This article appeared in the May 17, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Megalopolis (Francis Ford Coppola, 2024)

The familiar Cannes Film Festival ident that opens Official Selection screenings exudes a perfume of the Eternal Ideal. The virtual camera climbs a flight of red-carpeted CGI steps, up through shimmering blue water into a starry night sky. It’s as if the viewer’s eye, or cinema itself, is emerging from immersion in a sort of oceanic disinfectant, cleansed of base, earthly concerns.

Earlier this week, Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Frémaux announced, “This year, we tried to have a festival without any controversies”—a tall order in 2024 of all years. The Cannes opening-night ceremony traditionally presents cinema in an idyllic light, as a pure effusion of artistry and benevolence, bringing joy and meaning to an ever-improved, increasingly unified world. As usual, that was the gist this week, albeit with a succinct punch line. Hosting the ceremony, actress Camille Cottin quoted D.W. Griffith’s 1924 prediction that cinema will have helped eliminate all armed conflict by our present year. Cottin then wryly added, “We’re still working on it.”

Current events being what they are, you might expect this year’s festival to be the most turbulent edition since 1968. But the proceedings are marked by a strangely sealed-in microclimate—the “Cannes vortex,” as Cottin dubbed it—where world issues don’t always manifest as they do elsewhere. At time of writing—midday on the festival’s first Thursday—Cannes has not yet been rocked by demonstrations over Gaza (in fact, protests have been banned along the Croisette), nor has the rumored list of sexual aggressors within the French film industry yet emerged in the expected #MeToo bombshell. There was an opening-night protest by festival workers over pay and status, but it was quickly quashed by armed police.

Though one finds plenty of politically charged material on show this year, it’s difficult to know whether it will take a central place in discussions (as similarly topical content very much did in Berlin in February) or be regarded as a salutary side order alongside the haute cuisine of the main menu. Two films likely to get attention in this regard are La Belle de Gaza by French director Yolande Zauberman, a documentary in the Special Screenings section about Palestinian trans people in Tel Aviv; and Palestinian-Danish filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel’s To a Land Unknown, in Directors’ Fortnight, about two Palestinians stranded in Athens. The Invasion is Sergei Loznitsa’s chronicle of the events in Ukraine over the last two years, which should remind festival attendees of a still-ongoing conflict in danger of being forgotten. A Vietnamese film about two gay miners, Tru’o’ng Minh Quý’s Viet and Nam, has been banned domestically for its “negative view” of its home country. And then there is the Competition title The Seed of the Sacred Fig by Mohammad Rasoulof, an Iranian director recently sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Court to punishments including flogging and eight years’ imprisonment, whose escape to Europe was announced earlier this week.

The state of things is such that it was easy to agree with Vincent Lindon’s character in the opening-night film, Quentin Dupieux’s meta comedy The Second Act, as he raged that there was no longer any point to making movies in a world doomed to disaster—it’s just playing music while the Titanic sinks. Tirelessly self-referential farceur Dupieux has made some delicious mind-benders over the last few years—including the philosophically rich Incredible But True (2022) and the ebulliently Buñuelian Daaaaaalí! (2023)—but this wry squib about a group of actors arguing through an A.I.-directed film shoot is a laborious, airless affair. Dupieux’s response to the exhaustion of cinematic values in a world where art is devoured by algorithm is to soldier on regardless, fast, free-associatively, and on the cheap. But it is in the nature of the method that one may run out of steam from time to time—especially when your very theme is an art form’s crisis of exhaustion.

On opening night, listing various outré Cannes traditions, Cottin hoped that one is now relegated to the past: the practice of late-night “business” meetings in hotel rooms between young women and powerful men. The following night, the opening film of the Un Certain Regard section was prefaced by a short by Judith Godrèche, the French actress and writer whose charges against Jacques Doillon and Benoît Jacquot have helped to bring the #MeToo movement to the forefront in her country. Moi Aussi (meaning “Me Too”) was made after Godrèche invited the public to share their own experiences of sexual abuse: she received 5,000 testimonies in 15 days. The film features about a thousand of those people, gathered in a street, while a voiceover recites fragments of their ordeals, experienced by both men and women, from early childhood to adulthood, perpetrated by family members, teachers, “a filmmaker… an actor… a famous writer…”

Formally, the film is unnecessarily soft-edged: gentle folk ballads play as a young woman, Godrèche’s daughter Tess Barthélemy, weaves through the crowd, interpretative-dancing. But the effect is much simpler and more forceful at the end when, following captions showing the facts and statistics, the camera scans the mass of people from above as they walk, women and men of all ages, until the screen empties.  

The film that followed was certainly the most substantial of the festival’s first days. When the Light Breaks, by Rúnar Rúnarsson (the Icelandic director of 2011’s Volcano and 2015’s Sparrows), begins with a quiet, idyllic moment (a love sequence between a young couple), and then hits us out of the blue with a shocking burst of spectacle—not unlike the sudden avalanche in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (2014), but played in minor key, as if experienced in a distant dream. It then reverts quietly and powerfully to a mode of the innermost intimacy.

Elín Hall plays Una, a performance-art student at university, in love with her bandmate Diddi (Baldur Einarsson), who announces he will leave his partner Klara to be with her. Then Una learns that Diddi is among the casualties of the aforementioned catastrophe—and Klara (Katla Njálsdóttir) arrives in town. The film is a quietly mesmerizing study of intense emotions that can and cannot be shown: Una’s relationship with Diddi is a secret, so she is forced to endure the sympathy for Klara silently, while holding in her own pain and rage. Hall’s performance will surely rank among the best of the festival: for much of the time, it is all about suggesting an inwardly simmering pain, while holding back from emoting openly. When the Light Breaks takes a simple and familiar form—the kids-hanging-out movie—and compresses it into a 24-hour sunrise-to-sunrise frame that culminates in a slow, wordless, but eloquent penultimate shot, showing that we shouldn’t yet abandon faith in cinema’s emotional intelligence, nor deny the occasional truth buried in the clichés about its healing power.

As for the saturnalian excesses that you usually hope Cannes will provide, none this year can possibly be more opulently jaw-dropping than Francis Ford Coppola’s long-awaited dream project Megalopolis. A parallel-world vision of America poised at the crossroads between utopia and dystopia, it’s set in a version of Manhattan—“New Rome,” in fact—and stars Adam Driver as an idealistic architect, scientist, and all-around futuristic genius whose Promethean drive puts him in conflict with the forces of conservatism and entrenched corruption (mayor Giancarlo Esposito), sexy Mammon-worship (incarnated by Aubrey Plaza, putting on her best “you’re-kidding-right-but-what-the-hell” smirk), and Trumpian populism (Shia LaBeouf, sometimes in drag). A wild, cod-Shakespearian indulgence with a grandiloquently nonsensical script (“Only those in a nightmare are capable of praising the moonlight”), it does have some piquant ideas—like a Roman vestal virgin reimagined as a Taylor Swift–style pop star. And there are a few undeniably voluptuous, strange images. But pile them all up and you realize that the word “visionary” isn’t necessarily a compliment. It’s as if Ed Wood had risen from the grave to remake The Fountainhead on an infinite budget.

Jonathan Romney is a critic based in London. He writes for The Observer, Sight and Sound, Screen Daily, The Financial Times, and other publications, and teaches at the U.K.’s National Film and Television School.