You haven't mentioned Un Certain Regard much at all. Was that whole section a misfire this year?
MP: I only saw a small handful of pictures in that section, so I hardly got a sense of the breadth or quality of the work there. However, I'm in the minority about "Beasts of the Southern Wild." It's flashy and imaginative; the filmmaker's got real skill, but I found that movie's technique awfully pushy.
BK: I would double down on that view. I think it's even maybe something of a fraud. We're going to look back, again five years from now, and think "What were we thinking?" I think the critical consensus on that film is astonishing. Every year there's a film like this, usually that comes out of Sundance.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild"
MP: I did not feel that way about "Precious," though, which also came out of Sundance and then played Cannes. I think that film is an extremely effective melodrama. But it's too early to make the call on the director of "Beasts."
BK: It's worth noting that it won the Camera d'Or.
MP: Right. For best first film.
BK: That's very significant because it's the only prize that cuts across all categories.
I didn't see much of Un Certain Regard. I thought it was overall an off year, but the one that got away from me but many seemed to think was the best film at Cannes was Joaquim Lafosse's film "A perdre la raison" ("Our Children"). He's made a wonderful string of films. The best of the bunch that I saw was "Student" by Darezhan Omirbayev. That was a kind of tribute to Bresson. Occasionally it was too studiously imitating Bressonian technique, but it had a lot of integrity to it. And it really stood out in terms of filmmaking from almost anything else you'd see.
MP: Speaking of Bresson, do you find that there's a certain quality or aura to the ushers at Cannes, that they're reformed pickpockets who might fall off the wagon at any moment? I like a lot of them and you sort of get to know them year after year. You have to appreciate a festival of this complexity that really manages to start a 7:30 screening at 7:30. I find these guys fabulously enigmatic. You know there's a good story, probably a criminal story, behind them.
BK: That's quite a detour, Michael. (laughs)
On the other hand, it brings this conversation full circle. A lot of discussion about Cannes involves not the movies but the environment of the festival. A lot of the tweets and daily reports reflect journalists who are tired, on deadline, frustrated and so on. That can overwhelm actual focus on the quality of the movies. Given that risk, do you think there's still a value in going to Cannes rather than seeing the movies later?
"Some films are about the art and some films are about the carpet. That, to me, is Cannes in a nutshell." --Michael Phillips
MP: Absolutely. It's crucial for an American critic to be reminded on the front line, at the first look at so many amazing -- and less amazing -- pictures, that this world doesn't revolve around what a handful of U.S. studios would have you believe. It's a fantastic, immersive experience, and really a wonderful test of your own critical abilities.
BK: In a perverse way, it could be Fremaux's way of saying, "Well, this is the state of American films." So you really get a crossection by seeing these films inside the competition, the highest possible profile. He has a reason for putting those in there, as he always states, and I think there's a perversity to doing that. It's a deliberate choice.
MP: Also, most people realize that film criticism is an aggressively subjective pursuit and festival programming should be no less fiercely subjective. It's all about finding out the merits or lack of merits in the reasons for certain decisions.
BK: That's actually a misnomer critics have about programming. Having been a programmer, I can tell you that programming is made fairly complex by the fact that there's a balance of one's subjective loves and objects of adoration that you must have in your programs. And there are many films you are obligated to have.
MP: Oh, yeah. Some films are about the art and some films are about the carpet. That, to me, is Cannes in a nutshell. I love the two-headed nature of it. The only image that so many people have of this festival is Brad and Angelina on the red carpet. To see that same stretch of carpet at 8:30am the next morning for the next press screening, to see it instantly deglamorized by all these pasty, sweaty journalists… it's like some kind of reverse Midas touch. You've never seen a red carpet so instantly deglamorized.