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In Cannes, Filmmakers Contend With Despair and Beauty, Too

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CANNES, France — Early Wednesday evening, Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” took over a grateful Cannes Film Festival, which depends on glamour, nostalgia, bared young flesh and international media attention to sustain its apparatus. Contemporary Hollywood may be running on fumes and out of ideas; certainly it has little in common with the finest movies being produced today. But Hollywood is a useful construct — part nostalgic fetish, part symbolic standard-bearer — that Cannes uses to its advantage.

Given the state of the big American studios, which release relatively few movies and little that’s genuinely new, it’s almost a shock they have anything Cannes wants. But the festival, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary, has always managed to work around the crises affecting the American movie industry. It has survived the end of the old studio system and the rise of conglomerate Hollywood; it continues to endure in the age of streaming. And while Cannes has a reputation as a temple of high art, it is a public-relations platform with tremendous reach: Its red carpet circles the world.

And so last week Tom Cruise was here with “Top Gun: Maverick” (from Paramount) accompanied by fighter jets spewing red, white and blue smoke. This week, it was Luhrmann and “Elvis” (Warner Bros.) that whipped the festival into a frenzy. As with most festivals, attendees (journalists included) tend to be favorably disposed to what they’re about to watch; they’re part of an exclusive club, after all. So when Luhrmann and crew entered the 2,300-seat Lumière theater for the premiere, people jumped to their feet loudly applauding. They continued clapping on and off throughout the screening.

Me, well, I was busy picking my jaw off the ground while asking the really big questions. What is this? Is it even a movie? These were among the thoughts that raced through my head and into my notebook as I watched “Elvis,” which if nothing else gives your eyeballs a workout. Frantic and wildly overstuffed — with characters, locations, pretty pouts and greatest hits — the image that kept coming to mind was of an exploding piñata. Specifically, the movie evoked that evanescent moment when the piñata’s gaudily colored candied contents fly in the air, right before scattering to the ground in an unholy mess.

Big-ticket items like “Top Gun” and “Elvis” generate the most clamor at Cannes, but they are only two of the scores of movies that will be shown at the festival by the time it ends Saturday. The outsize role of offerings like “Top Gun” here mirrors the imbalance in the larger industry, where the box office and the media are dominated by Marvel blockbusters and their superhero ilk. The No. 1 movie in France this week (and last) is Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” It’s also topping the box office in Thailand, Germany, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, the Philippines and on and on.

There are movies from each of those countries at this year’s festival, whether in the official program, in the Cannes Film Market or in one of the concurrent events that runs parallel with the main event. One such independent program, Critics’ Week, smartly presented “Aftersun,” the feature debut from the Scottish director Charlotte Wells and one of the strongest movies I’ve seen. A memory piece set largely in the near past, it traces a young girl’s time with her father during a summer vacation, an idyll that with sensitivity and great control Wells darkens, leading to a shattering climax. (The good news is that A24 has picked the movie up for American distribution.)

The decline in theatrical exhibition is one reason festivals like Cannes are even more crucial to nonindustrial cinema. At one point, I fear, these kinds of events will be the only place to see international movies and other so-called specialty titles. Last week, the day I watched “Forever Young,” a kinetic drama from the Italian-French director Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, I read that the Landmark multiplex had closed in Los Angeles, where I live. Though not universally beloved, “Forever Young” is the kind of release that might have opened at the Landmark. But the industry’s independent side has been walloped by the pandemic, though, in truth, Covid has only intensified the precarity of what was an already fragile ecosystem.

Despite this fragility, audiences in larger American cities will still get the opportunity see the latest offerings from established directors like Park Chan-wook (here with “Decision to Leave”) and David Cronenberg (“Crimes of the Future”). Both have track records and distributors who will release these movies in theaters, if only to qualify for awards and stir up interest for streaming. Viewers will also probably have a chance to weep over Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s “Tori and Lokita,” which centers on two undocumented child immigrants from Africa struggling in an unwelcoming Europe.

“Tori and Lokita” is the Dardennes’ strongest, most dramatically persuasive film in years, and also their most piercingly sad. Like some other filmmakers here, the Dardennes seem overwhelmed with despair — for good reason, given the state of the world — even if the fact that they made this movie is itself a hopeful gesture. If the Dardennes were not already established art-film “brands,” though, their movie might have a more difficult time finding attention, distribution and a berth at another major festival. Movies from unknowns can get lost at these kinds of events, and the same holds true for authentically challenging and narratively off-center work.

Though it presents its own challenges, “The Natural History of Destruction,” from the Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, will probably find some kind of a release, if only because of the war in Ukraine. The movie consists entirely of found footage from World War II, almost all of it seemingly from Nazi, British and American sources. It’s a tough, skillful, incredibly painful and formally rigorous movie that — through its editing — makes a case that war is barbaric no matter the side, an argument that grows progressively more difficult to support, at least for this viewer, given that the movie doesn’t address Nazi atrocities against Jews.

A lot of the movies here will end up available online simply because the streaming maw is so very big and needs a steady supply of product to keep going. Movies that haven’t gone over well with non-French critics, like Arnaud Desplechin’s fine family meltdown “Brother and Sister,” may face some hurdles securing distribution in the United States. It’s loud and busy, but also very touching and, for me at least, its shocking opener — which includes a horrific crash involving a careening truck — is the most perfect, recognizable representation of what life has felt like in the pandemic.

I worry about the fate of delicate, difficult movies like “EO,” a sorrowful, often brilliant tale of a donkey from the veteran director Jerzy Skolimowski. The movie is visually exquisite and dark, but it’s tough going. It’s best seen with other people. It left me shattered, and while I wasn’t sitting with anyone I know, I was still grateful that I wasn’t alone when I watched it. The movie is unsparing in its vision of human barbarism toward animals, but just being there, quietly weeping, with others gave me a sense of communion, the kind that I always feel when I go to the movies, sit in the dark and have my world and mind blown.

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