Before the 71st Festival de Cannes had even begun, the word on the Croisette — that storied boulevard that winds its way along the beach through this small French Riviera town — was that we were in for the weakest lineup in recent memory. Abandoned by Netflix, devoid of Oscar bait and attended by just a handful of Hollywood stars, the grande dame of film festivals was clearly flailing with a slate of movies from a bunch of international filmmakers you’ve never heard of and couldn’t possibly be interested in getting acquainted with.
As a Los Angeles-based critic, I try to maintain an even temper about the persistent American Cinema First attitude — call it cultural incuriosity at best, outright xenophobia at worst — that poisons much of the so-called discourse around our movies.
Cutting-edge world cinema may be this festival’s true raison d’être, but it has always needed a delicate balance of blockbusters (like this year’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story”) and English-language awards contenders in order to survive, thrive and attract media attention. In a film industry subject to enormous financial and technological change, that need may be stronger than ever.
They really will applaud anything you show at the Cannes Film Festival, so long as you put everyone in formal attire and roll out a red carpet beforehand.
I remember thinking this in 2009, at the black-tie gala premiere of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,” whose climactic burst of genital-shredding imagery sent horrified moviegoers lunging for the exits. Nonetheless, when it was over, the movie drew a standing ovation and shouts of “Bravo!” among the many who chose to stay for the duration.
A similar mix of mid-screening walkouts and post-screening applause greeted von Trier’s “The House That Jack Built,” the hectoring, masturbatory slog of a serial-killer movie that had its out-of-competition premiere at Cannes late Monday night, marking this Danish director’s long-awaited, long-dreaded return to a festival that seven years ago declared him “persona non grata.”
With the 71st annual Cannes Film Festival officially at the midway point, film critics Justin Chang and Kenneth Turan share their early favorites from the festival and thoughts on what makes Cannes unique.
I saw a beautiful movie at Cannes on Saturday night — an artful, surprising and thrillingly intelligent story about a few women trying to make a difference, forging bonds of solidarity in quiet defiance of the repressive, small-minded men in their rural village. That movie is “3 Faces,” the latest from the ever-resourceful Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi, who has been restricted from traveling abroad by his country’s government and so was unable to attend his film’s festival premiere.
This has become fairly routine for Panahi, who was arrested in 2010 for allegedly making anti-Islamic propaganda and was sentenced to a 20-year ban from filmmaking. That hasn’t stopped him, of course: While under house arrest, he shot the feature-length video diary “This Is Not a Film,” which was smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside a cake and premiered to deserved acclaim at Cannes in 2011. Panahi also appeared as himself (or a version thereof) in his next two pictures, “Closed Curtain” (2013) and “Taxi” (2015), both of which screened at the Berlin International Film Festival.
“3 Faces” marks Panahi’s first shot at the Palme d’Or; if he wins, he will have effectively scored the European film-festival equivalent of the Triple Crown.
After a slow start, the 71st Cannes Film Festival has found its footing with two early Palme d’Or contenders, “Ash Is Purest White” and “Cold War” (“Zimna Wojna”). Although these films could scarcely be more different in form and feel — one is sprawling and expansive, the other taut and precise — each is a story of thwarted yet oddly resilient love, as well as a beautiful marriage of the political and the personal.
That particular synthesis is nothing new for Jia Zhangke, the revered Chinese writer-director whose work brings the chaos of life in his rapidly evolving country into hyper-crisp digital focus. In “Ash Is Purest White,” he subtly distills nearly two decades of gradual social change into the story of a small-town gangster and his moll. The movie opens in 2001, in the northern village of Datong, where Guo Bin (Liao Fan), a member of the jianghu underworld, runs a mah-jongg parlor and enjoys the sycophantic attention of his comrades and underlings.
Russia and Iran are never far from the news these days, but recently they have made headlines in Cannes for the same dubious reason. Both countries have filmmakers represented in the festival’s prestigious competition, and both have refused to allow those filmmakers to attend.
To be clear: The Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi had no difficulty traveling to Cannes for the opening-night premiere of his new film, “Everybody Knows.” But at his news conference, Farhadi expressed sorrow and unease at the plight of his countryman Jafar Panahi, who in films like “The Circle” and “Offside” has been a consistently sharp critic of Iran’s social policies. Panahi was arrested in 2011 and has not been allowed to travel abroad since; unless some form of amnesty is granted, he will not be in Cannes for the unveiling of his competition entry, “3 Faces.”
While the specific circumstances are different, Panahi’s plight eerily mirrors that of the Russian stage and screen director Kirill Serebrennikov (“Betrayal,” “The Student”), who in 2017 was detained and accused of fraud and embezzlement. His many allies in the artistic community contend that the charges are phony and politically motivated, likely in response to Serebrennikov’s criticism of Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014, as well as his support of Russia’s LGBT community. (Among the artists who have called for the charges to be dropped: Cate Blanchett, the president of this year’s Cannes competition jury.)
You truly don’t know what it means to suffer until you’re a journalist covering the Cannes Film Festival. Jet lag, spotty Wi-Fi, a beautiful beach you never have time to visit, that croque-monsieur that smelled kinda funny — it’s the worst, I tell you.
But this year really takes the cake. This year, the 71-year-old festival finally did away with its long-standing tradition of holding advance press screenings for films playing in the main competition. Going forward, those press screenings will be held either concurrent with or after the film’s public gala screening, robbing journalists of their early access.
What this means, practically speaking, is that no film — and especially no bad film — will have to endure the indignity of being booed, dismissed and analyzed to death by the media before the filmmakers have been able to enjoy their glorious moment in the Grand Théatre Lumière’s spotlight. Now, whenever a piece of red-carpet bait as dreadful as Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees” or Sean Penn’s “The Last Face” premieres in competition, festival-goers will be able to don their formalwear and march off to the gala screening at least theoretically unaware of the cinematic horrors that await them.
In May 1968, Jean-Luc Godard and a few of his French New Wave contemporaries famously brought the Festival de Cannes to a halt, an act of solidarity with striking students and workers who were taking France by storm.
Fifty years later, Godard still looms large at Cannes, quite literally. The official poster for the 71st festival is graced with the immortal image of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina kissing in the director’s 1965 classic, “Pierrot le Fou.” This year, the 87-year-old Godard will likely limit his disruptive gestures to the unveiling of his new movie, “The Image Book,” which promises to shake up the main competition; it’s said to be a characteristically unorthodox reflection on the modern Arab world.
The festival itself, which opened Tuesday night with the world premiere of Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows,” shows no signs of coming to a premature conclusion, though there are some who probably wish it would. In my own previous 12 years of attending, I can’t remember the last time Cannes commenced under such a cloud of grumbling, suspicion and all-around anxiety or any time the festival took such a widespread beating in the media before it even had a chance to roll out its famous (if now selfie-free) red carpet.