The pilgrims who come to Cannes each May seem a bit grumpier than usual this year. And it’s not just because of the volcanic ash clouds that played havoc with their flights, or the chilly weather and the wind-whipped beaches that are ruining the Riviera illusion of paradise. Even before anyone had seen a single film, critics were grousing about the festival selection. You can’t judge movies before seeing them (or I’d be out of a job), but on face value the program didn’t generate excitement. Those of us from North American were chagrined to see so few English language movies in competition. There are a couple of Brit features from stalwart social realists Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. And there is just one American movie competing for the Palme d’Or, Doug Liman’s Fair Game, starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts. The other major U.S. dramatic features in Cannes are what hard-core Cannes watcher call “window dressing”—Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps and Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. They’re playing safely out of competition, which is like going to Olympics and deciding not to compete for gold. There’s a reason for that. Cannes juries have not been kind to Hollywood over the years. So the studios are wary.
But this is the festival that launched game-changing American movies like Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now, sex, lies and videotape and Pulp Fiction. We still show up hoping to have our minds blown by something that will take cinema by storm. That’s an increasingly rare occurrence, which may not just reflect the culture of Cannes, but of cinema itself. But even last year, there was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which welded the art house to the multiplex with incendiary mischief. There were also two superb movies by women, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank and Jane Campion’s Bright Star. This year there’s not a single feature in competition by a female director. Even the French have been complaining about the selection—some critics here are outraged that new films by Jean-Luc Godard and Olivier Assayas have been relegated to the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Not only that, Cannes director Thierry Frémault told interviewers that he was crushed not to get the premiere of Terrence Malick’s new movie and promised next year will be better.
If Cannes is losing some of its lustre, the Toronto International Film Festival may be picking up the slack. Tonight I talked to TIFF CEO Piers Handling, who was politic enough not to gloat, yet did agree that TIFF may have assumed a dominant position in the marketplace. When I asked him if a non-stellar year in Cannes will help TIFF, Handling said: “I’ve seen this before in Cannes, and to be honest it’s no reflection on what’s going to happen in the fall.” But then he added: “There are a whole bunch of films that did not make it here — by Paul Haggis, Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Terry Malick —that are definite possibilities for Toronto.”
So is Cannes losing ground to Toronto?
“Both festivals have very different philosophies and missions,” he said. “Because it’s a public festival, Toronto has always plugged into the commercial marketplace—what’s going to play. And let’s be frank, September is perfectly placed to set up the awards-season films.
“Cannes has set itself up as the ivory tower of cinema. I really admire that, but there are drawbacks in setting themselves up that way. The key art house filmmakers in the world come here. For them the holy grail is to be in Cannes. I love those films. But a lot of them don’t play well in the commercial marketplace. You have to be grounded in the reality of the industry you’re working within. Toronto has managed to accomplish that because it’s more of a populist event. A lot of the films that have opened at the festival have gone on to play in a significant way. Like Juno, like Crash, like Slumdog Millionaire.
Still, Cannes remains unique. The reason the pilgrims keep coming back is that, for a couple of weeks a year, it turns into a fairytale town where the Hollywood romance seems more real than in Hollywood. All the usual showbiz values are inverted: people at least pretend to believe in cinema as art.
Today I saw masterful Korean film that was sheer pleasure to watch—a brilliant, dark, sexy and stylish Gothic drama called The Housemaid. It’s the ruthless tale of a rich and handsome cad whose impregnates his naïve new maid just as his doll-faced wife is about to give to birth to twins. It may not turn out to be a hit, or win an Oscar. But then some of the best films never get popular.
There’s a lot of business done in Cannes, of all kinds. Every level of B-movie is for sale in the market, and the hotels are plastered with crass movie posters. But as night falls and the red carpet lights up and the streets fill with thousands of fans, the marketplace gives way to the kind of absurdly elegant red-carpet ritual that only the French are capable of.
Tonight I walked home along the Croisette, by the beach where a crowd sat in folding chairs on the sand watching a black-and-white Frank Sinatra in From Here To Eternity. Suddenly a massive display of fireworks set to Chinese music lit up the Mediterranean sky and drowned out the soundtrack. Another night of art to burn in the magic kingdom of Cannes.