The bus full of tuxedoed moviegoers was pulling up to Palm Beach at the cusp of the Croisette in Cannes when the fireworks started. As the crowd pooled at the entrance to a hulking white tent where the opening dinner for the Cannes Film Festival would take place, a panoply of glittering colors filled the air to the tune of deafening explosions. Usually at this chaotic festival, which attracts thousands of cinephiles, dealmakers, partygoers, celebrities and their gawkers alike, any given crowd quickly dissolves into mayhem. But for a brief moment, the roaring spectacle brought the whole scene to a standstill, and all we could do was just stand there and watch.
So goes the underlying paradox of Cannes in its every crevice: The festival simultaneously caters to high-minded, cultured sensibilities and plays up the much emptier conceit of a big, wild show. Look closer, however, and those seemingly contradictory impulses actually complement each other well.
At the entrance to the party, the group dispersed and steadily ventured forward. Colleagues and friends traded niceties while exchanging thoughts on the opening night selection, a snapshot of French social-realism about youth delinquency called “Standing Tall.” Some were mystified as to the movie’s prominent opening night slot, which so often goes to starrier titles. But others saw past that. “It was very French,” said former Museum of Modern Art curator Laurence Kardish, who was fresh from attending a Fassbinder retrospective in Berlin. “So it makes more sense than you might think.”
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Heads turned as “Standing Tall” star and legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve sauntered past in a painfully bright dress. Other recognizable faces made quieter entrances, though it didn’t take long to pinpoint the likes of Natalie Portman, in town for the premiere of her Jerusalem-set directorial debut “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” as well as jury members Jake Gyllenhaal and Xavier Dolan huddled at a table with jury presidents Joel and Ethan Cohen along with Joel’s wife, Frances McDormand. Still, anyone who missed some of the heavyweights in attendants received a handy guide when Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux grabbed the microphone to welcome the guests and singled out several of them by name, inviting bountiful applause each time. At Cannes, anonymity is a foreign concept; the stars are essential to the show.
But they didn’t form the whole scene at Wednesday’s dinner. Seated at tables throughout the room were various influential distributors, curators and other foot soldiers of the business involved in making sure that some of the highlights from Cannes’ rich selection of world cinema found its way around the globe.
At one table, a veteran distributor beamed proudly about a recent acquisition of a major festival title while ruminating on many of the others that had screened for buyers in advance. He lamented the abundance of stories involving family drama and other formulaic scenarios, which include the opening night selection to Norwegian director Joaquim Trier’s “Louder Than Bombs,” the story of estranged New York relatives, to Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth,” in which Michael Caine plays an aging composer looking back on on his life. “Even when they’re good,” he said, “it’s all just overwrought material. Show me something new.”
Still, the buzz remained strong for many competition titles yet to screen, including rising Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose FBI drama “Sicario” was generating waves of enthusiasm way ahead of its premiere. Smaller titles, such as the immigration drama “Mediterranea” from American director Jonas Carpignano (screening at Critics’ Week) and Todd Haynes’ lesbian thriller “Carol,” continued to fuel heated speculation.
The media already had a few more titles to chew on. In its first day, Cannes unveiled two competition films to the press, Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s tender “Our Little Sister” and Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales,” from Japan and Italy, respectively. Both are festival regulars, which meant that their work was inevitably being compared to their earlier successes at the festival. Though Garrone’s dark, outlandish fairy tale was destined to divide audiences, the reaction to “Our Little Sister” felt, like Kore-eda’s movies, incredibly subtle.
Based on a Japanese manga, the director’s fifteenth feature arrives on the heels of 2013’s “Like Father, Like Son,” a textured look at two sets of parents that discover they swapped infants at birth. “Our Little Sister” examines another story of relatives coming to grips with past mistakes: A trio of sisters attend the funeral of their estranged father and befriend their younger half-sister, the result of their late dad’s second marriage. Her initially affable entrance into their lives eventually conjures darker feelings toward the sense of abandonment that their half-sister dredges up.
Yet Kore-eda’s fascinating ability to resist melodramatic overstatement means that the emotional turmoil of “Our Little Sister” unfolds over the duration of the movie, through many scenes of affable exchanges where smiles belie a more sophisticated set of psychological challenges in play. In other words, it’s not the ideal selection for the first day of screenings, when many bleary-eyed attendees were tussling with jetlag and unknotting their schedules for the next few days. “It’s one of those movies that people will appreciate more when it’s not at Cannes,” said one admirer, speculating about its release prospects. (The next day, word would circulate that the movie landed U.S. distribution with Sony Pictures Classics.)
In a week’s time, the quality at this year’s festival would hold up to a whole new level of scrutiny. But for now, the room crackled with the giddiness of people just excited to be there and ready to keep the momentum going. Nobody looked more pumped than juror Guillermo del Toro, the wide-eyed Mexican director and Cannes juror holding court throughout the evening with various well-wishers passing by his table. While Fremaux stopped the proceedings to encourage the whole room to applaud the chefs in the house, del Toro leaned back and took in the rambunctious scene. “I need to get Thierry to corral a fucking mariachi band,” he said, ruminating on how much party time his jury duties might allow.
Fortunately for del Toro, his ten days of Cannes screenings contained plenty of openings. “We are lucky this time,” he said, when someone recalled last year’s Palme d’Or winner “Winter Sleep,” which clocked in at over three hours — one of several titles that lasted on the longer side. “The longest movie in this year’s competition is only two hours and eleven minutes. So we can do all kinds of stuff.”
That meant he could scope out a lot more than the competition titles on his itinerary. He could barely contain his excitement over Thursday’s upcoming out-of-competition slot for “Mad Max: Fury Road,” already a critical hit in the U.S. and on the verge of becoming a commercial one. “If the world was going to end and I was stuck somewhere, I would forget about all those great films from Renoir or Bresson,” he said. “I would grab ‘The Road Warrior.'”
Del Toro’s enthusiasm spoke to the kind of hysteria that Cannes inspires even in an average year. There were murmurs that better movies had landed this time in Directors’ Fortnight, the smaller gathering down the road, and some industry folks wondered if the festival’s programming no longer held the same standards that made it the most prominent movie-related gathering on the calendar. However, no matter how one picks apart quality at Cannes, no other festival invites such analytical scrutiny on the same scale. No matter the red carpet insanity, at the end of the day, Cannes fuels conversations about movies with unparalleled influence.
Not that most of the people at the after party knew much about that. Adjacent to the tent where the classy dinner came to a close, a DJ fired up thumping club music while throngs of partiers swooped in from a separate entrance. By stepping just a few feet from one terrain to another, one could enter another, far more unruly world, the detritus of Cannes’ success and also its secret to success. While VIP guests were scrunched to the side of the room, the newcomers grabbed drinks and hit the dance floor.
For this subset of the festival, Cannes was a hedonistic world of luxury yachts, pricey booze and after hours hook-ups. Their enthusiasm for those very separate priorities enhances Cannes’ chic brand while bolstering its potential as a platform for cinema. As one colleague put it, Cannes “helps the nerds get laid” — literally, in some cases, but also figuratively by associating the film community’s most diehard advocates with a hip, mainstream event. At Cannes, marginalized sensibilities are suddenly in style (or cool by association, anyway).
But that doesn’t mean the festival needs to embrace its rambunctious nightlife. While the party raged on, Fremaux could be found seated at a remote table in the now mostly-empty dining tent, finishing his dessert. The jury quickly scurried away in vehicles waiting outside. It was the first night of the Cannes Film Festival, and there was much more to come.