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Cannes ’11: Five Lessons From This Year’s Festival

Cannes '11: Five Lessons From This Year's Festival

After 12 long days and even more sleepless nights for hundreds of people, the Cannes Film Festival finally came to an end Sunday. As with each year at this massive spectacle of media chaos and cinematic discovery, many moments and images (not to mention movies!) will continue to reverberate.

Some people have compared Cannes to “Groundhog Day” for its repetitive nature: The red carpets, the crowds, and even many of the filmmakers are bound to look the same after a while. But even as Cannes sticks to its traditionalist roots – “Cannes is Cannes,” as artistic director Thierry Frémaux told me in a recent interview – each year manages to leave many distinct impressions, although sometimes you have to squint through the spotlight to see them.

Having reviewed 25 movies and seen a few more than that, I’m still unpacking the experience. Here are a few of my takeaways from this (typically) wild 64th year.

The “scandal” never tells the whole story.

By this point, the whole world knows that Lars von Trier made some unfortunate comments during the press conference for his new movie, “Melancholia” (and they weren’t the ones about shooting a porn with Kirsten Dunst). Anyone could have predicted that von Trier would aim to say something memorable when the microphone was put in front of him, but in this case he stumbled across an imaginary line and the movie’s reputation may have suffered as a result.

But did it? “Melancholia” has not only been widely praised by critics, but the jury even awarded Dunst an acting prize, and jury president De Niro said that he would have given the film the Palme d’Or if the entire jury felt it deserved the award. The festival waited until after the movie’s big premiere in the Palais des Festivals to announce von Trier’s vaguely defined “persona non grata” status, so “Melancholia” still got the same glamor treatment as every other movie in competition. While an Argentinean distributor dropped the movie from its slate, U.S. distributor Magnolia Pictures will release the movie in the fall and most likely bring it to more high-profile festivals. Von Trier, it seems, actually benefited from Mel Gibson’s appearance at Cannes; frequent comparisons to the shunned actor made the director look downright respectable.

Through and through, this is a director’s festival.

This one is hardly new, and yet important to realize as Cannes becomes increasingly consumed by media attention. Journalists from around the world pour into the festival and cameras watch every movement of the stars in attendance, whether or not they’re attending on behalf of a movie. Nevertheless, at the core the focus remained on the people who made the movies happen. The world’s biggest star, Brad Pitt, came to Cannes with equally famous squeeze Angelina Jolie in tow – and yet, when he took the mic, he spoke on behalf of absent “The Tree of Life” director Terrence Malick.

Elsewhere, filmmakers young and old became the center of attention: Lynne Ramsay made a triumphant return behind the camera with the critically divisive but generally well-received “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” her first competition entry. Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre” proved the Finnish director’s trademark style hasn’t waned. Two filmmakers turned the cameras on themselves: Kim Ki-duk’s unnervingly confessional “Arirang,” which won Un Certain Regard, and Jafar Panahi’s extraordinary portrait of life under house arrest, “This is Not a Film,” both had people talking. And even though acclaimed auteurs Takashi Miike and Paulo Sorrentino bombed, their own reputations remain strong; these efforts have been deemed, if nothing else, blemishes on otherwise favorable careers.

Then there were the discoveries: Julia Leigh made a memorable impression with her directorial debut, “Sleeping Beauty,” as did Austrian casting agent-turned-director Mikael Schleinzer with his fascinating pedophile case study “Michael.” French star Maiwann’s “Poliss” brought her acclaim as a serious filmmaker who will soon find her way to greater U.S. recognition.

Knee-jerk reactions can never be trusted.

Instant analysis at Cannes usually leads to misleading results, but each year it gets worse. Twitter reactions, now regularly quoted by media outlets, reflect the speed of the environment. Consider “Tree of Life”: Reports noted that applause following the movie’s premiere lasted only a few minutes, rather than the 10 – 15 minute ovations that meet bigger hits. A few boos heard at the morning press screening were also seen as danger signs. Nevertheless, early reviews have been widely positive and, of course, the movie won the prestigious Palme d’Or. Likewise, “Sleeping Beauty” didn’t live up to expectations in its slot as the first competition film to screen at the festival, but it landed U.S. distribution with Sundance Selects and was cited by the jury as being among the few that they seriously considered for a prize.

Viva Critics’ Week!

While Directors’ Fortnight was considered to have had a weaker year, the festival’s other parallel section celebrated its 50th anniversary with one of its best programs in years. The section winner, “Take Shelter,” made waves with overseas critics in much the same fashion that it did at Sundance a few months earlier. The Australian serial killer portrait “Snowtown” shocked audiences, instigating as many walkouts as it did defenders, but found its way to a U.S. distribution deal with Sundance Selects and landed positive reviews. Critics’ Week opener “Declaration of War” wowed the crowds with its moving and beautifully stylized portrait of a young couple coping with their infant’s terminal illness. And Eva Ionesco’s semi-autobiographical “My Little Princess” showed the French actress could direct as well, casting impressive newcomer Anamaria Vartolomei in the challenging role of a character Ionesco based on herself. Finally, Jonathan Caouette’s “Walk Away Renee” received a mostly positive reception, validating the director’s return to personal filmmaking with his first project of this nature since “Tarnation.”

The festival doesn’t lose steam until it reaches the finish line.

It’s a running joke at Cannes that if you find yourself watching a movie that fails to impress, you might as well use the opportunity to catch up on some sleep. Cannes may or may not be the best festival on the planet, but it’s certainly the most exhausting, which probably explains why a large portion of the industry heads out of town by its midpoint. This year, however, the program had plenty to offer from start to finish. On Wednesday, “Melancholia” premiered, and the ensuing drama kept Cannes in the global media crosshairs well into its second half. As far as the quality of the movies went, two late-festival premieres left major dents: Nicolas Winding Refn’s breathless action pastiche “Drive,” which won a directing prize, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s thoughtful procedural “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” one of two features to win the Grand Prix. Sorrentino’s “This Must Be the Place” bombed, but people may have considered the title, taken from a David Byrne song, as an apt way of describing Cannes. Programming the festival is an art form unto itself, and this year it maintained the public’s interest until the last camera bulb popped.

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