2022 Cannes Diary 4: 'De Humani Corporis Fabrica,' 'Crimes of the Future,' 'The Five Devils,' & 'Close'

by C.J. Prince

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday May 28, 2022
Originally published on May 27, 2022

Director Lukas Dhont poses for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Close' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France.
Director Lukas Dhont poses for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Close' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France.  (Source:Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

For the last two years, we've had to pay close attention to the parts of ourselves we normally wouldn't pay much attention to. The presence of a new virus forced us into isolation for protection and suddenly everyone found themselves faced up against the limits of both our own bodies and the knowledge we've gained about them through medical science. Maybe it shouldn't have come as a surprise, then, that two of the biggest standouts at this year's festival are films that look inward, in both cases literally.

It was probably a coincidence that both premiered on the same day, with Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's "De Humani Corporis Fabrica" kicking things off at the Directors' Fortnight. Shot over several years in various hospitals in France, both directors document the human body through various ways, mainly with cameras attached to surgical equipment while doctors perform different operations. This means extreme close-ups on a variety of procedures that break or repair the body, including the brain, spine, prostate, digestive system, and more. Rather than rely on a score or sound design, the footage gets synced up with audio from the operating room, where doctors banter or vent about mundane things while they tinker away. The gruesomeness on screen proved too much for a lot of people attending the screening, and for some the gruesome and unflinching visuals of the film will have them running in the opposite direction.

For those able to get through "De Humani Corporis Fabrica," Castaing-Taylor and Paravel offer up something remarkable, a film where the human body gets rendered into a series of abstract realms that alters how we perceive ourselves. With little context or explanation for what we're seeing, what we usually slot into a scientific or schematic category now becomes something cinematic, letting viewers interpret what they see in whatever way they see fit. That alone would make "De Humanis Corporis Fabrica" a good film, but the film elevates itself through its inclusion of footage outside the body. A roaming lipstick camera, made exclusively for the film to maintain visual consistency with the surgery footage, follows the cavernous hallways and backrooms of the hospital, and at one point travels through the building's pneumatic tube system. A parallel emerges between the external world and our internal world, with the structure of these areas resembling the systems functioning within us. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel take these things that form a part of our everyday lives, open them up, and then invite new ways of seeing through them, which is far and away the greatest achievement I've seen at Cannes.

Lea Seydoux, from left, director David Cronenberg, and Kristen Stewart pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Crimes of the Future' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.
Lea Seydoux, from left, director David Cronenberg, and Kristen Stewart pose for photographers at the photo call for the film 'Crimes of the Future' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.  (Source: Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP)

In the evening, Canadian body horror maestro David Cronenberg unveiled "Crimes of the Future," his first feature in 8 years and one of the most anticipated titles here. In true Cronenberg fashion, he paradoxically fulfilled and subverted expectations. People hoping for the fun, twisted side of the director in films like "Videodrome" will get that here but through a much darker lens, like when the film opens with a mother suffocating her 8-year-old son. And those wanting the warped eroticism of something like "Crash" will get plenty of that here as well, although in a form that rejects a sense of playfulness (conventional sex is referred to dismissively as "the old sex" at one point).

Set in Greece at some point far ahead from now, "Crimes of the Future" shows a world where pain is all but eliminated, a disease called Accelerated Evolution Syndrome causes random organs to grow inside people, and the human body has become the ultimate form of self-expression. Performance artists Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) do live shows where Caprice operates on Saul and removes his new organs from his body, an act of self-control and rejection of the body's changes. The suffocated child at the beginning soon comes into play when the boy's father (Scott Speedman), who's been keeping the body stored in a freezer, pitches an idea to Saul to perform an autopsy on his child and showcase the various new organs within him. At the same time characters revolving around Saul and Caprice start taking interest as well, like two members of an Organ Registry (Don McKellar and Kristen Stewart) and a policeman (Welket Bungué) from a Vice Unit tracking illegal activity involving these new organs. Everything leads to an ongoing division between two sides: those who embrace what they see as the human body's evolution to a new form of life, and those who consider the new organs an aberration that should be treated like a tumor.

I'll admit that it took me a good while to figure out what Cronenberg was up to, and that I would need another watch of "Crimes of the Future" to fully grasp how he builds the various ideas behind this particular vision of his up until the point where everything clicked into place. I was initially a little baffled by what "Crimes" was doing, since it kept throwing new subplots into the mix that seemingly go nowhere and scenes felt like nothing more than meandering attempts at world building. But Cronenberg always has big ideas driving his obsessions, and here it's the idea of the body as reality itself. Similar to how "De Humanis Corporis Fabrica" showed how much the world of our creation mirrors what makes up the human body, Cronenberg takes that further: everything around us is defined through the human form, and therefore the body and the world around it must change in tandem with each other. Cronenberg applies this philosophy to the damage we've wrought on the environment, showing us a future where all of our waste and pollution have finally come to make us reap what we've sown. Most films dealing with ecological horror tend to take a karmic approach of retribution, where humanity tends to be the cause of its own undoing. With "Crimes," Cronenberg proposes something entirely innovative and in some ways even more disturbing. The old human form will make way for a new one, and after centuries of tarnishing our planet we won't be eradicated so much as absorbed into the empire of waste we've made for ourselves.

Back in the Directors' Fortnight, filmmaker Lea Mysius unveiled her anticipated second feature "The Five Devils," a Queer Palm contender with "Blue is the Warmest Color" star Adèle Exarchopoulos. She plays Joanne, the mother of young girl Vicky (Sally Dramé), who has some sort of power that heightens her sense of smell. When Vicky's father Jimmy (Moustapha Mbengue) lets his sister Julia (Swala Emati) stay with them, Joanne freaks out at the idea, hinting at some sort of tragic incident in the past that exiled Julia from town. Vicky finds a bottle in Julia's room containing some sort of oil with a scent so strong it makes her seemingly travel back in time, where the mystery of what happened between her parents and aunt gradually reveals itself.

Gustav De Waele, from left, director Lukas Dhont, Eden Dambrine, and Emilie Dequenne pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Close' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.
Gustav De Waele, from left, director Lukas Dhont, Eden Dambrine, and Emilie Dequenne pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Close' at the 75th international film festival, Cannes.  (Source: AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Mysius' blending of magical realism, queer themes, and family drama with a touch of science fiction makes her film stand out, and it comes as no surprise that "The Five Devils" had early buzz surrounding it (MUBI picked it up for distribution before it even premiered). As unique as the premise may be, it is nonetheless following tropes that are a bit too common in genre films, like a central mystery incident that doesn't get revealed until the final act, even though it's easy to figure it out well beforehand. Mysius' strange concept wrapped up within more familiar forms of story and structure makes it more accessible, and I expect it should gain a lot of fans once general audiences get their eyes on it. That aspect of the film didn't work much for me, but "The Five Devils" has an undeniable pull to it with Mysius' slick directing and Sally Dramé's performance. What resonates more were the gradual reveals involving the relationships between the adult characters, shown through the flashbacks to their teenage years, that provides a stark contrast to where their lives are at in the present day. There's rich territory there involving themes of regret and the repercussions of choices one makes in life, an area I wished Mysius delved into rather than lean into making an elevated genre film. It's a choice that's logical, especially for a filmmaker like her who likely wants to carve out a name for herself, but it's a little too risk averse for my liking.

It's been a strange year for the Official Competition, both in terms of quality and scheduling. On the second last day of the Competition screenings, Lukas Dhont premiered "Close," his second film after his controversial 2018 debut "Girl" won the Camera d'Or, Queer Palm, and a slew of accolades. For his much anticipated sophomore feature, Dhont tells the story of young boys Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav de Waele), best friends who aren't afraid to be affectionate with each other. That all changes once they enter high school, where students pick on them for acting "like a couple," and Leo starts growing distant with Remi in order to stop the teasing. Without getting into details, something happens that permanently destroys their friendship, and from that point "Close" focuses on how the aftermath impacts Leo, Remi, and their families.

It's hard not to go for the obvious and say that, for a film with the title "Close," Dhont's direction creates plenty of distance from his film's subjects. Plenty of shallow focus close-ups put attention on his actors' expressive faces, all of whom do strong work (if the jury decides not to give this one of the bigger awards, Dambrine would be a lock for Best Actor). But the film hinges everything on a turn of events that's a little too obvious in its intent to wring out an emotional response, and a little too reliant on tropes involving portrayals of homosexuality that have always been a sore spot in terms of representation. "Close" is too deliberate in its handling of emotions, with every dramatic moment mapped out with a sort of bland respectability that makes it feel less genuine and more like what's expected with these kinds of stories. Given the success of "Girl" and the strong response to this from some people in the industry (A24 bought the film just hours before its premiere), "Close" will get plenty of success fulfilling those expectations for audiences. Others might find it too simplified to resonate. I'm certain that Dhont or one of his stars will leave Cannes this weekend with a prize, although I wish we could strive to reward something that's willing to aim a bit higher than the middle of the road.