In this fateful year for cinema – if you believe the American industry augurs – the Cannes dramaturgy follows an almost compelling logic. A tasteful, but unfortunately not consistently stylish art house program is framed at the beginning and end of the festival by “Top Gun: Maverick” and Baz Luhrmann’s show revue “Elvis”: two films that could hardly be more different. And still bring up everything that the cinema currently has to offer (and maybe even has to offer) in terms of key stimuli.
The king of rock ‘n’ roll and the king of mash-up cinema – including Doja Cat rapping about “Viva Las Vegas” in a dizzying montage – are a perfect match and a roaring run-in to the festival’s home stretch. Calibrating with the quieter films by Hirokazu Kore-eda, Albert Serra and Kelly Reichardt to come has always been one of Cannes’ great appeal.
The excess of Luhrmann’s cinema (“Romeo and Juliet”, “The Great Gatsby”) finds an aesthetic resonance space in the biography of Elvis Presley (charismatic and sexy: Austin Butler). In any case, the Australian director knows no stopping. Even the Warner Bros studio logo is studded with rhinestones, already in the spirit of late, decadent Vegas Elvis. Counterpart – and narrator – is the “inventor” and longtime manager of the king: Tom Hanks embodies Colonel Parker as a career mephisto in the “Fatsuit”. And compared to his acting, Butler’s acting in the leading role seems almost taken back.
It is remarkable how seriously Luhrmann deals with the appropriation of Afro-American music – blues, rhythm’n’blues, gospel. Young Elvis has an epiphany during a black preacher’s mass, he is friends with BB King and credits Fats Domino as an influence. The director even suggests that the assassination of Martin Luther King was a personal experience for Presley, although for his (white) fans the death of Bobby Kennedy must have been more traumatizing.
To a certain extent, Luhrmann’s film functions like the Las Vegas revue version of an Elvis biopic. A single supercut of biographical moments and hits (partly sung by Butler himself), which propels the plot like a mighty perpetual motion machine. Even the camera emulates this constant movement, heading relentlessly toward Presley’s final residency at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (a central motif in the film). What exactly “Elvis” fascinates about his title character remains difficult to grasp, however, because the insane montage (split screens, double exposures, text over image) alone suggests that everything about Presley’s life is somehow equally interesting.
Another second-rate film, but no less delirious, is Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon, in which a couple of gringos on foreign territory do what the West does to formerly colonized countries: exploit resources, manipulate elections, governments insert. The French director, who has previously made films about both internal and external colonization, takes a novel by Denis Johnson from the 1980s and adapted it into an homage to a popular film genre of the ‘Reagan decade’.
Margaret Qualley, modeled after her mother Andie MacDowell by Denis, plays the journalist Trish, who is stuck in the border country of Nicaragua and Costa Rica without money and a job. While waiting in hotel bars and cheap dives, she encounters all sorts of shady characters such as British businessman Daniel (Joe Alwyn), an American “adviser” (Benny Safdie) and a man from the Costa Rican secret police (Danny Ramirez), each with their own interests bustle
In “Stars at Noon”, however, the political conspiracy increasingly recedes into the background; Denis and cameraman Eric Gautier have eyes above all for Qualley, who embodies the American claim to superiority with femme fatale hard-nosedness who loves to drink. For Denis, who just won the director’s prize in Berlin, this Palmen nomination is late compensation in the long difficult relationship with Cannes. The star vehicle could mean the happy ending of a beautiful festival story this year, because the audience on the Croisette has always remained loyal to it.