Roger Ebert Home

Cannes 2023: Highlights of the Year’s Festival

It may be symptomatic of a very busy festival schedule over the last several months, the aging process wreaking havoc on my stamina, or the fact that there were far more films over three hours this year than usual, but I’m more exhausted after Cannes 2023 than I have ever been at its conclusion. Cinema is nourishing, of course, as are the amazing opportunities for Southern French food grabbed between bouts of writing, queuing for press conferences, or fighting with technologically suspect ticketing systems. But it’s fair to say that by the end of this year’s festival I am spent.

There were a few truly wonderful films, several that were middling at best, and others truly egregious. To get these duds out of the way, so you can avoid them when planning your own post-fest screening schedule, I present you with the likes of “Black Flies,” Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s psychological drama about ambulance drivers navigating the infernal hellscape of New York City. I genuinely do not know what ransom information Sean Penn has on both Cannes and Berlin (where his appalling Ukraine doc debuted). Still, for aesthetic reasons alone, we need to take a break from his inclusion at these festivals for a while until he remembers how to pick projects and do more than scowl and murmur. Nanni Moretti’s “A Brighter Tomorrow” didn’t manage to live up to the optimism of its title. “The Old Oak,” Ken Loach’s latest beatification of the working poor, feels more sanctimonious than sublime. Karim Aïnouz’s “Firebrand” may not be as terrible as these others, but its silly, historically offensive finale and overwrought presentation made the Johnny Depp-starring opener “Jeanne Du Barry” feel almost subtle. I didn’t respond to “Banel and Adema,” but it’s more middling than anything, uncertain how to stick the landing but certainly affable enough along the way.

Many will cherish Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Monster,” and while I enjoyed its strong performances, I couldn’t help but think that last year’s “Close” was a far more engaging and complex take on this sort of story of adolescent affection. Todd Haynes’ “May December” will have plenty of fans, but while I again enjoyed the performances very much, the film's tone never settled on being dark and serious or outright camp. Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City” may not live up to his best work, but I find myself reflecting on its narratively straightforward yet emotionally dense tale days later. Jason Schwartzman playing Kubrick may be his most sophisticated role yet, and Scarlett Johansson’s performance may be her most perfectly realized. Unsurprisingly the visuals are a sumptuous feast, and I cannot wait to revisit it to pick out some of the details inevitably missed the first go ‘round.

Speaking of feasts, no film was more brazenly erotic than the culinary pornography cooked up in Tran Anh Hung’s beautiful film “The Pot-Au-Feu.” Vegan friends squirmed during the screening, but those of us with less restricted palates salivated as dish after dish was served. This is practically a documentary about gourmandizing and the exquisite excesses of the French palate, and the truly memorable movie meal is enhanced by absolutely delicious turns from Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel and a standout performance by newcomer Bonnie Chagneau-Ravoire.

There were two “quiet” films that I was suspicious of at first but soon quickly fell in love with. First, there’s Aki Kaurismäki’s “Fallen Leaves,” which seriously needs to be retitled to “Autumn Leaves” to better align with the song that plays on the soundtrack. In a mere 81 minutes, we’re treated to a sublime, darkly comical love story set against geopolitical strife, where the quotidian trivialities of employment and emotional fulfillment are no less a concern than larger, more distant anxieties. It’s constructed like a beautiful poem, excising all extraneous material to form a beautifully honed work that’s perhaps the most concisely realized of the auteur’s exceptional output.

Then there’s Wim Wenders’ near-perfect “Perfect Days,” a film unafraid to overtly namecheck the song that helps provide the title. In this story of a Tokyo toilet cleaner, the taciturn take by Best Actor winner Kōji Yakusho is simply a joy to experience. I was reminded of “Patterson” by Jim Jarmusch, another wonderful, poetic film that draws the audience in ways both subtle and profound to characters that at first seem entirely distant. The fact that Wenders had two spectacular films this year (I already spoke about the exceptional documentary “Anselm”) proves that his talent shows no sign of waning.

Finally, two films are linked by one actress, making Sandra Hüller the undisputed Queen of the 2023 festival. Palme d’Or winner “Anatomy of a Fall” is absolutely terrific, and I can hardly begrudge the jury for their choice. While director Justine Triet’s acceptance speech championing local concerns about retirement age changes in France made the closing event feel much more provincial, that takes nothing away from her film’s magnificence. A character piece and courtroom drama exploring the French system's unique intricacies, it’s a masterclass in rhetoric and revelation, anchored entirely by Hüller’s tonally perfect take.

Then there’s Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest,” an outright masterpiece and a welcome return from a filmmaker that takes far too long between projects. It may have taken the second prize, but my gut says it’s the work from this year’s selection that will have the greatest reach and longest-lasting legacy. It will be impossible for most audiences to experience the film in the way I managed to--I knew nothing about its subject matter, making its subsequent revelations that much more unsettling and powerful. Hüller is magnificent as the head of a hellacious household, as is Christian Friedel in a retching, wretched role for the ages, a chilling, bureaucratic cog helping churn the mechanism of murder.

Towards the end of the festival, I got to attend the Quentin Tarantino event as part of the Quinzaine Director’s Fortnight Section. The loquacious filmmaker spoke at length about his affection for the festival (he won Palme here with “Pulp Fiction”), but his showing up on this sidebar was a long-awaited event. He brought a beat-to-hell 35mm print of John Flynn’s 1977 revenge thriller “Rolling Thunder” to wow the crowd with its faded color, missing frames, scratched imagery, and incoherent audio mix. Technical presentation aside, the film itself is a bit of a mess, but the experience of seeing it in that setting was quite exceptional. While QT’s arguments for the film’s “beautiful fascism” fell flat, it was a nice injection of grindhouse mayhem into a festival too often littered with self-serious nonsense.

This wasn’t the only murder and mayhem story I caught. The iconic Japanese director Takeshi Kitano arrived with “Kubi,” which surely holds a record for the most people beheaded in a single film. The storyline is convoluted to the point of parody, with major characters continuing to be introduced right until the final act with supremely unhelpful title cards, as if there’s any way to make sense of the mayhem without an Excel sheet and a degree in ancient Shogun and Samurai court machinations at the ready. It’s a mess, to be sure, but as always, there are moments of poetic brilliance and sly comedy that help define Kitano’s unique voice.

Along the way, I managed to make Scorsese laugh, Harrison Ford cry, and nerded out about music with Wes Anderson and Alexandre Desplat. I saw friends I hadn’t seen in years and made new ones that I look forward to sharing experiences in darkened rooms with for years to come.

Cannes remains incredibly important to me, and I never take for granted the privilege of attending what was always more a dream than a destination I ever thought I’d be able to actually visit. The fact that my words and thoughts live on a site named after a film critic hero who first helped bring attention to the events on the Croisette is never lost on me, and it remains one of the thrills of my personal and professional life to be able to play a very small part in following Roger’s legacy. I know he would have loved and loathed so much of what played here, and not a day went by without wishing he was still around. Ten years after his passing, I feel his presence every time I deign to write a review, and I do not expect that that feeling will ever go away.

Thanks to the incredible generosity and tenacity of Chaz, who continues to champion Roger’s mission, the fantastic video team of Scott and Bob, and the sympathetic editors back in Chicago, I managed to survive Cannes 2023. It was the best of films, it was the worst of films, but above all, it was a return to a fully-stocked festival free from any overt attendance restrictions, a place, a community that I now consider truly a home for two weeks every year.

À l'année prochaine.     

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

The Teachers’ Lounge
All of Us Strangers
Occupied City


comments powered by Disqus