I am very glad you are joining me in Cannes this year to cover the various film festivals—separate and hardly equal—that take place simultaneously in this large resort town each May. The Cannes Film Festival, along with the Directors’ Fortnight, Critics’ Week and ACID festivals, all converge here and now with the main goal being to celebrate moviemaking, but in fact are deeply entrenched in a cultural war to assert the importance, relevance, and power of the art of cinema at time of declining audience awareness and interest, multiplying media rivals, and general distractibility.
The official Cannes Film Festival, far and away the most prestigious festival in the world and debatably more important than America’s Academy Awards, was once a relatively unassailable institution—one to criticize, yes, for programming choices or attitude, but whose importance was undeniable. That importance is now in question more than ever, emblematized culturally over the last few years by increasingly fierce criticism about the absence of female filmmakers in the official selection (and to a more general degree, after launching the career of major directors, to continue to select the same names and their works again and again) and emblematized industrially in the ridiculous spat the festival had with Netflix this spring.
This argument, which made headlines in publications that almost certainly never reported on (or from) Cannes in the past, came down philosophically to what one’s definition of cinema is: whether it is the encounter of an audience with a film, communally; or a viewer with a film, individually. The festival’s position is, in general, the more beautiful one and by no means anachronistic even in our digital era. Unfortunately, this position was also bogged down by a legal rationale pertaining to laws requiring films released in French theatres to hold off their availability on subscription streaming services for years after this release. While this is the practical nature behind the dispute—Cannes wanted Netflix to release its films in French cinemas before putting them online; Netflix blanched at delaying the release of their own films on their own platform for years—the fact it was over a specifically French law diminished the sense of Cannes as an international festivity, one organized to celebrate cinema as a global phenomenon. Still, the point was made by way of general analogy: the festival wants the films it premieres in cinemas to continue to find audiences in cinemas—enjoying the big screen and the social experience—before finding viewers in their homes.
This controversy ultimately won’t amount to much: Netflix doesn’t need the prestige of Cannes because the company doesn’t care to bank on anything beyond the most superficial glamour of moviemaking; and Cannes doesn’t need Netflix’s few films appropriate for the festival, as the vast majority of essential films being produced are not being done so by the streaming giant. But this argument did for a moment bring into the mainstream spotlight a debate on the definition of film-going, film viewership, and cinema itself. It's a valuable and indeed necessary and all-too-rare conversation to be had in publications that wouldn’t hesitate to run transient recaps of television episodes few will want to remember, but would never consider discussing how their readers watch moving image art, how that viewing is changing, and what it means both to those audiences and to the artists.
Meanwhile, on another part of cinema’s front line, it appears—on paper at least—that the Cannes Film Festival is trying to instill some sort of change in its behemoth institution: The number of recognizable big filmmaker names across its two main sections (the Competition and Un Certain Regard) is somewhat dampened, there’s a solid inclusion of female directors (mostly in the second-tier Un Certain Regard, it must be said), the number of debut films is high, and the main competition jury, headed by Cate Blanchett, feels purposefully stacked to make the awards given out on May 19 serve a symbolic, if not political, point.
What am I excited about? Alice Rohrwacher, an Italian director on the rise whose previous films have courted something special, could be slated to make her first great film; Ryusuke Hamaguchi, whose marvelous 5-hour women’s drama Happy Hour
(2015) is slowly accreting the reputation as one of the decade’s best kept secrets, has been surprisingly chosen for the competition; the reaction of international press to Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman
will be a sight to see; and there’s the left-field choice of the great humanist documentarian Wang Bing’s first long-form work in years, the 8-hour Dead Souls
. In fact, all the Chinese choices seem very promising, with the country’s greatest working dramatist, Jia Zhangke, set to twist genre again to his acute vision with the beautifully titled Ash Is Purest White
, and with the much-anticipated sophomore film from Kaili Blues
director Bi Gan. Sergei Dvortsevoy finally has a followup to Tulpan
(2008), Lee Chang-dong’s Burning
is his first feature in eight years; and likewise Ulrich Köhler’s first in seven years, In My Room
, could continue the official selection’s run of great Berlin School premieres after Toni Erdmann
. Finally, despite the sense that enthroned masters and male directors are starting to become anathema to cultural critics, possibly the most exciting film opening at Cannes is Jean-Luc Godard’s return to the competition with Le livre d’image
, which looks to be in the collage-essay style of his epic Histoire(s) du cinéma
. But this year the number of unknown quantities significantly outweigh those from whom brilliance can be expected, and it is there we can hope to find something new and, if we're lucky, very different.
The Directors’ Fortnight, the rebel upstart event founded in May 1968 and whose style tries to showcase the kinds of films the official festival dares not, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a slate even more free of major auteurs but hopefully stacked with emerging voices. That festival opens with one of its few buzzed about titles, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage, a rural drug trade story and their follow-up to Embrace of the Serpent; and the only other name brand question mark in the Fortnight is Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Critics’ Week, which along with ACID (Association du cinema independent pour sa diffusion), has increasingly upstaged the official film festival with canny choices of new filmmakers, looks like it might do the same again this year with Daniel Schmidt and Gabriel Abrantes’s delightfully bizarre-looking Diamantino, a feature that hopefully continues the puckish, devilishly smart and often silly short and feature collaborations the directors have made together.
And what’s at stake, ultimately, across all these events, all these films, these 12 days on the Riviera? It is the revelation, the first step from the dark of the screening room into the light of the world, of some of the year’s most important pictures, certainly. But for Cannes the crucial factor is the prestige and the attention engendered by the event and the premieres: this is the true cachet of film festivals around the world, led and in fact vouchsafed by the gold standard of premiere venues, Cannes. The truth—and this perhaps explains the general melancholy quality of much of cinephilia—is that well over a hundred years into its history, prestige and attention are still culturally essential for asserting the vitality not just of individual films, but of the art of cinema itself. Moviegoing and the love of movies is in many places on the defensive: this year we’ll see if Cannes is evolving for such defense or—so our hope goes—if it will take the offensive.
See you on the Croisette!