Audrey Fox’s Cannes 2024 Diary

The Cannes Film Festival is a lot of things. Glamorous. Prestigious. Packed full of cinema history. But one thing it’s not is overly concerned with ease of access for its attendees. In fact, there are times when it feels like they’re purposely attempting to make it as difficult as possible for those who turn up on the beaches of the French Riviera looking for new films. As a member of the press, Cannes is kind of like the film festival version of being in 8th grade and trying to sit at the mean girls’ table at lunch for the first time. Your survival entirely depends on you being able to accept your irrelevance with good humor. This isn’t for you, and in the eyes of the mean girls, you should just be grateful that they’re including you – even if your designated spot at the table is in the chair with the lopsided leg closest to the garbage can.

So after several days of attempting the Cannes lottery in which everyone scrambles to secure tickets to screenings between 1:00 am Eastern Standard Time and approximately 30 seconds later when everything is fully sold out, I set off for the south of France with bleary eyes and spiking anxiety levels. Although I arrived in the afternoon on the first day of the fest, I decided to give myself a little bit of time to settle in, and started in earnest on the morning of the 15th with a Cannes Critics Week selection, Ghost Trail. Directed by Jonathan Millet, this sparse, intentional anti-thriller is a fresh take on the spy genre. It stars Adam Bessa as Hamid, a traumatized Syrian living in France as part of a clandestine organization devoted to tracking down war criminals from the Syrian Civil War. As so many perpetrators have fled the country, taking advantage of the refugee exodus to begin a new life elsewhere, he’s hunting ghosts, relying on faded memories from his time in a Syrian prison to trigger a spark of recognition when he’ll know he’s found his target. It’s a slower burn than many espionage fans are used to, but Bessa more than makes up for it with his incredible screen presence.

I had been told that it would be next to impossible to get tickets to any of the gala screenings at the festival, the ones where the celebrities turn up and Cannes (somewhat) enforces its now-infamous black-tie dress code for all attendees, even lowly members of the press. But as luck would have it, a gala ticket to The Girl With the Needle popped up on my screen that afternoon, so I took the opportunity to wear the fancy dress I brought with me for just such an occasion and watch stuffy security guards chastise influencers for taking selfies while walking up the festival’s iconic red stairs. (This, according to Cannes, is gauche, which is apparently the worst possible thing to be besides plague-ridden or a woman not wearing heels.)

I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for with The Girl With the Needle. Going off the title and brief synopsis on the Cannes website, I thought it was perhaps going to be about a factory seamstress or something who discovers freedom and feminism in the aftermath of World War II, so imagine my surprise when it was actually about a baby serial killer (that is, a repeat killer of babies, not a baby who goes on a murder spree). Loosely based on one of the most notorious murder trials in Danish history, The Girl With the Needle is bleak, unrelenting, and definitely not the kind of movie that anyone will be clamoring to watch more than once. It takes the burden of childbirth that is disproportionately placed on women – especially poor and working class unmarried women, whose lives and reputations will be ruined by the presence of a baby – to its logical and horrifying conclusion.

The next morning, I was supposed to see Furiosa, one of the buzziest films of the festival despite its worldwide premiere just a few days later. And that’s what I would have done, had I not fallen prey to jet lag and accidentally fallen back asleep, only waking up at 8:40 for an 8:30 am screening. Whoops. I attempted to save the day from being a total waste with the premiere of Bird, directed by Andrea Arnold and starring Barry Keoghan and Franz Rogowski – those three names alone were enough to pique my interest. But although they both put in reliably powerful performances in the coming-of-age drama, it’s the young star Nykiya Adams who steals the show. She is an old soul, a 12-year-old trying her best to make her way in a world where she has already learned that the adults in her life can’t really be depended on for much of anything. She desperately clings to her connection to both her preoccupied father Bug (Barry Keoghan), who is entirely focused on his new drug toad (yes, really), and the fascinating stranger Bird (Franz Rogowski), who enlists her aid in finding his long-lost family. The magical realism of Bird is incredibly endearing, while Adams’ mature performance grounds the film and gives it a much-needed heart.

Megalopolis was the movie on everyone’s lips going into the festival, and to be honest, it seemed like most people were rooting for it to fail. This is Francis Ford Coppola’s passion project of all passion projects, a sprawling modern-day Roman epic that he’d been attempting to get made for the better part of five decades. Of course it’s a mess – no one can have 50 years to work on the same project and without it becoming convoluted to the point of near-incomprehensibility. It’s extremely chaotic – it even somehow has a live theater component, if you can believe that – but while it’s by no stretch of the imagination a misunderstood masterpiece, there’s a lot to root for, if only its sheer ambition. Adam Driver and Aubrey Plaza have the exact right of level of bizarre intensity to (mostly) pull it off.

But Francis Ford Coppola isn’t the only seasoned Hollywood director premiering a project close to his heart. Paul Schrader also brought a film to Cannes – Oh Canada, starring Richard Gere and Jacob Elordi as the older and younger versions of a documentary filmmaker who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War to avoid the draft. That description makes it seem like it’s going to be a period drama, but it’s actually much more of a meditation on memory – how much of it can be trusted, and the significance of confessing the truth of one’s life, even if all the details aren’t perfectly accurate. It’s an interesting concept, but Schrader’s execution leaves something to be desired, alongside a lackluster script that muddles the depictions of the past and the present.

For fans who discovered Yorgos Lanthimos through his relatively mainstream projects The Favourite and Poor Things, Kinds of Kindness may come as a bit of a shock. It sees Lanthimos return to his subversive and bizarre roots, this time creating a series of three semi-connected short films, all starring the same cast that includes Jesse Plemons, Emma Stone, Willem Dafoe, Jong Chau, and Margaret Qualley, amongst others. Some of the stories work better than others, but one thing is for sure – this is a massive turning point for Plemons, who shows off his star quality and dominates each of the film’s anthology outings. 

Later in the fest, I watched two films that I think represent the best of the two extremes that Cannes has to offer: Emilia Perez and The Marching Band. Emilia Perez is a bizarre, messy swing for the fences, a Mexican crime musical about the head of a drug cartel who decides to get gender-affirming surgery, beginning a new life as Emilia. Not all of its bold creative choices work – in fact, a lot of them don’t – but they have such an energy, a sense of newness, that they win over audiences all the same. You watch a musical number about vaginoplasties and it’s hard not to get caught up in its bizarre, “who in the world greenlit this, anyway?” fun. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Marching Band, which is the definition of conventional but extremely competent filmmaking. In it, Thibaut (Benjamin Lavernhe), a talented young conductor, is diagnosed with leukemia; in the process of attempting to find a bone marrow donor, he discovers that he’s adopted, and actually has a younger brother. Jimmy (Pierre Lottin), is a blue-collar factory worker, but he’s also a skilled musician, leading both Thibaut and Jimmy to wonder what their lives would have looked like if Jimmy had been the one adopted by the wealthy family with plenty of resources to nurture his gifts. A sweet film with strong leading performances, The Marching Band may not set the world on fire but is nonetheless incredibly comforting in its familiarity.

I watched a lot of films at Cannes, and for the most part, few offended me or completely won me over. It wasn’t until I was on the verge of flying home from the festival that I saw two movies that I really connected with, and one that I detested from the core of my being. To say that I was apprehensive going into The Apprentice is a bit of an understatement. I couldn’t imagine a world in which a Donald Trump biopic made in an incredibly divisive election year could be anything other than a disaster. And yet. Director Ali Abbasi makes all the right choices in how to depict his controversial protagonist (played by Sebastian Stan, who is apparently in the middle of his weird little freak era), subtly undermining Trump at every point the character begins to think that he’s coming across as powerful or impressive. Jeremy Strong steals the show as Roy Cohn, a strong contender for the worst person of the 20th century.

Then there’s The Substance, the rare film to actually make me angry while I was watching it. Demi Moore stars as an aging actress who decides to buy into an experimental program in which science allows you to essentially grow a superior version of yourself. Once it’s fully grown, it rips its way out of your spine (note to the squeamish – this movie might not be for you), and you have split custody of your life – you get a week, it gets a week, and so on and so forth. So Moore’s Elisabeth Sparkles finds herself sharing an existence with Sue (Margaret Qualley), and is gradually edged out in favor of the younger clone. It’s an intriguing concept, but the way that both characters are developed (or have a complete lack of development, as the case may be) makes the film seem as though it genuinely hates women. And what’s more, the lengths to which The Substance goes to punish them for the crime of vanity makes it clear it holds them in withering contempt. I don’t know, this one seems to be championed by a lot of male critics as a daring feminist film, but to me it felt like the exact opposite.

And finally, we get to the film that was, to my eyes, the best the festival had to offer: Sean Baker’s Anora. He has such a knack for finding dignity in marginalized characters that most filmmakers overlook, and Anora continues this trend. Mikey Madison puts in an astonishingly authentic performance as Ani, a young sex worker who thinks all her dreams are coming true when she meets and connects with the young son of a Russian oligarch, who proposes to her on a whim while they’re partying in Vegas. Alas, said Russian oligarch is none-too-pleased with this new development, leaving Ani fighting not to lose her newfound position of stability. In a crucible of barely controlled chaos, Baker makes a star out of his young leading lady. And with Baker taking home the Palme d’Or for the first time in his career, it seems that we should all have Anora on our list of films to keep an eye on this year.

Audrey Fox is a Boston-based film critic whose work has appeared at Nerdist, Awards Circuit, We Live Entertainment, and We Are the Mutants, amongst others. She is an assistant editor at Jumpcut Online, where she also serves as co-host of the Jumpcast podcast. Audrey has been blessed by our film tomato overlords with their official seal of approval.

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