“Armageddon Time” and “Triangle of Sadness” Tackle Classism at Cannes

Plus: "Aftersun" becomes an early favorite at the French festival

May 23, 2022 6:15 am
Armageddon Time
Anthony Hopkins and Brooks Repeta in "Armageddon Time."
Cannes Film Festival

Impressions from a Saturday-morning run along the Croisette, past the resort hotels’ private beach clubs and in the shadow of palm trees: There are a lot more yachts this year than in the pandemic-shrunk 2021 festival, which makes sense; there have been a lot more parties in those private beach clubs, or maybe that I’ve just been invited to more, and every distributor or production company or organization is itching to splash company money on an open bar and a whiff of the glamour that keeps tourists thronged outside the Marriott all day, hoping for a glimpse of someone emerging to a waiting courtesy car. There are a lot more deals — the Marché du Film, the accompanying industry conference and financing, was virtual last year and is back this year at pre-pandemic attendance, even though it’s a waste of money, because who’d miss this? The balconies of the hotels are festooned with signage for national film funds or packaged deals seeking to attract laundered money with some combination of title, treatment, cast and concept art already locked in. I saw one for Expendables 4 (“They’ll die when they’re dead.”), and a guy posing for pictures in front of one of the nice white hotels holding a handmade billboard for something called “Turk in Hollywood 2.” And there’s a lot more people making content. I had to alter my jogging path around a girl on rollerskates.

Cannes, as I mentioned last week, as part of its partnership with TikTok, has invited major influencers to come here and make red-carpet videos, and is holding a short film competition on the platform; the jury president is the Cambodian director Rithy Panh, a good pick given his own wonderfully inventive and resourceful use of unconventional filmmaking tools in his Khemer Rouge documentary The Missing Picture, which used clay figurines and dioramas to stand in for the stories lost to genocide. I say he “is” the jury president, which is correct as of this writing: Panh resigned last week, saying that TikTok’s marketing team was pressuring the jury to honor already well-known creators; Panh and the other jurors returned this weekend, having received assurances of their artistic freedom, so I guess that’s all okay now.

As for the movies, the 2022 Cannes Festival achieved discourse liftoff on Thursday night with James Gray’s Armageddon Time. The film takes its title from the reggae song “Armagideon Time” by Willie Williams, the one that goes “A lot of people won’t get no supper tonight” — or, rather, the film takes its title from the cover of the song by The Clash, which appears on the soundtrack throughout. Joe Strummer, the lead singer of The Clash, was a committed Leftist who cared deeply about social justice and covered a lot of reggae songs — possibly because he felt guilty about being the private school–educated son of a British official in colonial India. That backstory is very germane to the film, which Gray has called straight autobiography, down to building an exact soundstage replica of his childhood home, and which is about a young, artistically inclined boy who learns to love the emerging genre of hip-hop from a Black classmate, before his parents ship him off to private school and the boys set off on opposite trajectories through a racist society about to become even more unequal (the film is set in the run-up to the election of Ronald Reagan).

Gray has made a number of films drawing on his upbringing in their depictions of tight-knit, clannish Jews of Eastern European descent in outerborough New York City; the films are sometimes period-’80s and often disguised as genre films (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night), but are always classically oriented multigenerational family stories about love, loyalty and a difficult patriarch. Here, the time is 1980 and the place is Flushing, Queens. The artist as a young man is here named Paul Graff (changed after immigration from “Grazenstein”; Gray is shortened from “Grayevsky”), who is 11 as the film begins. Dad is Irving (Jeremy Strong, acting unbelievably hard), whose insecurity about his working-class origins manifests in a disciplinarian streak tending to outright abuse, and an anxious distrust of his son’s artistic ambitions; Paul is closer to his mother (Anne Hathaway), with whom he shares a deep, almost flirtatious affection, and to his adoring and adored grandfather (Anthony Hopkins), who takes him to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park by the old World’s Fair grounds and tells him stories of the Holocaust, memories of oppression which are either about the family’s duty of solidarity or enduring victimhood, despite their middle-class status. At the local public school, class-clown Paul (Banks Repeta) and second-time 6th grader Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb) bond over their love of NASA and cut school to buy Sugarhill Gang records, though as they get into trouble at school Paul’s well-intentioned parents consider sending him to private school. (Their most frequent complaint about the local middle school, that familiar parental refrain about “class size,” may refer to the American middle class in general more than to the number of desks in a room.)

Gray is a frequent presence at Cannes; the French like him better than Americans tend to, possibly because his dialogue plays better as subtitles, and his actors seem expressive and embodied rather than unnatural to non-native English speakers. This is also why his movies grow in my estimation after the fact, as Armageddon Time has done; Gray’s dialogue is so on-the-nose that it’s only thinking back on his movies that you realize it hasn’t exhausted its subtext, and that’s especially true here, when his characters are thinking out loud about their (and Gray’s) relationship to race and privilege. Though Armageddon Time can feel pretty stilted at times, it’s a rich text, with more richness just outside the frame. Sometimes literally so: When the Graffs take a detour driving home to look through a more expensive neighborhood and look at the nice houses, Gray’s camera stays on Hathaway in a dreamy aspirational reverie, gazing out the car window and admiring a mock Tudor, the reflection of which shimmers briefly on the windshield. The neighborhood they’re driving through is probably Jamaica Estates; it’s entirely possible that Hathaway’s dream home is the house Donald Trump grew up in.

The Trumps are a big part of Armageddon Time, as they were was in Queens around then, and in Gray’s own life — Fred was a major donor and alumna parent at Kew-Forest School, the prep school lightly fictionalized here, and he’s a significant character in this film as well (played by John Diehl of TV’s Miami Vice among many other credits). His unsubtle school assembly speech, encouraging the students to live up to their elite tradition, on the one hand contrasts with Paul’s parents’ awareness of, and guilt about, their good fortune in an unfair world — and, on the other hand, doesn’t contrast with it at all. Another bit of New York history lurking just out of frame in Armageddon Time is the cresting crime wave of the 1980s, and the splintering relations between the city’s Black and Jewish communities: though Irving Graff thinks Reagan is a “schmuck,” I’d be willing to bet the Crown Heights riots convinced him to vote for Giuliani instead of Dinkins.

Armageddon Time resonates throughout much of Cannes. Because we’re here, on the French Riviera, looking out at the azure-blue Mediterranean, where rich people swim and asylum-seekers drown and Tom Cruise flies away in his helicopter, stories about class, migration and colonial wrongs coming home to roost are a frequent and sharp theme in the program; Ruben Ostlund’s Competition title Triangle of Sadness eats the rich with especial gusto. Set in three chapters across a couple of milieus crucial to the Cannes experience — the fashion industry and a superyacht — before its finale as a sort of Lord of the Flies/Gilligan’s Island mash-up on a desert island, it’s a farce in which class as well as gender roles relations are exaggerated, destroyed and inverted in turn.

Ostlund, who undeservedly won the Palme d’Or in 2017 with his barbed but obvious satire of the art-world bourgeoisie The Square and whose ski-resort crisis-of-masculinity comedy Force Majeure similarly skewed the insecurities, atavism and uselessness of the 1% at play, is with Triangle of Sadness working in a broad, hubristic mode that fits both the scope of his ambitions and the obviousness of his ideas. Two-and-a-half hours long, with massive setpieces making use of locations including a 100-foot vessel once owned by Aristotle Onassis and an equally extravagant widescreen frame, its brilliantly paced, openly contemptuous scenes peel back inequities and privileged assumptions layer after uncomfortable and absurd layer. Talk about vulgar Marxism: After a storm disrupts a formal dinner, socialist cruise-ship captain Woody Harrelson and a Russian fertilizer-magnate oligarch drink themselves into a stupor and take turns looking up quotes about communism on their smartphones, while the influencers and trophy wives shit and puke themselves silly belowdecks.

Another aspect of Armageddon Time echoes in the festival’s breakout hit, and one of its best films so far, writer-director Charlotte Wells’s debut Aftersun, in the smaller Critics Week film selection. Starring Paul Mescal and newcomer Frankie Corio as a young father and clever daughter on holiday in Turkey in the 1990s, it, like Gray’s film, is a poignantly poised and obviously autobiographical attempt by a filmmaker to look back at her parents with an adult’s understanding, both an act of forgiveness and an acknowledgement that there is something to forgive.

Sophie, who’s just turned 11, and Calum, who’s about to turn 31, rock up to a budget hotel across the road from an all-inclusive resort whose video arcade and buffet they make liberal use of; they lounge poolside, and go on diving and day-tour excursions that give Wells the space to craft an already accomplished poetic-realist style. Father and daughter bond as near-equals on what seems to be a loving dad’s one week per year on duty and film each other with a new camcorder. Interviewing her dad, Sophie asks him: When you were my age, where did you think you’d be at 30? Implicit in the camcorder motif is a sense of memory, of fuzzy impressions imperfectly grasped and understood in retrospect. The ’90s setting makes Sophy Calum’s age now, and also gives the film license to a tender soundtrack for its escalating series of gut-punch endings. Acquired by the streaming service and arthouse distributor Mubi for the UK and Ireland, major European territories, India and Latin America, it will surely be en route to the US in time to make year-end Top 10 lists.

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