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Cannes and the banality of evil

Robert De Niro, Johnny Depp, Thierry Fremaux, and where evil really lies.

Two men in 1920s Western garb look at one another; one is in a car.
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

At the press conference following the Cannes premiere of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, someone asked Robert De Niro about his character, a kingpin of a sort with a tricky psyche. “It’s the banality of evil,” he said, describing the character’s moral ambiguity. “It’s the thing we have to watch out for. We see it today, of course. We all know who I’m going to talk about, but I’m not going to say his name.” (Everyone knew who he meant.)

The banality of evil was hot at Cannes this year. De Niro’s statement came on the heels of the premiere of Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest, which set Cannes critics abuzz about the same phrase. That movie — which I proposed might best be understood as an adaptation of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, even more than the Martin Amis novel it’s loosely based on — is not much like Killers of the Flower Moon, at first blush. Glazer’s is short, taut horror that evokes the Holocaust by keeping it offscreen; Scorsese’s is epic, bloody, and relentless in its depiction of a series of murders from a century ago.

Thematically, however, they often rhyme. Both are about mankind’s ability to exterminate one another while deluding themselves into thinking they’re doing the right thing. Both are about atrocities so heinous they’re hard to wrap your mind around. And both feel eerily contemporary, in an age where prejudice, racism, and fascism are on the rise around the globe.

Robert De Niro with Martin Scorsese and Chief Standing Bear at the Killers of the Flower Moon press conference in Cannes.
Mohammed Badra/Getty Images

Yet, with deep respect to De Niro (who gives one of his finest performances in Killers), only one of these movies is actually about the banality of evil, and it’s not the one he’s in. A key part of Arendt’s argument in Eichmann in Jerusalem is that her subject, Adolf Eichmann, the chief architect of the Third Reich’s euphemistically named “Final Solution,” was profoundly vapid, lacking a discernible motivation or conscious vendetta against the Jewish people he exterminated. (This is the chilling sense you get about The Zone of Interest’s characters, too.) Arendt observed Eichmann in court, where his defense was that he simply followed orders. What struck her was his lack of ego or intelligence or personal motivation. This evil, she wrote, was banal because it was hollow, perpetuated largely by people who had given up thinking, letting themselves exist within a corrupt and deadly system.

That is not the case with William Hale, De Niro’s character in Killers of the Flower Moon. Hale is complicated, to be sure — as De Niro noted, he seems to genuinely love the Osage people while actively plotting to kill them off and take their wealth for himself. But his motivation is obvious, his ego boundless, his arrogance and manipulation and conviction of his own supremacy on a level that rivals any mob boss from a Scorsese film. He is, indeed, a bit reminiscent of the former president De Niro refused to name; one line delivery (in which Hale boasts about his access to the best lawyers) even seems modeled on Trump. But what he (and Trump) is not is banal.

That doesn’t make Hale less evil than, say, Eichmann. But it does make him exceptional, the kind of person who people are still talking about a hundred years after the fact. If The Zone of Interest’s characters are banally evil, then Killers of the Flower Moon’s antagonists are sharply evil, even the ones who aren’t masterminds. (Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Ernest Burkhart shares some key qualities with Eichmann — he’s not very bright, he’s easily suggestible, and he doesn’t like thinking — but he is absolutely motivated, loudly and passionately, by money.)

Cannes is an interesting place to consider evil, in both its banal and exceptional forms. As the festival concludes its 76th edition, it remains the most prestigious in the world, its iconic red carpet attracting dense crowds of onlookers who stake out a spot hours before premieres (18, for Killers) just for the possibility of seeing a star in the flesh. Filmmakers around the globe consider a Cannes berth the apex of a career. The festival is well aware of its cachet, that it’s the place where artists gain a kind of immortality. Walk around the city of Cannes during the festival, and there are posters everywhere of stars present and past on the red carpet, just to remind you that this is where the legends have walked.

Johnny Depp and Maiwenn on the red carpet for the Cannes opening night gala screening of Jeanne du Barry.
Samir Hussein/WireImage

That means the festival wields a nearly unparalleled kingmaking power, an authority that the festival’s director Thierry Frémaux seems to both love and deny. Frémaux always manages to be controversial, but for 2023 he took it to new heights, programming the controversial French director Maïwenn’s period drama Jeanne du Barry, about the favorite mistress of King Louis XV, for the festival’s opening night gala. Opening night movies at Cannes are often not very good; Jeanne du Barry is, indeed, very bad, bafflingly so. But the film’s pre-fest buzz was almost entirely a function of its director, who’s known for her vocal anti-MeToo stances and recent assault of a journalist, and its star, Johnny Depp, in his first major role since his circus of a court battle with ex-wife Amber Heard.

Prior to the film’s premiere, Frémaux claimed in an interview that he didn’t really have any idea why this was controversial. “I don’t know about the image of Johnny Depp in the US,” he said, claiming he only has “one rule: it’s the freedom of thinking, and the freedom of speech and acting within a legal framework.” He was, he claimed, “one person who didn’t find the least interest in this very publicized trial.” If reporters wanted to know why Depp was in the movie, Frémaux said, “you should ask Maïwenn.”

It was a strange answer to a relatively straightforward question, for reasons that have not all that much to do with either Depp or Maïwenn. The opening night gala at Cannes is not just some random screening down at the local multiplex; it’s a position of honor, a signal of what an institution values. That’s what makes Frémaux’s response so strange: it’s one thing to choose to give platforms to two deeply controversial figures, but another altogether to refuse to defend them by explaining that choice. Given the festival’s rather ostentatious choice to not program new films by Woody Allen or Roman Polanski, two of its former favorites, it’s especially strange. To shrug at these facts not only discounts the power Cannes holds, but is a sideways insult to the filmmakers — and swings dangerously close to claiming you’re just following orders.

But Cannes is not one man. Sprinkled further throughout the festival were reflections on moral ambiguity and outright badness, in Scorsese’s and Glazer’s movies as well as many others. Todd Haynes’s May December features a central relationship based loosely on the infamous case of Mary Kay Letourneau, who spent seven and a half years in prison after being convicted of child rape following a sexual relationship with a 12-year-old in her sixth-grade class. She then married him, ultimately having six children with him. May December imagines a fictionalized version of the pair (played by Julianne Moore and Charles Melton) many years into their marriage, when they’re visited by an actress (Natalie Portman) doing research for a role. The film is funny and campy and off-kilter, but never loses its purposefully queasy undertone; something bad happened here, people were and are being exploited, and the mental gymnastics on display are both extraordinary and, in a sense, very familiar. Cliches about love and romance can’t quite push it all away, and the film wants us to dwell in the discomfort.

Two women stand near one another. One is putting on makeup; the other is taking notes.
Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore in May December, Todd Haynes’s new movie, which premiered at Cannes.

It was the same in Wang Bing’s extraordinary documentary Youth (Spring), which centers on the lives of young people, mostly in their late teens or early twenties, who work in China’s textile factories making cheap clothes. The film’s three-and-a-half hour runtime is blanketed with pop music in the background, lyrics laden with swoony romantic fantasies; meanwhile, in the foreground, the workers live very differently, casually speaking of sexual assault and exploitation by bosses while also simply living the best lives possible under the circumstances.

Justine Triet’s incredible Anatomy of a Fall hinges on how the legal system employs euphemisms about “opinion” and “fact,” memory and gender and love, to manipulate the meaning of justice. In How to Have Sex, a debut from Molly Manning Walker, a young English woman on vacation with her friends discovers how cruelly some male acquaintances can wield language to cover up evil behavior. About Dry Grasses, from the great Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, features at its core a schoolteacher who is plenty comfortable with the misogyny around him, despite feeling like he’s above the people in his village. The Sweet East, from Sean Price Williams, is a careening tour through the stupidest underbelly of American society: white supremacists, misogynistic violence, a world that gleefully sexualizes young women. Or there’s Monster, from master filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, a story that keeps flipping and changing and doesn’t reveal till near the end how much it’s about the power of lazy language to warp a child’s self-image. Even The Idol, Sam Levinson’s new HBO show (two episodes of which premiered at Cannes), picks up the theme in its own way, embodying the same cruel hatred of young women in the pop industry that it seemingly intends to skewer.

The list could go on; what’s striking is how often the movies at this year’s Cannes actually were about the simple banality of evil, perpetuated or indulged in by ordinary people who have left thought behind and followed, instead, the system in which they find themselves. You can’t make a proclamation about the future from a selection at a film festival, but the lack of exceptional and identifiable villains, at least in my viewing, was striking, Killers of the Flower Moon notwithstanding. If there’s a message emanating from Cannes this year — muddled as it might be — it’s that the world is set up to make evil as easy as possible to partake in. Whether we choose to start thinking about it clearly is the question that lingers, long after the lights come down and the red carpet is rolled back up.

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