Cannes So Far: Sentimental Audiences Meet Unsentimental Movies

A film festival as large as Cannes is always a study in contradictions, but the first six days of the 2023 edition feel particularly schizophrenic as the fest has veered between sentimental celebration and unsentimental artistry.

Both were on display in the festival’s biggest premiere so far, when Martin Scorsese’s monumental “Killers of the Flower Moon” had its debut in front of a delirious crowd at the Grand Theatre Lumiere on Saturday night. The invitation-only, black-tie audience was there to celebrate Scorsese, who first came to Cannes in 1976 with “Taxi Driver,” greeting him as a conquering hero and giving him a lengthy and emotional standing ovation that didn’t stop until he left the theater.

His film, meanwhile, was a hard-eyed and epic-length examination of the systematic murder of Native Americans from the Osage nation by whites looking to take the tribe’s oil money; the film’s biggest stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, play amoral killers as Scorsese lays bare the real-life killings for more than three-and-a-half hours.

It was a gloriously emotional reception for a deeply grim movie, and not the only time in which this festival has see-sawed between those two extremes.

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On opening night, veteran actor Michael Douglas received an honorary Palme d’Or for his long career, and he got an extended ovation. Two nights later, Harrison Ford showed up for the premiere of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” and was the surprise recipient of his own honorary Palme. He was moved to tears with the reception he got from Cannes audiences in screenings and even in press conferences for the next two days.

(If the Cannes press corps makes you cry, there must be something in the air besides all those raindrops.)

But while those lovefests were taking place (and in the face of lighter movies like the out-of-competition “Indiana Jones” and Todd Haynes’ deliberately pulpy “May December”), the film that drew the most attention was Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” which uses sentiment to chilling effect by showing the carefree, happy lives of the Nazi elite who live in bucolic surroundings just past the brick wall separating the camp commander’s home from Auschwitz.

Also in the main competition during those first days: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s utterly brutal “Black Flies,” which paints the world of New York City paramedics as a graphic and horrifying descent into hell; and Karim Ainouz’s “Firebrand,” a retelling of the story of King Henry VIII and his sixth wife Catherine Parr that makes sex between Jude Law and Alicia Vikander look grotesque while whipping up an historically suspect ending full of arrests, imprisonments and a murder that almost certainly didn’t happen.

This has also been a year in which documentaries are far more prominent in Cannes than usual, with two in the Main Competition alone: “Youth,” Wang Bing’s three-hour-and-22 minute verite look inside Chinese sweatshops, and “Four Daughters,” Kaouther Ben Hania’s adventurous restaging of the story of a Tunisian family that had two daughters head to Libya to join ISIS (and end up in jail for terrorism). And outside the competition, there was “Bread and Roses,” a Jennifer Lawrence-produced doc about the plight of women under the Taliban, and Steve McQueen’s “Occupied City,” a methodical four-hour(!) film that catalogs places in Amsterdam that were occupied by the Nazis in World War II.

Wim Wenders’ 3D doc “Anselm” was light by comparison, but even that film was a look at the artist Anselm Kiefer, whose work is often physically enormous and thematically dark, and who has been criticized for flirting with Nazi imagery. And among films in the Un Certain Regard section and the Directors Fortnight and International Critics’ Week sections, adventurous directors like Warwick Thornton (“The New Boy”), Molly Manning Walker (“How to Have Sex”), Zarrar Kahn (“In Flames”), Rodrigo Moreno (“The Delinquents”), Joanna Arnow (“The Feeling That the Time for Doing Something Has Passed”) have found provocative and often dark approaches to themes as varied as religion, colonialism, crime and sex.

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‘Killers of the Flower Moon': First Reactions Applaud Scorsese Though ‘Mythic Sweep of the Book’ Missing

Maybe first-time Senegalese-French director Ramata-Toulaye Sy summed it up in a voiceover toward the end of her haunted debut “Banel & Adama”: “We were kings, masters of the world. Today, who are we? Flesh. Blood. Evil. Always the same evil. And before my eyes, the world falls apart.”

You can’t blame the filmmakers coming to Cannes in 2023 – after three years of a pandemic, during a war in Europe and at a time when the movie business itself is teetering – from chronicling a world that seems to be falling apart.

But at the same time, you can’t blame the audiences in Cannes for wanting to get to their feet and celebrate legends like Martin Scorsese, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas and Catherine Deneuve (on the poster and on stage in person at the opening ceremony). And you can’t ignore the fact that they’re also getting to their feet for the dark movies, too.

At film festivals like this one, and in times like these, a little cultural schizophrenia can be a glorious thing.

Check out TheWrap’s Cannes magazine here and all of our Cannes 2023 coverage here.