At Cannes, the Best Films Were Made for the Future


In May 2024, the world seems to be collapsing, and—if the current edition of the Cannes Film Festival is any indication—the film industry has already collapsed and not quite been reborn. The movies in the prestigious competition slot were overall the weakest in a decade. Some were critically divisive (Emilia Perez, Parthenope, and Kinds of Kindness), and the most interesting were films that cannot be judged fully on first view (Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis and David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds). In the year immediately after the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes, American movie stars like Demi Moore, Emma Stone, and Sebastian Stan starred in films about America by non-American directors, with various success rates. It was a year for actors rather than directors. Performance highlights include the above as well as Mikey Madison, Margaret Qualley, and Willem Dafoe, whose turn in the latest Yorgos Lanthimos saw him at his most sexy and sinister since David Lynch’s Wild at Heart.

Where director and performer were united in peak form, or even a tad overboard, was in Coralie Fargeat’s The Substance. This Ozempic horror film was a disgusting good time, full of pus, innovative orifices, and more gushing blood than in De Palma’s Carrie. Moore plays Elizabeth Sparkle, a Jane Fonda-esque celebrity approaching 50 and about to lose her television workout show. When offered a chance to inject herself with a substance that will produce “her, only better,” a new, younger version of herself is embodied by Qualley as “Sue.” Sue’s career soars, gaining everything Sparkle lost, and the two battle over their shared identity. The most moving scenes capture the unnecessary anxiety of aging, such as when Elizabeth applies and rubs off blush and lipstick before a date, fearing she looks clownish at each new application until she abandons the project, preferring to ghost an adoring man her age.

Margaret Qualley in The Substance

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

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The strangest performance, and maybe my personal favorite, was Aubrey Plaza in Francis Ford Coppola’s decades-long passion project, Megalopolis. She plays television finance reporter Wow Platinum as if she were a 1930s chorus girl, like Ginger Rogers or Joan Blondell. When asked where she got her unusual name, she answers, “I picked it up at Penn Station on my way to the employment agency.” The whole film has a 1930s or ’40s wild style, reminiscent of Busby Berkeley without the dancing, something like his experimental short film “Lullaby of Broadway” that plays within Gold Diggers of 1935. The experimental elements include Coppola’s interest in “live cinema,” with an usher coming on stage to “interview” Adam Driver in one scene.

Adam Driver and Nathalie Emmanuel in Megalopolis

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

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In Megalopolis, New York is a high-tech New Rome, demonstrating how the U.S.A. will fall in the same way that Ancient Roman civilization collapsed, as so many commentators and forecasters keep metaphorizing. Adam Driver is a Ceasar who has built an indestructible material on which he hopes to build a utopia. Shia Labeouf plays a Trump figure, uniting the disenfranchised to revolt. On first view, the film’s dedication to a very specific visual world, language, and acting style is puzzling. But on the second watch, it makes perfect sense, like a secret code, making the viewer feel part of a cult. Similar to his daughter’s own Marie Antoinette, Megalopolis is a film that you have to get on its level, and once you do, it might hold up to constant repeat views.

What becomes clear is how, once again, Coppola is making a film about family, his family. Most of the major characters are related, with Driver and LeBouf playing cousins and patriarch Jon Voight complaining about his “snotty trust fund grandkids.” Coppola casts his sister (Talia Shire), nephew (Jason Schwartzman), and granddaughter (brand new popstar Romy Mars) in small roles. The moving final dedication is to Coppola’s late wife Eleanor, the film’s muse. Ultimately, this is a personal story about how megalomania almost destroyed his marriage. The Driver character declares that “marriage” is the most important thing in a utopia, and while he evades accusations of poisoning his wife, he admits culpability for his moods and mania.

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in Kinds of Kindness

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

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Ironically or intentionally, Coppola ensures his family will be less entitled by spending $120 million of the proceeds from the sale of his winery on this wonderfully creative folly, one that will surely be better appreciated in years to come. All the best films from Cannes history could not be fully appreciated at their premiere, a tough situation in a slate too packed to see things more than once, usually. This year’s many sidebars had stronger films than the ones in competition, including Rungano Nyoni’s On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, Tyler Taormina’s Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point, and Alain Guiraudie’s perfect Miséricorde. Other films were a little too topical, with Sebastian Stan playing Trump in The Apprentice or Charles Dance as a Joe Biden-esque American president (in Guy Maddin’s Rumours) who tells of sickly hallucinations of swimming in a strong English accent. But filmmakers like Cronenberg, Paul Schrader, and Coppola are making films for the future, whether or not they receive a Palme d’Or at the awards ceremony.





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