Cannes 2023: The Pot-au-Feu, Portraits of Ghosts
To celebrate Cannes is to celebrate film history itself—or at least so the fest would have it. But while there’s certainly meaningful and genuine overlap, any self-venerating mythology is going to breed unwelcome byproducts, as at the premiere of Jean-Luc Godard’s “final” film, Trailer of a Movie That Will Never Exist: “Phony Wars.” (Its actual finality status is TBD, as Goodfellas has more of his work, in whatever form, still to sell.) The short was preceded by a French TV documentary, Godard by Godard, which was fairly useless in part because it ignores half of his life and work while playing the most obvious hits. Space is given to May ’68, when Cannes shut down as a byproduct of political unrest and Godard famously railed at a press conference that “We’re talking solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking dolly shots and close-ups. You’re idiots!” The audience applauded, seemingly ignoring the analogous reality of being in the room at this year’s festival, which banned protests in its proximity at a moment when “pension reform” has generated intense pushback. It might have been a spontaneous collective attempt at (the bare-minimum optics of) solidarity, but we (myself included) were basically recapitulating the power dynamics being decried; a more meaningful gesture would’ve been if the electrical union followed through on its threat of cutting power to the festival and everyone was OK with it.
On Cannes’ first Sunday, I tried to combat feeling depleted by taking a stroll through the Marché market, a form of restoration through masochism: If you don’t have business to conduct there, the main advantage of a walkthrough is seeing a lot of amusingly terrible posters for seemingly hopeless films (for years, The Guardian spun whole slideshows out of these). This time, I unexpectedly found actual art via a booth for Playlab Films, with text outside promising a new Apichatpong Weeresethakul short within. Amazingly enough, this turned out to be true, even if not under ideal circumstances: scaled down from its initial two-projector presentation to a loop on one monitor that was smaller than I’d like, with headphones that were definitely not noise-canceling. But hey: regardless, here was For Bruce, as in Baillie, one of four works made for a show commemorating the late experimental filmmaker.
This is one of Apichatpong’s more simply pleasurable experiments, continuously overlaying 16mm shots of shallow rivers flowing near an isolated Peruvian bridge and the surrounding natural proximity. When stacked on each other, natural surfaces result in images whose initially unparsable density becomes completely legible as to what each sunny, inviting layer is after a few seconds; combined with the forest sound, this is on the “heal yourself through ambient soaking” side of the Apichatpong spectrum, like Blissfully Yours‘ final stretch with no people. In an accompanying letter addressed to his now-gone friend, Apichatpong writes that he found the bridge when “nearing the end of my journey in Peru, recovering from COVID with a tired chest, as I trekked in an Amazon jungle. The intensity of the colors, fragrances, and movements awoke my senses.” My viewing experience wasn’t quite as unmitigatedly revitalizing; halfway through, the early morning silence was punctuated by a panel of some kind as the trade show roused itself to activity and a voice started speaking on “how I became a filmmaker.” Nonetheless, as the Nespresso kicked in, the short did what was needed; I felt restored to myself, or at least ready for another round of viewing and writing. There’s an extremely obvious and easily extrapolable metaphor here (finding art in the midst of commerce, being able to focus under sub-optimal circumstances, etc.), but in a more literal sense it was a reminder of the treats The World’s Most Important Film Festival can bring along with it, almost by unplanned accident.
The only book I’d read to prepare for this year’s festival was Marcel Rouff’s The Life and Passion of Dodin-Bouffant, Gourmet, adapted as Tran Anh Hung’s The Pot-au-Feu—or so I thought, as it became closer to the premiere that the movie is really a prequel to the novel, taking some of its episodes and characters but generating an nearly-entirely new plot. Rouff’s book revolves around gourmand-pedant Dodin-Bouffant, who can only stand to eat the cooking of a chef working under his close supervision (also a sometime low-key hook-up, but feelings are never described as entering it) and who’s forbidden all but four sufficiently-discriminating friends from dining with him. Dodin-Bouffant rejects other would-be table companions as inadequate for, among other crimes, “not having discerned the superfluous pinch of salt in a purée of cardoons, or for having unrestrainedly praised the badly buttered toast under a partridge of the wrong age”—in other words, Dodin-Bouffant is a severe-minded curator of both art and the audiences he wants to consume it. It’s impossible to tell whether the book is celebrating him, roasting him or a little of both—probably the last of those, but the arch tone can’t be pinned down. One of my recent worries is that rather than being “rigorous,” my taste is merely hardening into close-minded inflexibility, so I spent a chunk of the text wondering if I felt indicted (“seen”), and the implications for anyone who spends a lot of time engaging with art are obvious.
Published in 1924, Rouff’s book doesn’t treat food merely as a metaphor for other forms of art appreciation, instead arguing in a very literal way for cooking as an art rather than ephemeral indulgence. Hung’s movie is nothing if not equally literal about gastronomy in its opening scenes, and as a food guy myself this was initially great news. After a brief scene of chef Eugénie (Juliette Binoche) harvesting produce in the morning, The Pot-au-Feu kicks off a delightfully protracted stretch of focused cooking—Binoche setting down a rack of veal just so to sear or lovingly braising a turbot—with almost no speech except for directions to the kitchen staff. During a pause in the preparations, Dodin-Bouffant (Benoît Magimel) sits and grills Eugénie’s future culinary apprentice, the teenaged Violette (Galatea Bellugi), to see if she can identify all the components of a soup after a taste. She recites 30something ingredients as Dodin-Bouffant listens while seated next to a pile of gorgeous leeks, then it’s back to even more reverentially silent culinary labor. Food porn is a lizard brain pleasure for me, and this opening 15 minutes may have been my favorite of Cannes.
That didn’t last. In the novel, Dodin-Bouffant designs menus but otherwise remains in the dining room; here, he’s laboring away in the kitchen, but while Binoche registers as culinarily super-skilled Magimel doesn’t seem as comfortable, which is unfortunate because as Pot-au-Feu goes along, he’s doing much more of the cooking. That imbalance extends to what felt like a total lack of chemistry between the two—this movie’s ultimate focus is their love, not cuisine, but I definitely never registered the former. The smoothly-moving camera of the initial culinary sections becomes less impressive through overuse, one-size-fits-all Steadicam coverage that’s almost lazy in the ways it follows characters, and the deep blue light of morning and night exteriors seemed eye-strainingly underlit, one thin layer of color with little to discern under it. I can’t help but notice the, let’s say, “micro-focused” nature of my complaints; the movie transformed me into my own Dodin-Bouffant, even as at large Pot-au-Feu was a late-breaking consensus fave which won Phan a Best Director award.
Though I’ve increasingly thought of food as my escape from film, my favorite relatively-overlooked feature at this year’s Cannes ended up being an arch-cinephilic object after all. Tucked away in Special Screenings, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Portraits of Ghosts is the Brazilian director’s first documentary, divided into three parts revolving around cinema. In the first, Filho tells the history of his apartment in Recife—bought by his parents long ago, in which he shot amateur VHS exercises as a kid and used more professionally for Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius (both of which this ends up acting as an especially personal annotation of), and where he still lives. Here, personal and film history have merged into one, like the night Filho heard Nico, a long-dead neighbor’s dog, barking outside—the seemingly resurrected canine was audible from his appearance in Neighboring Sounds, being broadcast on TV that night. In Ghosts‘ second part, Filho turns his attention to downtown Recife, and specifically the numerous theaters that used to be there, before a shorter third part focusing on cinemas-as-churches in a specifically Brazilian context, considering both in their architectural overlaps and how some of Filho’s childhood venues have since transformed into megachurches.
All of this memory-rifling precipitates/enables further archival digging, as Filho scans newspaper listings from the 70s, shares home movies of projectionists he’s known and otherwise indulges in a pleasant melancholia; where once stood a cinema, now there’s a kitchen-goods superstore, but at least he remembers what was there first. If the film’s driven by nostalgia, its aesthetic is counter-intuitively progressive, the loosest feature yet by the typically visually strict, John Carpenter-inspired filmmaker. Drawn from the filmmaker’s personal archives of (per the end credits) “Super 8, VHS, High8, Beta Cam SP, Mini DV, HD, iPhones,” editor Matheus Farias (promoted from cutting the trailer for Bacurau) and Filho cut faster between these disparate sources of expediently/unfussily-filmed handheld footage than the director’s ever allowed himself to before. “It’s kind of sad to become attached to a product,” he says in voiceover, but it has to be admitted that “the problem is you spent years of your life in this cinema.” In naming all viewers as in the same boat, the use of the second-person is an act of generosity and recognition—given the type of movie this is, it’s undoubtedly true rather than presumptuous. It characterizes my response to the history Cannes has created as well—a product that I am, even if with a little guilt, attached to.