Cannes 2023: The Zone of Interest, Killers of the Flower Moon, May December
Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, instantly hailed as a masterpiece upon the conclusion of its first screenings in Cannes last Friday, finds the British filmmaker once again engineering a vehicle with which to burrow beneath viewers’ skin. After opening his previous film, an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 sci-fi novel Under the Skin, with an on-screen reminder of cinema’s intrinsic visuality—darkness, then pulsating orbs and, finally/explicitly, a dilating pupil—here Glazer turns to the aural. Another literary adaptation (this time of a work by Martin Amis, who died of oesophageal cancer the same day Glazer walked the red carpet), The Zone of Interest opens assertively with several minutes of total darkness, accompanied by a foreboding audio composition (arranged by return Skin collaborator Mica Levi) of throbbing chorales, field-recorded nature and whispers of distant screams. Even after the movie locates us with an image—a bucolic, initially-nondescript lakeside residence that we quickly realize is situated on the margins of Auschwitz’s concentration camp—sound and the not-visible remains central. Amidst an affluent German family’s banal everyday goings-on, their close-knit community of Aryan friends and casual drop-ins from Nazi soldiers, The Zone of Interest’s zone is pointedly uninteresting. Besides the occasional glimpses of smoke from nearby crematoria or myriad iconography such as the costuming, the film is dramatically inert, which is of course the point.
The “project” here, as it is in so much horror cinema, is to accentuate the activity that exists outside the frame; once this becomes apparent, there isn’t too much movie left. I suspect Glazer agrees, hence Zone’s periodic formal flare-ups that promise there’s more going on than we’re not privy to. The proceedings are interrupted twice to show us a nightmarish sequence—filmed in black & white negative—of a young girl planting pears into the earth while a German SS officer reads “Hansel and Gretel” to his daughter. Elsewhere, the screen fades into a hellish crimson as Levi’s score re-asserts itself (before again retreating). Glazer continues to refract his cinema through Kubrick-ian vernacular, opting for estranging, nearly fisheye views of otherwise ordinary domestic spaces. These are filmed with elaborate filming setups that reportedly used up to ten cameras at a time, which allow Glazer to jarringly cut on action from angular, sometimes perpendicular perspectives within a single take, further dehumanizing the gaze. The film marches steadily through this anti-dramatic, intermittently abstract languor for most of its running time, and while I did eventually succumb to its hypnotic mysteries and general disinterest in incident, I also resent that its creator would probably claim success from an experience that I’d characterize as, more often than not, pretty zoned out.
This weekend Cannes launched another, even more high-profile adaptation in the form of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which the director began developing a year before the publication of its source material—David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction book of the same name. Like Grann’s text, the film explores the atrocities that greed has wreaked upon America’s indigenous communities (namely, the Osage Nation of the Great Plains), lining up a cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone (herself of Piegan Blackfeet origin) to lure as much popular interest as possible to what’s a no doubt commercially dubious 206-minute Apple Studios venture. There are a number of moving parts here, but the gist of the narrative centers around Osage headrights and the “Reign of Terror” that ensued in the 1920s as white businessmen poured into Oklahoma seeking to capitalize on the fertile land. [Editor’s note: Details about the plot’s basic trajectory begin here; no reading further if you want to go in blind.] This included cattleman William King Hale (De Niro), who devised a scheme wherein his nephew, Ernest Burkhart (DiCaprio), would marry an Osage woman named Mollie (Gladstone) and then inherit her oil money after she and her sisters were systematically killed off.
Petty as it may be to quibble about pacing problems or structural imbalances in such an upright passion project, much of my viewing of Killers was self-consciously disengaged. Scorsese is still clearly one of cinema’s greatest living craftsmen, and the film has at least the feeling of an ultimate, all-encompassing statement; it’s fascinating to see him wringing out a lifetime of pent-up ideas, urges and critical impulses from watching Ford, Boetticher and Mann westerns, letting the drippings slither into what otherwise feels like a vintage Scorsese crime film—this is, by its conclusion, clearly the work of the man who made Goodfellas (1990). I spent much of my time with Killers admiring its technical achievements (exemplary performances, detailed costuming and sets, generally magisterial craft) instead of thinking along with it. A lot of time is spent waiting for the next stage of Hale’s scheme to be realized, which unfolds without developing further because it developed too quickly earlier. Burkhart and Hale’s final act trial revitalizes the film, even as these scenes feel similarly imbalanced (some progressions here—namely, Burkhart’s flip-flopping decision on whether or not to testify against his uncle—are relegated to three-minute conversations that result in choices that feel inconsistent with prior behavior, if not completely irrational). The film’s climactic moments are genuinely harrowing, though, and all the more impressive for how clunky the journey was to get us there. I don’t doubt for a second that Thierry cried.
Todd Haynes’s campy, provocative and sexy May December was the most fun I’ve had at this year’s festival, and stands as the filmmaker’s strongest work since Far from Heaven (2002), if not Safe (1995). (I’m inclined to say Haynes should only ever work with Julianne Moore.) As with Carol (2015), Haynes examines the vulnerability and power dynamics that spring from cross-generational desire, this time as it relates to a heterosexual partnership that began between a middle-aged baker named Gracie (Moore) and her son’s 13 year-old Korean-American friend, Joe. Despite enduring years of tabloid headlines, public scrutiny and random packages of shit delivered to their front door, Gracie and a now-36-year-old Joe (Charles Melton) enjoy a superficially ideal upper middle class marriage; they grill hot dogs for friends on the weekend, and their twins (conceived during their affair) are about to graduate high school and head off to college. Their past is about to become public once again, however, as well-known actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman) arrives to do some hands-on research for her upcoming role as Gracie in a movie that promises to reveal the truth and humanity of her life story.
More than perhaps any previous Haynes project, May December is concerned with artifice and performance. This is evident, on one hand, in Moore and Portman’s hammed-up characterizations of Gracie and Elizabeth (Gracie’s lisp is not only hilariously gratuitous, but becomes more prominent as the film goes on), but also in the film’s style and structure. Haynes borrows Kelly Reichardt’s regular DP, Christopher Blauvelt, and his gauzy, floral, immediately seductive work effortlessly invokes the color-saturated suburbs that decorated the American films of Douglas Sirk. Gracie and Joe’s story is partially introduced to the viewer through a montage of sensationalist tabloidish cover stories, allowing us to experience the “humanization” of their story in tandem with Elizabeth and her research interviews. Much of the film’s power arrives courtesy of Haynes’s understanding that more immersion and knowledge into the details of a person’s life often leads not to understanding but to deeper abstractions, and the film’s lingering enigmatic nature is made possible by its impressionistic delivery of images, behaviors and event details—most of which are dwelled upon just enough to be memorable, never enough to make them reasonable.