Cannes 2022: Paul Mescal comes back with a bigger bang in Aftersun

Three Thousand Years of Longing wakes up the first cuckoo of awards season

Two and a bit years ago, Paul Mescal was a reasonably successful young actor with some decent stage credits behind him. Boosted by that appearance on Normal People, he finds himself among the most celebrated performers at the 2022 Cannes film festival.

His performance in Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures, a searing folk drama set in the Irish west, went down reasonably well with critics, but it was Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, playing in International Critics Week, that landed with the bigger bang.

Mescal stars as a Scottish man travelling with his daughter through Turkey in the 1990s. He and Francesco Corio, just nine-years-old, play off one another with an intricacy that speaks of near-psychic co-ordination.

There is little doubt about the most contentious release of the official competition yet

Working in contemporaneous needle-drops to evocative effect – the REM karaoke is particularly striking – Aftersun emerges as a skewed tribute to fatherhood.

Quiet, but emotionally draining. Recipient of the best reviews in the first half of Cannes, Wells’s debut feature was picked up by Mubi, the fastest rising player in independent cinema, for theatrical and streaming release.

Elsewhere in the opening days, the 75th Cannes Festival progressed at a pace one might call “steady”. Every strand has delivered high-quality material, but there have been relatively few of those social media scrums to first get the word “masterpiece” before the tweeting public.

This was on nobody’s mind on Thursday as Tom Cruise and the Top Gun: Maverick team swept in to remind the world that Cannes has always been a prime spot to launch Hollywood blockbusters. Jets streamed across the sky. Jennifer Connelly gleamed in silver. Cruise affirmed his commitment to theatrical exhibition. It helped that the film was good.

Over in Directors’ Fortnight, the highlight for a certain type of eccentric was Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men. At the opening, Jenkin, whose near-handmade Bait won fans in 2019, explained that the title is pronounced “Enys Mane” and, in Cornish, means “Stone Island”.

Mary Woodvine stars as a woman stationed on the eponymous location with a mission to record alterations in temperature and wildlife. She throws a stone down a mysterious hole. She checks the wild flowers. She writes “no change” in her note book. Over the last decade, we have seen a revival of interest in scarier manifestations – particularly folk horror – of the 1970s.

Jenkin offers the ne plus ultra of this movement. Shot on saturated colour film in Academy ratio, Enys Men, set in 1973, has the look of a public information film from that era. Yet its elliptical obscurity is all its own. A singular, near-structureless nightmare that may also be a formal ghost story.

There were some scepticism when George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing was announced as playing out of competition. Then again, his Mad Max: Fury Road did the same in 2015 and it went on to become among the most highly acclaimed action films of all time. So, no disgrace.

The new picture is not at that level, but it manages to pack an epic story around an intimate relationship to winning effect. Tilda Swinton plays an academic who releases a genie – the perfect Idris Elba – while attending a conference in Istanbul. He then talks her through his long, long life as a companion to the Queen of Sheba and successive legendary figures.

The riot of computer generated imagery ultimately becomes deadening, but the core relationship is enormously touching even if Swinton is mildly miscast as a socially inhibited bookworm. We regret to tell you that the film’s premiere woke up the first cuckoo of awards season. “Three Thousand Years of Longing Could Be Cannes’ First Oscar Best Picture Contender,” Variety yelled to weary sighs.

There is little doubt about the most contentious release of the official competition yet. The Swedish director Ruben Östlund was an unexpected winner of the Palme d’Or for his art world satire The Square in 2017. That film seems obliquely obscure in comparison to the riotous entertainment that is Triangle of Sadness (the title refers to the area above a male model’s nose).

There is no doubt that Östlund has trained his satire on a barn door – the super-rich – but, for this writer, the relentless scatological invention was a disgusting pleasure throughout. A group of entitled jerks come together on a luxury yacht for vulgar consumption and, ultimately, shipwreck on an apparently uninhabited island.

There is probably no clear favourite for the Palme d'Or at this stage

The film does have its nuanced moments, but the most memorable scene involves an epidemic of projectile vomiting that would have given Monty Python pause. Critics on the same newspapers were falling out over Triangle of Sadness. That in itself counts as recommendation.

There was also some puzzlement over Jerzy Skolimowski’s what-the-hell Eo. Offering unmistakable homage to Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, the 84-year-old Polish filmmaker, known for classics such as Deep End and Moonlighting, sends an unfortunate donkey (try pronouncing the title as two distinct syllables) out into the turmoil of contemporary Poland. He meets football hooligans, horse trainers, circus performers, but not a game Isabelle Huppert, whose puzzling, if welcome, appearance seems bolted on.

The gusto of the filmmaking – blasting red filters, swirling cameras – cannot be questioned and the director’s commitment to animal rights is not in doubt. But the film seems confused as to what is to be considered allegory and what we should take as reality. A jolting assertion of continuing creative vitality nonetheless.

Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian director of Palme-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, was back with another savage and comprehensive diagnosis of his home country’s malaises.

The title of RMN refers to a Romanian acronym for a brain scan and the film does indeed dig deep into the pathologies of a Transylvanian community that, despite hosting a kaleidoscope of different European nationalities for decades, turns absurdly nasty when three Sri Lankans come to work in the local bakery. The film lacks the propulsion of Mungiu’s earlier films, but makes up the difference in rigorous, granular analysis. Definitely a contender for the Palme.

James Gray is one of those directors who fares better with French critics than with those in his home United States. Astonishingly, Armageddon Time is the fifth of his films to compete for the Palme d’Or. (To put that in perspective, Claire Denis, now 75, returns this year with only her second film in competition.)

The autobiographical Armageddon Time goes among a Jewish family in Queens, New York during the lead up to the election of Ronald Reagan. A delicate teenager (Michael Banks Repeta) has disappointed so much at his public school that his parents are driven to accept help from his grandfather and send him to a private institution.

There have already been murmurings from some American commentators about the risky core dilemma: the boy allows a black friend to shelter in his back yard and later profits from institutional racism at his expense. Some have even questioned the wisdom of including depictions of Donald Trump’s father and – a delightful surprise turn from Jessica Chastain – his sister Maryanne Trump. But the film is clearly a treatise on how many, supposedly decent people gain advantage from privilege.

Like so many of Gray’s films, Armageddon Time slips down a bit too smoothly without catching on the throat, but nobody could reasonably fault the performances from Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong as the boy’s parents or, most conspicuously, Anthony Hopkins as his grandfather (no, contrary to pre-festival reports, he is not playing the elder Trump). The Welsh actor manages the tricky business of making a wholly virtuous character seem interesting.

There is probably no clear favourite for the Palme d'Or at this stage. But, if there is any justice in the world, the odds should shortened to unbackable fractions on Ali Abbasi's Holy Spider. The Danish-Iranian director of Border, winner of Un Certain Regard here in 2018, has returned to the country of his birth to tell the story of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers in the city of Mashhad in the early 2000s.

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi is excellent as a dogged female reporter who commits to cutting through the institutional torpor that is allowing the religious fanatic – a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war – to wander the streets unmolested.

The larger part of the film, scored brilliantly by Martin Dirkov, functions as a breathless procedural thriller before the action swivels into a less heated courtroom tale that reveals the chilling levels of public support for the murderer. A protest against femicide on the steps of the Palais at the Sunday evening premiere of Holy Spider reminded us these issues are not unique to Iran.

The Cannes film festival continues until May 28th

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