Cannes Diary—Day 4: Verhoeven’s Benedetta Torches the Croisette, and a Quite Likeable Worst Person in the World

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Day four of the 74th Festival de Cannes sees our Festiville correspondent Brian Formo realize a two-year-delayed dream as he unpacks the elation and bafflement of Verhoeven’s latest—plus new films from Tom McCarthy and Joachim Trier.

Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Black Book) is the director I’ve written the most words on in my writing career. His Dutch films are brazen, frank, confrontational pieces of work, where sex is always central to the plot and understanding of the characters. He’s most known for his work in Hollywood where he had a pretty wild run because early on he was able to key in on a puritan hypocrisy in America, and Hollywood at large, which was that violence was okay but sex was taboo. So he ramped up violence to levels unseen before in RoboCop and combined sex with violence in Basic Instinct. 

Showgirls will always be the closest that his American films came to his Dutch films. And for that, his Hollywood career started a downturn. His warmongering satire, Starship Troopers, was misunderstood on release, and Hollow Man was too nasty for the time, so the Hollywood door closed. Verhoeven’s 21st century output is closest to his early Dutch films: character-driven but still with a wild streak, and extra curious about the connection between sex and power (if you haven’t seen his early work, The 4th Man is my personal favorite). 

I always come back to a quote from the great Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating) who described Verhoeven’s life philosophy as “surviving a world that’s populated by assholes.” If that life philosophy doesn’t ring true, then perhaps that answers which side of the Verhoeven line you’re on (he writes with a wink.)

In the 2010s I explored a lot of themes in his works in various essays, and was lucky enough to get to interview him and Isabelle Huppert in 2016 for Elle, a true bucket-list moment. His films hit both sides of my brain concurrently, in exciting and shameful ways—the side that likes to analyze meaning and the one that enjoys being stimulated by excess. 

When I’d read that Verhoeven’s knee surgery had delayed the release of Benedetta because he couldn’t get into the editing bay and they’d just wait for the Cannes Film Festival, something shot off in my brain saying, “Brian, you’ve always wanted to go to Cannes, let this be the moment that pushes you to force your way in there.” That ended up being a two-year waiting period, of course. But, also, there wasn’t a lot riding on that decision for me. Benedetta didn’t need to be amazing. It didn’t have to be one of the best films I’d see in 2021. I just wanted to be at a stuffy, prestigious film festival and hear the discomfort and elation at what I was sure would be a completely bombastic experience. 

And so I am here and very happy to be here. And while Benedetta doesn’t place as one of Verhoeven’s best, the feeling in the theater from the collective audience will be unlike anything else we see here this fest. There were jeers and there were cheers. It spilled out into the Croisette and quickly spread onto Twitter as elation or bafflement. It was a wholly unique moment in my film festival attendance history to hear the loudest applause during any movie I’ve attended, when a novice nun whittled a statue of Mother Mary into a dildo.

I write this as my intro because I often need to assign value to an idea before taking the plunge. And Paul Verhoeven’s return to the Croisette at 82 years of age was what made me push my chips in on Cannes 2020/2021. And the “you had to be there” result, along with another (better) film I saw on day four, has been the most rewarding day at Cannes so far.

So let’s get into it.

Benedetta

Benedetta concerns the true story of a 17th century nun (Virginie Efiria) who not only had a lesbian relationship with another woman but also displayed signs of stigmata—the wounds of Jesus Christ on the cross—which sent her small Italian convent into a frenzy. While the trailer and the online world views Benedetta primarily through the “lesbian nun” lens, the sexuality is quickly and opaquely introduced because that’s only one part of the story. 

While Verhoeven desires to explore the power involved in the sexual relationship between a nun and novice (Daphne Patakia)—who fled to the convent to avoid a father’s beating—other things on Verhoeven’s mind are established early on, such as the transactional nature of the church (the way it requires money is both hypocritical and another form of power). Where the church and power meet is not just in sex sessions between the two nuns, but also in blasphemous (and historically accurate) visions and possessions that Benedetta experiences and attempts to wield to receive more power. 

The visions and possessions are wild. Even as a Verhoeven die-hard, I giggled to myself with what he was doing. Quite early on, her first vision is going to divide audiences into different camps: it will piss some people off immensely, some will snicker at the idea and effects on display, and some will just go with it. You can guess where I landed. But it takes a bit of Paul Verhoeven faith to get there. For me, the finale rewarded that faith because all of his themes eventually collided into chaos.

Letterboxd members who saw the film fell into different camps, of course. Sophia writes, “What a romp! Still have no words for how ridiculous some of this was—especially Verhoeven’s predictable idea of what 17th century nuns looked like (full makeup, gym-toned).” She brings up an excellent point; the production value of Benedetta from top to bottom looks like 21st century role-playing, which is perhaps a reason many Letterboxd members are calling it “camp.” As filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber (Cam) writes, “in this film Paul Verhoeven demonstrates that Christianity is in fact the ultimate form of camp.” 

Jason Huang calls Benedetta “vulgar and low-brow, and the movie literally starts off with poop and fart jokes. It consistently makes fun of the upper class and is a quite unsubtle jab at organized religion.” That was a rave, mind you, as many Verhoeven raves use pejorative words. But they weren’t all raves in our community here, Puctum calls it “a mess,” redou says “the 30 first minutes or so are some of the worst cinema I've seen in recent memory.” And Christer Emanuelsson writes, “Elle showed some growth but Verhoeven is back to his trashy self.”

The Worst Person in the World

No, this isn’t more about Verhoeven. The Worst Person in the World is the inaccurately titled coming-of-age in your 30s film from Joachim Trier (Thelma). 

It’s inaccurate because Julie (Renate Reinsve) is such a revelation in the role—charming, introspective, wickedly funny—that while she does some hurtful and objectionable things, we always understand where she’s coming from and continue to root for her. But the title is also accurate because that’s how so many of us look at ourselves for small mistakes (unless you’re an asshole; look at me, I snuck in another Verhoeven quip). 

Trier and Reinsve do some great empathetic cinema here. The Worst Person in the World is equally light-hearted and despondent. We meet Julie after a prologue of all the career paths she chose and ditched. Her coming-of-age is not tied to work but in navigating the adult moments that happening to her. Anders Danielsen Lie, who was amazing in Trier’s Oslo, August 31st, is equally as good here, as her older, underground comic writing boyfriend. And though the surface of the film is straightforward, there are a few fantastical moments that again hit opposite targets, joy and horror. 

We are only a third of the way through Cannes, and so far, this is the best film in competition for the Palme d’Or that I’ve seen. Other Letterboxd members agree, including as Alex Billington, who calls it “the first grand slam of the festival… This film is perfect. Remarkably complex, wise, insightful, beautiful filmmaking.” Ignace Maekelbergh “can’t wait to rewatch this and be amazed all over again.” Iana Murray says it is “a total joy.” 

There are a few middling reviews, too, but even those highlight Reinsve’s performance. “Vivid and full of energy and the joy of life—even in moments when she struggles,” writes Arvena, while Jordan Ruimy says “she makes Joachim Trier’s overstuffed The Worst Person in the World well worth a look.”

Stillwater

Thanks to Letterboxd member Will Ashton for pointing out to me that Stillwater is not, in fact, Tom McCarthy’s follow up to his Oscar Best Picture winner Spotlight —he had already made a family movie that I did not know existed, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made. Stillwater, is a lengthy fish-out-of-water character study starring Matt Damon as Bill, a salt-of-the-Earth midwest American who is staying in Marseilles, France because his daughter (Abigail Breslin) is being held in prison for murdering her Arabian girlfriend. She was convicted with very little actual evidence and she maintains her innocence. 

The film was inspired by the Amanda Knox story, but McCarthy is less interested in the mystery than he is in the story of a father, a former alcoholic, oil rig man who is attempting to redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes and because he cannot speak French, he enlists the help of his neighbor (Camille Cottin). 

The nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime is primarily spent on Damon growing closer with the Frenchwoman and her daughter (Lilou Siauvaud), and creating a new life for himself in Marseilles while holding out hope for his daughter’s release. McCarthy wades into thriller territory in bookended sections when Damon searches for an elusive individual who bragged about being the actual killer.

Stillwater was my final film of a pretty great day at Cannes. It had that going against it. It was also very late in the evening and my dizzying highs of the day ended with a lukewarm, repetitive thud. I went in hoping to see a movie at the festival that I could recommend to my dad but instead the movie made me feel like I was on vacation with my dad. Of course, many others quite liked Stillwater, so let their voices be heard! 

Brimmer-Beller writes, “Damon is excellent. He and the film won me over quite thoroughly with a combination of his tense, coiled performance and its international sensibilities. Really captures what it feels like to be an American in France.” Ryan Jones notes that “the ending hit like a gut punch.” And David Ehlrich calls Stillwater “a strained but strangely affecting turducken of a movie… that’s equal parts Taken, Paddington, and Prisoners, one after the other.”

Happy weekend to all.