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Cannes 2024: Furiosa, Bird, Kinds of Kindness, Universal Language

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga

The deficiencies of George Miller’s Fury Road prequel, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga—many of which have, unsurprisingly, been given a pass—echo my broader sentiments towards this year’s Cannes, at least from where we sit just past the halfway point. In Furiosa’s opening minutes, we’re informed via voiceover of the great struggles facing its world: pandemics, famine, climate catastrophe. Offering a supplementary narrative of broader relevance, it’s a table setting of topicality that’s wholly unnecessary to the film’s primary, surface pleasures. Many of this year’s Palme d’Or contenders, too, have felt like showcases for Contemporary Issue X rather than works of cinema. “How can we brave the world’s cruelties?” Furiosa asks, and Cannes would have you believe that the answer is, in fact, The Movies. Most of these films express urgency without any degree of clairvoyance, and thus are always playing catch up.

Looking simultaneously cheaper and far more expensive than its predecessor, Furiosa is the first time this franchise has felt like product, not so dissimilar to what, e.g., Rogue One represented within the Star Wars saga. Prequels are generally bad because their journey is always prescribed; Furiosa’s image, tone and every effort to build momentum conforms to a template. Lachy Hulme’s younger, cleaner depiction of Immortan Joe lacks the visceral repulsion of Hugh Keays-Byrne’s; Chris Hemsworth, as Dr. Dementus, seems there to add some thirst in the absence of Tom Hardy; while Anya Taylor-Joy’s takeover of the titular role forces her to be merely an image of an image—an actor in a state of Becoming-Charlize Theron. Watching the film is to observe Taylor-Joy’s presence graduate, over 148 minutes, toward that recognizable voice, costume, attitude and anatomy. (If you ever wondered how Furiosa lost her left arm, Miller’s got you covered.) A film that felt compelled to define the word “abundance” for its audience rather than simply let us feel it again, Furiosa introduces no progression or innovation into the machine, all signs pointing to Fury Road.

Andrea Arnold’s Bird, on the other hand, sees the British filmmaker giving a few new things a shot, aiming to deliver everything with the kitchen sink. Her use of the 1:66 frame neglects to crop out the 16mm gate’s rounded corners, even leaving in the sprocket holes; the integration of TikTok-esque vertical video into the image via fuzzy-edged, trapezoidal splitscreen is a nice touch. Bird’s milieu is familiar, this time filmed in Gravesend, with runty English (pre-)teens and deadbeat parents struggling to stay grounded. Bailey (Nykiya Adams) is coping with puberty and domestic tensions involving her half siblings; her father, Bug (Barry Keoghan), carries a “cash cow” toad (a Colorado River toad) wherever he goes because of its hallucinogenic slime known as Bufotenin; and the enigmatic Bird, portrayed by Franz Rogowski in an utterly embarrassing performance, looms on the hills and rooftops as a symbol of escape and consolation. Par for Arnold’s narratives, nobody likes each other, everybody loves one another and working class banality is meant to be perceived as not only beautiful but capable of providing transcendence. I will avoid citing the plot-based decisions that make this film such a failure, but given the amount of pop interludes Arnold folds into her films, she strikes me as someone who is ignoring her calling to go all in working on music videos, where her penchant for 101 Symbology, broad emotional strokes and peculiar youth-gazing would be less deleterious. 

The sadism is off the charts in this year’s films, with Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Pérez, Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance and especially Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness all conjuring images of abuse and corporeal deconstruction with great glee. I don’t know what it says about me or the toll that a week attending this festival takes on my psyche that I found all three of these highly divisive films to be at once admirable and lacking, but I do find value in art that makes me, personally, feel divided, making me at least consider and question my feelings of agreement with objects so immediately disagreeable. Lanthimos, in particular, is aggressive in its efforts to displease, going back to his Greek Weird Wave roots to mount an assault on traditions of sensemaking and decency. I was mostly numb to the body mutilations punctuating this nihilistic triptych, though I was game for the reconstitutive pleasures offered by the structure itself, which reconfigures the same starry cast—Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Hong Chau, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn—into three deeply cynical scenarios. Characters behave stoically, and devotionally operate according to rules they seem to make for themselves. They believe in casually paranormal possibilities that sit sideways against the worlds they inhabit, and have no trouble inflicting harrowing forms of violence against one another. Each of the three stories is titled for a different action associated with a character named R.M.F. (who may or may not appear in every segment), and each challenges the viewer to re-align their sympathies toward the cast with each narrative reset. I don’t know how much this project amounts to beyond a metacinematic experiment in the tethering of actor/character/viewer, but in material this grim I was looking for any fun I could find.

Speaking of fun, the Canadiana is likewise off the charts this year. Guy Maddin and brothers Galen & Evan Johnson dropped the Silent Cinema stylings for the decidedly talky comedy  Rumours. Paul Schrader’s earnest Oh, Canada adapts Russell Banks’s 2021 novel Foregone and continues the American’s all-in plunge into his steely Old Master stylings. In the Directors’ Fortnight, is one of Maddin’s mentees, Matthew Rankin, with his sprawling, personal and deeply weird new comedy, Universal Language. Made, it claims, “In the name of friendship,” and set in a fictitious Winnipeg, Manitoba where Farsi is the official language, the film is a parade of gags firing off the screen faster than I could scribble down one-word descriptors of each, beginning with a Marx Bros. inspired riff on Abbas Kiarostami’s education films (including a young student dressed as Groucho). Like Rankin’s previous feature, The Twentieth Century (2019), a comedy about Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s rise to power, I don’t feel nearly Canadian enough to get most of what this film is making fun of (and Canadians find nothing funnier than themselves), but the barrage of sight gags, which evoke comedians like Jacques Tati, Guy Maddin (natch) and, especially, Elia Suleiman, eventually pounded my funny bone into submission. By the time Rankin appears as himself (maybe) to consider his place under the foreign palimpsests that create Canadian national identity, its drunken stumble down memory lane transformed into a melancholy I managed to take seriously only because it was so shady.

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