A Vigilant Steve McQueen, a Misguided Maïwenn and Other Cannes Scenes

“Occupied City,” a documentary from the “12 Years a Slave” filmmaker, proves ambitious. “Jeanne du Barry,” with Johnny Depp, was an unfortunate kickoff.

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By Manohla Dargis

Reporting from Cannes, France.

If you are ever at a festival that’s showing a new movie from the British director Steve McQueen and he happens to be in the theater and you’re tempted to look at your phone, don’t. There’s a chance that McQueen will get out of his seat, cross the aisle and persuade you to redirect your attention to the big screen, which is exactly what he did Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival when a mystery offender (not me!) fired up a bright little screen during the premiere of his documentary, “Occupied City.”

I wanted all my attention on McQueen’s movie, which is being presented out of the main competition. The documentary is heroic in scope and ambition, with a nearly four-and-a-half-hour run time, intermission included. With formal rigor and adamant focus, it maps — street by street, address by address — the catastrophe that befell Amsterdam’s Jewish population in World War II. Narrated with implacable calm by a British actress, Melanie Hyams, it was written by McQueen’s wife, Bianca Stigter, and inspired by her book “Atlas of an Occupied City: Amsterdam 1940-1945.” (Stigter, who’s Dutch, also directed the 2022 documentary “Three Minutes: A Lengthening.”)

The last time McQueen, who’s best known for directing “12 Years a Slave,” would have had new work at Cannes was 2020, when the festival was canceled. The pandemic plays a notable role in “Occupied City,” which consists entirely of material of present-day Amsterdam, including images of anti-lockdown protests. The juxtaposition of the voice-over and these protests — with their marching cops and running crowds — initially feels like a provocation, almost as if McQueen were equating the Holocaust with lockdowns. As the movie’s grim accounting continues, though, the juxtaposition only underscores how blissfully privileged these protesters are to be able to gather, love, pray and simply live.

The stars and the red carpet dominate the world’s attention during Cannes, but it’s the festival’s unwavering, serious commitment to film art that remains its greatest strength. There are always questionable and seemingly mercenary programming choices, as at any festival, and the halls of the event’s headquarters invariably hum with rumors about back-room deals and quotas. It’s unclear why the organizers — led by the festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux — decided to kick off this year’s event with “Jeanne du Barry,” a particularly unfortunate choice for a festival with a history of bad openers.

Presumably Johnny Depp, a heat-seeking target for the armies of paparazzi amassed here, helps explain the movie’s presence. Whatever the case, on Tuesday, some 3,000 festivalgoers — and audiences who saw it simultaneously in cinemas across France — trooped into theaters to watch this bore. Directed by Maïwenn, who also stars, the movie tracks its title character from her pastoral rural childhood to her cosseted, apparently fabulous adulthood as a celebrated Parisian courtesan, fame that eventually led her directly into the bespoke bed of Louis XV.

The king is played by a powdered and bewigged Depp, who looks suitably indolent, though perhaps because he’s underused. It isn’t much of a part. The king is mainly there to look gaga at Jeanne, which he does a great deal, though it’s a tough call whether Louis lavishes as much attention on Jeanne as Maïwenn does. Among all the close-ups of Jeanne giggling, Maïwenn folds in some palace intrigue and the briefest nod at the terror to come. Yet while Maïwenn draws attention to her lover’s son, the future, ill-fated Louis XVI, his main role is to serve as an ally to Jeanne in the viperous Versailles court.

That most of the vipers are women is an index of the movie’s narrow horizons and parochial attitudes. It seeks to celebrate Jeanne, portraying her as a joyously emancipated woman, never mind that her liberation is entirely contingent on pleasuring men. She wears pants, she loves sex, she’s kind to the Black child Louis gives her as a gift! Yet while most everyone at court frowns upon Jeanne, Maïwenn primarily focuses on the torments that the court ladies visit on her, suggesting that the big problem at Versailles in the 18th century was the bitter jealousy of spoiled and uptight women.

“Jeanne du Barry” ends before the guillotine makes an appearance, unfortunately. It was an exasperating way to start this year’s festival given how hard women have fought to be taken seriously here. There’s some comfort that “Jeanne” isn’t contending for the Palme d’Or, which would be an embarrassment, but is being presented out of competition. Other titles out of the running include two of the hottest tickets here: Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” directed by James Mangold. (I’ll have more to say about both after their premieres.)

Both the Scorsese and “Indiana Jones” will jolt the festival, which has been fairly sleepy since Depp and company came and went. I liked two competition titles that screened early, “Le Retour,” from the French filmmaker Catherine Corsini, and “Monster,” from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Both are moving family dramas, with “Le Retour” centered on three Black Frenchwomen during a fraught interlude in Corsica. Like Kore-eda — whose movie is a characteristically poignant drama about an anguished fifth grader — Corsini uses family to reflect on larger issues without losing sight of the characters’ intimate struggles. Both movies appeal to your intellect while drawing tears.

Corsini is one of the seven women with a movie in the 21-title main lineup, which is a very good number. Cannes has always been happy to have young, beautiful women in gowns and high heels ornamenting its red carpet, but it has been far less welcoming to women who also make movies. The Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman, one of the giants of contemporary cinema, had three movies in the official program while she was alive (she died in 2015), none in the main competition. Another titan of the art, Agnès Varda, had nearly a dozen movies at Cannes, but only one was chosen for the main competition: her 1962 film “Cléo From 5 to 7.” At least the festival named one of its theaters after her.

Some of the seven women are competing for the first time; a few, like the French director Catherine Breillat — here with “Last Summer” — are returning. Breillat was at Cannes in 2007 with “The Last Mistress,” a raw, exuberant, impolite period piece about women and desire starring Asia Argento. A few years later, in 2018, Argento shook up the festival when, onstage during the closing ceremony, she announced that she had been raped by Harvey Weinstein at the 1997 event. “This festival was his hunting ground,” Argento said, bringing the #MeToo movement to Cannes with a fury. (Argento was later accused of sexually assaulting an underage male actor, which she denied.)

Cannes organizers tend to wave off criticism, but whatever their public position toward the complaints lobbed their way, including from many women over many frustrating decades, they clearly pay attention, as suggested by the record number of women in the main competition. This record matters because Cannes does. The festival doesn’t simply command the world’s attention each year; it makes careers, revives reputations, confers status, makes the next deal (or two) possible and serves as a crucial run-up to the Academy Awards. More important, Cannes publicly and very prominently bequeaths rarefied status on filmmakers, a status that has historically been granted to men.

This isn’t simply because women like Akerman and Varda have had far fewer opportunities to direct than men. Neither artist needed Cannes’s benediction; they were brilliant filmmakers without its regular love. It’s difficult to quantify how (if) their careers would have been different if they had been in regular contention. But it’s also hard not to think that their careers would have been easier and the money would have flowed more generously in their direction if they’d been routinely programmed alongside the festival’s many beloved male auteurs. Certainly Varda and Akerman would have done right as the head of the jury, a position enjoyed this year by Ruben Ostlund, who’s won the Palme twice. I hope that his choices are better than his movies.

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