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Cannes Correspondences #1: Festival Preview

A look at what’s exciting—as well as what’s at stake—at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, the Directors’ Fortnight, and Critics’ Week.
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Dear Leo,
It is great to be here in Cannes with you, especially as this is your first time on the Boulevard de la Croisette and your fresh impressions will surely counter-balance my eager but perhaps more wary and weary view of this yearly event that is at once so glamorous and so ridiculous. The setting could not exemplify this better: That we travel to a French Riviera tourist spot, with its long bay beach dotted with luxury hotels, in the temperate month of May to then burrow ourselves into dark cinemas is an easy illustration of the extraordinary balance here in Cannes uneasily found between the presentation of art, the needs—frequently secretive—of the industry, and the champagne floater of all that comes attached to the premier film festival in the world: parties, promotions, red carpets, a huge media presence, the famous and the hangers-on, rented Lambos and moored yachts. If you comes to Cannes doubting the health of cinema, it is easy to see the artistic hype, the money spent, and the wheeling and dealing and come out assured that the seventh art still means or represents a hell of a lot to people. Or you may exit this festival bewildered and wondering if its yearly triumphs and absurdities create a bubble of denial for all of us so desiring that the beauty and popularity of the movies continues with forthright spirit and robust health into the 21st century.
Much about the lineup of the Cannes Film Festival suggests it could continue so, with a competition featuring Terrence Malick’s long-awaited WW2 drama The Hidden Life, the first feature of French-Senegalese actress and filmmaker Mati Diop (best known as the lead in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum), and Palestinian tragicomic director Elia Suleiman’s first film in ten years. The competition is in fact stacked with previous Palme d’Or winners, including Malick, the Dardenne brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Abdellatif Kechiche, and Ken Loach, among old guard favorites whom the top prize has eluded like Almodóvar and Marco Bellocchio. Youth and women are as usual a minority for the festival’s main event, but those that are there, like Diop, the Austrian Jessica Hausner, and Céline Sciamma, are worth being excited about.
If that sounds like a lot of names and not a lot of stories, well, this is a director’s festival above all, the one where auteurs are launched and then frequently feted again, film after film. The Un Certain Regard section, by contrast, is always peppered with a lot more question marks, making it rife with promise but also riddled by inconsistency. This year it features Beanpole, the young Russian director Kantemir Balagov’s follow-up to his revelatory 2017 debut, Closeness, and films by two big names in art-house provocation, Albert Serra and Bruno Dumont. The difference between the premium spot in competition and the second-tier Un Certain Regard inevitably introduces a kind of insider commentary: Does the placement of Serra and Dumont’s films imply that they are either too arty or too flawed for the competition? And then there are the so-called Special Screenings, which often seem either like favors the festival is granting to industry friends, or a kind of frustrated shrug of a premiere placement for oddball whats-its: this year it’s where you'll to find new films by Abel Ferrara and Werner Herzog. What does this judgment mean? I wish a boldly risky publication would cover the Cannes Film Festival and only write on non-competition films and try to define the curation, sensibility, and impact of the selection. This might help isolate our understanding of what the festival aims to do beyond choosing the best or biggest auteur films of the moment to showcase in the competition.
Other than the micro-political jockeying of where films are premiering here—details which may seem inconsequential to outsiders but can often dramatically determine a film’s reception and, therefore, its commercial possibilities—there’s also a tendency among festival attendees to see the selections as symbolic gestures, such indeed is the power and prestige of the Cannes Film Festival. Oliver Laxe’s third film is finally in the official selection after being discovered by the Directors' Fortnight and then encouraged by Critics' Week, the two independent sidebars in Cannes that supported his first features. Similarly, Jessica Hausner, whose Amour Fou was an Un Certain Regard stand-out several years ago, has been “promoted” to the competition with her first English-language film, Little Joe, as has the dryly comic Romanian New Wave director Corneliu Porumboiu, whose movies are usually too low-key to reach the Grand Théâtre Lumière’s red carpet. The festival’s closing night film, meaninglessly renamed “Last Screening,” looks like a horrid bit of commercial French filmmaking, and might be seen as an example of the world’s most powerful film festival bowing to the national film industry from which it is inseparable. (This closeness to its host nation is partially what spawned the controversy last year regarding premiering films from streaming companies that had no plans to release their movies in French cinemas. The festival’s policy hasn’t changed, nor has that of the streaming company in question. We’ve all moved on.) A lone genre film, the South Korean The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, has been given a Midnight spot, suggesting it is too populist for the competition elite, a frequently condescending assessment if not for a specific film then definitely for a specific kind of audience. For those hungering for the thrills of bold storytelling, your best bet in competition will probably be Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite and Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, both of which look inflected by genre smarts and instincts for entertainment (please, no one call such a thing “elevated genre”). Over in the Directors’ Fortnight, they are giving the Carrosse d'Or award—essentially a lifetime achievement prize—to John Carpenter and screening his horrifying masterpiece The Thing (1982). If only such a filmmaker or such a film of today could premiere in Cannes!
Recent repeated attacks about gender imbalance in the selection and tried-and-true criticism of continually presenting new work of favorite filmmakers whose stature ensues no need for the Cannes spotlight hasn’t exactly been boldly rectified by the festival this year, which defensively released application and selection statistics before the opening night in a gesture of justification. The relatively surprise-free competition besides for the inclusion of Diop’s Atlantics—last-minute additions of Tarantino and Kechiche’s films make the festival more robust, not to mention much longer, but hardly escape the establishment—suggest that the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week may provide the most surprises. Critics’ Week, which focuses on debut and second features, has Hlynur Pálmason's follow-up to Winter’s Brother, as well as Vivarium, an intriguing tease of fantasy. The Fortnight, with a new festival director this year, has a lot to gain, having ceded its style of edgy art-house in recent years to intellectual-hip favorites like the Locarno Festival and the Forum section of the Berlinale. There’s some promising freshness in the Fortnight this year: Peruvian debut Song without a Name, Afghani director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s second film, and Robert Eggers’s follow-up to The Witch, set in a lighthouse (yes!), and starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (yes, please!). While always struggling to premiere films in the shadow of the Cannes Film Festival—this edition of the Fortnight features much-anticipated new films by previous Cannes-selectees Takashi Miike, Bertrand Bonello, and Lav Diaz—film culture and culture in general is now hungering more and more for newer, younger, more diverse films and programming, and these two sidebars have far greater leeway than the main competition to scout for the zeitgeist.
That, after all, is what we’ve come here to see, Leo, is it not? The pinnacle of today’s moviemaking. True, this is not the place to be for the nascent revelation of the cinema's cutting edge—the Cannes Film Festival is too much of a lumbering beast of an event, its programming slots too few, and its industry ties very deep and its taste very refined, for better and for worse. Within this context, to expect big changes as viewing habits shift and the culture evolves may be expecting too much. But certainly this is where you will see some of today’s best making their best. The Cannes Film Festival is still the world’s most important platform for defining a substantial amount of the year’s mature and important art cinema. There may be a lot of qualifiers in that last sentence, but that’s the reality to which one has to admit: when it comes to the movies, Cannes may not stand for everything, but it represents a great deal. Let’s have fun recognizing what the festival celebrates, but let’s also remember that much will also be missing. There's always more to discover.
Warmly,
Danny

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