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Cannes Film Festival 2023 Recap: Part 1

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

This year, I had the pleasure of attending the first few days of the Cannes Film Festival as part of the 3 Days in Cannes program. I am in the process of creating a video documenting my personal experience with the fest, but I'll also give a lowdown on the movies I saw. For the first three days, my movie options were somewhat limited, but it was ultimately a very rewarding process. I was even able to see several world premieres.


Although I wish I could do a detailed write-up about each and every one of these movies, my memory betrays me and I fear that the overwhelming effect of watching 11 films over three days is not conducive to particularly meaningful individual reviews. Instead, enjoy my ranking of the nine new releases I saw – from multiple different competition categories – and discover which movies may be coming your way in the latter half of the year.


9) Jeanne du Barry

Out of Competition

dir. Maïwenn

Jeanne du Barry is out of competition and ultimately not super relevant in the Cannes sphere, but it is recognizable as Johnny Depp’s first return to acting (via the French) since his very public domestic abuse trial. If one was able to ignore all controversy in that regard, they would still find themselves missing something in this movie. He plays the king of France in a story about a prostitute-turned-mistress-to-the-king, Jeanne du Barry, played by director Maiïwenn.


The movie is an uneven and indulgent reflection of the director’s ego. Despite sumptuous costumes and decor suggesting the reprehensibility of pre-revolution French royalty, the plot is caught up in the apparent kindness and admirability of its social climber protagonist. It seems as if Maiwenn has confused the historical lesson she is trying to get across with what she sees as her own vanity project, with oddly integrated personal tidbits such as the African child the king purchased as a gift to Jeanne, or how all the men on the court agree about how great she is in the sack. Look how not racist and sexy she is!

There are also some misplaced attempts at humor which read as redundant, broad, and needlessly cruel, an aspect that pairs strangely with its take on eroticism. Sometimes the sex is coyly alluded to, other times it's aggressive and jokey. I learned a bit about the royal situation leading up to Marie Antoinette, but stiff acting from the majority – particularly Depp – makes this movie very hard to reflect fondly upon. There are so many ways to handle historical figures in a fresh way, but this was not it.


8) Tiger Stripes

Semaine de la Critique

dir. Amande Nell Eu

With Tiger Stripes, I'm afraid that I simply suffered from high expectations. This Malaysian film has an excellent premise: preteen Zaffan, as the first of her friends to get her period, begins to experience animalistic physical changes. Another edition to the Turning Red-Carrie-mistreated pubescent girl universe – great! I was all in for a unique take from a different part of the world, and for the first half, it delivers.


The film starts out with Zaffan performing a TikTok dance and stripping down from her modest school clothes to reveal the bra that she has stolen. All of her friends admire it and take turns trying it on in the school bathroom. They get busted, but Zaffan is not deterred. She’s a verifiable firecracker, and although she is at first daunted by getting her period, she is pleased to be the first one in her class to be able to skip mandatory prayer sessions. However, as her two friends grow resentful of her, she experiences more dramatic changes than just her period.

Zafreen Zairizal as Zaffan gives a truly great performance. She has a ton of personality, and when the film knows how to use her, she lights up the screen. Her relationship with her friends is particularly interesting; one of them voices some clear internalized misogyny that creates conflict. She throws abuse at Zaffan about her being "disgusting" and a "slut," simply for going through a very normal bodily transition. Part of me wishes the entire movie had been dedicated to exploring those tensions, because although fables about bullying can sometimes be tiresome, the dynamic of the three friends (the naive, the knowledgeable, and the bold) makes for compelling discourse about why some girls turn on each other at that age.


That story would probably have worked as a short, even with the supernatural elements, but the second half brings in another antagonist, and Zaffan’s transformation is really drawn out. There’s one scene where she just screams for 90 seconds straight. I respect a long take, but a child screaming is one of those things that needs to be doled out consciously. The use of social media could’ve been a good recurring element, but many of its stylistic ideas are loosely tossed in without a proper scheme that would help to connect the thematic dots.

Zaffan’s monster look is not even consistent throughout. For all the promise of a body horror, its most grotesque moment comes with a The Fly-esque fingernail peel in the first act, and it never really tops that. I was rooting for Tiger Stripes, but it left me a bit baffled. A tighter, zanier edit might've given Amanda Nell Eu the juice she needed. Nonetheless, I look forward to whatever she makes next.


7) Le Retour (Homecoming)

Official Competition

dir. Catherine Corsini

A summer coming-of-age movie! Parent-child conflict, a love interest or two, perhaps a cool party scene – not to worry, this movie’s got all of that. And if that’s what you’re looking for, it’ll probably satisfy. But this is a movie in competition for the Palme d’Or. And several things fall a bit flat.


Corsini’s film follows a mother and her two daughters taking a summer vacation to Corsica, an island located off the south of France. The mother, Khédidja (Aissatou Diallo Sagna), is helping out a white family with their three young children, while the girls are free to enjoy themselves on the beach. Jessica (Suzy Bemba) is a moldable whiz kid on her way to a prestigious university, and Farah (Esther Gohourou) is a strong-headed and rebellious 15-year-old. They will have a summer to remember.

From the angle of a Black family visiting predominantly-white Corsica, there are some relevant themes explored: financial tension, the connotation of a “white” vs a “Black” name, and tokenization. That aspect of the film is meaningful. The notion of Jessica feeling at odds between her mother and her father’s family that she never knew is intriguing. Jessica’s relationship with the white family’s older daughter, Gaia, is a bit forced at the start, but pans out when their subtle power hierarchy unfolds. Every interaction between Jessica and Farah is great, particularly during the film's classic, climactic party scene.


However, some other things don’t work so well. Khédidja is barely developed. Her motivations and desires for her children, beyond mourning her husband, are roughly drawn. A passive character such as her is compelling, but the film bobs between so many other plot threads that her function is reduced to one dimension. Farah’s blossoming relationship with a guy she steals weed from is awkward and borderline concerning, yet presented as romantic. Gaia’s parents, although good for a laugh, don’t have a clear enough angle to contour Khédidja's sense of value in her work or present a contrast with her parenting style. The film's cinematography is also uninspiring; it’s the organic movement, natural light style you see all the time in summetime indies without any hint of personalization.


I admit that I was entertained throughout the movie, but it didn’t really deserve to be in competition at Cannes.


Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of my Cannes 2023 ranking.


-Lydia

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