Cannes must serve many masters. Over 70 years, the festival has expanded to fulfill many sets of expectations: red-carpet black-tie glamour from the biggest movie stars, breaking news and celebrity interviews for the 4,000 global press, a vital film market for international buyers and sellers, and of course the films that will be assessed by the media and world’s most exacting critics.
But this year, festival director Thierry Fremaux found himself in a perfect storm. With a shrinking smart-film market that offers narrow margins of error, a Cannes acceptance can inspire equal measures of pride and terror. Fremaux probably should have changed the timing for critics’ screenings years ago, before so many festival regulars — from Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan to lauded French auteurs Jacques Audiard and Olivier Assayas — opted out of attending in favor of the less-risky, Oscar-friendly fall festival circuit.
“Cannes can be brutal if you don’t get the right reception,” said Spike Lee, who soaked up applause for “BlacKkKlansman.” “That’s hard. It’s good to get the flip side.” Indeed: Lee came out of Cannes with the Grand Prix and strong buzz for an August opener. “I’ll say that as an African-American filmmaker, I was completely taken by the film,” said juror Ava DuVernay at the post-awards jury press conference, “as a person who has imbibed every Spike Lee film and seen everything he’s ever made.”
While the Palais’ flapping seats are long gone, boos and nasty tweets remain. In the end, the festival proved kinder and more accommodating to the media, who responded by happily accepting simultaneous evening viewings of the nightly gala premieres with roomier theaters — even if they had to file every night and missed more parties. “We love you,” Fremaux said to the media at the Cannes press dinner. “We are writing the future together.”
Finally, Cate Blanchett’s jury had plenty of strong auteurs to assess, from Lee’s incendiary “BlacKkKlansman” (Focus Features) and Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s bittersweet period romance “Cold War” (Amazon Studios) to two poverty-row melodramas, Hirozaku Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” — which won the Palme d’Or and a Magnolia deal — and Nadine Labaki’s “Capernaum” (Sony Pictures Classics) which scored the Jury Prize. “Honestly, it was like the summer camp of my dreams,” gushed juror Kristen Stewart. “It felt like a consolidated 10-day film school.”
Clearly, Fremaux fought to bring two old Cannes favorites to the Croisette. Brit veteran Terry Gilliam prevailed over his legal woes (as well as a minor stroke) to screen “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” for buyers (after Amazon Studios dropped out) and press, who seemed receptive and grateful that the long-cursed movie finally had its day.
But why did Fremaux go to battle for “The House that Jack Built” as the film to return the once-banned Lars von Trier to the Cannes fold? The grizzled Danish provocateur seemed shaky and querulous on the red carpet and during (limited) interviews on his decidedly Out of Competition title, which alienated as many people as it pleased. He has every right to make his transgressive serial killer movie, but that material is well-trod ground. Matt Dillon’s rampaging attacker who mangles and mutilates a series of female victims struck a grotesque note at a festival that also tried to argue that it was becoming more welcoming to women.
Riley Keough, who played one of the unfortunate women in “The House that Jack Built,” also turned up as a film noir femme fatale in another misogynistic movie, “Under the Silver Lake” (A24), that was tarnished under the Competition spotlight. No wonder she didn’t make it. Cannes Critics’ Week regular David Robert Mitchell’s meandering follow-up to breakout “It Follows” underwhelmed. Boasting multiple A-list indie producers, “Under the Silver Lake” is a classic case of a post-hit filmmaker running with the chance to finance his pet project. There’s plenty to like in the shapeless showbiz navel-gazer (that bears some resemblance to last year’s surreal “mother!”), as Tony-nominated Andrew Garfield, who’s starring on Broadway in “Angels in America,” carries the movie as best he can. But unless Mitchell goes back into the editing room, this movie will be DOA with audiences.
Much of what happened at Cannes stayed in Cannes, but one moment traveled. Organized by the French #TimesUp organization 5050 x 2020 and supported by the Cannes Festival, the memorable image of Cannes 2018 was 82 women standing on the Palais red carpet to protest women’s inequality in the movie business — on their way into the gala for Eva Husson’s well-mounted Kurdish women-at-war movie, “Girls of the Sun,” one of only three films directed by women in the Competition.
Fremaux has caught flak for undervaluing female filmmakers, from those shunted into sidebars Directors Fortnight and Un Certain Regard, to ones whose films never got shown at the festival at all. He’s getting blasted as an icon for a generation of white male privilege, even as the festival played along with the many women’s panels and protests about how to advance women in the industry going forward. The festival promises more transparency and parity ahead.
Of the three films directed by women in the Competition, Italian Alice Rohrwacher’s lyrical folk fable “Happy as Lazzaro” landed the best reviews (RT: 90 percent), sharing the screenwriting prize and scoring a Netflix buy. Husson’s much-criticized “Girls of the Sun” (RT: 31 percent), a straightforward but badly-structured war movie about women fighting back, left Cannes empty-handed.
Nadine Labaki’s heartwrenching poverty-row saga “Capernaum” (RT: 63 percent) took home the Jury Prize. Sony Pictures Classics stepped up May 10 to land the likely Lebanese Oscar submission for a reported $1.3 million based on the script. SPC didn’t attend the Paris screening, which didn’t have subtitles, but Gaumont did, and uncharacteristically outbid French buyers; the venerable distributor doesn’t often buy art films, so that drove up the price.
Were there other strong women contenders that could have been included? As Blanchett stated from the day-one jury conference, adding more women programmers is key. Debra Granik’s superb father-daughter Oregon survival drama “Leave No Trace” (Bleecker Street) played well in Director’s Fortnight, where many Sundance titles wind up.
Cannes 2018 brought a sense of gears shifting in more ways than one, as an older generation of leaders yields to new ways of doing things. At the “Solo” afterparty, Academy governor and Lucasfilm chief Kathleen Kennedy, who is spearheading several #TimesUp initiatives, stated flatly, “It’s the end of an era.”
Adding Ryan Coogler and Christopher Nolan to the mix with in-depth conversations, a beach screening for “Black Panther” and a Nolan intro to a 70 mm presentation of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with scratchy analog sound) was a popular move. Both events were packed. Coogler was happy to thank the festival for embracing “Fruitvale,” which provided his first trip outside the United States, while Nolan has never been able to show his films at Cannes; Warner Bros. sees no need to gain festival cred to boost ticket sales. This was a clever way to get the receptive Brit to the Croisette.
Kevin Macdonald’s documentary “Whitney” (July 6) played like gangbusters at the midnight screening at the Palais. Although the films are very different, Roadside Attractions made the call to screen it at Cannes and follow the “Amy” playbook, recognizing that the film’s shocking reveal of Houston’s sexual abuse by Dee Dee Warwick would break at Cannes.
On the other hand, bringing in Gary Oldman after winning the Oscar for “Darkest Hour” felt like a desperate old-news move, but not nearly as much as carting in John Travolta to celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Grease” with a screening as well as new B-movie “Gotti,” which scored execrable reviews. At Cannes’ official dinner for press, Fremaux demurred, suggesting he had nothing to do with booking that “unofficial” movie.
Cannes also felt the need to showcase Disney/Lucasfilm’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” in order to give the international press hordes and the celebrity-starved paparazzi something to do. (Ron Howard has accompanied three out-of-competition movies to Cannes: “Far and Away,” “The Da Vinci Code,” and “EDtv.”) The Carlton Beach afterparty boasted Donald Glover chatting up Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Alden Ehrenreich — who reminded me he debuted at Cannes in Francis Coppola’s “Tetro” almost a decade ago — his movie love-interest Emilia Clarke, new Chewbacca, tall, blond Finn Joonas Suotamo, Lucasfilm’s Kennedy and her eminence grise, Lawrence Kasdan. (“I’ve relied on him for years,” she said.)
Disney motion picture chairman Alan Horn hung with Kennedy’s fellow Academy Governor Nancy Utley, who admitted there wasn’t much for Fox Searchlight to acquire in this year’s market. Before long she will likely be working for Horn. Cannes needed those magnificent exploding fireworks over the Mediterranean.
Fremaux isn’t responsible for the global film market, which is shrinking swiftly while streamers like Netflix grow, but is pushed up by China and Korea. France is in a bubble with protections that feed producers, exhibitors and television channels. The action in screening rooms for buyers and in meetings at the Grand Hotel was visibly diminished, along with fewer posters on display at the Carlton and along the Croisette.
Last year’s outspoken juror, producer-actress Jessica Chastain, kicked up some attention with her “355,” bringing her starry cast — Fan Bingbing, Marion Cotillard, Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o — to the Croisette for a photo call heard round the world. Her film sold to Universal for $20 million.
Focus had a strong festival, bringing Oscar-winner Oldman as well as launching “BlacKkKlansman” and Wim Wenders’ out-of-competition documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” before its May 18 opening in North America. Amazon Studios got a boost for Best Director Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” a sure Polish Oscar nominee.
Netflix reportedly went after Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows,” starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, which went to Focus; Mads Mikkelsen vehicle “Arctic,” which Bleecker scooped up; and Colombian drug-trade drama “Birds of Passage,” which went to The Orchard. Netflix pays well, but usually demands worldwide rights which are often unavailable. And producers sometimes fear leaving money on the table by taking only one check from Netflix and abandoning the buzz and branding of a theatrical release.
Netflix contented itself by paying $30 million for the animated feature “Next Gen,” starring Charlyne Yi and Jason Sudeikis. And as the awards were announced, Netflix sent out a press release that it acquired the award-winning “Happy as Lazzaro” and transgender drama “Girl.”
Even after refusing to bring its out-of-competition films to the festival, Netflix had a strong presence with the much-discussed absence of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” and two Orson Welles films. Even Serge Toubiana, the new president of Unifrance, admitted that while he loved seeing a Jean-Luc Godard film in Competition (“The Image Book” won a rare special prize and landed at Kino Lorber stateside), the movie would be best served with a Netflix, not a theatrical release. (Wild Bunch’s Vincent Maraval agrees.) Mubi picked it up in the UK. And word is that “The Image Book” will play in France on television via Arte, and not in theaters. What about France’s rules against playing films in Competition that don’t show in theaters?
Even now, the French are working to overhaul their archaic distribution system. Toubiana says that by next year, laws dictating a 36-month theatrical exclusive window will be changed as exhibitors, distributors, and producers negotiate new terms. “The majority of people want change,” Toubiana told me. “They want to make the windows shorter — four months, six months maybe? It’s a fight. Most films are staying in theaters three weeks, maybe four.” Still, that won’t change Cannes’ stance against Netflix, which still sits at the end of a long set of French windows.
Ultimately, where critics and festival programmers were well fed, the media needing to deliver robust features complained about not having enough meaty stories. Cannes cannot live on the Competition alone, and many were left wondering if we’re heading for a smaller, less-glossy Cannes. Critics love this bastion of art film, but someone has to pay them to come here. It’s a vicious circle.
“Cinema has lost a part of itself,” said Toubiana. “We have to acclimate to this new period of cinema.”