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Cannes 2024: Awards, Anora, Emilia Pérez, The Substance, The Seed of the Sacred Fig

A young woman dances in a club.Mikey Madison in Anora

In my awards-wrap piece for last year’s Cannes, I complimented jury president Ruben Östlund and his deliberators on a deliberation well done. They chose to award mostly the films Vadim Rizov and I had already covered in prior dispatches, granting me the freedom to go longer on my thoughts about The State of the Festival, as well as highlights from the Quinzaine des cinéastes sidebar (a.k.a. The Directors’ Fortnight), which had just finished unveiling new artistic director Julien Rejl’s inaugural edition. No such luck this year—not because Greta Gerwig gave ungreat prizes (au contraire, her jury’s picks were about as good as could be in what is widely considered a down year), but because the prizes were given either to films that screened in the final days of the festival, or ones about which I’ve had trouble articulating my feelings. Regarding the latter, I already took a stab (back) at Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness, which earned Jesse Plemons a Best Actor prize that I think is more than worthy, even as I become increasingly ambivalent about the film’s unrelentingly cynical and sadistic design. And Vadim has waxed enthusiastic about Miguel Gomes’s Best Director-winning Grand Tour, a magisterial film that I hope to find more inviting upon revisit.

For the festival’s top honors, the Grand Prix (1st runner-up) was awarded to Payal Kapadia’s patient, sensual, frequently gorgeous sophomore film, All We Imagine as Light, which its maker has now divulged was going to be programmed in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, perhaps only promoted to satisfy (and still fall well short of) certain quotas. And the Palme d’Or went to Sean Baker, fulfilling what he claimed in his acceptance speech was his “singular goal as a filmmaker for the past thirty years.” His winning film, Anora, is a Cinderella fantasy that plays out in Brighton Beach, and represents a victory for American independent film—a label so often attributed to work that is neither good nor remotely independent, in spirit or any other metric. Because of how extremely online Baker is (he’s written nearly 900 Letterboxd reviews and has nearly 115,000 followers there), his victory hit home for a lot of the internet film community, not unlike Barry Jenkins’s Best Picture win; many in my X feed celebrated the award going to someone who followed them on the platform. Anora wears Baker’s relatable brand of OCD cinephilia on its sleeve (Cassavetes’s influence is once again felt), but it’s no quaint affair. It’s his longest film (139 minutes), almost certainly his most expensive and one for which he did not rely on street casting, this time employing all professional actors. (The few exceptions—Brittney Rodriguez [June in Red Rocket)]; Baker’s muse, Karren Karagulian—are Baker alumni.) 

To be clear, he got his money’s worth. Mikey Madison (best known from the FX comedy series Better Things) has, in the film’s thickly Brooklyn-accented title role, perhaps the most immediately forceful screen presence of any of Baker’s protagonists, and she’s nearly outmatched by Russian actor Mark Eydelshteyn’s Ivan, the guileless prince charming who seduces Anora and us alike into a fairytale existence that could be permanently dissociated from any and all economic concerns. The film’s protracted opening act, in which Anora and Ivan meet and fall for one another, is a pure dopamine rush of colorful, hedonistic bliss, and easily the best filmmaking of Baker’s career. What happens next, which I won’t spoil, is affecting only because of the highs that this first hour achieves. And for whatever this film says about class, wealth and the dignity of sex workers, I’ll add that I think it’s also a great film about language, using characters’ proficiencies and deficiencies with Russian and English to establish and navigate some delicate power dynamics between one another, revealing how even insults can be their own form of currency. 

Jacques Audiard’s Emilia Pérez was one of the more contentious films to premiere at this year’s festival, and, naturally, the only to take home multiple honors from the closing ceremony: the Jury Prize (more or less 3rd runner-up for the Palme) and Best Actress for its ensemble of four women performers: Karla Sofía Gascón, Zoe Saldaña, Selena Gomez and Adriana Paz. Conceived by Audiard while he was living under COVID lockdown and reading Boris Razon’s novel Écoute, Emilia Pérez is a not-at-all-French escapist fantasy that is very likely the first ever trans cartel pop musical. (Maybe Broadway beat it to the punch. I wouldn’t know; if not, don’t bet against an adaptation showing up in the coming years.) Set in Mexico (but reportedly shot in mostly Parisian suburbs) and featuring a cast predominated by Spanish-speakers (a language that Audiard never learned), the film’s Mrs. Doubtfire narrative concerns a cartel kingpin (Gascón) whose MTF transition and subsequent, incognito efforts to remain in contact with her children and ex-wife are communicated in anthemic song and dance. No doubt, the movie will be a Discourse Minefield when it’s eventually released in North America, with some already criticizing Audiard’s motivation for making something so totally disconnected from his personal experience (his rebuttal: “Something shocks me deeply in Mexico… The crumbling of democracy is unbearable for me; I wanted to make a musical, I wanted people to sing and dance—why not against the background of a tragedy?”), which, fair enough, though it’s a charge that should hardly be unique within his filmography. The result has an awkward tension to it, and it’s intermittently stimulating and affecting despite/because of the fact that so much of it is risible. Gascón’s win was warranted (the others’ not really); the Jury Prize, like the film, is more than a bit much. 

“A bit much” only begins to describe this year’s Best Screenplay winner, Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance, a vacant, barely-written rage against the entertainment industry’s feminine beauty standards that I might have hated if the film weren’t laughing at itself as much as I was. The ready-made cult movie features a very game Demi Moore as Elizabeth Sparkle, a past-her-prime actress turned TV aerobics instructor who is lured into trying an experimental cloning procedure that generates a younger, more beautiful copy of herself that can replace her in the world. The double forms within, and hatches out of, Sparkle’s own flesh—like Gremlins (1984) but grosser—producing Sue (Margaret Qualley), who becomes an international sensation virtually overnight, winning over Sparkle’s fanbase and the industry. The body horror plot includes more than a few wrinkles, including the crippling condition that requires Sue to shut down each week for a regenerative hibernation period, during which Sparkle emerges from her own hibernation, allowing her to face a world that’s fully moved on from her. The extent to which Sparkle and Sue’s symbiotic relationship deteriorates from this point is too outlandish and entertaining to spoil; suffice to say, Fargeat openly quotes some canonical Cronenberg work here, and arguably outdoes him. In tandem with the film’s broader stylistic citations of beloved Kubrick classics like The Shining (1980) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Fargeat makes clear her intention of marking her territory all over the male film bro canon—the only feminist gesture this movie makes that feels in any way complicated. 

Does any of this count as polemics? Not really. This year’s Cannes selection indulged in cinema itself—movies bred from other movies, prior forms. Rare, indeed, was the film that felt like there were genuine stakes involved, with the major exception of Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig, a skewering of Iran’s Islamic fundamentalism for which the jury invented a “Special Prize” so that Rasoulof wouldn’t leave the festival empty handed. (Whether he has anywhere to leave to is another matter.) Rasoulof and his film’s attendance were, we now know, very much in doubt until a week before the festival, when he fled his home country of Iran on foot in order to avoid an eight-year prison sentence. To the surprise of no one, Iran’s government demanded the film be pulled, it wasn’t, and here we are. These circumstances obviously didn’t oblige Gerwig and co. to give Rasoulof any of their top prizes, and they described their decision as a way to honor both the film’s artistic achievement as well as its context. For what it’s worth, Sacred Fig is the best Rasoulof film, cinematically speaking, that I’ve seen—far superior to his 2020 Golden Bear-winning There Is No Evil, not least because it functions beyond being a mere topical mouthpiece. The film weaves cinematic genre, current events, and viral media into a thriller that’s at once tasteful, enraging, and—for lack of a better word—inspirational. It’s also often formally stimulating, especially in its final act (even if the camera Rasoulof’s crew has access to once again looks like ass). If the jury truly liked the movie, a real prize was more than deserved, even if doing so would have verged on polemical.

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