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Cannes 2024: The Second Act, An Unfinished Film and Wild Diamond


“Last year, as you know, we had a few polemics,” admitted Cannes General Delegate Thierry Fremaux at the opening of the 77th edition on Tuesday. “This year we decided to host a festival without polemics to make sure that the main interest for us all to be here is cinema.” With ignorance this willful, you have to laugh. Cannes has gotten so used to sweeping its problems under the rug that no one seems to know when, how, or if the Sous les Écrans la Dèche strike–-which would affect some 200 projectionists, programmers, floor managers, and press officers working the festival—was or will be avoided, and therefore whether or not we’ll be let in to any given screening. Judith Godrèche’s short film, Moi aussi (Me Too)—added last minute to the program for the Un Certain Regard opening ceremony—did not distract from the naming of producer Alain Sarde as one of the French film industry’s several accused sex offenders rumored to be unveiled over the coming fortnight. Reality bites, and Fremaux would have us believe that cinema is here to fend it off.

The typically star-filled Opening Film, The Second Act, directed by a man who titled one of his films Reality ten years ago, is Quentin Dupieux’s latest meta-fictional romp. It showcases its principal cast—Léa Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Vincent Lindon, and Raphaël Quenard—in impressively protracted single-take argument scenes (some of which last upwards of ten minutes), with the curtain always half peeled back. Actors either fumble their lines and repeat them, or object when their counterpart improvised inappropriately (e.g. Garrel cutting off Quenard’s disgusted outburst over the former’s girlfriend possibly being a man – “You’ll get us canceled!”), keeping the viewer at arm’s distance from the diegesis, and hedging with the material’s problematic cake that it gets to eat, too. Characters converse, conflicts are set up, but then Dupieux steps back and undoes the harms, showing the fouls to be mere make-believe. Actions and traits always belong to somebody else and can be wiped away in a fictitious whim. The 85-minute running time is fairly long for this filmmaker, and you can feel it spinning its wheels, extending and repeating jokes until the humor fades away. The unseriousness of it all mocks most traditions of cinematic illusionism, its distinction from theater, and the star system; from what I remember of Rubber (2010) and Deerskin (2019), this is Dupieux’s whole schtick, and is also what, on paper, made The Second Act seem a relatively refreshing choice for a Cannes opener. Contrary to certain traditions of quality promoted and upheld by this festival, nothing here exists enough to either redeem or offend. When things start to go sour, you just gotta change things up and move along.

I found Lou Ye’s An Unfinished Film even more noncommittal and confused. Comprised of outtakes and on-set footage captured during the making of Lou Ye’s Suzhou River (2000), Spring Fever (2009), Mystery (2012), and The Shadow Play (2018), the film is a verité chronicle of a film production interrupted by the pandemic that toes the line between reality and fiction. The film begins in Summer of 2019 with a computer being plugged in for the first time in ten years in order to resurrect an abandoned project. The filmmaker on screen (which is not Lou Ye, I learned only during the film’s closing credits) opens Final Cut Pro 7 and begins re-linking materials and scrubbing through footage depicting a budding relationship between two young men. Soon, the director is speaking with one of the actors, now a decade older and “not as good-looking anymore,” proposing a shoot in early 2020 that would complete the narrative and make it possible for an eventual release. Filmed near Wuhan with five or six cameras always rolling, constant improv, and actual video calls between characters, the movie has the look and feel of an actual making-of documentary. The giveaway that it’s staged is when COVID begins to spread, everyone is immediately forced into mandatory quarantine, yet the characters are still being filmed.

Lou has termed his movie an example of an “anti-film” due to its complete isolation of characters and crew members from one another, and its flaw is that it didn’t trust the situation enough to maintain that integrity with his production itself. “To be completely documentary would’ve been to be stuck in the framework of another ‘language’, which is not an easy thing to deal with,” he explains in his press kit. Being semi-fictional made the film “freer,” but I think he did the job toowell. Mixing doc-style re-enactments of quarantine life, family video calls, police brutality, and public displays of mourning with actual footage of same that went viral between 2020 and 2023 delegitimizes the real material included in the film and makes the creative material feel exploitative. The actors in An Unfinished Film (many of whom are playing themselves) are, of course, re-performing something that they (and we) actually lived; yet the aestheticization of such a grueling and fresh event (which includes comic book-style split screens that juxtapose vertical cell phone frames with professionally shot angles of the same scene) adds only the possibility of deception, and therefore at a certain point I stopped trusting any of it.

And to come full circle on the whole reality throughline that the festival set up for me on a tee, a few thoughts on one of the Competition’s few UFOs: Agathe Riedinger’s debut feature, Wild Diamond, in which French teenage influencer Liane (Malou Khebizi) is seduced by the prospect of appearing as a cast member in the ninth season of a popular reality TV show called Miracle Island (which is not real). Despite the film’s garishly oversaturated and contrast-boosted color palette, I was initially intrigued by the film’s surface; an academy ratio still has surface appeal, and Riedinger’s attention to the very material physicality of Liane’s body is soothingly sensual, with patient scenes showing the young woman hairbrushing, trying on glammy high heels, and applying contour and concealer makeup offering more than a touch of ASMR. I have not seen any of Riedinger’s shorts or music videos, but her touchstones here appear to be Andrea Arnold and, less so, Bresson by way of the Dardenne brothers. (When Liane reads comments on her Instagram posts, the text appears on screen in what looks to me like Cardo, a font that evokes scripture.) Wild Diamond displays a firm, in-your-face arthouse realist style that is very on brand for Cannes, and the camera is dutifully trained on Khebizi every minute of the way. Thus, like too many emerging filmmakers at this festival, Riedinger’s cinema is mostly referential and devoid of any singular traits. The movie is only about exactly what it’s about (the current brand of beauty standards oppressing young women today), and has little curiosity for anything sitting in the margins of its very specific and not at all uncommon topic. Liane is told late in the film, “the world desperately needs beauty,” and while you won’t get any disagreement from me there, I also believe that beauty is, more importantly, not regenerative; it is a product of reality, but needs to be constantly rediscovered.

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