Cannes 2024: Normal Normal or Cannes Normal?

I’m back after 15 days in Cannes–still jetlagged, my mind still spinning from the dozens and dozens of films I screened. The sense of familiarity of wandering the streets between my apartment and the Palais, running into the shopkeepers, restauranteurs, colleagues, and others, makes the entire experience feel so much like home that returning to normalcy is what feels weirdest. I’m unable at a moment’s notice to go a block from my bed to pick up a hot baguette at 7 am or to run into Palme winner Justine Triet as I was grabbing a quick meal.

Normal normal is much worse than Cannes normal.

Still, beyond the bubble of fest screenings and the one-meal-a-day gorging at exceptional places like my beloved Pastis and Café Hoche, this year proved to be a bit of a head-scratcher. Last year was a truly remarkable year, with surprises aplenty. I, for one, didn’t have on my bingo card that Wim Wenders would craft two of the best films that he’d made in decades, if not ever in his career. On paper, this year looked to surpass – Coppola! Schrader! Lanthimos! – and yet when the curtains closed, it feels at best to be a year of “fine.” 

That’s not to say some films didn’t shine. I adored “Anora,” Sean Baker’s Palme d’or winner, but I worry that it may suffer from additional scrutiny now that it’s received this much attention. This year, the discourse from afar felt particularly poisonous, especially from those who hadn’t even seen the films before commenting, and I expect a backlash to hit this film from multiple sides of the political spectrum.

This is already the case for Ali Abassi’s “The Apprentice,” a fine film with exceptional performances hit with a cease and desist from a former and, seemingly, future president. Whether this additional attention will result in a “Streisand effect” or truly make it a challenge to screen is up in the air. Given that it’s precisely the kind of film that those closeminded to it on both left and right should see, it will be interesting to see how it plays out and how many changes will be made after its festival debut.

Few films were more talked about than “Megalopolis,” and Coppola’s latest is either the biggest boondoggle of his career or the capper to the man’s drive to rewrite cinema history. I love that I saw it; I’m not sure I’ll ever see it again, and I struggled to even answer simple questions like “Is it good?” Meanwhile, it was nice to spend 90 minutes mere meters away from his former protégé (and honourary Palme recipient) George Lucas as he ignored the moderator’s questions and went off about Hollywood hegemony, gendered casting, the desire to make movies rather than money, and so on. I helped, in a small way, having to shout out reminders to the now 80-year-old director about the title “Heart of Darkness” and, perhaps more amusingly, the name of the character that he cast Billy-Dee Williams to play.

I’ve only half-joked that one year I’d like to attend Cannes to only screen films in the Classics section, as there’s something truly relaxing about going into a film that you already know will be pretty good. This was my first time watching Abel Gance’s “Napoléon”, and the first half, with a running time of almost four hours, was a pretty wild way to kick off this year’s slate. The restoration is absolutely stunning, a touchstone in film preservation that’s justifiably being lauded. Since we only screened the first chapter, the film even has a happy ending of sorts, with the French winning the battle. I sure hope nothing bad happens to the suave general in the chapter to come.

Meanwhile, Toho presented yet another restoration of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”, and this 4K scan and presentation looked positively sumptuous. Screened as per usual from my front row at the Debussy, it was easy to spot grain intact, a dialing back of digital noise removal that plagued previous versions, and above all, a newly restored audio track that removes much of the harshness without ruining the artistic intent. It was a fine celebration of the greatest films of all time, all the more fitting given that a frame from the Japanese master’s film “Rhapsody in August” was selected for this year’s poster.

In comp, “Oh, Canada” by Paul Schrader was an interesting miss, though it was fun to be the token Canadian needing to explain to colleagues just how egregiously he represented my country. I’ve pointed out my joy in a French educational system that allows young girls to grow up to channel their inner Cronenberg, and “The Substance” (another film that saw backlash from people who hadn’t seen it) provides an exceptional exemplar of this trend. I was bemused when many colleagues completely dismissed (or downright trashed) Jacques Audiard’s “Emilia Pérez,” as I found it not only one of the most electric, experimental, and engaging films in the slate but also further confirmation that this filmmaker is truly one of the greats to ever showcase at this festival.

Meanwhile, while many lauded Miguel Gomes’ “Grand Tour,” I found it slight at best and risible at worst. It was a haphazard collision of documentary footage and meandering narration concentrating on what doesn’t happen versus what does. The film won the prestigious Director’s Prize, so clearly, others felt differently. 

Then there’s “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” Mohammad Rasoulof’s film that many were convinced would take the Palme d’Or after uproarious applause at the premiere. I saw it in a small room with the (rare for this fest) tech snafu of only French subs, yet this allowed me to focus more on the staging and the performances, which, frankly, I found more than a little lacking. The true-life story of the brave director escaping from with his family trumps the film itself, of course, and certainly brought attention to an otherwise middling tale that, save for the injection of social media videos, feels very underbaked. Its awarding of a special jury prize felt far more tokenistic than perhaps intended, and we’ll see how audiences receive it outside the festival bubble.

Meanwhile, many didn’t even bother to screen Michel Hazanavicius’ latest “The Most Precious of Cargoes,” and it’s fair to say that this animated film that touches upon the Holocaust didn’t benefit from a late-in-fest slot nor its inclusion in the competition that encourages nitpicking. The visuals are strong, and the story is perhaps too childlike for this audience, but it’s certainly something worth seeing. Far more middling were films like Karim Aïnouz “Motel Destino,” a grungy gangster thriller set in a sordid sex cavern that somehow comes across as chaste, or Paolo Sorrentino’s masturbatory “Parthenope” that feels even more like an aimless travelogue than the Gomes film.

While Gilles Lellouche’s “Beating Hearts” is hardly a masterpiece, its mix of gangster chic and young romance did manage to captivate, and its 166-minute running time flew by. There’s something to be said when an almost three-hour movie mid-fest feels energizing, while others, a mere 90 minutes, feel like they are draining your soul.

There are several films I couldn’t fit into my schedule without truly losing sanity, and I look forward to catching up with the likes of “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre De La Patellière and Matthieu Delaporte and Lorcan Finnegan’s “The Surfer” post-fest. And while I’m not the biggest Andrea Arnold fan, her latest film, “Bird,” intrigues me, and despite efforts to track down a ticket multiple times, I was never able to grab one before being sold out.

To throw a curveball into my selection, I did manage to snag a screening of “Eephus”, Carson Lund’s gentle yet deep film about a baseball game on a small-town field scheduled for demolition. The film is both an existentialist rumination on the human condition and a celebration of the inherent preposterousness of the game for both player and spectator alike. The central metaphor connoted by the title, a pitch that’s both too fast and too slow to swing at, seemingly stopping time, is absolutely perfect for the bucolic setting. If there’s one film that may find plenty of love away from the flashing of the cameras, it’s this quiet, late-summer, Linklaterian love letter to middle-aged meanderings, a home run hit with very few in the stands who were there to appreciate it, yet precisely the kind of effortless artistic fare one comes to Cannes to hope to discover.