This article appeared in the May 19, 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 2023 Cannes Film Festival here.

Homecoming (Catherine Corsini, 2023)

The only truly quotable dialogue in this year’s Cannes opening film, the French costume drama Jeanne du Barry, is this exchange: “This is grotesque!”—“This is Versailles.”

Cannes, as regulars know only too well, can be grotesque. And it can feel a lot like Versailles, with the stars on the red carpet as the ducs et marquises de nos jours, and the watching crowds, the delegates, the staff, and the press in their seemingly endless queues, as today’s restless sans-culottes. Here, we only occasionally see anything like the genuine stirring of discontent among the masses, let alone revolution—although history will always recall the events of 1968, when national protest was, for once, considered more important than the day’s photo-call.

This year, Cannes might have seen (could yet see?) that protocol called into question, if the city of Cannes had not banned protests on and around the beachfront main drag, the Croisette. Such protests were expected from the CGT labor union (still due to happen, but farther out of town, with a separate demonstration planned outside the Carlton hotel), in addition to demonstrations over sexual harassment and its acceptance in the French film industry—not least because of opening film Jeanne du Barry, starring Johnny Depp and directed by and co-starring Maïwenn, herself now notorious for spitting at a journalist. An open letter from 123 actresses and actors, including Laure Calamy, Julie Gayet, and Jérémie Renier, accused the festival itself of complicity, in no uncertain terms: “the place that is offered to people who abuse, harass, violate, on the red carpet of this festival, does not come from nowhere. It is symptomatic of a global system that has been in place for generations.”

A certain glittery piety surrounds Cannes: on opening night, among the pre-film speeches, there’s always a starry-eyed encomium (this year delivered by Chiara Mastroianni) to the sanctity of the Seventh Art, to remind us that we’re here not merely as cinephiles but also as pilgrims arriving at a shrine. But the real mundanity of it all (and the banal disorganization behind the decorum) was quickly brought home: notably, two days in, hundreds of ticket-holders, myself included, were inexplicably barred from a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s short western Strange Way of Life after queuing for an hour in pouring rain.

The folly was also amply evident in the selection of Jeanne du Barry—not so much a historical fiction as a prehistoric one, the sort of empty decorative spectacle that was already a fossilized dinosaur when it was denounced by the Nouvelle Vague. Maïwenn’s film is less cinéma de papa than the cinema of your snobbish and hidebound great-aunt. The director herself plays the Countess du Barry, humbly born courtesan-turned-mistress of Louis XV. She is made out to be a woman of dazzling charm and accomplishment, although her main talent seems to be for shooting saucy grins in every direction, as well as flouting palace rules with anachronistic ain’t-I-a-rebel self-satisfaction. It is exactly what Jean-Marc Lalanne of Les Inrockuptibles called it, a “narcissistic delirium” and a 20-million-euro “selfie,” not to say laborious and cluelessly racist. Depp sleepwalks leadenly through the film, although, for what it’s worth, his delivery of the French dialogue is more than passable.

In recent years, French cinema has tended to remind us that though the local industry is more than inclined to rest on its laurels and formal breakthroughs of old, it still consistently produces films that are, let’s say, solid, in a reassuring way. Directors’ Fortnight opener The Goldman Case is a good example. Although the latest feature from Cédric Kahn doesn’t quite summon the edginess of his earlier L’Ennui or Roberto SuccoThe Goldman Case is eminently watchable. It’s a spare courtroom drama based on a ’70s cause célèbre involving Pierre Goldman, a Sorbonne-educated ex-revolutionary–turned–gambler and criminal. He confessed to several robberies but denied a murder charge, and the film shows him at once defending himself and casting opprobrium on the French legal system and the prejudices (in particular, the anti-Semitism) of his nation. It’s a highly illuminating depiction of French courtroom rules: apparently anyone (attorneys, witnesses, jurors) can interrupt anyone else at any time, and launch forth into show-stopping rhetoric, often cheered on by the T-shirted radicals gathered at the back of the class. The film features a terrific, testy performance by Arieh Worthalter as Goldman, and is tougher and sparer than your average school-of-Sorkin legal thriller. It’s also nice to see the fabled Jerzy Radziwiłowic (Wadja’s Man of Marble), now wonderfully baggy-faced, as the defendant’s dad.

Some French controversy also came with Catherine Corsini’s Homecoming, about a single Black mother returning with her children to Corsica, where she once lived with their now-departed father. The film was another focus of protest, not least from the 50/50 parity-in-cinema movement, on the grounds that Corsini had allegedly presided over on-set malpractice regarding sex scenes with teenage actresses. She has denied it, and instead of anything untoward, what we see is a classically spare psychological drama starring two terrific young newcomers (Suzy Bemba and Esther Gohourou) and a powerful Aïssatou Diallo Sagna, the former medical worker who made a stunning debut two years ago in Corsini’s hospital-set The DivideHomecoming won’t set the world, or even Cannes, on fire, but it’s an intelligent, engaging piece.

For real provocation, of course, we’ll have to wait for Last Summer, the latest from Catherine Breillat, one of several long-absent talents returning to Cannes this year. Also among those are the Finnish master of doleful joy, Aki Kaurismäki, with Fallen Leaves; and the ultimate rara avis of European cinema, Spain’s legendary Víctor Erice, whose Close Your Eyes could conceivably be the marvel of this festival. Vamos a ver. Meanwhile, we’ll all have to gird our loins for a selection that includes some seriously long-haul features, in a throwback to the Cannes of the ’90s. This year, we have Occupied City, Steve McQueen’s documentary about the Netherlands in World War II; Martin Scorsese’s much-anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon; Wang Bing’s Youth (Spring), a documentary about garment workers in China; and, kicking off the first day of screenings, a restoration of Jacques Rivette’s too-little-seen 1969 drama L’Amour fou—all approaching or exceeding the four-hour mark.

While gathering my strength, I was recharged by a fast, furious, and relatively brief (at 130 minutes) burst of energy and invention—The Animal Kingdom, a hugely creative reworking of genre elements from French second-timer Thomas Cailley. By turns a science-fiction chiller with Cronenbergian touches and an exuberantly romantic take on certain superhero tropes, it’s a future-shock story about humans mutating into animal forms. Romain Duris plays a man searching for his metamorphosed wife, and Paul Kircher (from Christophe Honoré’s Winter Boy, and a mesmerizingly vital “face to watch”) is his teenage son, already turning a tad feral. It’s been nine years since Cailley’s playful feature debut Love at First Fight, and you can understand what he’s been doing all this time—creating an entire effects-laden world that can accommodate touches of cliché alongside twists of outré novelty. The Animal Kingdom isn’t entirely even, but it’s a blast—and, in its most dreamlike moment, a restoration of the humble pangolin to its rightful place in the bestiary of film fantasy.

Jonathan Romney is a critic based in London. He writes for The ObserverSight and Sound, Screen Daily, and other publications, and teaches at the UK’s National Film and Television School.