×

Analysis: Is the Cannes Film Festival Revived or Irrelevant?

  • Jury president Cate Blanchett speaks to the audience at the opening ceremony of the 71st international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Tuesday, May 8, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

  • Alden Ehrenreich is Han Solo and Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.



Los Angeles Times
Thursday, May 10, 2018

Cannes, France — In May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard and a few of his French New Wave contemporaries famously brought the Festival de Cannes to a halt, an act of solidarity with striking students and workers who were taking France by storm.

Fifty years later, Godard still looms large at Cannes, quite literally. The official poster for the 71st festival is graced with the immortal image of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina kissing in the director’s 1965 classic, Pierrot le Fou. This year, the 87-year-old Godard will probably limit his disruptive gestures to the unveiling of his new movie, The Image Book, which promises to shake up the main competition; it’s said to be a characteristically unorthodox reflection on the modern Arab world.

The festival itself, which opened Tuesday night with the world premiere of Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows, shows no signs of coming to a premature conclusion, though there are some who probably wish it would. In my own previous 12 years of attending, I can’t remember the last time Cannes commenced under such a cloud of grumbling, suspicion and all-around anxiety or any time the festival took such a widespread beating in the media before it even had a chance to roll out its famous (if now selfie-free) red carpet.

With headlines such as “Has Cannes Lost Its Luster?” The Hollywood Reporter and Variety bemoaned the absence of much-anticipated new films by major world auteurs, the festival’s highly publicized clash with Netflix and the relative dearth of Hollywood stars on the carpet — the presence of Solo: A Star Wars Story and a Cate Blanchett-led competition jury notwithstanding.

These and many other pieces echoed the growing fear in the film industry that Cannes, because of its position on the calendar, has become a less attractive destination for high-profile Oscar hopefuls. Films angling for an awards season run increasingly prefer the fall festivals — Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Notably, this year’s best picture Oscar winner, The Shape of Water, began its much-laureled run by winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Cannes’ biggest European rival.

Meanwhile, by taking such a firm stance on l’affaire Netflix, Cannes has positioned itself at the center of an existential crisis in the movie industry. While the festival and the streaming giant are said to be having amicable discussions, for now, Cannes is upholding a requirement that all Palme d’Or contenders must have French theatrical distribution. As a result, Netflix bypassed the festival altogether: Neither Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which the festival had been eyeing for a competition slot, nor Orson Welles’ long-unfinished The Other Side of the Wind, which would have been shown out of competition, will be screening on the Croisette.

In other contentious developments, the festival plans to close with the world premiere of Terry Gilliam’s endlessly delayed, years-in-the-making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.

And well before closing night, the festival will mark the long-awaited return of the Danish provocateur Lars von Trier, whose ill-considered jokes about being a Nazi at his post-Melancholia news conference led the festival to declare him persona non grata in 2011.

The sheer range of potential Cannes-troversies has been so unprecedentedly dizzying this year that on Monday, the festival’s delegate general and longtime artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, took the rare step of holding a news conference. Sitting alone on the dais, somehow resembling both a monarch greeting his subjects and a prisoner facing a firing squad, Fremaux veered between diplomacy and defensiveness as he held court on subjects ranging from his attitude toward the press (“We need the press, we love the press”) to the festival’s new sexual harassment hotline.

How would the festival, routinely criticized for not programming enough female-directed films in competition, address issues of gender parity in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has notably drawn significant backlash from French celebrities? Now that Roman Polanski had been kicked out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, would his Palme d’Or for The Pianist be revoked? (Fremaux’s reply: Non.)

And what of the festival’s 4,200 accredited journalists, who have long been accustomed to seeing films in advance, but would now have to attend press screenings held during or after the public premieres — a move intended to delay potentially buzz-killing reviews?

It’s easy to look at just about every issue plaguing Cannes this year and conclude that this is a festival that keeps stumbling on its own stubbornness. Hamstrung by tradition and protocol, it appears either unable or unwilling to adapt to the shifting winds — in technology, in distribution, in financing and in representational diversity — that are sweeping the industry.

Even the recent banning of selfies on the red carpet, the most frivolous of Cannes’ many rules, provides a curiously revealing metaphor. Here is a festival that, true to its French cultural roots, insists on some modicum of elegance and dignity in the face of technological change.

The irony, of course, is that every year, Cannes takes an unintentional selfie of its own, and the image it’s projecting to the world is one that many find wanting.

Beset on all sides by so much criticism, what is the world’s most important and prestigious film festival to do? The only thing it can: Show some good films and maybe even a few great ones. And it is on this point that, despite my own disappointment over some of the conspicuous absences from this year’s lineup (starting with Claire Denis’ hotly anticipated science-fiction drama High Life, which will now probably make its debut in Venice), I find myself urging a spirit of optimism and open-mindedness toward the program that Fremaux and his selection committee have assembled.

As Fremaux said at his news conference, journalists have long complained that Cannes favored “the usual suspects” — the same respected auteurs — year after year, but that this year’s competition lineup is being criticized for doing just the opposite. The absence of bigger names makes room for a number of lesser-known filmmakers, among them Japan’s Ry�suke Hamaguchi, France’s Eva Husson and Yann Gonzalez, Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov and a first-time director, Egypt’s A.B. Shawky. (The usual suspects are on hand as well, including such stalwarts as Godard, Farhadi, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Matteo Garrone, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Jia Zhangke and Lee Chang-dong.)

Is this shift a sign of Cannes’ waning relevance? Only the movies themselves will tell, but I would venture to suggest the opposite. Whether or not these new filmmakers represent the next generation of world-class auteurs, it is Cannes’ unique power to galvanize the attention of the global film world that implores us to take this selection seriously. Or, at the very least, to grant these films the courtesy of our undivided attention rather than our hasty, premature dismissals.

Only a person fundamentally incurious about world cinema — which is to say, a person who has no real business attending Cannes in the first place — would argue otherwise. No, this festival probably won’t be a major awards season launchpad, and thank God for that.

The proper appreciation of the movies can improve only when you don’t have the constant din of Oscar buzz ringing in your ears.