Cannes 2019

Dark Clouds Over Cannes

Features — May 31, 2019

Cannes has been top dog in the festival world as long as anyone can remember. It was originally set to launch in 1939 as a conscious political reply by liberal democracy to the success of Mussolini in establishing the first international film festival at Venice earlier in the thirties. However, its first year was abruptly cancelled by the outbreak of World War Two. Fascism defeated worldwide, Cannes quickly established itself as the great center of international cinema. In the 1950s one could see Orson Welles and André Bazin propping up the bar at the Carlton hotel, observe Brigitte Bardot being photographed on the beach and see the New Wave break as Truffaut won the best director prize for The 400 Blows.

By the time I joined the party in 1985, Cannes had expanded massively. The first addition to the official competition, in the early sixties, was the Semaine de la Critique, which started to show films too experimental for the competition. Then in 1968, when the festival was closed down in solidarity with the students and workers striking all over the country, the idea of a whole new selection focused on directors and films more socially and politically engaged gave birth to the Directors’ Fortnight, which celebrated its fiftieth birthday this year. So successful was this new section that in 1978 the festival set up its own alternative selection, Un Certain Regard, for films too quirky or independent for the main competition.

Along with more films came bigger and bigger audiences. Film festivals were being set up at an ever-increasing rate, so that soon every major city had its own, and the programmers needed to come to Cannes to invite the films of the year to their events. National film bureaucracies were also burgeoning, to supervise and guide their film industries, and the bureaucrats followed the programmers to Cannes—joining all the other buyers and sellers who had already made the Cannes Market one of the most important film markets in the world. And all the time Cannes attracted increasing attention from the press. In 1983, the festival built a huge Palais with screening rooms of every size, from tiny preview theaters for the market to the huge 2,300 Lumière cinema, which during the festival fills five or six times a day starting at 8:30 a.m. with a press screening.

By then Cannes’s business model was well established; it was the only festival in the world that covered the entire range of cinema from high end Hollywood to the most marginal of independents. It was also a crucial part of France’s well-oiled and state-directed cinema industry. Two years ago, after more than seventy years, the model broke. The advent of Netflix with its strategy of taking films straight to the television screen enraged French cinema exhibitors and distributors. They used their massive clout to ensure that Cannes continued its foundational policy of not considering for selection any film that was not going to have a cinema life. Rumor has it that the argument got heated enough that the festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, was threatened with the sack if he bucked the industry’s wishes. The result has been that Venice has become, for the first time in history, the first choice festival for the Hollywood studios. Not only does it screen Netflix films, but the Los Angeles execs have decided that September is a better time to launch an Oscar campaign than May.

Cannes has reacted by doubling down on art cinema. The last two competitions have been the best that I remember, and as if to hammer home the point this year the opening film was The Dead Don’t Die. For decades the festival has opened with a mainstream Hollywood film—think The Da Vinci Code or Robin Hood—but this year it was king of the indies Jim Jarmusch’s take on a zombie film. The first half hour of the film is terrific, as our protagonists, three local cops played by Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny, patrol the quintessential American town called Centerville. Things seem somewhat out of kilter as fracking at the North and South Pole appears to have altered the world’s axis turning night into day. Adam Driver is given to pronouncing “this isn’t going to end well,” and he is proved right as the dead rise from the graves and take over the town. The film slightly disappoints, because unlike Jarmusch’s original take on the vampire film in Only Lovers Left Alive, the zombies in The Dead Don’t Die are faithful copies of George Romero’s desperate consumers in Dawn of the Dead, as fixated on material goods in death as in life. However these slight reservations do nothing to alter the fact that the whole tone of the festival was set in an entirely new way from the moment that Jarmusch and his roster of stars from independent cinema walked up the red carpet. It was as if on its fiftieth birthday the edgy and political Directors’ Fortnight, in which Jarmusch first screened at Cannes with Stranger Than Paradise in 1984, had invaded the main competition.

In the opening days of the festival it seemed as though Adam Driver’s “this isn’t going to end well” was going to be the motto of the entire event, as dystopian vision succeeded dystopian vision. The films crackled with energy and drive but optimism about the future was in very short supply—perhaps the blackest of them all was Bacurau by the Brazilian filmmakers Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, who anticipate a future in which Americans go on hunting safaris in the remote northeast of Brazil with the twist that the animals that they are hunting are humans. The hunters first isolate and close down a village, taking it off the GPS grid and then with the most modern of surveillance drones and modern weapons they move in to massacre the entire village, competing as to who can register the most kills. One of the honchos of the festival was amazed that Americans liked the film so much, but this film was as American as apple pie. It is a remake of The Magnificent Seven with the Yul Brynner role taken by a crazed Klaus Kinski–like revolutionary covered in Che Guevara tattoos to whom the villagers turn when they realize that they are under attack. As each of the hunters came to increasingly gruesome ends the cinema erupted in applause and cheers. Whether such pleasures are really good for the soul is a question as old as Aristotle, but my critic’s eye could not help noticing that it was the sexually liberated women of the hunting party who met the grisliest ends, sequences that gained the most enthusiastic applause from the audience.


Bacurau shared the jury prize for third place with Les misérables, a film that takes us into the French suburban ghetto of Montfermeil, in which much of Victor Hugo’s great nineteenth century novel is based. Our guide to the contemporary miserables of this Parisian suburb now largely populated by North African immigrants is Ladj Ly, who has spent an activist lifetime in Montfermeil, where he still lives. Much of Ly’s previous work has been in documentary and this experience tells as the film inhabits the physical world of Montfermeil with complete assurance. However, this documentary base is animated by an original fiction in which the theft of a lion cub from a gypsy circus provides a genuinely engaging story. It must be noted that like Bacurau, Les misérables is an American film; its narrative frame is that of Training Day, a rookie cop’s first day proving an unwelcome introduction to police methods in the ghetto, and the influence of both John Singleton and Spike Lee is obvious.

The second prize went to a very un-American film. The French Senegalese director Mati Diop, the first black woman director to be selected for competition at Cannes, aimed very high indeed, attempting to bring us to a world much less familiar than upcountry Brazil or the Parisian banlieue. Her story, Atlantics, is set in the slums of Dakar and portrays a world in which economic hardship and political corruption drive the young men to risk their lives at sea in a desperate attempt to find work in Spain. The film’s focus, however, is on the girls who are left behind with the heroine played by a breathtakingly beautiful Mama Sane, hoping against hope that the boy she loves has not been claimed by the sea. The second half of the film sees the ghosts of the drowned men return to inhabit the women they have left; to seek vengeance on those who have driven them to their deaths. Diop’s inclusion in the main competition was a sign of more diversity in this year’s event, following much criticism of the festival in recent years for its inadequacy. Two of the prizes went to women directors and two to directors of African descent, Diop featuring in both categories.

These were the first four films shown in the festival and by this stage I was beginning to think that I would leave Cannes having seen nothing but good films and in a state of deep depression. This thought was confirmed by the fact that the next film was by Ken Loach, who at eighty-two is still turning in the greatest of works in the neorealist tradition. I thought the old master was losing his touch with his last effort I, Daniel Blake. However, his new film, Sorry We Missed You, sees him back at the top of his game. This story of a delivery driver and a carer trying to make ends meet in the gig economy is heartrendingly accurate about the terrible condition in which millions now work in the supposedly developed West.

Pain and Glory

Just when one was thinking that the really big question was whether one was going to commit suicide immediately or wait until one had been overpowered by another fifteen great films, a savior arrived in the form of festival veteran Pedro Almodóvar. If Almodóvar has made a bad film, I haven’t seen it, but Pain and Glory is one of his undoubted masterpieces. Shamelessly autobiographical it focuses on a writer-director crippled by the physical and psychological pains of aging who comes to terms with many of his unresolved conflicts in a genuinely touching story. Antonio Banderas plays the director with whom he has worked so often in a magisterial performance recognized by the jury with the prize for best actor. But actually, the film could have won for script or direction. The skill with which Almodóvar cuts between the old man contemplating his past and the young boy with his adored mother (played by Penélope Cruz) is a cinematic miracle. A miracle that allows the happiest of endings while acknowledging the reality of death.

One might be tempted to argue that Almodóvar should have won the Palme d’Or except that the Korean director Bong Joon-ho turned in a film so original in narrative and tone, so mixed generically and so perfectly acted and shot, that there was little surprise that his Parasite won. In its meditation on family and class and in its use of identification in the most surprising of ways, Parasite is a perfect companion piece to last year’s great winner Shoplifters.

If the first five films in the competition were all very considerable, and if there were at least two masterpieces after that, it should not be thought that this very good competition did not include some truly appalling films. There were a number of thrillers that had obviously decided that plot was an old-fashioned idea, and some others who thought that all that was needed to convey eroticism was to place the girl on top. Funnily enough this succession of gobbling turkeys had a certain soothing effect as at least you could take your mind off the fact that likely as not Adam Driver had hit the nail on the head.

The end of the festival bought two more great films: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood and Celine Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu. The Sciamma film is a delight. A slow and deliberate film about the relationship between three women on an island off the Breton coast, it never ceases to engage and to move. It wasn’t the only film that brought tears to my eyes, but it was the only one that made me spend hours wondering if the last two short scenes added or detracted to the very powerful ending. It surely deserved its prize, although I myself would have awarded it for direction and not for scenario.

The arrival of Tarantino provided a more traditionally starry evening at Cannes, but Tarantino was probably the exception that proves the rule. He is one of the few directors with the stature to tell his studio execs that he’s going to Cannes whatever they say. Whether we’ll see the combined star power of Brad Pitt, Leonardo di Caprio, and Margot Robbie ascend the famous red carpet in future years may be in doubt.

But Cannes seems to have swiftly repositioned itself in the wake of the Netflix crisis, itself part of a media landscape in which film no longer enjoys its supremacy in entertainment as an economic medium. This year’s Cannes proved that film is still uniquely able to capture and explore the political and emotional complexities of our global realities. It may be that things are not going to end well, but you can be sure that film will engage with that ending.

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