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At Cannes, Filmmakers and the Festival Unite in Struggle for Relevance

At Cannes, even the movies centered on uncertainties about the future of the art form.

A view of the Palais des festivals during the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France, . The Cannes film festival runs from May 14th until May 25th 20192019, Cannes, France - 13 May 2019

A view of the Palais des festivals during the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival

Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

The 2019 Cannes Film Festival began with an image that should frighten anyone invested in the art form. “We make films to share with audiences,” said actor-director Édouard Baer, while hosting the festival’s opening-night ceremony. “An empty cinema is a filmmaker’s nightmare.”

Debates about the theatrical experience rage on, but Baer’s image carries much deeper resonance as the Cannes Film Festival — always a focal point for examining the state of movies around the world — cast a spotlight on the existential uncertainty surrounding the art form’s future. The festival delivered one of its best lineups in years, but that promising achievement comes with a caveat: If Cannes triumphs and the world barely notices, does it make a sound?

All the hype in Cannes could not compete with the giddiness surrounding the final “Game of Thrones” episode on the festival’s first weekend, with some festivalgoers staying up until 3 a.m. to tune in. The celebration of film culture was often marginalized in a news cycle that fixated on first reactions to Will Smith in “Aladdin” one day and whether or not Natalie Portman and Moby used to date the next.

Dealmaking at Cannes wasn’t dormant, with Amazon spending over $1.2 million on “Les Miserables,” Neon and Hulu nabbing “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and new Disney entity Fox Searchlight nabbing Terrence Malick’s WWII drama “A Hidden Life” for a stunning $14 million. But even as these inflated costs stimulated panic about the impact of media consolidation, they obscured broader cultural questions about how much visibility the movies received in the first place.

At an dinner for press attending the festival in its first weekend, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux gave voice to mounting concerns about just how much attention the 72-year-old festival could muster from the media. “We love you,” he said from a podium, as if mounting a plea. “Really. We love you.”

Some 4,000 journalists attend the festival from over 2,000 media outlets from around 90 countries, and the festival worked overtime to keep them happy. For decades, Cannes has suffered from a reputation as an exhausting working environment marred by head-scratching rules involving access and accreditation, but if you play ball the lineup makes it worthwhile. Today, with publications less inclined to bother with the hassle when they can devote resources elsewhere, Cannes has made a visible effort to evolve, replacing veteran press office head Christine Aimee with Aida Belloulid, a younger, digitally-savvy publicist from French firm Le Public Systeme.

Under her watch, the festival made progress on its perennially troubled screening schedule, which for years revealed new Competition films for press in the mornings ahead of gala premieres, until bad word-of-mouth began to impact the celebratory red-carpet vibe at night. Belloulid’s new mandate to host smaller press screenings for trade critics and broadcast journalists in the morning, with an embargo in place that journalists largely respected, meant that the media  on deadline could go about their work without the festival worrying about tarnished premieres.

At the dinner, Fremaux beamed about the impact of the embargo for the way it pushed reviews and first reactions from social media into the same news cycle as responses from the premiere. With the exception of blockbuster event screenings for Elton John biopic “Rocketman” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” more diffuse discussions percolated up and down the Croisette — a notable contrast to the old model of instant prognoses first thing in the morning. Sitting down from his speech, Fremaux smiled, and said, “The buzz is back.”

But how far will it go? In the U.S., Cannes highlights tend to be relegated to the dwindling arthouse market. Last year’s top-grossers include Palme d’Or winner “Shoplifters,” which garnered $3.3 million at the box office, and “Cold War,” which made $4.6 million. “Shoplifters” ultimately pulled in $73 million worldwide — not too shabby, but not the sort of figure that could make the case for auteur-driven cinema leading the cultural conversation. Meanwhile, the rise of Netflix and incoming streaming behemoths like Disney+ suggest a domination of streaming platforms in search of content rather than individualistic creative endeavors.

Of course, true art has always faced the threat of marginalization, but at this year’s Cannes, the narrative of filmmakers struggling to survive was visible throughout the festival lineup.

With “Tommaso,” Abel Ferrara cast Willem Dafoe as a lightly fictionalized version of the filmmaker, struggling to keep making movies in tandem with holding together his fragile existence. In Ira Sachs’ “Frankie,” Greg Kinnear plays a first-unit director on an upcoming “Star Wars” movie, desperately pitching his feature-length debut to Isabelle Huppert. Gaspar Noé’s dazzling midnight movie “Lux Aeterna” stars Béatrice Dalle as a woman making her own first feature and contending with the fears of her producers and the inability to maintain control of her hectic set. In Directors’ Fortnight opener “Deerskin,” Jean Dujardin plays a deranged man who films himself murdering people wearing jackets in a quest to become the only jacket owner on the planet, and somehow believes that his bloody footage could be a masterpiece. Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s “It Must Be Heaven” finds him traveling from Paris to New York in a vain attempt to find financing for his next project. And Justine Triet’s “Sibyl” unfolds on a chaotic film shoot, in which a director played by Sandra Hüller has a nervous breakdown as she struggles to juggle the chaotic demands of the production.

pain and glory

“Pain and Glory”

Cannes

These observations on directorial struggles all hovered in the shadow of Pedro Almódovar’s “Pain and Glory,” the Spanish auteur’s best work in years and also his most intimate. Antonio Banderas plays a fictionalized version of the filmmaker as he reflects on years of acclaim for his earlier work while wrestling with whether he can muster the energy to make one more movie. That melancholy and nostalgia was matched by Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” a wistful look at 1960s-era Hollywood and the competing arenas of television and movies that felt especially timely despite its 50-year-old setting.

As it contends with the rise of streaming platforms, television, and other disruptions, the film industry is also worried about the future of their profession. “I think the anxiety is on the part of producers and distribution companies,” said Pauline Durand-Vialle, the CEO of the Brussels-based Federation of European Film Directors that represents filmmakers from 33 countries and helps them negotiate terms and maintain their autonomy.  “For the creatives, it’s pretty much the classic hustle. I think people see that budgets are being polarized in Europe and they can feel that, but at the same time, it’s always been really tough.”

Television, she added, had yet to catch fire in Europe with the same velocity that has yielded a sea change in the United States – in part because European directors were more tied to retaining final cut. “In their minds,” she said, “they’re the perfect showrunners.”

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