An Insider’s View of the Cannes Film Festival

Despite back-to-back films about apocalyptic dread and moral corruption, it was a story of hope and heartbreak that took top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Whether asking a lover to chop off their thumb, seeking vengeance in an apocalyptic wasteland, or creating a younger clone to fight old age, characters at the 77th Cannes Film Festival had lost faith—in love, Hollywood and humanity at large. With notable exceptions, a playfully misanthropic thread connected several of this year’s major premieres, which circulated like seagulls around a general thesis: maybe we’re all fucked, and nothing matters.

That is not to say this year’s festival was without light — Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, for example, is one of the most hopeful films I’ve seen in years. (It’s also one of the worst.) But within the first few days alone, Cannes premieres had served audiences back-to-back tales of apocalyptic dread and moral corruption.

This began with Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, George Miller’s prequel to Fury Road, which finds Anya Taylor-Joy stepping into Charlize Theron’s shoes to explore Furiosa’s backstory, providing a thrilling, expansive view on how community, trade and empire operate in Miller’s harsh imagination of the future. On a path for vengeance, Furiosa’s quest to avenge her mother’s death is brutal, dirty and costly, pushing her to the limits of her own moral framework. As with Fury Road, the film opens with radio broadcasts describing the environmental collapse that created the Mad Max world. Emerging from this premiere into the Cannes sunshine, where a cruise ship docked in the bay darkened the sky with its thick fumes, was unsettling. 

Hong Chau in 'Kinds of Kindness'. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2024 Searchlight Pictures All Rights Reserved.

Days later, in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness, moral frameworks disappear entirely over three anthology shorts, in which Lanthimos’ characters discover just how far they’ll go to prove devotion to one another. For one of Emma Stone’s characters (she plays three), this means feeding body parts to her lover; in another, Jesse Plemons is trapped in a psychosexual dynamic with his boss (Willem Dafoe), for whom he’ll go to brutally violent lengths to impress. Across each story, Lanthimos prods his characters to the limits of their obsessions, and no one leaves without blood on their hands. The freedom and whimsy of Poor Things is absent here; Kinds of Kindness follows its characters into prisons of their own making. It’s twisted, darkly funny and deliciously cynical.

During my premiere screening, if at any moment I had to look away out of discomfort, my immediate surroundings were no more soothing. Cannes premieres require a strict black-tie dress code “out of consideration for the artists,” but that respect seemed to evaporate once all were seated. Directly in front of me, a woman spent the entirety of Kinds of Kindness on her phone watching footage of herself on the red carpet and reading Instagram comments. Conflict avoidant to the core, I left her to it, strange as it seemed to me to walk the red carpet just for three hours of phone time.

Even when this year’s films provided a more optimistic view of humanity, Cannes audiences seemed to be losing their decency. Waiting for the lights to go down on the aforementioned Megalopolis — a sprawling sci-fi mess in which Francis Ford Coppola imagines a utopian future of redistributed wealth and, I think, ‘15-minute cities’ — the kind stranger next to me, a Canadian journalist, ran to the bathroom. Only seconds later, another journalist accused me of lying to save a seat when she requested to sit there. Another day, I witnessed another journalist scream in the face of the security staff for taking too long to search him, thus making him late for his film; I saw him moments later in the theater with a perfectly adequate seat. 

Selena Gomez in 'Emilia Perez'. Image courtesy of Pathé. All rights reserved.

Elsewhere in competition, Emilia Perez, Jacques Audiard’s latest film, was one of the more audacious premieres, and also one of the more hopeful. Zoe Saldaña plays a lawyer recruited by a Mexican drug lord to assist him in faking his death in order to facilitate his transition; she becomes the titular Emilia Perez, and pursues a future rectifying past mistakes by seeking justice for victims of drug violence. (It’s also a musical, and Selena Gomez plays Perez’s ex-wife.) I see a bumpy road for this film’s future, particularly after its rumored Netflix acquisition — one musical number set in a gender reassignment clinic is sure to circulate out of context on Twitter to inevitable distaste — but for me, in telling a story in which trans liberation is synonymous with liberation for all, it (mostly) stuck the landing. To the teenager next to me who filmed the entirety of Selena Gomez’s musical number on her phone and immediately shared it on Snapchat, I’m not so sure.

Emilia Perez wasn’t the only premiere courting controversy. Ali Abbas’ The Apprentice, based on the early real estate career of Donald Trump and his frenemy Roy Cohn, has already received legal threats from the former US president. There was a high level of apprehension ahead of its premiere, but most attendees I spoke to were pleasantly surprised. It’s a sturdy, entertaining political drama depicting Trump as a Frankenstein’s monster of Cohn’s making, his behavior growing ever more despicable as his influence and empire expands. 

Elsewhere, Coralie Fargeat’s sophomore feature The Substance gave Cannes one of its bloodiest premieres in years, and while I was irked by its hollow script and surface-level exploration of Hollywood sexism, my fellow audience members cheered at the increasing levels of insanity (and gore) as Fargeat builds to an absurdly bloody denouement. I can see even seasoned horror fans losing their patience with this one, but Demi Moore goes for broke in an undeniably strong performance sure to attract curious viewers.

Mikey Madison and Mark Eidelstein in 'Anora'. Image courtesy of Le Pacte. All rights reserved.

But late in the festival, it was a chaotic burst of trademark hope and heartbreak from Sean Baker, emerging auteur of the American working class, that charmed audiences all the way to the Palme d’Or, marking America’s first win since 2011 (Terrence Malick for The Tree of Life). Drawing comparisons to the Safdie brothers, Anora, which follows a Brooklyn sex worker who embarks on a whirlwind romance with a Russian rich kid, wowed critics and the jury alike with its frenetic, free-wheeling tone and a star-making performance from Mikey Madison.

For a Cannes that began with a bleak outlook on our species, Anora’s win was the perfect way to round it out: a film that both cares for and forgives its characters, no matter the choices they make to survive.

Hard to Hear: Why ‘The Zone of Interest’ and ‘Poor Things’ Sound So Disturbing

Read the interview

Dimitri Rassam, Son of Cinema

Read the interview

How Riley Keough Paved Her Own Way

Read the interview