Complex Women and Lost Boys | On the Croisette

A Dispatch from the Cannes Film Festival 2024

Written by

E. Nina Rothe

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On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, courtesy of A24.

Those watching from the sidelines could have commented that this year Cannes Film Festival had gone to the dogs, quite literally. Last year’s Palm Dog Messi — yes there is an award for top dog in Cannes!  — the pooch from the 2023 Palme d’or winner Anatomy of a Fall, walked up the infamous Montée des Marches red carpeted steps, and posed there on opening night. Messi, who is is affectionately nicknamed “the canine George Clooney” strolled alongside celebrities like festival honoree Meryl Streep, this year’s Competition jury president Greta Gerwig and French star Juliette Binoche.

Yet the festival this year really belonged to women, particularly those problematic women who have revolutionized the international cinema landscape in the past few years, and those oftentimes lost boys who try to love them.

The Festival, which just celebrated its 77th edition, has long been an event that pushes the envelope and this year’s edition was no exception. From the final awards snub to international auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola and Paolo Sorrentino, who both had films in the main Competition, to kicking off the festival’s second day with Judith Godrèche’s short film Moi Aussi, highlighting the more recent French #MeToo movement, this festival’s motto seemed to be taking inspiration from those oldies but goodies Frank Sinatra lyrics “I did it my way.”  

The Second Act photo by Chi-Fou-Mi courtesy of Arte France Cinema

This year’s opening night film, The Second Act by Quentin Dupieux, starring Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon and Louis Garrel, tackled the possibility of our cinema being thought up and directed by AI, in the very near future. Endless dialogues that don’t go anywhere, scenes that linger on irrational conflicts between the sexes and an ending within an ending that felt like a vortex of virtual reality, Dupieux takes the prize, not the official Palme d’Or of course, for really pushing the boundaries. And the great thing is, if anyone were to put the film down, criticize it, the French filmmaker could blame it all on the perils of AI.

A few wonderful gems were left prize-less, come awards day. Among them, two truly fascinating insights into the complexities of being a woman, during different eras in our history. Magnus von Horn’s The Girl with the Needle, starring Vic Carmen Sonne and Trine Dyrholm in a cinematic tour de force for the extraordinary acting duo, is a story based on a true crime nightmare. It takes place in the early 1900’s after WWI, as Karoline (Sonne) meets Danish serial killer Dagmar Overbye (played by Dyrholm) at her personal lowest. Desperate to find a home for her illegitimate infant child, Karoline trusts the mother figure she sees in Dagmar, who instead turns out to be her worst nightmare. As the pair descend together into a kind of hell on earth, director von Horn finds a way to redeem the story in cinematic terms which leave the viewer both devastated and restored.

The other unrewarded gems, Wild Diamond by Agathe Riedinger, features young star to be Malou Khebizi in the role of Liane, a teenage influencer wannabe whose aspirations include getting free butt implants and participating on a reality TV show. The coming of age drama, which helps explains today’s TikTok generation in all its complexities, takes place in the small town of Fréjus, on the Côte d’Azur, not far from Cannes. The character of Liane, drawn up by Riedinger — this film marks the French filmmaker’s feature debut — with the help of Khebizi’s extraordinary acting is so real that walking along the Croisette, on any given day one could spot quite a few Lianes, with their overinflated lips, Kabuki-style painted eyebrows, their skimpy yet flashy clothing and the nearly palpable desire to be discovered.

Emilia Perez poster courtesy of Saint Laurent Productions

One film that divided critics and audiences, yet brought together the Competition jury in Cannes, was Emilia Pérez directed by Jacques Audiard, which garnered a Best Performance by an Actress award for its four stars, ex-aequo — Selena Gomez, Zoe Saldaña, Adriana Paz and trans Spanish actress Karla Sofia Gascon. The film was one of three projects in Competition produced by Saint Laurent Productions, a company headed by the maison’s creative director Anthony Vaccarello and which debuted on the Croisette last year with Pedro Almodóvar’s short queer Western Strange Way of Life. This time around, SLP was also behind David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds and Paolo Sorrentino’s Parthenope. Netflix seems to be secretly in talks to acquire Emilia Pérez for worldwide distribution and the film is a flashy gangster crime comedy musical with a twist.

In Un Certain Regard, the parallel section in Cannes which aims to highlight new trends, new paths and new countries for cinema, On Becoming a Guinea Fowl by Zambian Welch filmmaker Rungano Nyoni felt like a sure winner. And win it did, come awards day, as the jury headed by Xavier Dolan awarded Nyoni a Best Director prize, in a joint win with US based Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini, whose fiction debut in Cannes, the American Civil War drama The Damned got mixed reviews. Minervini's film features a few lost boys, quite literally, in the form of a rogue Union army unit, attempting to find their purpose in the wilds of Montana, in the winter of 1862.

But back to On Becoming a Guinea Fowl which is Nyoni’s sophomore feature film, following her 2017 fable I Am Not a Witch. Her latest takes the audiences on a journey, along with the intense and beautiful Shula, played by Susan Chardy, whose life and childhood trauma is revealed, and is a fate she shares with a few of her female relatives. One night Shula, back in Zambia from her life abroad, finds her uncle dead by the roadside, probably left there after inconveniently passing away in a brothel nearby. Shula’s Uncle Frank held deep, damning secrets and, in Nyoni’s work, men appear the perpetrators while women are the combatants. But unlike what we would find in a male-directed film on this kind of subject, Nyoni never makes them helpless victims and, in the process, manages to put together a spellbindingly beautiful film, both in aesthetics and content.

“There is a bit of myself in everybody I write,” Nyoni admits to Flaunt in Cannes. This comes out as “either a wish fulfillment self or something I’m hiding about myself,” which the filmmaker explains, is in all the characters she writes. Yet “Shula is the most similar in terms of background — I used a lot of my life in terms of the character.” Even Shula’s anarchic cousin “Nsansa, is a wish fulfillment of me,” Nyoni reveals. On Becoming a Guinea Fowl, is a title which refers to a traditional belief that the small spotted bird is like an alarm ringer living among wild animals, announcing the arrival of danger with its shrill and piercing cry. “I’ve been trying to write and express this story for a long time, more than eight years,” Nyoni concludes.

Being Maria photo Guy Ferrandis courtesy of Les Films de Mina

This year, a specially curated series of films that seemed like a precious couture selection were grouped together in the section called Cannes Premiere and included the latest titles by auteurs such as Leos Carax, Emmanuel Courcol and Rithy Panh. Each evening, around 7.30, inside the Salle Debussy — which was Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite cinema inside the Palais des Festivals — films were screened and the audience felt like they were part of a secret society, watching gems no one else in the world was privy to.  

Among the eight films screened in Cannes Premiere were two titles featuring complex, even problematic women, front and center. The first being Jessica Palud’s Being Maria, featuring star to watch Anamaria Vartolomei as French actress Maria Schneider, and former teen heartthrob Matt Dillon as Marlon Brando, as they filmed the now infamous butter rape scene for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 erotic thriller Last Tango in Paris. For the filmmaker, the movie turned out to be a career changer, but for the 19-year old Schneider what seemed at first a stroke of luck, dream casting soon turned into a living nightmare. She went on to accuse her co-star and director of having humiliated her, surprising her with the unscripted scene, and Schneider never recovered fully, carrying the title of “troublemaker” and junkie till her untimely death in 2011, at the age of 58.

Also in Cannes Premiere was Everybody Loves Touda, the latest masterpiece by French-Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch (Casablanca Beats). Along with his wife and frequent collaborator Maryam Touzani (The Blue Caftan) they wrote a fascinating script about an aspiring Sheikha named Touda (spellbindingly played by Nisrin Erradi). The Moroccan musical tradition of the Sheikhas is highlighted in a film that shines the spotlight on the lyrics of these fierce female poets, with their songs of resistance, love and emancipation. Touda cannot be put in a corner and is fearless, beautiful and sexually free, in a society where all of those qualities can make her existence very difficult. Needless to say, Everybody Loves Touda quickly became a personal favorite for this writer, looking for answers to many of life’s questions through cinema.

Motel Destino, photo © Santoro courtesy of The Match Factory

Venturing further from the Palais, there are a couple of cinemas alongside the Croisette which house both the Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight sidebars. In the former, Locust by KEFF screened — a stunning film about a lost boy who eventually finds his way, albeit tragically. Part Wong Kar-wai, part Quentin Tarantino, but also wholly beautiful and entertaining, KEFF has quickly become a filmmaker to watch. The film also marked the first time a Taiwanese film competed in Critics' Week.

In Directors’ Fortnight, American filmmaker Tyler Taormina presented the follow up to his critically acclaimed 2019 title Ham on Rye. This one is called Christmas Eve in Miller’s Point and stars an ensemble cast of cool, including Hollywood royalty Francesca Scorsese and Sawyer Spielberg — yes that Scorsese and that Spielberg! What Taormina does best, by using images and music to create a mood, is to elicit a feeling of nostalgia in his audience and the applause exploded at the end of the film, at the underground cinema housed inside the Marriott Hotel. When told about the title of this piece and how it relates to his film, Taormina, without missing a beat, admits to Flaunt that “the most problematic conflict in the movie is between a daughter, a mother and a grandmother — three generations of women who can’t really accept the influence of the other.” He also allows that the idea is “pretty central to the film and at the end of the movie, a problematic woman looks at a lost boy — that’s the last shot of the movie!”

Megalopolis courtesy of American Zoetrope

Last but not least, there were two films in the main Competition which also featured lost boys, yet ones who found their way through the women the encountered. Two tales of cinematic courage, which went unrewarded when it came to awards night. One probably because the puritanical elements on the jury found its technicolor sex motel setting and sultry atmosphere too hot to handle, the other because it takes a true visionary to make a film which audiences twenty years from now will enjoy.

Yes, we’re talking about Karim Aïnouz’s smoldering masterpiece Motel Destino and Francis Ford Coppola’s film to end all films Megalopolis. Of course you may be thinking, Sean Baker’s woman-centric story Anora, the tragicomedy of a sex worker featuring violence and hysteria won the Palme d’Or, but if a story features just good sex, or simply women power, it’s not awards worthy. Who knows why cinema always loves a good female victim.

While Coppola reinvents cinema and makes a film which will eventually be declared a masterpiece, mark our words, a la Apocalypse Now in a few years’ time, for this article the famous last words belong to Aïnouz, whose latest film sees him returning to the Brazilian shores of his youth. If you’re wondering what comes next for the Brazilian-Algerian writer and helmer, Aïnouz will next be working with Kristen Stewart, Josh O’Connor and Elle Fanning on Rosebushpruning, after directing Alicia Vikander and Jude Law in Firebrand, which releases in the States on June 14th.

“I feel that I’m at the service of characters, but I also don’t judge how my own private and personal experiences can leak into my characters. Also, one of the reasons I wanted to make this film is that I come from a place in Brazil which is very much on the periphery of Rio and São Paulo and there are very little films made there and very few faces of people from there in films…” Aïnouz continues explaining in his gentle manner, in his worldly, international accent “so more than directing my characters, I feel myself always at the service of the story, and at the service of my characters.”

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Flaunt Magazine, Cannes Film Festival, Art, E. Nina Rothe