Walking the red carpet at Cannes feels less like you’re going to the movies and more like you’re going to the Oscars. It’s like being in the eye of the world’s most glamorous hurricane, a maelstrom of pomp and celebrity raging around you as you try not to trip over your own feet. Once inside the theater, you’re ushered to your seat by someone dressed like a Pan Am stewardess. A hush sweeps over the crowd when the director of that evening’s film arrives, as everyone rises to their feet for a thunderous ovation as he or she (but probably he) walks down the aisle; it’s like the royal wedding, but not as diverse.
Waiting for the lights to go down on the depressing Polish love story at the center of all this fuss, I found myself reflecting on the very public spat between Netflix and Cannes (which resulted in the streaming giant pulling its small lot of titles from this year’s festival). In the weeks leading up to this night, it seemed absurd that the world’s biggest streaming service and the world’s most prestigious film festival couldn’t find any common ground. Sitting in the center of it all, however, it almost seems more absurd to think that they could. A gala screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière is the furthest thing possible from Netflix and chill; it’s Cannes and hysteria.
On its surface, the idea of bringing a Netflix movie into this environment is patently ridiculous. It’d be like unwrapping a Hot Pocket in The French Laundry. The scene inside the Lumière is a twinkling cartoon parody of everything that Netflix, with its active disinterest in theatrical exhibition, seems intent to destroy.
One of these institutions hinges on privilege and reverence, while the other is driven by access and the ability to watch “Bright” on the toilet (which is truly how it was meant to be seen). One maintains that “the movies” are a place, while the other contends that they’re just a medium. One is staunchly focused on preserving the past, while the other is recklessly forging ahead into the future.
Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock
As the film industry continues to tear itself apart over that disagreement, engaging in a tedious tug-of-war that assumes the two definitions are mutually exclusive, Netflix and Cannes are pulling on opposite ends of the rope. The harder one side yanks, the stronger the other side digs their feet into the ground. It’s a dichotomy that ignores the complex reality of the situation, forcing bystanders towards the false belief that they need to have a dog in this fight, or that the dogs should be fighting at all.
These days, a festival screening is often just how a long-gestating film is finally born into the world — an obligatory step before the umbilical cord is snipped and the artwork can begin to breathe for itself. To insist that movies have to be seen this way is to deny how often they can’t be seen this way. Sometimes it’s a matter of access, sometimes it’s a matter of cost, and sometimes it’s a matter of both. Whenever I caught a glimpse of Cannes juror Ava DuVernay, I was reminded of how she had to convert a community center into a pop-up cinema to screen “A Wrinkle in Time” for the kids in her hometown because Compton no longer has an actual movie theater.
On the other hand, Netflix’s aggressive disregard for the communal experience of sitting in the dark makes it impossible to swallow Ted Sarandos’ line about how the company is “100% about the art of cinema.” There’s nothing like watching a movie at Cannes to illustrate how disingenuous it is to divorce the art of cinema from its exhibition — to reinforce how a theater isn’t just a venue, but also a fundamental part of the experience.
Cannes has always been at the nexus of different worlds. Once upon a time those worlds were glamour and art (Owen Gleiberman’s festival wrap observes that the festival helped Bridget Bardot to become the world’s hottest sex symbol and the star of Godard’s “Contempt”). Now the festival represents the nexus between the past and the future. Representation itself is a major part of that negotiation, as the patriarchy slowly surrenders control. Technology is another crucial arena, and one that stands to shape how we define the movies going forward.
And yet, for all of the defensive bluster in advance of this year’s festival, the movies that actually played there told a very different story. If there was one recurring theme that ran through the lineup, it was the urgent need of reconciling the seemingly impossible divides of our world. One film after another focused our attention on the borders that run between ourselves and between each other.
David Lee/Focus Features
Nowhere was that more evident and explicit than in “BlacKkKlansman,” Spike Lee’s raw and blistering “fuck you” to Donald Trump. The Grand Prix-winning film tells the true story of how two Colorado Springs cops named Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and Flip Zimmeran (Adam Driver), a black man and a Jew respectively, teamed up to infiltrate their local chapter of the KKK. And while it goes without saying that Spike has all sorts of things on his mind — the director intent on drawing a line between “The Birth of a Nation” and “Make America Great Again” — his lit new joint is his most nuanced work in years because of the focus and clarity with which it unpacks the pluralism of American identity. This country, the film argues, will boil over with hate until the powers that be no longer force people to choose between black or American, Jewish or American, Muslim or American, and so on. Wasn’t the fundamental promise of this country that we could all be together ourselves?
“Lazzaro Felice” was also defined by a seemingly irreconcilable split between two worlds, though Alice Rohrwacher’s sublime and unexpected new film was folded straight down the middle. The first half of the movie is told in Rohrwacher’s usual mode, focusing on a group of poor sharecroppers in rural Italy who toil through ugly lives in a beautiful place. Then, almost one hour to the minute after it began, the story abruptly pivots from neo-realism to magical-realism, transposing the old world over the new (or vice-versa) in a way that leaves them both warm and wanting. It’s heartbreaking to watch how these characters negotiate between the past and the present (or don’t). Their value is obvious, their opportunities… less so.
The dark pall of the past was even more profound — albeit elliptically so — in Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” a broken love story about broken people in a broken country. Following his Oscar-winning “Ida” with another black-and-white requiem about the lingering trauma of World War II, Pawlikowski’s latest covers 20 years in less than 90 minutes, as it tracks a conductor and a young singer who are trying to make each other whole at any cost.
“Cold War” is the work of someone who’s trying to shake off all his ghosts; someone who’s realized that he can’t outlive a memory that will never die. At a festival that defends its soul like a family treasure, “Cold War” seemed to suggest that Cannes doesn’t have to hold on to tradition quite so tightly, because the past doesn’t vanish the moment you let it go. If only it would.
Not all of the best films at Cannes were stretched between then and now, but many of the ones that weren’t were still dependent on the idea of reconciling impossible things. For some movies, that process was part of the text. For others, it was part of the context. For Lukas Dhont’s Camera d’Or-winning “Girl,” it was both.
A bracingly empathetic ballet drama about a transgender girl who’s transitioning during her first semester at dance school, this broad story of becoming crystallizes the idea of being suspended in the air between two identities, as if in the middle of a jeté. Dhont’s heroine wants to become the person she already knows herself to be — for her, pluralism is the obstacle, and self-acceptance the goal.
But “Girl” will be different things to different people. That was always going to be the case — it’s always the case with anything — but Dhont brought that divide straight to the surface by casting a cisgender male in the lead role. Suddenly, a work of great empathy can be seen as a work of violent erasure, a film that’s illuminating as a window but maybe tainted as a mirror.
Is it possible for something to be progressive and regressive all at once, and without canceling itself out? Can we move forward and backward at the same time, even when telling a story about a person (or a people) who can’t afford to be stuck in place? Those aren’t questions for me to answer. One can only hope that whatever pain “Girl” provokes from the trans community is softened (at least to some degree) by the conversations the film will provoke when it’s released on Netflix later this year.
courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival
The fact of the matter is that film is transformed by how we see it, which is why sitting in the dark of a theater has always been — and continues to be — the most natural way to receive a film. What a movie is to me is not the same as what a movie is to you. There’s value in each truth, just as there’s value in the gap between them. There’s dark potential in that no man’s land too, the elusive power of which was explored and ignited by the best film of this year’s festival, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning.
Cinema — like a memory — has always been something that we can experience, return to, and take with us. Modern technology has allowed us to literalize the different parts of that process, but it doesn’t refute the need for any one of them. On the contrary, it only clarifies their co-dependence, and how the existence of one reinforces the need for the others. Watching “Girl,” or “BlacKkKlansman,” or any of these movies made it unavoidably clear that Cannes and Netflix aren’t enemies, and positioning them as such is just the film industry cutting its nose to spite its face.
There are all sorts of practicalities that will have to be sorted through as we broker some kind of peace between the two, but the movies themselves are telling us that we have no other option. Theatrical and streaming can co-exist, they will co-exist, and the ways in which they do co-exist will reveal new things to us about the nature of film and how we engage with it.
When the movies are over and the Lumière empties out, scores of hungry people make a beeline for the McDonald’s across the street. The line winds out the door, people in tuxedos and ball gowns stepping over each other for a 9-piece Chicken McNuggets. The sight is like something out of a Roy Andersson film, a gloriously true collision between spectacle and reality. As Jean-Luc Godard might say: Everything is cinema. Cannes is convincing proof of that.