rather than later. I was charmed by the opening half-hour or so, a series of often-hilarious auditions to get into the school and general high spirits, and for a while Amandiers walks a very fine line in rendering performers searching for spontaneity interesting in and of itself, rather than a tedious study in watching acting exercises. That opening act generated so much goodwill I didn’t even mind when that hoariest of soundtrack cues, “Me and Bobby McGee,” was dropped over a montage of the kids arriving to train at the Actors Studio in New York. It’s here, alas, that tragic Etienne starts dabbling in heroin, a plot thread that slowly and regrettably redirects this from a sprightly ensemble portrait to increasingly claustrophobic portrait of being in love with addict. Still, I’m not mad I saw it: it would be a mistake to come to France and not see something very culturally French while here. A movie venerating a nationally beloved theater troupe, based on the assumption that everyone is familiar with the legacy of Patrice Chéreau, definitely fit the bill.