This article appeared in the June 2, 2022 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our coverage of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival here.

Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, 2022)

Every day at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, as I made my way to the decked-out Palais, I walked past a ginormous installation celebrating Top Gun: Maverick, an official selection of the Out of Competition section. And every day, I thought of the irony of its presence at a festival that, in 1939, was founded as an anti-fascist alternative to the Mussolini-backed Venice Film Festival. This May was my first on La Croisette; before now, my fantasy vision of Cannes had been as a rare site in international film culture where cinema, ideology, and criticism (to riff on the title of the groundbreaking Cahiers du cinéma editorial from 1969) could exist in genuine conversation. One of the festival’s most invaluable legacies, for me, is its cancellation in 1968—remarkably, at the behest of directors whose films were set to screen in that year’s program, including Godard, Truffaut, and Miloš Forman, who felt their work was out of touch with the explosion of student and worker strikes that had taken over France. In a stirring clip from that protest, Godard affirms the importance of movies but emphasizes the greater urgency of demonstrating the film industry’s support of protesters putting their bodies on the line. “We’re talking solidarity with students and workers, and you’re talking dolly shots and close-ups!” he yells at one point. “You’re assholes!”

A similar grappling with the significance of art vis-à-vis politics lingered over the 2022 edition, whether in Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech via video call at the opening ceremony or in jury president Vincent Lindon’s inaugural address, where he wondered if he should use his platform to celebrate the festival or decry “the torments of the planet.” (His conclusion: “What else can we do, besides draw on the weapon of mass emotion that is film, to awaken consciences and shake up indifference?”) Cannes’s own position was perhaps best encapsulated by this year’s Truman Show–inspired festival poster. Per an official statement that referenced the climate crisis and ongoing armed conflicts, the poster was an assertion that “art and cinema are where contemplation and the renewal of society unravel.” The very next line added, almost as a caveat, that Cannes’s ultimate commitment, however, is to showcasing “quality films.” 

But how exactly do we define quality, and to what extent do our appraisals divorce form from content, process from product? What does it mean for the “most important film festival in terms of worldwide impact” (as touted by the Cannes website itself) to include only five films by women among its 21 Competition titles and none by Black filmmakers? And what does it mean for such a film festival to not just show a jingoistic film made in close collaboration with the U.S. military, but to allow the skies above the Palais to be streaked, in celebration of its premiere, by fighter jets spewing red, white, and blue smoke? The undeniable thrills and pleasures of Top Gun: Maverick—which I saw in a theater in Paris a couple days after Cannes, intrigued by multiple colleagues’ plaudits—are not entirely separable from the American-exceptionalist fervor of its narrative or the military resources poured into its making. It isn’t “a good film but with bad politics”; it’s a good film in part because of its bad politics, and it requires that we interrogate what we experience, often in spite of ourselves, as “good” art. The movie’s uncritical celebration at Cannes, amid displays of solidarity for the victims of war and calls for peace, shows how insidiously Hollywood—and the global film industry at large—has convinced us that we can have our cake and eat it, too. 

I suffer no illusions that movies—good or bad—can wreak real change (and few Cannes titles were as irksome as those that seemed a little too convinced of their righteousness, including Palme d’Or–winner Triangle of Sadness). But I appreciated the films at Cannes that forced me to truly reckon with our world: to look not just at the screen but beyond it. David Cronenberg offered one such breath of fresh (or perhaps deliciously rancid?) air with Competition title Crimes of the Future, a film that wrestles with the very vocation of art in the face of the apocalypse. Conceived 20 years ago, the film’s premise—of a world polluted by plastic and desensitized to pain, and where “surgery is the new sex”—extends Cronenberg’s career-long exploration of the ways in which technology reshapes our corporealities and moralities. Yet the body has perhaps never felt as real—as soberingly fragile—in his work as in Crimes of the Future, whose subject, for all its futuristic stylings, is the same old aging flesh, now disintegrating rapidly as we careen toward eco-collapse. 

Set in a haunted, ancient-yet-avant-garde Athens where people cut each other up for kicks, the film devotes much of its runtime to “world-building,” in a quite literal sense. In talky, quasi-screwball scenes (featuring superb comic turns by Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar as repressed paper pushers) attentive to the intricacies of cultural labor, Cronenberg envisions a kind of precipice for humanity, where new bureaucracies, artistic and political mores, and ethics must be constructed from scratch. In a sense, this is a “process” film, devoted to the nuts and bolts of creation, and thus one of Cronenberg’s densest and most pedantic outings. Yet it’s somehow also among his most immediate works—a kind of intellectual road map for the contemplation of existential questions of such overwhelming scale and urgency that few artists dare to confront them so directly.

Like Cronenberg, Kelly Reichardt is an artist whose films take on the grand narratives of American capitalism without any hint of grandiosity. Showing Up—one of the unqualified highlights of the lineup—also probes the process of art-making and the exigencies of survival, though in miraculous miniature. The film offers a brief glimpse into the life of an Oregon-based sculptor, Lizzy (Michelle Williams), who’s working on an upcoming show while juggling her admin job at the local art school, petty rivalries with her more successful colleague and landlord (an effortlessly cool Hong Chau), and tumultuous dealings with her capricious brother and bickering parents. Where films about artists often tend toward navel-gazing narratives of genius and sacrifice, Showing Up dares to take as its subject a small-time, middle-class, regional American artist (played by Williams with endearing curmudgeonliness) for whom art-making is workmanlike labor often done in stolen time. As if countering this infrastructural poverty, the film dilates its own rhythms and luxuriates in close-ups of artwork—drawings, sculptures, threads—to conjure an enchanted sense of art as something that is created, painstakingly, out of nothing. 

In the festival’s fertile Directors’ Fortnight sidebar—home to standouts like Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning and João Pedro Rodrigues’s Will-o’-the-WispThe Super 8 Years also limned a portrait of an artist grappling with her medium in a changing world. Directed by the French writer Annie Ernaux and her son, David Ernaux-Briot, and composed of the 8mm home videos the family recorded between 1972 and 1981, the film traces the changes—in time, place, memory—that the camera wrought in Ernaux’s household. The device’s arrival coincided with the start of Ernaux’s writing career, and the film stages a dialectic between the relative powers of images and words: one records, the other provides meaning. (A gender dynamic also structures this division: the camera was almost always wielded by Ernaux’s then-husband, Philippe.) Words come out on top in The Super 8 Years—the images, though resplendent in both their intimate banality and their glimpses of middle-class French life in the ’70s, are no match for the bracing frankness and flair of Ernaux’s language. But the two strands—voiceover and video—come together stirringly as Ernaux reflects on her trips to Chile, Moscow, and Albania, and the ways in which simultaneous advancements in the affordability of the camera and air travel opened up her world. In these scenes, the amateur quality of the home movies shimmers with the curiosity and naivete Ernaux recalls of her younger self, trying to find her place in the arc of history. 

That awareness of the fraught place of the individual in history is what seemed to be missing in Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon, an adaptation of Denis Johnson’s 1986 novel of the same name. Part of the problem is the film’s too-faithful rendering of Johnson’s muddled text, which doesn’t quite know what to do with its unreliable, self-absorbed, and politically vacuous narrator, an American prostitute-journalist-drifter stuck in Nicaragua in the 1980s. In the film, Denis introduces an additional layer of abstraction, transposing the plot to a pandemic-stricken present, while still retaining the novel’s ’80s political machinations. 

The ability to balance woozy abstraction with raw, preverbal sensuality is, of course, a Denis trademark: in films like Beau travail and White Material, white protagonists flail in colonial settings, their bigotry or complacency consuming them like a disease. In Stars at Noon, however, the almost total obfuscation of the neo-imperial context surrounding the protagonist (Margaret Qualley) and her British amour (Joe Alwyn)—a businessman man caught up in vaguely sketched trouble with the C.I.A., the Costa Ricans, and the Nicaraguans—comes off as indifference to, or worse, an instrumentalization of a history of thorny complicities that still awaits its full reckoning. It doesn’t help that both Qualley and Alwyn struggle to conjure the kind of embodiment needed to fill in Denis’s characteristic ellipses: Qualley is too affected, too obvious in the role of the flighty, promiscuous drunk; Alwyn is too disaffected, lacking the roiling-under-the-surface quality of the best Denis heroes. Yet something, I’ll admit, sticks in Éric Gautier’s greasy, shaky frames, in the jazzlike rhythms of Guy Lecorne’s edit—the film lingers like a fever dream that may still cough up more secrets.

An equally slippery but, for my money, much more provocative take on neocolonial delusions was Albert Serra’s Pacifiction—the crowning jewel of the Competition, which left those who stuck around till the festival’s end aglow in its radioactive images. Like Lucrecia Martel’s Zama (2017), Serra’s elusive opus is that rare film that steeps us in the hubris of the colonialist—his misguided belief that he is the center of the earth—while widening its lens enough to take in the world that persists, in all its defiant richness, around and despite him. In Pacifiction, this spacious view is partly literal: DP Artur Tort employs spectacular widescreen shots to capture the sun-washed landscapes of Tahiti, where De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a lugubrious, white-suited French High Commissioner, slithers and schmoozes with locals and foreign politicians alike. 

De Roller wants to open a casino on the island, when he gets wind of murmurs that France is about to restart nuclear testing in the area, as it secretly did from the 1960s to the 1990s. Local activists begin to mobilize, soldiers mysteriously start to appear in the nightclubs, and De Roller may have spotted the tip of a submarine on the horizon, though an omnipresent, accreting paranoia destabilizes all certainties. The atomic rumor swirling through the film becomes a stand-in for the “pacific fictions” of the title: the illusions through which the metropole perpetuates its power, concealing the real violences that are often mysterious even to the cogs in its machine. Against these unstable fictions Serra juxtaposes the material density of the setting. Forget the triumphalist planes in the sky: the most sublime, awe-inspiring spectacles I witnessed at Cannes were Pacifiction’s tableaux of human frailtytiny boats floating atop gigantic, cresting ocean waves, and men flailing wordlessly in the thick shimmer of tropical nights.