Cracking Cannes

On Film / Features — May 13, 2015
Cannes poster

Cannes is complicated. To the first-time visitor, it seems a blur of parties, dinners, and screenings, and wherever you are, you are constantly troubled by the thought that the really hot screening or the really hip party is happening elsewhere. After the first ten years, you become a little more relaxed, and the festival becomes a little more comprehensible. After twenty years, you achieve an inner calm and the festival takes logical form. As I head to my thirtieth Cannes this week, it all makes sense.

I first came to Cannes as a producer, and I soon learned that the event was not one selection but several. If you couldn’t get your film into the official competition, then you could try for the Directors’ Fortnight, which happens at the same time and in the same town but has its own organization and cinemas. If that failed, you could try the even older independent Critics’ Week, or you might go back to the main festival’s own sidebar—Un Certain Regard. This may seem a confusing mélange, but it has an illuminating history.

At the festival’s center is the Official Competition, in which around twenty films are screened over ten days, all competing for the coveted Palme d’Or. This signature contest dates back to the origins of the festival before the Second World War, when the French government decided that Mussolini’s huge propaganda success for fascism with the Venice Film Festival should be counterbalanced by a film festival put on by a democracy. Cannes was chosen as the location, and preparations began for a 1939 launch. Unfortunately, these preparations were interrupted by the Wehrmacht, and the first festival did not take place until 1946. It was an immediate success, introducing Italian neorealism to the world. The festival really hit its stride, however, in the 1950s, when it attracted the most beautiful stars, the most talented directors, and the most astute critics. In those halcyon days, you could see Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot on the beach by day and eavesdrop on Orson Welles and André Bazin at the bar by night. Festivalgoers and stars rubbed shoulders on the Croisette, the huge boulevard that runs along the Mediterranean in Cannes.

The original setup of the festival was heavily dominated by national politics. Each country chose its representative film, selection procedures varied widely, and few thought that merit had much to do with it. This old model started to crumble in 1968, when Cannes coincided with the heady days of the evénéments of May in Paris. François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard led the successful charge to close down the festival in solidarity with “the workers and students.” One immediate result of these heady riots was the setting up of the French Society of Film Directors on June 4, 1968, which in turn founded the Directors’ Fortnight, to showcase new directors and more adventurous filmmaking alongside but independent of the official Cannes competition. More slowly, the main competition began to change, growing a sidebar event, Un Certain Regard, to rival the Directors’ Fortnight by showing its own more adventurous fare, and, crucially, taking over the selection of its slate of titles from national film associations. By the end of the seventies, the whole affair had taken its current shape, with the three main sections being complemented by Critics’ Week—selected by French cinema critics and tending toward movies even more experimental than those in the Directors’ Fortnight—and a variety of short-film competitions.

By the time I first arrived in 1985, the festival was a huge cultural and commercial event, and the stars had left the bars and the beaches of the Croisette and taken refuge in the very exclusive Hôtel du Cap, a thirty-minute drive from the festival itself. It is easy to be cynical and even hostile about Cannes; for the ten days of the festival it can lay fair claim to being both the bullshit and the sleaze capital of the world. However, much is redeemed by the fact that it is the only moment in the annual film calendar that unites the Hollywood studios with the tiniest of third-world independents and embraces every level of filmmaking in between.

If you ignore the parties and the dinners, a task that is easier with advancing age, and concentrate on the enormous number of films projected, you can really get a snapshot of the current state of not only the cinema but also the world. To take examples from recent years, films like Leviathan and A Touch of Sin tell you more about Russia or China than any number of news bulletins. The excitement begins in the weeks leading up to the festival, as the various sections announce their selections. The big news this year has been that, although there are only two American films in competition (Todd Haynes’s Carol and Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees), there are more Hollywood stars than ever. The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, who is making his debut in the festival with The Lobster, has Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz as his leads, and the other debutant, Norwegian Joachim Trier, features Gabriel Byrne in his Louder Than Bombs. When you add the Canadian Denis Villeneuve (with Sicario, a Tex-Mex gang film) and the Australian Justin Kurzel (a Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard), this is undoubtedly the most Anglophone lineup ever to screen at Cannes. The paradox that the English language becomes ever more globally dominant as England vanishes from global view is underlined by the fact that there are no UK films in competition.

For me, however, the most exciting news this year is that two of the greatest Chinese filmmakers, the veteran Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien and the relative newcomer Jia Zhangke, are both bringing films to the competition. Hou’s, The Assassin, is particularly intriguing, as it is a martial arts film from a director known for his intimate dramas, and its production history is as long and complicated as any in the history of cinema. Jia, by contrast, financed and shot his film, Mountains May Depart, in just two years, after screening A Touch of Sin at the festival in 2013. There has been little press on this film, but it starts in China in the 1990s and ends in Australia in 2025, and it is my most anticipated film of the festival. With new works as well from Matteo Garrone, Paolo Sorrentino, and Jacques Audiard, the competition looks strong. As does the Directors’ Fortnight, which opens with a Philippe Garrel film. Garrel was twenty in 1968, and there is perhaps no single filmmaker who is more identified with the ethics and aesthetics of the Directors’ Fortnight than he. It will be fascinating to see how his film, set in the contemporary filmmaking world of Paris, reflects on the past.

Over the decades, Cannes has also been famous for its storm-in-teacup controversies that convulse the festival for the duration and are then instantly forgotten. The last major talking point was in 2011, when Lars von Trier found a few kind words to say about Hitler. Festival director Thierry Frémaux looks to have taken a lead in the controversy stakes this year—although setting the bar rather lower than Hitler—with an announcement that “selfies” would be banned from the famous red carpet that leads up to the main cinema, describing them as “ridiculous and grotesque.”