Letterboxd correspondents Ella Kemp and Isaac Feldberg take a breath between screenings to share their Cannes experiences and demystify the standing ovation.
“In my experience of coming to Cannes, walkouts only happen when people are bored or feel like their time is being wasted.”—Ella Kemp
Isaac Feldberg: It’s my first Cannes! It’s also my first festival dispatch on assignment where I’m on location for Letterboxd as well, which I’m excited about. So far, it’s been terrific. The thing about Cannes is it is really its own little pocket-dimension away from the world. You have yacht harbors, thousands of French people coursing by you, all at the same high volume, and just such an incredible rate of terrific films. That’s not to say that it’s been a completely flawless batting average, but I think there’s an expectation at Cannes, that I’m discovering, where there’s a certain level of built-in quality to the filmmaking, to the ambition of the story that’s being told.
Ella Kemp: This is my third Cannes, and my first since Covid started. The last time I was here was when the Bong-hive was created, when we saw Parasite. I have to stress that this is the hottest Cannes—and I mean that literally, in terms of the weather—that I’ve ever been to, which I think does contribute to your state of mind when you are trying desperately to process these films, while your brain feels like it’s been squashed into a little raisin after it’s been sitting out in the sun.
IF: I do think that the flip-side of that, as well, is that you’ve got a film festival that is happening on a spot that I would never be able to afford to vacation in, but I desperately would want to based on the weather and the beaches. I have access to the beaches. So far, I do not have access to the yachts.
EK: It sounds like you really want access to the yachts.
IF: I’m working on it. I’m working on it.
EK: Well, while you wait to get your dream yacht excursion, what films have you enjoyed watching from this year’s festival slate?
IF: I’ll start with Armageddon Time, James Gray’s portrait of youth in 1980s Queens, New York, drawn extensively from his own childhood. What this film does that I was really astonished by was—in the way of a lot of James Gray’s New York crime epics—it begins with one family and, through the way that they are interacting with their environment, it creates an intricate lived-in portrait of all of the class, racial, and economic tensions that are roiling the area. I felt like I was getting a panoramic view, even through the eyes of a kid who doesn’t quite grasp everything that he’s seeing.
EK: I enjoyed it very much as well. And also I want to flag, very Jewish movie. Very pleased about that. I was very pleasantly surprised by The Eight Mountains, which is co-directed by Felix van Groeningen and his partner, Charlotte Vandermeersch. As a fan of van Groeningen’s previous film, Beautiful Boy, I was excited. I was so wonderfully surprised because of the lightness that this film has. It’s based on an Italian novel of the same name, and it is set in the Italian mountains. It follows a friendship between two boys who become men, and what I love is it stays a friendship throughout. It’s a very intense friendship, but it’s not Call Me By Your Name or Brokeback Mountain. It just stays this friendship, and it’s really beautifully played.
It’s wonderfully shot. I think when you’re setting your film in the mountains or any other gorgeous landscape, I actually think it can quite easily look flat on film, washed out. There’s so much space that I often find it makes me feel a bit empty, whereas this is just so wonderful. It was very peaceful, it was very thoughtful. There have been a few titles that we’ve been on the same page about.
IF: Absolutely. You were saying it’s one of the hottest Cannes, and I think that one of the hottest pickups of the fest is Aftersun, which was recently acquired by A24 for the US and MUBI in the UK. Which, if you need two distributors to mark something as a hot title, I think that would be the combo. This is a feature debut, unbelievably, by Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells. It has a very subtle, simple premise about a father with his daughter at a vacation resort. The film’s structure really frames this, in part, as a gentle vacation they’re taking together and, in part, as a memory that’s tinged with some sort of melancholy you can’t quite understand from the daughter later in life. I’m beating around the bush a bit, because the father is played by…
EK: Paul Mescal! I don’t know if you’ve all heard of Normal People, just a little show he was in. The Lost Daughter perhaps? He’s also in another Cannes title, God’s Creatures, which is also an A24 film. He’s completely heartbreaking in Aftersun. He does the same thing he does in Normal People where he’s trying so hard to show up for the people around him, and to push through this crushing depression he’s feeling. You never really know why, you never really know what’s going on, and I think that’s true for a lot of things in that film. Films like this could easily hit you over the head with “The father is depressed, and the daughter is trying to cheer him up,” and it’s so much more complex than that.
IF: I really was bowled over by the way that he takes all of this character’s pain, and longing, and anxiety, and sadness, all of the stuff he doesn’t want other people to see, and he holds it in in a way where you’re seeing him through the eyes of the daughter who he’s trying to perform for. But then you’re also seeing this version of him that is peeking through the cracks. It makes for this amazing fit with the design of the film, which is so much about these shots of reflections over surfaces, this editing that really swirls between the tangible and intangible. And you’re getting this sense of someone becoming unstuck from their environment in a way that the film achieves, in part, by using this combination of just straightforward shooting, and filmmaking, and MiniDV footage. This weaving between the way that we leave imprints of ourselves in so many different ways, including through video recordings, or even just in our environments.
EK: There are so many beautiful details which are very unexpected and very special. The last note that I want to make on this film is that I hadn’t heard much about it going in, so I didn’t know if it was a big cry movie or anything. But what I want to stress to everyone reading this is I cry a lot in my life, generally, but I cry very little at films. I really do not, literally, shed a tear. I’ll get emotional, but I don’t shed tears when watching films.
I could not stop myself at Aftersun. I started crying maybe twenty minutes before the end and I was consistently crying. And then when I came outside and I was chatting to people, everyone unanimously loved it in the screening that I was in. One of my friends just looked at me and she went, “Are you okay?” and every time she looked at me or said anything, it just set me off again.
IK: I was very taken with a film that had a little bit more of a mixed reception, which is Ruben Östlund’s social satire, Triangle Of Sadness. It’s a film in three different parts, and it uses each of those parts to get a different comedic sensibility while using this overarching idea of wealth, and privilege, and the way we use those as instruments of social navigation. I was also a big fan of a little niche title that has come to Cannes this year by the name of Top Gun: Maverick.
EK: That sounds fake.
IK: I don’t need to say much on this, but it feels like a stealth Mission Impossible sequel, by virtue of incredibly death defying stunts in actual planes that look too real to have been faked. Tom Cruise is just a master of keeping action grounded and, at the same time, impossible.
EK: I have three titles I’ve been really impressed by so far—two of which I have no doubt that everyone is going to watch very quickly, because one of them was directed by Park Chan-wook, and one of them is about David Bowie.
Before those, I want to mention a film called Return To Seoul, which was directed by Davy Chou. It follows a French woman who returns to Seoul, played by Park Ji-min in her first ever screen role. She was adopted in France when she was a baby and she goes back to Korea to find her birth parents. What’s interesting is that it starts and you think that it’s just going to follow her over her two-week holiday, and then you end up following her for quite a lot of years. There’s a lot to carry from an acting perspective, but also in terms of keeping the pace up and keeping things just constantly surprising. There’s always something new in it and you really get to know this woman and this place a lot more.
We both saw Moonage Daydream and Decision to Leave, two films I wasn’t surprised to be impressed by. Decision to Leave is a sort of police thriller which turns into a very strange, almost love story, but not quite.
IF: I’d say it’s a romance picture.
EK: There’s a detective, and there’s a suspect, and there are some dead husbands. It shifts and it turns, and it’s so beautifully shot. It’s the kind of thing that makes you think, “Thank God I’m here.” Moonage Daydream—it’s not a documentary, it’s not a concept film, it’s this incredibly immersive cinematic portrait of David Bowie, which I think is partly as good as it is because David Bowie is as good as he is. It’s quite hard to make a bad Bowie film when Bowie’s Bowie.
IF: The best tour guide you could imagine. It’s directed by Brett Morgan, and it stands in stark contrast to the other music documentary we saw at the fest which we were both less positive on: Ethan Coen’s Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble In Mind. I think what Moonage Daydream does so fantastically is having a very cinematic perspective. It sizes up to the entire cosmos in mapping out David Bowie, and it gives him this reaffirmation of importance that is very warranted. With the Ethan Coen doc, it’s only about seventy minutes in length, maybe a little bit shorter.
EK: It feels like four hours. There’s a clip where Jerry Lee Lewis goes, “I wrote a zillion songs,” and then you hear the same four songs throughout the whole film.
IF: I really am curious what happened there, especially because this is a film that, frustratingly, buries every single lede it introduces. It touches on some of the larger than life aspects of Jerry Lee Lewis’ life, like the fact that he married his twelve-year-old cousin.
EK: What really angered me about it was that it doesn’t claim to ignore all of these things. It does tell you in very plain terms that this is what he did, but then it doesn’t have the decency to do anything with it. If you wanted to do an immersive cinematic picture of this guy and show me all of his zillion songs, that’s one thing. But if you’re going to give me the headlines of all of the wild and strange things that he did, do something about it. Have a conversation.
IF: I would say it was actually the most walkouts I’ve seen thus far at Cannes, which is hilarious and just shows you how you never really know how it’s going to go, given that the film that was really played up in that way that we should talk about now, is David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future.
This is a film that I would say has been quite trumped up in its marketing as being a great deal more disgusting than it actually is. I think that’s done the film a disservice. You have this impression going in that it’s just going to be a hold-on-for-dear-life sort of body horror film and a grand return from him, but it’s something a great deal stranger and a little bit more self-critical and academic than that. He sets the film in a dilapidated future in the ruins of Athens, and follows a performance artist who basically uses his own organs, which he is able to grow inside of him, creating novel new organs through some biological process as part of a performance art exhibit.
From this premise, Cronenberg really does stage the film as a statement about the nature of art, and the way it’s misinterpreted as horror, and the idea of being original in a world where governmental control is everywhere so even bodily autonomy is something of a specter. I will say, I feel like these are ideas that are introduced, but that this film feels like the first act of a story that would explore that.
EK: I was very underwhelmed by this film. I’m not a Cronenberg expert by any means, which is why I was bracing myself to feel much more upset and shocked than I did. I thought, “If even I can handle this and want more, I don’t know what long-term, die-hard fans will feel.” Now, lots of people have enjoyed this film, so do not take my word as gospel.
One thing I do want to flag about walkouts—because I think that there can be a lot of confusion and sensationalization about this for everyone who’s not in Cannes, which, I understand why—but in my experience of coming to Cannes, walkouts only happen when people are bored or feel like their time is being wasted. It’s rarely a case of, “That film was too hardcore. I couldn’t handle it.”
This film, however you feel about it… It’s slow, it’s cerebral, it’s a bit more melancholy than his usual stuff. It asks you to bear with it and to go with it, and whether you do or not can vary. But if you walk out, it’s not because you couldn’t handle the body horror and it was so intense that it was going to mess you up or whatever.
IF: I would say the same thing actually extends, at least from my perspective, to the standing ovations, where it looks far different from the inside than the outside. I’ve seen the headlines about Triangle of Sadness receiving one of the longest standing ovations of the fest at eight minutes.
I think that standing ovations can sometimes be misconstrued as a metric of quality. I just don’t think that’s ever really been the case, including our last film that we saw before this conversation, The Silent Twins. I’ve had some really terrific conversations with people about this film, but it by no means was one I was expecting to be in a screening where it just gets a standing ovation for what felt like ten minutes.
EK: I think it comes down again to something quite technical and maybe more boring. It depends how many cast and crew members are there, and it depends how many co-producers you have, and how many of them are in the room. Because the more people you have to clap, the more you’re going to clap. And the more teams are in the room, the more those teams, themselves, are going to clap. The ten minute standing ovation might just be the film team clapping themselves.
IF: It’s funny because I was actually rooting around to help a colleague find his lost pen at the end of this screening, and so we were staying in a little while longer as everyone was trickling out. And there was this contingent, just in the central orchestra where the cast were, and they were just standing and applauding past the point that everyone else left the theater. Part of me thinks that the trade reporters who are going to be measuring that, they’re going to measure it to the last clapper dropping. So I think that’s how you get those stories about, “Oh, my God. It was ten minutes.” In actuality, we’re all just trying to get out and get some water.
EK: I hope we haven’t ruined the magic of Cannes too much.
IF: No. I’ve been enjoying the magic of Cannes. I think this is the magic of Cannes.
EK: There’s still magic, but the magic is in the movies. It’s not in the standing ovations. It’s not in the walkouts. Stay focused on the films that you will see.
IF: It’s about the yachts.
EF: And it’s about magically getting a golden ticket to one of the big, hard-to-access premieres. On that note, I have to miraculously go and rustle up an outfit fit for a king—the King, Elvis.
IF: Call me if you end up on a yacht.
The 2022 Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—May 28.