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Cannes 2024: Jia, Audiard, Fargeat

Zhao Tao in Jia Zhangke’s Caught by the Tides (2024)

By Sunday night, half of the films competing for the Palme d’Or in Cannes had premiered. For one day, the highest-rated of these eleven films on both the oldest English-language critics’ jury grid, Screen International’s, and the newest, Moirée, was one and the same, Jia Zhangke’s Caught by the Tides. On Monday, Carolie Fargeat’s The Substance edged Tides down a notch at Screen, but Jia’s film remains far and away the favorite at Moirée.

Naturally, we shouldn’t lend too much credence to the numerical scores critics assign between crowded press screenings and frenzied writing sessions. Terry Ilott, who was Screen’s editor when the trade launched its grid in Cannes in 1984, recalled last year that the idea was met at the time with “mixed feelings” among critics, filmmakers, and festival organizers alike. “Who wants their considered and carefully weighted judgments reduced to just one, two, or three stars?” he asked. “And who wants to bump into an irate filmmaker on the Croisette?”

But it’s tough to resist at least a glance at a grid where the New Yorker’s Justin Chang and Time’s Stephanie Zacharek are granting (or withholding) stars, and the same goes for Moirée, newly launched this year and featuring ratings from contributors to MUBI’s Notebook, Filmmaker, and Film Comment. Like Moirée, the grid at the International Cinephile Society gathers grades from such critics as Guy Lodge (Variety, the Observer) and Ela Bittencourt (Sight and Sound) for films premiering in every section at Cannes, not just the competition—though, there, too, as of this writing, Jia is soaring highest.

Caught by the Tides

When Jia got his hands on a new digital camera in 2001, he and his friends were so excited by its potential that they began dreaming up and shooting scenarios on the fly. “This habit of shooting lasted for quite a long time and eventually overlapped with my fictional filmmaking,” he tells Patrick Brzeski in the Hollywood Reporter. “When I was shooting my fictional features, if I noticed something interesting happening near where we were filming, I would stop production for a day or two and go shoot some material in this improvisational way.”

Over the years, the technology improved and the loose footage began stacking up and gathering heft. When the pandemic hit, Jia decided to sort through it all and shape it into a narrative. “The big idea I had was to make a big, epic panorama of China,” he says, and after shooting a few fresh scenes and spending two years at the editing table, he realized that he had created something “very personal.”

Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and the star of most of his features, was at his side throughout the entire process, and he says she told him “how these past twenty years have also been a journey for her of self-empowerment as a woman. And you could see this in the footage—the ways that she grew over this time period as a person. You could perceive how she found herself and became stronger during the course of all of those years.”

In Jia’s Unknown Pleasures (2002), Zhao played Qiao Qiao, a singer, dancer, and model who bears a close resemblance to her Qiao Qiao in Caught by the Tides. Her manager, Guo Bin (Li Zhubin), is also her lover—until the day he texts her, telling her that he’s left their hometown, the northeastern city of Datong, and he’ll send for her when he can afford to have her join him. When that doesn’t happen, Qiao Qiao sets out to find him on a journey that takes her through regions where millions were displaced in the mid-2000s during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.

“Here, even more so than in his sweeping epics Mountains May Depart and Ash Is Purest White,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich, “Jia’s focus is squarely on resilience instead of erosion. How do we maintain a coherent sense of self, let alone love somebody else, in a world so volatile and impermanent that people will sink centuries of history to the bottom of the sea just to make way for tomorrow?”

The final sequences take us to the present day and feature “one of the most perfect scenes the director has ever shot, capping off what surely must be one of his most exhilarating and profound works to date,” writes David Jenkins at Little White Lies. “And it must be noted that this is the confirmation (were it needed) that Zhao Tao is one of, if not the, greatest living screen actor.” The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney agrees that “Zhao’s face is one of the most transfixingly expressive in modern cinema, and her long collaboration with her husband Jia stands among the screen’s greatest actress-director unions.”

“Loosely speaking a love story, Tides is also perhaps the most definitive national portrait that Jia, modern China’s foremost cinematic chronicler, has ever delivered,” writes Jessica Kiang for Variety. “This is what it might look like if the eye of the storm of twenty-first-century China’s many transformations could tell us what it saw.” Jia’s “risky experiment is so uncannily successful that it is possible to come away from Tides with the whimsical impression that this was the film he was building toward all this time, as though all those lauded previous movies were simply him amassing the raw material for this one.”

Emilia Pérez

Tides is “a masterpiece” and “the best thing at Cannes so far, but it’s getting completely lost in the discourse because the festival scheduled it between Emilia Pérez and The Substance,” tweets Bilge Ebiri. While both films sandwiching Tides have scored a first round of solid reviews—on Screen’s grid, Emilia Pérez places a very close third behind The Substance and Tides—both have also prompted a few vigorous pans. “It’s funny,” tweets Guy Lodge, “because on paper, a trans cartel musical directed by Jacques Audiard with Zoe Saldaña and Selena Gomez sounds absolutely horrific. But in practice? Somehow, somehow, it’s even worse than that.”

Freely adapted from Boris Razon’s 2018 novel Écoute and featuring songs by Camille and a score by her partner, Clément Ducol, the tenth feature from Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone, Dheepan) stars Saldaña as Rita, a Mexico City lawyer called in by a cartel boss, Manitas (Karla Sofía Gascón), to carry out a secret mission. Manitas intends to stage his own death and become who she really is, Emilia, and when she does, she finds herself missing her wife (Gomez) and kids. Emilia returns to the fold as a long-lost aunt and teams up with Rita to seek justice for the “disappeared,” the thousands of missing victims of Mexico’s drug wars.

“That’s a more than risky conceit,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson, “but Audiard’s steadfast refusal to play it as a joke—this is sincere, sentimental filmmaking—proves wholly winning. The film is captivating even before its chief revelation arrives; from the very first song, Emilia Pérez allures and surprises.”

“The baseline is a drama of criminality and redemption,” writes David Rooney, “but then there’s an unforced current of Almodóvarian humor, along with moments of melodrama, noir, social realism, a hint of telenovela camp, and a climactic escalation into suspense, ultimately touched by tragedy.” For the Telegraph’s Tim Robey, Emilia Pérez is “clever, earnest, ridiculous, knowing, forceful and absolutely bonkers. It’s hard to believe [Audiard] pulls it off, but he does.”

“Look,” writes Ebiri at Vulture, “this movie is filled with giant culture war booby traps. Beyond the political battles so often waged over trans issues, it’s also a movie—a god damned musical—made by a bunch of foreigners about Mexico’s devastating drug wars, a film in which an entire number is built around a group of soldiers loading their rifles. It’ll be interesting to see how the world outside of the festival bubble responds to it.”

The Substance

Taking inspiration from Mad Max, Rambo, and Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Coralie Fargeat made Revenge (2018), “a synthesis of exploitation and feminism” and “an impressive, uncompromising feature-directing debut,” wrote A. O. Scott in the New York Times. As inspirations for her second feature, Fargeat cites The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Shining, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. “An immensely, unstoppably, ecstatically demented fairy tale about female self-hatred,” writes David Ehrlich, The Substance “will stop at nothing—and I mean nothing—to explode the ruthless beauty standards that society has inflicted upon women for thousands of years, a burden this camp-adjacent instant classic aspires to cast off with some of the most spectacularly disgusting body horror this side of The Fly or the final minutes of Akira.

“This is one of the most graphic body-horror films I’ve ever seen,” writes Vulture’s Rachel Handler, “managing not only to turn the human body into a revolting canvas of degradation and despair (characters pull out their teeth, rip off their nails, crack their own bones back into place) but rendering all food repulsive.” Demi Moore stars as Elisabeth Sparkle, formerly a movie star and currently a fitness trainer with a television show that has reminded many reviewers of Jane Fonda’s Workout (1982).

Elisabeth overhears network exec Harvey (Dennis Quaid, taking over from Ray Liotta, who passed away before shooting began) grumbling about her aging looks, and when she’s secretly tipped off to the Substance, she doesn’t hesitate to give it a try. Once injected, the Substance induces the birth—out from a long slit along the spine—of a younger self. One mind, two bodies, only one of which can be up and around at any given time, while the other rests in a coma-like state. Elisabeth’s second self, Sue (Margaret Qualley), immediately becomes a star and starts hogging her allotted up-time with terrible consequences for Elisabeth.

The Substance is “cheerfully silly and outrageously indulgent” and “Roger Corman would have loved it,” suggests the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “And as confrontational satire it strikes me as at least as good, or better, than two actual Palme d’Or winners: Julia Ducournau’s Titane and Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness.” Moore “especially connects, deftly negotiating an intense transformation that is probably the most physical acting she’s done since G.I. Jane,” writes Richard Lawson. “It’s a thrill to watch an actor go for broke like this, seemingly so devoted to the cause of their film. Fargeat, for the most part, does not fail that determination.”

At Little White Lies, Hannah Strong wonders why Fargeat is “so intent on highlighting Qualley’s undeniable beauty in a film supposedly critiquing the film industry’s obsession with it. If Fargeat’s intention is to make the audience complicit, she replicates an existing history of horror’s exploitation of women’s bodies rather than turning it on its head.” Strong finds “no compassion here, and certainly no catharsis—just more hagspoiltation and a sense we’ve done this all before.”

The Substance is “an easy sell for any movie YouTuber who’s mildly competent at watering down feminist media theory and defining horror tropes,” writes Mark Asch at InsideHook, “and the archetypal plots it clips are welcome enough: like Seconds, in which a depressed middle-aged husband is surgically reborn as Rock Hudson and tries to fit in with the ’60s zeitgeist, it concerns lifestyle as a product, and the kinds of social and financial capital that accrue or atrophy as a person ages; like The Portrait of Dorian Gray, it concerns the morality of hedonism and the vanity of the young; like Maps to the Stars—Cronenberg again!—it takes a deliberately touristic and stilted view of the entertainment industry. The All About Eve power struggle between the younger and older actress hurtles inexorably towards an outrageous climax on live television, in which, as in the charnel-house finale of Revenge, Fargeat pours out buckets of blood, like a child smearing shit over the walls of the entertainment industry.”

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