On the first day of Cannes 2017, a vision of a changing landscape

Brian D. Johnson’s first dispatch from Cannes, the high altar of world cinema—where it’s grappling with some seismic shifts


 

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Maclean’s film critic Brian D. Johnson is back at the Cannes Film Festival, taking in a crucible moment for the fest and the industry at large. Check back for more dispatches at macleans.ca throughout the festival, which runs from May 17 to May 28. 

After two decades of coming to the Cannes Film Festival, I thought I’d seen everything—that is, until I watched a forklift truck threading its way through a nighttime crowd on the Promenade de la Croisette, steering a palm tree in a giant pot.

Nearby was a tractor trailer loaded with dozens more potted palms. Forklifts were nudging them into gaps along the boulevard’s median strip to serve as traffic barriers. Just as the orange cone of permanent construction could be Montreal’s official symbol, the palm is the symbol of Cannes, rendered in 24-carat gold as the Palme D’Or, a prize rivalled only by the Oscar. And to see forklifts maneuvering palm trees through night on the eve of the festival’s opening was a surreal reminder that at cinema’s grand extravaganza on the French Riviera, everything becomes a set.

Pomp and circumstance is always to be expected, and this year there’s more than usual as the festival celebrates its 70th anniversary. Yet while it enshrines the past, with tributes to legendary films and stars, there’s also a strong sense that the festival is undergoing a seismic shift. There’s no question that Cannes is still the high altar of world cinema, where the big screen is sacrosanct, but the rules of the religion are changing fast. And as cable TV and Netflix transform film distribution, Cannes is struggling to adapt to the new landscape.

For the first time in recent memory, there are no major studio pictures in Cannes’s official selection. The relationship between Hollywood and Cannes has been fraying for some time, as the chasm between blockbuster spectacle and serious cinema keeps widening. But now it’s as if Hollywood has finally dumped its fickle French mistress—or perhaps Cannes has dumped its big bad American boyfriend.

Either way, the game is changing. Meanwhile, the festival is welcoming a new generation of “studios” into the fold. Four of the 19 features in competition come from the streaming giants Netflix and Amazon. Netflix is making its Cannes debut with Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller and Dustin Hoffman; and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, starring Tilda Swinton. Amazon, which had a strong presence in Cannes last year, will premiere Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.


 

Shots from the red carpet: Day 1 at the Cannes Film Festival

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While Amazon is willing to show films in theatres before streaming them, Netflix is currently planning to release its titles online worldwide, without theatrical distribution. And that caused a predictable stir at today’s jury press conference. This opening-day ritual is usual a diplomatic bore, as jurors deflect questions about their personal tastes and the politics of cinema. But after being asked how he’d feel about giving the Palme D’Or to a Netflix film that won’t get a theatrical release, jury president Pedro Almodóvar waded into the fray by reading a virtual manifesto.

“I don’t see the Palme d’Or or any other prize being given to a film and then not being able to see this film on the large screen,” said the Oscar-winning Spanish director. “As long as I’m alive I’ll be fighting for one thing that I’m afraid the new generation is not aware of, the large screen’s capacity for hypnosis. For the first viewing of a film for every spectator, the size of the screen should not be smaller than the chair on which you are sitting, and it should not be part of your everyday setting. You must feel small and humble in front of image that is there to capture you.”

By throwing down the gauntlet, Almodóvar is proclaiming that two of the competition’s most prestigious titles, The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja,  don’t stand a chance of winning the Palme. This is unprecedented. Almodóvar, who been coming to Cannes since 1982, and competed for the Palme five times (but never won), called the festival “a celebration of art house cinema.” And while he is clearly the jury’s most eminent auteur, jury colleague Will Smith, a Cannes newbie, presented himself as an intellectual lightweight from West Philadelphia who was hoping to learn a thing or two about film. “The last time I saw three films in one days is when I was 14,” he said. Yet he is the Hollywood heavyweight on the nine-member jury, and exuded a good-natured star power at the press conference that upstaged his colleagues every time he spoke.

Smith addressed the Netflix issue with a tone of diplomatic compromise. “I have a 16-year-old and an 18-year-old and a 24-year-old at home,” he said, “They go to the movies twice a week and they watch Netflix. There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching what they watch on Netflix. In my home, Netflix has had absolutely no effect on what they go to the movie theatre to watch.” Then he added: “It’s two completely different forms of entertainment. In my house, Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit because they get to watch films that they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. There’s this whole underground world of artists that gets born by that kind of connectivity. In my home it’s done nothing but broaden my children’s cinematic global comprehension.”

Sounds groovy. But no one, including Almodóvar, had the temerity to suggest that maybe the kids went to the theatre to see the kinds of blockbusters that made their father famous, while discovering the exotica of international auteurs, like that crazy Spanish dude, on Netflix. (Though it’s worth noting that Smith is starring a sci-fi spectacle called Bright, a Netflix production.)

Issues like this don’t get resolved at a film festival. But they do seem pressing, especially as Cannes venerates an ecology of cinema that, like icecaps and coral reefs, is seriously threatened—squeezed by Marvel monoculture, digital distribution, and TV drama’s new sense of supremacy. Cannes is trying to keep up. For the first time in its history, the festival is featuring premieres of TV series in its official selection (though not in competition), presenting two-hour chunks of the rebooted Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake: China Girl. But bear in mind that these two shows come from Cannes-anointed auteurs—David Lynch and Jane Campion, both past winners of the Palme D’Or. In fact, Lynch’s 1992 Palme-winning feature, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, was a prequel to the original TV series. Cannes director Thierry Frémaux offered this justification: “Cannes is a laboratory… these are cinematic films. Even TV series today use the classic art of cinema.” And in another lab experiment on the Cöte d’Azur, Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu will premiere Virtually Present, Physically Invisible, a 6.5-minute virtual reality installation shot by his usual cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, exploring the situation of immigrants and refugees.

There was a time when Cannes would launch Hollywood’s most ground-breaking films, including Palme D’Or winners such as Apocalypse Now (1979), Taxi Driver (1976) and Pulp Fiction (1996).  But the studios just don’t make those kinds of movies anymore. Besides, premiering a Hollywood picture in Cannes has always been risky, given how perversely fickle both the juries and the European media could be. And now, with the accelerating pace of social media, the month of May seems dangerously early in the calendar to be launching Oscar buzz. So the awards season, which used to begin with Cannes, really kicks off with the September trifecta of festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto—and TIFF has become the juggernaut.

For the faithful, however, that only heightens the dignity and prestige of Cannes, a festival that has refused to compromise its role as the Auteur Olympics. Which is not to say there are no empty calories amid the substance. Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismaël’s Ghosts, the opening night gala (which played out of competition) turned out to be art-house twaddle. Despite the presence of France’s two most watchable actresses, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, it plays like an unwitting parody of a French movie—a love triangle involving a lunatic filmmaker (Mathieu Amalric), his new young lover (Gainsbourg) and a wife who has returned 20 years after she disappeared and was given up for dead (Cotillard). Quel dommage. Whether at Cannes or TIFF, we’ve come to expect opening night galas to suck. They’re the icing on the wedding that no one remembers.

What brings the pilgrims back to Cannes year after year—aside from the comforting ritual of a festival that feels as ceremonial as a royal court—is the exhilarating jolt of a film that comes out of nowhere and leaves us stunned and amazed. That’s the addiction that pulls us in, even as newspapers fold and film critics lose their footing.

Speaking of which, every year I hope to see Charles, a film critic from Texas who’s been coming to Cannes for as long as I can remember. He likes to join the Canadian gang for dinner. Every year he slips off into the night midway through the festival and plays blackjack. More often than not, he wins. As soon as he’s won enough, he stops and puts down a deposit for his Cannes hotel the following year. A deposit to feed an addiction greater than gambling.

Tonight, between the previous paragraph and the one you’re reading, I took a break to see Loveless, the first completion entry screened for the press. It hails from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose name I still can’t pronounce despite my admiration for him. Loveless is even more devastating than Leviathan, his 2014 epic about a microcosm of political rot in a small coastal town. In his new film, the microcosm is that of a marital breakdown. Which doesn’t begin to describe this drama’s descent into a domestic hell, a portrait of almost majestic bleakness.

Set in 2010, against news reports condemning public hysteria about the apocalypse foretold in the Mayan calendar, it’s the story of a Russian couple so entrenched in their divorce that they’ve utterly ignored their miserable 12-year-old son, the child of a home broken beyond repair. When he goes missing, it takes a couple of days for them to even notice he’s gone. They’re both too busy with their new, vacuous lovers. The only thing the couple can agree on is that they should not have got married, that the mother’s pregnancy was a gross mistake, and her not having an abortion was a missed opportunity.

The father spends nights with his new, needy girlfriend, and has athletic sex with her though she’s in the late stages of pregnancy. The mother spends nights with her rich, older boyfriend, a cold fish with a stylishly barren apartment and a dutiful libido. As they search for their missing son in a winter so unforgiving even the snow doesn’t have the heart to cover the ground, the only splashes of colour are the orange parkas of the volunteer search party that forms a line across the grim fields and dark forest. The ultimate victim is this tragedy is not the child, but Mother Russia: abandoned and in ruins.

It doesn’t sound like much fun, I know. And like many a Russian novel, it felt like a slog at first, with no escape in sight. But this film, which wound up being the best thing I’ve seen in a long time, is exquisitely composed, and eerily engrossing. As I left the theatre to finish writing this post, I thought I’d be surprised if I saw a better movie among the 18 competition entries that remain. If nothing else meets the bar, Loveless would be a worthy (and timely) winner of the Palme D’Or. It was far more meaningful than it pretended to be, unforgettable and mesmerizing—yes, hypnotic, as Almodóvar would have it. I watched it with hundreds of people on a screen considerably larger than the seat I was occupying, and can’t imagine seeing it any other way.


 

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