CANNES AS WEIRD AS ALWAYS
This year more than most, film festival seems to be in flux, Chris Knight writes.
It’s been a weird Cannes. In one sense that statement is never false at a festival where tuxedo-clad attendees can climb the red-carpeted steps accompanied by stormtroopers to watch a space opera with French subtitles and starring a big walking carpet, then start counting down the hours until the world première of Ahlat Agaci (The Wild Pear Tree), a 188-minute Turkish epic where (to quote the film’s website) “all hopes and dreams merge with despair.”
But even by the usual standards of oddity and antithesis it’s been an off year. The very future of cinema sometimes seemed to hang in the balance, as Netflix was banned from bringing one of its streaming titles to competition and responded by pulling all its films, worsening an already weak year for English-language cinema at the festival. Even so, the biggest deal to come of the festival — for about $25 million — was for an old-fashioned movie-movie, the spy thriller 355 that will star Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz and Lupita Nyong ’o.
But in many respects in 2018, the 71st year for the festival, there was less of everything. Fewer banners and billboards decorated the beachfront hotels, trumpeting new and future projects. Fewer films took to the streets with wacky stunts to promote themselves. There were fewer parties, and they had less crackle.
Some of this reduction had to do with the general mood at Cannes this year. The 25th annual amfAR party to raise money for AIDS charities seemed to stagger after its chief booster, Harvey Weinstein, was embroiled in sexual scandals, although it eventually went ahead as planned.
And as the #MeToo movement continued to grow, a team of 82 female celebrities (including jury president Cate Blanchett) took to the red carpet to demand greater equality in the film industry. Their numbers represented the 82 female directors who have competed for the festival’s top prize over the years, slightly more than four per cent of the 1,948 total. (The only woman to win the Palme d’Or was Jane Campion, 25 years ago, for The Piano.)
And many of the 21 films in competition this year seemed a touch lacklustre. There were audience favourites in Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun, about a real-life group of female soldiers in Kurdistan, and A.B. Shawky’s Yomeddine, an Egyptian film and quite possible the first feelgood leper story in cinema history. But both movies were also criticized for being too standard in their storytelling. Cannes critics like to see art house in the house. By this critic’s reckoning (so far; I’ve still got a few movies to go), the best of the bunch has to be Burning, from Korean director Chang-dong Lee. It’s a taut, terrifically paced thriller featuring an impoverished Everyman trying to solve a missing-woman mystery.
And in a bizarre, only-atCannes coincidence, the worst could easily be David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, which has basically the same plot. The difference is that while Lee’s film reveals much by showing little, Mitchell’s has the telescope turned the other way around.
Singular in its ambition and power is BlacKkKlansman from Spike Lee, which stars John David Washington in the real-life story of a black cop in the 1970s who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. The movie is by turns hilarious and thought-provoking, sometimes skirting close to Blazing Saddles in its lunacy, but a powerful coda commenting on the racism on full display last summer in Charlottesville, Va., makes Lee’s film very much a movie of the moment. Whichever film takes the Palme d’Or Saturday, a lesson of sorts may be found in the out-ofcompetition film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote from Terry Gilliam. The director, now 77 and rebounding from a minor health scare that almost scuttled his trip to Cannes, started work on this movie almost 30 years ago, in 1989. After a decade of struggling for funding, he finally started shooting in 2000, only to have everything go wrong that could. (The documentary Lost in La Mancha, originally envisioned as a DVD making-of extra, chronicles the disaster.)
In 2016 Gilliam finally got things rolling again, and by late last year had a nearly finished film.
Then, a few weeks before the Cannes festival began, Amazon backed out of its U.S. distribution deal and producer Paulo Branco went to court, saying the film could not be shown at the festival. A ruling in Gilliam’s favour came down only last week.
The moral would seem to be that a festival, like the movies that comprise it, can suffer ups and downs, good years and bad. Sometimes all it takes is one well-made thriller, one Spike Lee rant, one legal triumph or one well-received protest to turn things around.
Where there’s film, there’s hope.
Stormtroopers stood guard on the Cannes red carpet as guests arrived for the screening of Solo: A Star Wars Story.