One of the most thrilling aspects of seeing films in the Grand Lumière, the biggest and best theater at the Cannes Film Festival (if not the world), is watching the red carpet arrivals on the video screen inside the 2200-seat auditorium. For the world premiere of Sean Baker’s pandemic-shot new film Red Rocket, the camera zeroed in on the freckled face of newcomer Suzanna Son and her charming half smile. The camera tried to get a good image of the handsome face of Simon Rex (former MTV VJ and Scary Movie star) but his hyper energy was too kinetic for the lens to capture. He rarely stayed still.
Baker, on the other hand, could not only keep up with but was inspired by Rex’s shooting star energy in crafting this wonderfully entertaining comedy about a former porn star named Mikey Saber who returns to his small Texas town when he’s run out of other options. The strength of the film is its casting (by Baker himself) of various styles of acting: first time actors (standouts include Brenda Deiss and Ethan Darbone), skilled stage performers (Bree Elrod as Saber’s estranged wife), and performers like Rex who have been hiding in public awareness for 20 years, waiting for just the right frame. The enthusiastic standing ovation given to Rex and Baker at the end of the film seemed to be in gratitude for their digging to find real cinema in unexpected places.
This lo-fi production with occasional quick zooms had the feeling of a 1970s comedy, particularly in the way Baker framed faces, with Son sometimes reminiscent of Sissy Spacek. Rex was like the best Mark Wahlberg performances (I Heart Huckabees and Boogie Nights) in that he was the ultimate comic himbo. Overt and unexpected comedy was a theme in two other strong films in the festival, Paul Verhoeven’s Middle Ages-set Benedetta and Julia Ducournau’s horror film Titane.
Titane breezes through a set-up involving car crashes, serial killing, sex with cars, pregnancy body horror, and assumed identity to get to the real heart of the film: a familial love story between two weirdos. The violent and uncomfortable images were unrelenting, so much that I could feel my stomach turning. Just as cringe-inducing were comic relief scenes in which Vincent Lindon plays a wacky, beefy fireman who likes to dance. The film is like an unlikely crash between body horror and contemporary goofy French “comedy.” The film is fearless and ferocious in its choices.
The comic touches in Benedetta were different. I always expect laughs of release in a Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Elle, Showgirls) film, whether from discomfort or the comedy of extreme choices made coolly. Benedetta, however, was full of jokes. To Verhoeven’s credit, most of these gags were visual (Jesus as a romance novel cover star and the much mentioned Virgin Mary dildo), but there was a knowingness from the director. He was in on the joke and so the audience was forced to be in on it, too. That jocularity was a slight disappointment for this ardent Verhoeven fan. I wanted the director and characters to be so dead serious that I can’t help but giggle, “WTF.” Being in on the joke eased that tension, unfortunately.
Though Virginie Efira, the woman who plays the titular Benedetta, did fulfill her role of playing an unhinged and passionate woman with comic good cheer. Efira is such a bright star in the French film industry, recently in the underrated film Sibyl, in which she plays a similarly committed role. Efira is like Kate Moss crossed with Ginger Rogers, with gorgeous round features and unlimited vivaciousness. In my view, the contest for best performer at Cannes is between Efira and Rex in their characters who are equal parts sexy, naive, insane, and disarming.