“Anora” and a Victory for American Indie Film Wrap Up Cannes 2024

...but was "All We Imagine As Light" more deserving?

May 28, 2024 12:24 pm
Cannes Anora
Sean Baker poses with the trophy during a photocall after he won the Palme d'Or for the film "Anora" at Cannes.
Anadolu via Getty Images

This is the fifth and final installment of the 2024 edition of the French Dispatches, our on-the-ground coverage of the Cannes Film Festival.

It was an American jury president, Greta Gerwig, who awarded the Palme d’Or to Sean Baker on Saturday night, as it was an American president, Robert De Niro, who awarded the Palme to the last American winner, Terrence Malick, for The Tree of Life in 2011, and an American, Quentin Tarantino, who gave it to the last American winner before that, Michael Moore, for Fahrenheit 9/11, in 2004. The year prior, when Patrice Chéreau’s’ jury controversially gave it to Gus Van Sant for Elephant, remains the last time an American has won the Palme from a jury that wasn’t led by a countryman; when Tarantino won in 1994, the jury president was Clint Eastwood (yes!), but that was the culmination of a run of four American films in six years to win the Palme, following Steven Soderbergh for Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989 (jury president Wim Wenders), David Lynch for Wild at Heart in 1990 (jury president Bernardo Bertolucci) and Joel and Ethan Coen for Barton Fink in 1991 (jury president Roman Polanski). Anora’s win feels like a return, in some ways, to those days, when the eyes of the global film world were fixed on the American indie boom, in full flower in the decade-plus that followed the founding of the Sundance Film Festival. Anora is likewise a brash, stylish, populist film, and likewise part of a meaningful moment in the American independent film.

Baker makes films that are sexy and sentimental, about marginal people, American dreamers, hustling against a backdrop of real, lovingly seedy locations; it’s the kind of New Hollywood throwback that’s always played well internationally because it looks like what America looks like from far away. At the same time, Baker’s preference for clubby lighting and Top 40 needle-drops, his films’ frankness about sex (more often than not from a female point-of-view) and their easily teased-out class subtext, are all in line with the catchiest traits associated with today’s two major tastemaking American independent studios, A24 (which put out Baker’s The Florida Project and Red Rocket) and Neon.

Much has been made about the fact that Neon has “won” five Palme d’Ors in a row — that is, they’ve been the U.S. distributor for Parasite, Titane, Triangle of Sadness, Anatomy of a Fall and now Anora. This is obviously misleading: there are other territories, and no one cares who’s released the last five Palme d’Or winners in Italy, say, or India. Neon secured the U.S. rights for Parasite and Titane well before they came to Cannes, and deals for Triangle of Sadness and Anatomy of a Fall were closed at the festival, but Anora is the first time Neon has had a significant hand in the development of a Palme winner, and that does feel genuinely important, as a sign of artistic vitality outside the major Hollywood studios during a period when our theatrical exhibition environment is so top-heavy and embattled.

When I wrote, last week, that I wasn’t sure I’d seen the Palme d’Or winner yet, that was partly a reflection on the buzz on the ground, partly a reflection of the films I’d see so far — Anora was genuinely the first film that felt, barring a left-field jury choice, like it had the juice to go all the way, but it’s not as good as Red Rocket (granted, surprisingly few directors have actually won the Palme for their best movie).

But I also said that because, all along, everyone in Cannes had been anticipating the arrival of two of the last films to screen in the Competition, Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light and Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig, which premiered late Thursday night and Friday afternoon, respectively. It was no surprise when the teams for both films appeared on the red carpet again on Saturday night, along with the teams for Emilia Pérez and The Substance; the only suspense was over who would win which award — those five films were the ones widely expected to share the major prizes, including at least one of the acting prizes, and the only suspense was over who would win what. (Francis Ford Coppola was also there, to present an honorary Palme prize to George Lucas, who gave an irascible master class the day before; but we all knew Megalopolis wasn’t in the running.)

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As it happened, there were surprises aplenty: The Substance settled for Best Screenplay, the least prestigious prize it could have claimed, sort of a musical-chairs pick, though even without a Cannes prize Demi Moore is well set up for a big campaign this fall. That left Anora’s Mikey Madison or Emilia Pérez’s Karla Sofia Gascon for Best Actress, but in a twist, Greta Gerwig, the director of Little Women, acknowledged another female foursome, giving the prize not just to Gascon but to her costars Adriana Paz, Selena Gomez and Zoe Saldaña. Sisterhood! The prize for Gascon, a trans woman, is a milestone, and the phrase “Cannes Best Actress winner Selena Gomez” has a frankly amazing ring to it. Emilia Pérez also took the Jury Prize, basically third place it’s been years since a film has doubled up on awards, and as it happens it meant that Rasoulof’s film, an intense family drama against the tumultuous backdrop of the Iranian women’s protests of 2023, made in secret and imbued with a prosaic urgency, was relegated to a “Special Prize” acknowledging Rasoulof and his collaborators’ bravery in making it, and the relief in the West that he had escaped the country before being condemned by his government to a politically motivated prison sentence (including floggings). The choice to honor the man, not the film, is striking, but I don’t think harsh — Sacred Fig is powerful and passionate but also quite on-the-nose and tonally uneven. (Though equally its flaws and rawness will, in the future, make the film feel like an authentic thinking-through of its own historical moment.)

Best Actor was, delightfully, the absent Jesse Plemons, who like his castmates played three different roles in the three sections of Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness, a “one-for-me” followup to the Oscar-winner Poor Things and a reunion with Efthimis Filippou, his cowriter on his weirder, harsher films prior to The Favourite. A greatest-hits omnibus compiling all of Lanthimos’s stylistic tics — self-mutilation, very unsexy sex, deadpan absurdism, dance interludes — it recombines his usual theme of submission to authority across three obscure parables in which tales with echoes of the Bible (Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac) and Greek mythology (an odysseying seafarer’s return home) play out against a backdrop of contemporary sexual relationships and materialism. The film’s confrontations feel self-amused and arbitrary in the way that Lanthimos’s lesser work often does, but Plemons is a worthy winner, reaching beyond the page to find reservoirs of real human need, like Colin Farrell did in The Lobster, and giving three totally distinct performances while still coloring within Lanthimos’s very tight lines.

It was a delight to see the Portuguese director Miguel Gomes at the ceremony — he’s one of the more intellectually formidable directors in the Competition, but his Grand Tour showcases a playfulness that endeared him to audiences here (at 3.0, it was one of four films on the Screen critics’ grid to crack the three-star line, behind Anora, All We Imagine As Light and Sacred Fig) and his Best Director win is a happy crossover moment. The film hearkens back to his masterpiece Tabu with its silvery backlot recreations of the humid Orient as imagined by ’30s Hollywood; like Tabu, it’s sort of a doomed romance, with the first half of the film following a British diplomat or maybe spy’s wanderings around East Asia, and the second half following his fiancee’s travels in his footsteps, always one step behind. Along with musical interludes and semi-improvised dialogue, Gomes uses contemporary documentary footage as establishing shots for his in-quotations historical narrative, melding different traditions of representation and imagination, exoticism and escapism, from across one hundred years of cinema history. So far the film works better for me formally than conceptually, but I’m glad I get to see it again, hopefully at the end of a week during which I’ve been getting more than four hours of sleep a night.

I was also very glad when, during the ceremony, it really looked like All We Imagine As Light was going to win the Palme — it ended up taking the Grand Prix, basically runner-up, but Kapadia’s film would have been a profoundly narratively satisfying choice, and an acknowledgement of an important voice.

Kapadia’s film, the first Indian film in the Competition in 30 years, is her fiction debut following A Night of Knowing Nothing, a poetic and polemical hybrid documentary about student protests following the installation of a Modi crony as the new head of the Film and Television Institute of India (protests with which Kapadia was herself involved; she was stripped of her scholarship for her activity, though the FTII was quick to claim her triumph as its own when All We Imagine As Light won its big prize). Set in multicultural Mumbai, the film retains some of the essayistic nonfiction texture of her previous work, with a chorus of voiceovers describing life and work in the city overlaid over dreamy, hot-summer-night street-level views of the modern-day city, positioned right on the border between neorealism and impressionism. A drama about two nurses working at the same hospital, the film covers the displacements of economic migrants both domestic and international; the precarious status of India’s ethnic and religious minorities; the agency of professional women running up against both the restrictions of tradition and the false promises of a modern gentrifying metropolis; and the intimacy of care work. Like Alice Rohrwacher’s brilliant La Chimera, the film is so fleet and tactile that it shifts right under your eyes into something lyrical and magical, but it’s also wryly observed and quite funny. In one standout scene, two of the nurses look over photos of arranged-marriage prospects and roast each of the men in turn (“he looks like an eggplant”); in its mix of female camaraderie, tender sacrilege and palpable context of contested sexual and economic independence, the scene is not a million miles off from… something out of a Sean Baker movie, though filtered through the elliptical eloquence and buried yearning of a Claire Denis domestic drama, like 35 Shots of Rum.  

More than any other film this year, All We Imagine As Light gave me the experience I treasure most at Cannes: sitting down in the Debussy next to my friends, watching a movie none of us know anything about, and then filing out to mill around in the cool midnight air, abuzz at having really seen something. 

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