A Serious Cannes Film Festival Opens With a Goofy Comedy, ‘The Second Act’

Workers at the 77th Cannes Film Festival have threatened to go on strike. The escalating conflict in Gaza has raised concerns about protests and disruptions. One of the festival’s directors, Mohammad Rasoulof, is hiding in an undisclosed European location after fleeing his home country of Iran, which sentenced him to flogging and prison time for making his new movie. Another unnamed director, according to rumors in Cannes, may become the subject of #MeToo allegations before the festival ends.

In other words, things are serious at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

So what better way to kick it off than with a comedy?

That’s what Cannes did on Tuesday night, launching the festival with “The Second Act” by jokey provocateur Quentin Dupieux, a 50-year-old director and musician whose films tend toward the raucous and transgressive, virtually all of them with healthy doses of humor. He’s made movies about a psychokinetic tire that kills people (“Rubber”), a man who thinks his deerskin jacket is talking to him (“Deerskin”), a giant fly and the men who try to tame it (“Mandibles”) and a team of superheroes sent on a weekend retreat after they fail to kill a giant turtle (“Smoking Causes Coughing”).

His new one is less far fetched; it’s a comedy about the movie business, and it’s less a provocation than a goof. At a sprightly 82 minutes, it’s also slight, which meant it had to struggle to hold up its position as the climax of a grand opening ceremony in the big, classy Grand Theatre Lumiere and the ceremonial bestowal of an Honorary Palme d’Or on Meryl Streep by French icon Juliette Binoche, who couldn’t hold back the tears as the presented the award.

Still, the idea of opening this festival with a comedy has become a habit for Cannes. Between 2019 and 2022 – not the sunniest of times for Hollywood or for Cannes, which suffered one cancellation and one postponement – the festival opened with three straight comedies: Jim Jarmusch’s zombie romp “The Dead Don’t Die” in 2019, Leos Carax’s bonkers musical “Annette” in 2021, after COVID killed the 2020 festival, and Michel Hazanavicius’ “Final Cut,” a remake of a Japanese film in which everything goes wrong as a crew attempts to make its own zombie movie.

They weren’t deathless cinematic classics, but they were thoroughly entertaining, which is more than you could say about the dreary costume drama “Jeanne Du Barry” that opened last year’s festival and became known mostly for starring Johnny Depp as French King Louis XV, a bit of casting that didn’t go over entirely well on the Croisette.

So why not give Dupieux (or Mr. Oizo, as his music fans know him) a shot at the prestigious spot that under Cannes rules must go to a film opening in France on the first day of the festival? “The Second Act” also comes with a Cannes-worthy cast that includes recent festival jury president Vincent Lindon, Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel, along with Raphaël Quenard and Manuel Guillot.

And if you were wondering about the seemliness of launching this year’s Cannes with a slight comedy — well, so is that slight comedy. Early in the film, there’s a lengthy scene in which David and Willy (Garrel and Quenard) walk through a field talking, until Willy says something that could be considered insensitive to trans women. “Stop it!” says David, who points at the camera. “We’re being filmed! … Do you want us to get canceled?”

The conversation turns into a tortured deconstruction about what you can and cannot say by two men who turn out to be actors who have gone astray when Willy decided to ad-lib. And it’s followed by a scene between two other actors, one playing David’s girlfriend, Florence (Seydoux) and the other playing her father, Guillaume (Lindon). This one goes off the rails when Guillaime says he quits, that the world is in chaos and the last thing it needs is silly romantic movies.

“The chaos is global,” he announces. “And you want to play my daughter in an indie movie?”

That’s basically the setup for “The Second Act,” which purports to be a movie about the making of the first film ever written and directed by AI There are jokes about Hollywood, jokes about real directors and jokes about the AI director who appears on a monitor to tell his actors, “Your opinion is not taken into account.” There’s also violence and surprises and plenty of opportunities for Lindon and Seydoux to spoof their own careers, and there are jokes made by the music, which occasionally slips in and tries to convince the audience that this is a normal movie after all.

It’s not a normal movie, because Dupieux isn’t interested in normal movies. In a way, that makes it an apt opener for this year’s Cannes, because it acknowledges its own silliness and is self-aware enough to know how and where it fits in the cinematic landscape.

Still, “The Second Act” is little more than an amusing trifle, as meta as that trifle may be. It’s safe to say that the film starts to feel as if it has no place to go long before the credits begin to roll (which they do well shy of the 1:20 mark), and before Dupieux uses the last moments of screen time to revisit the dolly tracks that were used to shoot that long, long conversation between David and Willy.

The guided tour of those tracks is as conceptually brilliant as it is dramatically inert — which is to say, not quite brilliant and not quite inert.

Welcome to Cannes 2024.

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