Cannes film reviews: Anatomy of a Fall, May December, Asteroid City, Perfect Days

Written by on May 26, 2023

After her mesmerising turn as a Nazi Hausfrau in Jonathan Glazer’s astonishing The Zone of Interest, Sandra Hüller is at the centre of another standout film in the Cannes Film Festival’s Competition strand. Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall is a crackling crime and courtroom drama in which the German actor plays a writer accused of killing her husband.

Triet builds a taut did-she-do-it tension while also working in discomfiting questions about marital power dynamics and how much an artist’s work really reveals about their character. It also contains an unexpectedly chilling use of a bouncy 50 Cent hip-hop anthem. Set in the French Alps, the film reaches a shrill peak in a scene of escalating argument, Hüller exhibiting the same control as in The Zone of Interest while almost frothing at the mouth. She deserves a Cannes Best Actress prize, if not two.


Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth, left, prepares to play the part of Julianne Moore’s Gracie in ‘May December’ © Francois Duhamel

Another strained marriage is at the centre of Todd Haynes’s May December, which casts Julianne Moore as Gracie, a sex offender turned cake-making mother of a large Georgia brood, and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth, the actor preparing to play her in a movie. Gracie is twitchy even before Elizabeth arrives. The camera zooms in as she opens the fridge and melodramatic chords signal disaster. “I don’t think we have enough hot dogs,” she gasps.

If this is now the height of her problems, it wasn’t always so. She and younger husband Joe (Charles Melton) survived a tabloid feeding frenzy 20 years earlier. Their first encounter was no meet-cute but a romp in the back room of a pet store when Joe was just 13. Nowadays he tends to his own teenage children, who are preparing to fly the nest, and keeps butterflies (their metaphorical meaning made groaningly obvious).

The initial premise is promising, but Haynes tries to have his cake and eat it too, asking us to take the troubling subject of a marriage founded on statutory rape seriously while making ironic gestures towards the soapy excesses of telenovelas.


A woman sits staring out of an open window surrounded by a desert landscape
Scarlett Johansson in Wes Anderson’s ‘Asteroid City’ © Courtesy of Pop. 87 Productions/Focus Features

The stars align for Asteroid City, whose cast list reads like an A-list phone directory. A minutely arranged homage to 1950s space nerds and star-crossed lovers, Wes Anderson’s latest is set at an amateur astronomers’ convention in a desert the colour of Dorito dust. All the retro stylings are present and correct, the director ingeniously turning a 3D world into a series of 2D tableaux and filling them with myriad meta details. The landscape resembles a Road Runner cartoon even before Anderson introduces his own mechanical roadrunner.

It’s guaranteed to delight devout Wes-heads but unlikely to convert those who have strayed from the faith, even if it’s an improvement on The French Dispatch. The new film at least has an emotional centre, with Jason Schwartzman’s freshly widowed war-photographer dad wooing Scarlett Johansson’s movie-star single mom through a window. There’s even a dash of gentle satire: “America remains at peace” runs a slogan even as cold war mushroom clouds rise in the background.


A man in overalls and a young woman sit smiling on a bench surrounded by trees
Kōji Yakusho and Arisa Nakano enjoy life’s little pleasures in ‘Perfect Days’

There is more comic whimsy in Perfect Days, a superior Japanese-language contender from Wim Wenders. It’s tempting to call it the German director’s best film since last Wednesday, when his 3D documentary portrait of the painter Anselm Kiefer premiered. In fact, you would have to go much further back to find a better feature from the maker of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire.

It doesn’t sound promising on paper: Wenders swaps paintbrush for toilet brush in the unexpectedly buoyant story of an itinerant Tokyo public lavatory cleaner. The taciturn Hirayama (a marvellous Kōji Yakusho) is patient and meticulous in his work; Wenders is too, both men finding a fascination in the everyday. This is an ode to life’s little pleasures: Hirayama listens to a favourite song on his way to work, retires to bed with a good book, enjoys an unexpected visit from a niece with whom he gets on well.

An excitable colleague tries to convince him to trade in his newly fashionable vintage cassettes — David Bowie, Lou Reed, Nina Simone — for large amounts of cash but Hirayama is serenely content with his lot. The film’s subtitle could be Zen and the Art of Toilet Maintenance. We lovers of arthouse movies have learnt to fear the worst: as the days pass without dramatic incident we keep waiting for the hammer to fall. It would be a spoiler to reveal if it does, but suffice to say that Wenders leaves you smiling. Until, that is, you realise the small fortune you could have made on your old tapes.


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