Fashions fade, Cannes remains

  • Themes: Film

Modish causes threatened to impinge on the integrity of this year's Cannes film festival. And yet, there were gems on offer.

A Cannes landmark.
A Cannes landmark. Credit: Davide Guidolin / Alamy Stock Photo

The 77th edition of the Cannes film festival has just closed. The spectacle of the world as seen through the eyes of film directors from 31 different countries is over, until next year. For almost two weeks, cinéastes compete for the world’s attention and challenge and awe critics. Every year, films selected at Cannes show us humanity in all its glory and frailty. This year’s jury, presided by Barbie director Greta Gerwig, awarded the Palme d’Or to the American Sean Baker for Anora, a drama-comedy about a sex worker in New York who elopes to Vegas to marry the son of a Russian oligarch. This modern screwball comedy was a favourite with critics.

One of many conclusions we can draw from this year’s edition though is that some film directors have courage while others are complacent, or go with the day’s latest fashion, a shifting cast of the brave, the narcissists, and the opportunists. Unable to ignore the first, Greta Gerwig’s jury embraced, at times, the self-indulgent and fashionable.

The Jury Prize was given to French director Jacques Audiard for Emilia Perez, a Mexican musical about a ruthless drug lord reinventing himself as a woman and charity patron, with trans actor Karla Sofia Gascon (who also received the Best Actress award) in the title role. Emilia Perez is a fashionable and opportunistic film. ‘Who knows how society will judge Audiard’s depiction two years or two decades from now’, rightly asks the film trade magazine Variety. If one may admire Audiard for directing a Mexican film in Spanish, a language he’s not fluent in, the story he tells of a drug lord who was bad when he was a man and becomes good when he finally lives as a woman, reeks of naïveté, if not hypocrisy. It also, not incidentally, embraces a dogma that has seen many feminists threatened to death for simply questioning it. The musical element of the film does not, strangely, make the plot more alluring or poetical. Although served by the talented Karla Sofia Gascon, Zoe Saldana, Adriana Paz and Selena Gomez, the dancing and singing does little to elevate the story, it is simply a distraction that evaporates almost immediately. The fact that Emilia Perez is one of three films financed by Saint Laurent (yes, that’s right, Yves Saint Laurent house has started financing films) is probably not a coincidence. Here is fashion as cinema. Topical today, démodé and forgettable tomorrow.

Another Cannes film financed by Saint Laurent was, unsurprisingly, Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film Parthenope, a love letter to his native city of Naples, personified by the model turned actress Celeste Dalla Porta or, as the Guardian’s Xan Brooks put it, ‘a sexy girl in a sexy city’. Some critics talked of the film as a 136-minute-long perfume commercial, others of the ‘utterly vacuous’ amounting to the ‘almost nothing’. Some offered an explanation: surely, this was an attempt at self-parody. This cinematic exercise in languor and conceit evolves mostly around the semi-clad Parthenope who, after a failed foray into acting, decides to become an anthropologist. At least, Sorrentino’s Parthenope did not get an award.

There was, however, one film Greta Gerwig’s jury could not ignore. They even created a Special Jury award for it even though the Palme d’Or would have been more on point. The most applauded film of the festival (with a 22-minute standing ovation, a high by Cannes standards) The Seed of the Sacred Fig by Mohammad Rasoulof is a family drama set in Tehran at the beginning of the hijab protest in September 2022, and just after Iran’s religious morality police had beaten the young Jina Mahsa Amini to death for not wearing her hijab properly.

Mohammad Rasoulof, a 52-year-old Iranian director who has twice served time in prison for ‘hostility against the Iranian State’ and whose passport was confiscated in 2017, had just been sentenced again to eight years of prison and flogging on 8 May when he decided to flee Iran through the mountains, on foot. Two weeks later, he was walking up the red carpet to attend the screening of his film in competition in Cannes. He carried two photographs, those of his actors Missagh Zareh and Soheila Golestani still stuck in Iran.

The Seed of the Sacred Fig starts as an intimate family story. A housewife and her two teenage daughters (played by Setareh Malek and Mahsa Rostami) are dedicated to their husband and father, Iman, a lawyer who had just got promoted by the regime to become a state investigator, and soon a judge. The three women live in his shadow, always in fear of setting a foot wrong. They know very little about his work and until his promotion, his daughters did not even know he was a civil servant.

At work, Iman must abide by the regime’s ruthless orders to repress the protests. After only a parody of investigation, Iman sends young people either to prison or sometimes to the executioner’s chair. When his superior gives him a handgun to protect himself and his family against vengeful protesters, all ‘agents of Iran’s enemies’, he feels a rising panic. When his daughters, who spend their days watching the events unfolding on their phones, begin questioning his work and then his gun disappears from his bedroom, Iman slowly sinks into a state of violent paranoia. The intimate family story becomes a tense allegorical film noir where a mother and her daughters must fight for their freedom or die. The parable is both powerful and universal. This is Iran but it could be anytime and anywhere where tyranny rules. In other words, not a fashionable film.


Agnès Poirier