“What is cinema?” That’s the question posed by the title of collected writings by French critic Andre Bazin nearly 50 years ago. These days, it’s a particularly tough question: TV overshadows feature films in the cultural landscape, while digital advancements range from social media to virtual reality. Now more than ever, we need a festival to clarify the changing identity of cinema.
Just don’t tell that to Thierry Fremaux, the festival’s poker-faced director.
“In Cannes, our role is to defend film — to show both its power and vitality,” he wrote me in an email this week, asserting that virtual reality installations belong in the Cannes marketplace rather than its official selection of films. “That is its role,” he said. “But Cannes is a film festival.”
And television, he added, deserves a separate context. “We must invent a special festival for it,” he said. “However, movies are doing well — as you’ll see from the geographical selection this year.”
Naive? Stubborn? Maybe, but the program supports Fremaux’s resistance to anything but the purest definition of the movies. The 50 titles in the official selection, whittled down from some 1,800 submissions, represent dozens of countries along with filmmakers new and old. Collectively, they speak to a common understanding of movies as distinct artistry.
Day four, for example, finds Steven Spielberg’s Disney-financed children’s novelization “The BFG” screening for the press and industry just a few hours after Korean director Park Chan-wook’s erotic thriller “The Handmaiden.” That same day, Chilean director Alejandro Jodoworsky’s surrealist ode to his youth, “Endless Poetry,” premieres in Directors Fortnight, and British filmmaker Andrea Arnold’s teen runaway drama “American Honey” surfaces in the evening. One 12-hour period at Cannes is a self-contained argument for the medium’s vitality.
Fremaux himself clearly has his favorites, repeatedly singling out German director Maren Ade’s relationship drama “Toni Erdman” and Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho’s mysterious “Aquarius” as two major highlights. But others who have seen some selections in advance — such as Edouard Waintrop, who programs Directors Fortnight — have their own preferences. Waintrop touted two French films in competition, Bruno Dumon’s “Slack Bay” and Alain Giraudie’s “Staying Vertical,” along with “Train to Busan,” from Korea’s Yeon Sang-Ho.
His own section’s highlights include “Risk,” the latest documentary from “Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras, which the festival added at the last minute. It was one of several entries that the programmer described as a surprise this year; another was “My Life As a Courgette,” a Swiss animated film that he randomly encountered at a special screening near his home in Geneva. “We cross the world to see movies, but one of the best I’ve seen was almost shown to me in my living room,” Waintrop said.
For Waintrop, the joy of programming comes from his personal satisfaction with the films in the selection. “The first criteria for a movie to be selected is the pleasure it gives us,” Waintrop said. “This is a subjective criteria that we brandish as a banner.”
Charles Tesson, artistic director of Cannes’ Critics Week section, expressed a similar sentiment. His festival’s seven-film selection — with one new title premiering each day — “is not intended to illustrate one day of cinema, but to offer several ways of seeing it across a wide spectrum.”
Which is to say: Embrace the contrasts. Social media may have sped up and simplified the terms of the conversation, but nothing stimulates a dense series of far-reaching debates about the state of the movies like Cannes. “The festival belongs to everyone,” Fremaux wrote me. “So everyone has their own opinions about it. Sometimes they’re great; sometimes, they’re stupid. When you do this job, you must be able to accept everything.”
And that may be the single reason why, in the decade that I have attended this festival, Cannes has remained a complete rarity on the world stage even as the medium continues to change. In an age that favors consensus, it celebrates a culture defined by opposing sensibilities. The festival flings 21 competition titles at a jury of filmmakers and actors — this year headed by George Miller — and forces them to argue through their favorites.
Many film festivals have similarly complex visions of the art form, but only Cannes achieves it on such a massive scale. The festival may offer no single definition for cinema or a reliable prediction of its future, but over the course of 10 days, it offers a dramatic assertion of the art form’s resilience. Let the arguments begin.