Cannes 2022: Netflix and Apple still splashing the cash

David Cronenberg returns with familiar body horror but no early critical favourites have emerged

Anyone looking in from outside could be forgiven for believing that Cannes is just some sort of film festival. It is that. But huge numbers of attendees pay little heed to the latest David Cronenberg or Park Chan Wook.

The market, spreading out in the lower bowels of the building, has long been the most important place to sell your movie to the world. As you might expect, much attention has been directed to that event this year as analysts ponder the odds of a post-pandemic revival.

It initially looked as if the action was sluggish, but the big streamers have reached for their wallets. Netflix has forked out in excess of $50 million for Pain Hustler, a conspiracy thriller from David “Harry Potter” Yates starring Emily Blunt.

This comes in the wake of Netflix getting thumped on the stock market and carrying out layoffs. Elsewhere, their arch-rivals Apple, on a roll after winning the best picture Oscar with CODA, have made a deal for Fingernails, a drama starring Riz Ahmed and the breathtakingly busy Jessie Buckley. The unsurprising message is that the digital players are, despite setbacks, calling the shots.

Viggo Mortensen told us that, on set, Cronenberg would constantly mutter a quote from Sigmund Freud in Latin

To the Screen Daily grid. Every year Screen International curates a grid that tabulates the star-ratings of critics from around the world for the films in competition for the Palme d’Or. The ranking doesn’t always tell us much about the eventual winner – last year, Titane was way down the list – but it does give a rough estimation of critical feeling.

This year, at the halfway point, the ratings (out of four) are almost all grouped unhelpfully between two and three. James Gray’s Armageddon Time is just on top with 2.8 – Peter Bradshaw at The Guardian being among the dissenting contributors – just ahead, perhaps surprisingly, of Jerzy Skolimowski’s donkey drama Eo at 2.7.

Only one film, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s unloved Forever Young, was outside the two-to-three bracket and then only just with 1.9. All of which reductive number-crunching tells us little more than that no films are yet being universally declared masterpieces and none have been rounded on as irredeemable duds.

David Cronenberg has let loose about the changes to US abortion laws in his press conference for Crimes of the Future. He drew a parallel between the film’s arguments about control over one’s own body with current discussions on reproductive health.

“I did write it 20 years ago but you could feel, even then, that this was coming,” he said. “A kind of oppressive ownership and control. It’s the constant in history, that somewhere in the world wants to control its population. That means, once again, body is reality. You control people’s bodies – that’s speaking, expressing themselves, that’s control.”

At the same conference, Viggo Mortensen told us that, on set, the director would constantly mutter a quote from Sigmund Freud in Latin. The phrase translated as “If you want to live, prepare to die.” Cronenberg chortled at the memory. “It works on most actors,” he commented.

Aftersun

★★★★★
Directed by Charlotte Wells 
Starring Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall  

International Critics Week, 101 min

Charlotte Wells’s beautiful, ineffably sad memory piece, playing at the International Critics Week sidebar, is a contender for est-reviewed film at Cannes to date. Paul Mescal, who can also be seen here in God’s Creatures, plays Calum, a youngish Scottish father holidaying with his daughter Sophie (Francesca Corio) in Turkey during the 1990s. (Scottish journalists assure me that Mescal’s Edinburgh accent is perfect.).

Such a scenario inevitably kicks up a sense of unease. We assume that menace or worry is about to engulf the parent and his vulnerable charge. That is not really the case here. Shot in limpid colours, edited with a drifty lack-of-urgency, Aftersun manages the near impossible task of building an engaging drama around an apparently sound relationship.

Calum, separated from Sophie’s mum, clearly feels some guilt about not always being around, but father and daughter enjoy a psychic connection that you’d assume couldn’t be faked if Mescal and Corio hadn’t just faked it so convincingly. They play pool with visiting English tourists. He dances badly at the disco. In the film’s defining sequence, Sophie delivers a charmingly off-key version of REM’s Losing My Religion at the complex’s karaoke night.

Aftersun, which is produced by Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins, would be worth cherishing if it did nothing other than give us a happy family at large in an era just far enough away to invite nostalgia. What really sets the film apart is the way it subtly communicates an enormous sadness lurking just beneath the surface.

An economic framing device suggests the protagonist is looking back with a combination of wistfulness and regret at not having then fully grasped her father’s inner anguish. A deceptively simple debut feature that, upon reflection, reveals endless depths.

Crimes of the Future

★★★☆☆
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux, Kristen Stewart, Scott Speedman, Welket Bungué, Don McKellar, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos

In competition, 107 min

David Cronenberg made a bony rod for his own back when he promised (threatened?) that audiences would be hurtling for the door in the opening minutes of his return to the fringes of body horror. There was no such exodus from the press screening of Crimes of the Future, but we were dealing with an audience who, with a few elderly exceptions, had been brought up on the Canadian master’s gooey, pessimistic sensibilities. It was like coming home.

The new film will top few aficionados’ rankings of Cronenberg’s best. Largely shot in Greece, this version of the decaying future – street signs unaltered – looks like nothing so much as that country by seedy night. The outbreaks of intestinal grotesquery punctuate rather than define a film that is mostly taken up with expository conversations above shuttered tavernas.

But a Cronenberg sketch – and that’s what it feels like – offers more to chew over than most bloated epics.

Cronenberg recidivist Viggo Mortensen plays Saul Tenser, a hooded individual who, in a world where evolution has gone rogue, finds mysterious organs growing in his wracked body. He and his partner Caprice (Léa Seydoux, best in show) display the excision of these entities as a sort of performance art. The characters talk us through other alterations to the species.

It seems that infection and pain are not what they were and, as a result, surgery has become a recreation. “Surgery is the new sex” someone who knows they are in a David Cronenberg film says. Elsewhere humans have developed the ability to eat synthetic matter. The film begins with a little boy chewing at a plastic wastepaper basket.

All involved give it their best. Inexplicably dressed like a down-at-heel Jedi, Mortensen growls with conviction. Seydoux’s uneasy shivers sell the character as a fleshy human being among half-real cyphers.

Kristin Stewart has the most fun – playing a variation on the ditzy secretary from a 1940s screwball who, this being what it is, proves to have more sinister intent.

Crimes of the Future gets at familiar Cronenbergian concerns about decay and mortality. It relishes its own queasiness. It may not unsettle like Crash – a sensation here 26 years ago – but the familiar voice still reverberates like a deranged Freudian barker.

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