cannes napoleon

Cannes Film Festival: Napoleon, The Damned, Simon of the Mountain, The Hyperboreans

The world’s most important film festival is all military might and little cinematic bite.

Cult MTL’s first report from the 2024 Cannes Film Festival features reviews of Napoleon, The Damned, Simon of the Mountain and The Hyperboreans.

It was a rainy morning on the first day of the Cannes Film Festival. Free copies of Variety were handed out on the street, filling garbage bins and left to wrinkle in the rain on benches. On the first few pages of reporting on the opening day, the headline read, “Pics over Politics,” discussing festival director Thierry Frémaux’s opening remarks and the festival’s decision to ban all forms of protest — not just demonstrations, but pins of solidarity, and one can presume that includes an overall discouragement of political speech. “This year we decided to host a festival without polemics, to make sure that the main interest for us all to be here is cinema, so if there are other polemics, it doesn’t concern us,” he said during the press conference. 

Cannes as a town, particularly in the areas surrounding the festival, fully embodies the visions of glamour and excess that one might imagine. The main boulevard across from the Palais, where most of the important screenings and meetings take place, is adorned by every significant designer logo in Europe. Beachside bars and restaurants host extravagant premiere parties. Along the boardwalk, people who want to be seen are dressed in costumes, and extravagant designer outfits are photographed by adoring followers and paparazzi “on the street” photographers. 

One of the most peculiar aspects of this spectacle is that, along with the various festival-goers and hangers-on who try to get their moment in the spotlight, the place overflows with police and military. Over a day, it’s normal to go through three to five security checks, if not more. Military police with machine guns roam, and police vans are parked at nearly every corner. The free, glamorous atmosphere is only possible through brute military strength and constant surveillance. This isn’t a new thing nor a consequence of the festival’s protest ban, as I first assumed. Yet, despite being routine, it feels disingenuous to qualify it as “normal,” even if it’s an increasingly banal aspect of Cannes for frequent festival-goers. Surprisingly, so few people highlight the artificial comfort and freedom the festival celebrates.


On the afternoon of May 14, Frémaux presented the first part of the seven-hour reconstruction of the legendary (and incomplete since 1927) Napoleon vu par Abel Gance. Initially imagined by the silent film director as the first of six films, the first part of the seven hours covers the years of Napoleon’s childhood until the Siege of Toulon, when he was first promoted to brigadier general. Restored by the French Cinémathèque with support from Netflix, the film is a spectacle of extraordinary invention. A cacophony of cinematic techniques ranging from superimposition, rapid montage, colour tinting and cameras strapped to various objects, it’s an extravagant portrait of its subject’s genius. 

As cinémathèque president and great filmmaker Costa-Gavras explained before the projection, it’s more of a poem than a biography. The movie embraces symbolism and the beautiful rhythm of juxtaposition to achieve a work that burns with a searing nationalistic sentiment. It’s a movie that sincerely embraces the idea of destiny, as Napoleon, even as a child, embodies an unusually acute and perceptive military temperament. The camera’s framing similarly etches actor Albert Dieudonné’s strong profile as almost godlike, echoing the proud neoclassical statues of the equally ambitious and disgraced Roman Emperor Julius Caesar. The image of his distinct facial structure is married, through superimposition, with Napoleon’s pet eagle acting as a kind of avatar of an all-seeing eye, symbolizing strength and insight.  

The film’s politics feel like a whiplash of sentiment. The scenes of the revolution, particularly the singing of “La Marseillaise,” embrace the techniques of Soviet montage to capture the spirit of downtrodden people who have taken back control of their country. Yet, the movie similarly wavers with contempt for them, painting the French masses as dirty and bloodthirsty monsters. In one striking sequence, a bitter and misanthropic Napoleon writes in his journals of being repulsed by the ordinary people, as outside of his window, the dirt and blood-stained mob hang people from the rafters. Even taken at face value, it’s unclear whether the sequence is meant as a means of uplifting Napoleon as a singular figure of moral clarity or foreshadowing of the eventual fall of a man who, despite his humble origins and strategic mind, turned against the values of the Revolution as soon as he had a taste for power.

Without the context of the complete project, which was never realized due to various constraints, Napoleon vu par Abel Gance stands as a celebration. Some critics viewed it as staunchly right-wing at the time of the film’s release. One critic, Léon Moussinac, wrote of the film that Gance’s Napoleon was “a Bonaparte for budding fascists.” 

Napoleon works as a soaring representation of the best and worst Cannes has to offer. It’s a glowing vision of France’s supremacy, fantastic mythmaking at its finest. It’s a film that still feels as modern as ever. Gance’s extravagance is matched only by Godard in its use of decomposition and reconstruction in its screen images. It’s a movie with a troubled exhibition history, never screened in its entirety, as its complexity and length made it prohibitively difficult to screen. Now, partially sponsored by Netflix, it will likely be available to a larger audience than ever but at a high cost: it is now art flattened into content, a project for the back catalogue, a signal of vague prestige for a tech company that has minimal regard for actual art. 

The Damned

The Damned (directed by Roberto Minervini) screened at Cannes 2024
The Damned (directed by Roberto Minervini) screened at Cannes 2024

Playing as part of the Cannes series Un Certain Regard, The Damned, the latest film from Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini (The Other Side), is set in the winter of 1862, during the American Civil War. The movie opens with a dreamy documentary sequence of wolves eating a dead animal in the snow. An anti-war film loosely structured around a volunteer unit dispatched to patrol the uncharted borderlands along the western territories, the film focuses on the disillusionment of the unit throughout their mission. 

Structured around shots of nature and repose and increasingly harsh weather conditions, the troupe of ill-prepared men discuss their backgrounds and reasons for joining the war. The film is often hazy, drifting along as if it were a half-remembered dream. The non-actors are almost Bressonian in their flat affectation; their faces are frequently too clean and beautiful to translate the weariness of their conditions. It’s a film that at once feels frustratingly slight and overly sentimental, unable to stand out among other films that move to capture the mundane horrors of war. Unfortunately, The Damned plays out in a way that’s just as vague as director Minervini’s introduction, which summarized the film as one that captures the moment’s pain. He never specifies what these pains are, or emphasizes any call to action. The film says little more than he did.

Simon of the Mountain

Simon of the Mountain (directed by Federico Luis Tachella), screened at Cannes 2024
Simon of the Mountain (directed by Federico Luis Tachella), screened at Cannes 2024

The opening film of La Semaine de la Critique, Simon of the Mountain was overall more compelling than The Damned, but ultimately suffers from similar issues. A first feature film by Argentine filmmaker Federico Luis Tachella, the movie is nonetheless filled with transgressive scenes that challenge artistic depictions of handicapped and special needs characters. Centred on the titular Simon, who may or may not be handicapped, the film follows him as he becomes close with a group of teens and young adults who require special care. The film depicts its characters with unfailing honesty, presenting them as flawed and complex human beings. Simon’s journey is steeped in ambiguity, as his behaviour remains consistently inscrutable and his alienation conveniently vague. The performances are the stand-out element, along with a few choice scenes, including the profanely sacred opening sandstorm. 

Yet, the film can’t quite escape the shackles of the “festival film” formula. It adopts a “serious” “naturalism” that is richer than the average Hollywood film but aspires towards a similarly bland prestige aesthetic. It’s representative of the prevalent type of movies on the festival circuit that checks a lot of boxes without creating something singular or ambitious. Despite its more transgressive subject matter, the film feels catered towards the festival aesthetic, failing to challenge the audience and using ambiguity as a crutch. If Netflix fills itself up on middling social dramas and romances, most arthouse festivals pad themselves on films like Simon of the Mountain. Less an issue with the filmmaker than how we consume films in 2024, the movie feels symbolic of a somewhat uncomfortable reality about contemporary festivals: they are now rarely at the forefront of showcasing truly new cinematic voices.

The Hyperboreans

The Hyperboreans (directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña), screened at Cannes 2024
The Hyperboreans (directed by Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña), screened at Cannes 2024

On the other end of the spectrum is the audacious (though flawed film The Hyperboreans, which screened as part of the Director’s Fortnight. Chilean filmmaking duo Cristóbal León and Joaquín Cociña — whose animated film The Wolf House (2018) is among the most horrifying and groundbreaking animated films of this century — take the hybrid techniques they first introduced in that film and push them to new and unpredictable territories. The film is part live-action, part stop-motion and part puppetry as it aims to tell the parallel stories of actress and psychologist Antonia Giesen, as well as recount the strange mystical life of Chilean writer, poet and Nazi sympathizer Miguel Serrano. 

Despite portraying the life of a fascist, the film’s labyrinthian and darkly comic structure undermines any possibility of reading the film as sympathetic to its subject’s beliefs. The movie’s textured, artisanal quality lends the proceedings a haunted quality that toys with our sense of reality. Layering Serrano’s paranoid conspiracies about Hitler living out his days in an underground green world below Antarctica with a fourth-wall-breaking treatise on the nature of filmmaking and artmaking, the movie becomes a compelling, if not occasionally dense, portrait of living within a destabilizing reality where truth is undermined in favour of ideology.

The filmmakers explained their unusual filmmaking practices in a talk after the film. Rather than working from a script and on sound stages, the movie (much like The Wolf House) is an elaborate installation piece built and performed in front of various live audiences. Using the analogy of building a house brick by brick instead of with a plan, the film becomes an improvisational work in textures and themes that seek to understand how ideas can transform reality. 

The overall experience may be uneven, but the film embodies a similar experience as Gance’s Napoleon in that it toys with the cinematic form, stretching it to its very limit. It’s a movie that uses that form to confront restrictive political ideas by embodying the disoriented impact of populism and fascism. It also explores how the artistic process can mirror these techniques with a vision towards liberation rather than oppression. 

The 2024 Cannes Film Festival continues through May 25.

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