As the 2017 Cannes Film Festival entered its final days, IndieWire critics Eric Kohn and David Ehrlich took a break from endless screenings and late nights to trade notes on what they’ve gleaned from this year’s edition.
ERIC KOHN: I treasure many moviegoing memories from the Cannes Film Festival, but none of them have anything to do with special screenings of “Ocean’s Thirteen” or “Pirates of the Caribbean,” both of which played here over the past decade. Someone must have gotten the memo: There are no traditional big studio movies in the 70th edition of the festival, and what a relief — each day has brought another exciting alternative to bland, unimaginative Hollywood spectacles, although the definition of “Hollywood” may be malleable.
After all, what was Bong Joon Ho’s crowdpleasing, allegorical sci-fi action vehicle “Okja” but a first-rate, effects-driven ride, a more sophisticated blockbuster than most studio blockbusters? It took a slot that could have gone to other upcoming movies produced on similarly massive scales — “Wonder Woman” and “Baywatch,” both just around the corner on the release calendar, come to mind — but “Okja” was produced by Netflix for many millions of dollars.
The digital platform may have started its first Cannes as a controversial industry disrupter, but now that we’ve seen its two big movies, it’s clear that Netflix is also enabling a range of filmmakers who would otherwise not have the easiest time getting their work made. Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” may not forge new ground in the subgenre of New York movies about neurotic Jewish families, but it’s certainly a paragon of the form, and millions of people will have access to it around the world very soon. It may wind up as his most visible movie ever — which is crazy when you consider what it’s about — and could also become an ideal access point to his work.
On some level, the very idea of Netflix at Cannes has evolved over the course of the 2017 festival. But so has the festival narrative in a larger sense. The VR installation from Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarriutu has been so well received that there’s no question about its validity here, and the club of A-list auteurs in Competition — from Michael Haneke to Yorgos Lanthimos — have been so well-received that nobody can really use this year’s edition to argue against Cannes favoritism (unless, of course, the concern revolves around the shortage of women directors).
Instead, I think the festival has so far made the case for such an exciting range of alternatives to traditional mainstream American movies that the studios should be feeling the heat by now. They’re no longer at the foreground when it comes to defining the identity of American movies. Look at Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project.” One year after “Tangerine,” he has delivered another entertaining, powerful and totally unique drama about unorthodox characters that opens them up to a wider audience. Who needs outmoded romcoms and superhero movies when other filmmakers have found fresher approaches — and new distribution players are supporting them?
DAVID EHRLICH: Eric, the most incredible thing about your report is that — for all of the examples you cited — it still doesn’t tell the whole story. Case in point: Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake: China Girl.” I cannot possibly overstate how perverse it is that the best thing I’ve seen (by FAR) at my first Cannes Film Festival is a television show. I feel like a traitor to my kind.
Yes, they screened the entire thing for a few hundred brave festival attendees in the Bazin Theatre across a single afternoon. (I wonder what the auditorium’s namesake, the influential French critic Andre Bazin, would have to say about all this). And yes, the series was created and partially directed by a Palme d’Or winner (who sat towards the back of the room with her cast for all six hours of this new season). But it’s still a television show, punctuated by episode breaks and stuffed with economical medium-shots of actors swatting police jargon back and forth. It’s still something that will almost exclusively be watched in living rooms and on iPhones. Unlike the Netflix movies that premiered in Competition, however, it didn’t cause a scandal. On the contrary, the response it received was so universally positive that Cannes would surely consider doing something like it again next year, provided that the right filmmaker conceives of the right program.
Even for a Croisette first-timer, it’s overwhelmingly clear that this year’s Cannes has been all about breaking the rules. What clearer evidence of that could there be than the sight of a craft services table waiting for audience members as they filed into the Bazin? This is a place where food and water are absolutely verboten from the theaters, where it feels like the incredibly thorough security guards at every entrance are searching people for granola bars almost as keenly as they are for weapons, and yet there they were handing out bottles of water and candy bars by the fistful. It felt like a mirage, or maybe even a trap, though it ended up simply being a courtesy.
Of course, in a way, Cannes has always been about breaking the rules, even if the screen on which they were broken was until recently a sacred space. This is a place for filmmakers who live to defy convention, and a place for filmgoers who are eager to see them try. In theory, that’s a beautiful sentiment. In practice, it’s… very complicated. I still have extremely mixed emotions about the role of Netflix in the present and future of cinema, and about where the line between film and TV ought to be drawn, but the theater is an unbeatable unifier. Once the lights go down, the screen is the only thing that matters.