The Cannes Film Festival played host to some good movies this year (there is never a year when it doesn’t), yet throughout the 12-day event, there has been a pervasive feeling, shared by critics and distributors and publicists and audiences alike, that the festival’s been having a soft year, that the magic was tamped down. It had something do with the lack of a universally agreed upon home run, like “Toni Erdmann” or “Amour” or “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or “Breaking the Waves.” (There were a handful of doubles and triples, but more disputes than not about all of them.) It had something to do with the new security system (long, slow lines to get through metal detectors), which freighted the simple act of walking into a movie with a touch of that airport depression. For all that, Cannes is still Cannes: the most momentous film festival in the world. Here are nine random thoughts on what made this year’s festival tick, what didn’t work, and what did.
1. Would it really be so hard to select a better opening-night film? “Ismael’s Ghost,” the Arnaud Desplechin movie that kicked off the festival, was universally despised, and with good reason: It was a messy, dispiriting crock of a movie. The fact that Mathieu Amalric starred as a grizzled, drunken film director who is too self-absorbed to bother showing up on his set only emphasized the film’s air of entitled overindulgence: Is this how the French film industry works? The most obvious reason “Ismael’s Ghost” was chosen is that it was a homegrown drama with prestige stars (Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg), and there were probably backroom-deal reasons I’m not privy to, but the lesson should be simple: When you open the quintessential film festival with a movie this bad, it makes everyone feel like they were greeted at the door with a glass of champagne that immediately got spilled on their shirt.
2. The programmers are at the mercy of the films that get made. In a medium with the mysterious alchemy of movies, there are great years and there are off years, and a likely explanation for why there weren’t more extraordinary films at Cannes this year is, quite simply, that they hadn’t been made. (The other explanation is the festival’s ongoing tendency to limit the pool by favoring movies with at least one French producer or distributor.) Yet to stick to what was there: A number of high-profile titles shared the peculiar quality of appearing to unfold inside an aquarium of detachment. They gave us characters to study, to judge, to gawk at, to laugh at, to extract lessons from, but they invited a connection with them that was more cynical than powerful.
Ruben Östland’s “The Square” was about a museum curator who receives the comeuppance of his own cluelessness. Michael Haneke’s “Happy End” tracked a family of haters as dryly remote as they are wretched. Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” was more refined than the 1971 original, but it took the borderline-exploitation material to a blithe place of nearly abstract vengeance. Even Andrey Zvyagintsev’s rigorous, resonant, hard-hitting “Loveless” featured a pair of characters who come off nearly as chilly to us as they do to each other. And then, of course, there was Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” an absurdist mythological fable in Kubrickian horror clothing that opens with a close-up image of open-heart surgery; by the time its central figure, played by Colin Farrell, pays the price for a sin we never see (or, more to the point, feel), that disturbing first shot is about as close as the movie is going to come to having a heart. Any of these films could wind up taking the Palme d’Or. But that wouldn’t make any one of them easier to relate to.
3. Why wasn’t “The Florida Project” in competition? Sean Baker’s follow-up to “Tangerine” was one of a small handful of films at Cannes this year that excited nearly everyone who saw it. It, too, is built around a character who doesn’t exactly give you the warm fuzzies (Bria Vinaite’s snarly delinquent of a single mom). Yet there’s no mistaking the unblinking humanity of Baker’s gaze, or what an accomplished filmmaker he has become; if it’s possible to put scraggly neorealism on the high wire, this movie does it. Normally, I don’t think twice when a film that isn’t in competition turns out to be better than a number of the competing titles (that happens at every festival), but in this case, by placing “The Florida Project” in Director’s Fortnight, the Cannes programmers may have seriously dropped the ball. Had it been in competition, the movie would likely have proved a contender (for acting awards, for the director’s prize) and would have been buzzed about even more loudly than it was.
4. The Trump era is a movie. I’m a news junkie to begin with, and in the past four months, ever since Donald Trump became president and the fate of his govern-from-the-hip recklessness became intertwined with all our fates (and the fate of the world), I, like so many others, have become addicted to grabbing news, analysis, and the backstory of his latest mishap on my phone almost any time I have a break — a ritual that didn’t stop at Cannes. The reason I bring it up is that the daily saga of America In The Age of Trump is, let’s be honest, more than just news. It’s a spectacular and tumultuous drama, a kind of live existential novel you never want to put down (and don’t have to), with a new twist and cliffhanger every day. I don’t mean to sound flip; news in the Trump era is dramatic precisely because the stakes are so high. Yet the never-ending dosage of labyrinthine real-world political soap opera is something that popular culture, including highbrow Cannes Film Festival culture, must now compete with. It’s not that there’s any less of a desire to go to a movie. It’s that movies like the ones shown at Cannes, whose calling card tends to be their authenticity, may now have an even higher bar of enthrallment to clear.
5. Netflix isn’t just a company, it’s a concept. There was much chatter throughout the festival about the politics of Netflix: the company’s overwhelming, if not ideological devotion to streaming at the expense of theatrical programming, and the decision by the powers that be at Cannes that going forward, no film could be shown at the festival in competition without a French distribution deal — a rule designed specifically to target Netflix. The rule was devised to avoid a situation where a film like “Okja” or “The Meyerowitz Stories” (the company’s two competing entries) would be shown, and even celebrated, but denied the chance to play in theaters. The Cannes decision means that Netflix probably won’t be submitting any movies for the festival next year.
The larger issue is how, as a result of this kerfuffle, the very word Netflix has become a different meme than it was at the height of “Netflix and chill.” Right or wrong, the name has come to symbolize a metaphysical threat to the future of theatrical distribution. Roman Polanski, interviewed at Cannes, made the point that the theatrical experience, fueled by our desire to see movies with an audience, will never go away, and I think he’s right, but that kind of misses the point: What’s threatened by the meme of Netflix isn’t movies in theaters, it’s adventurous movies in theaters. It’s not simply a logistical matter of how films shown by Netflix are made available to the viewer; it’s a matter of intent, of desire, of the dream of art. Cannes, drawing a line in the sand, said: We and Netflix stand on opposite sides of that dream.
6. “Twin Peaks” looked right at home in Cannes. Maybe “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” the second season of Jane Campion’s Sundance Channel mystery series, did too, although I didn’t get to see it. But I did see the two episodes of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” that were shown, all scrunched together without ad breaks or first-episode credits, and make no mistake: They were wild at heart, and wild in the brain. They suggest that the new “Twin Peaks,” which Sonia Saraiya reviewed here, could be the most the spookily avant-garde thing ever shown on television. Watching it, I felt like I did the first time I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” when I was 11, and during the climactic head-trip through space and time, culminating in those scenes with Keir Dullea watching himself as an old man, all I could think was, “This is the most insane thing I’ve ever seen.”
In its first two hours, “Twin Peaks: The Return” pushes miles past the WTF quality of the original series’ final episodes. At the time, it seemed to many of us that the show had jumped the shark, yet Lynch now seems to have broken through to an entirely new realm, drawing on the sinister trippy surrealist extravagance he played with in “Eraserhead” as a way of deconstructing the very seeds of the suspense of serial television. All of which made “Twin Peaks,” or at least two hours of it, a hypnotically disorienting screen spectacle that pulses with the daring of — yes — a movie.
7. “Carne y Arena” will hook you on VR. I’m not quite sure how long it took director Alejandro G. Iñarritu to conceive and create his extraordinary six-and-a-half-minute virtual-reality installation, which places you — miraculously — smack in the middle of the Sonora Desert along with a group of illegal immigrants, forging an altogether revolutionary experience for your eyeballs and your empathy. But I know that if it was announced right now that next year’s Cannes was going to feature a follow-up VR installation (I don’t mean about immigrants; I mean about…anything), I’d already be counting down the days until I could plunge back in.
8. The most overpraised movie, and the most underpraised. Overpraised: “The Beguiled.” It was characterized by critics as a baroque hoot (though it’s got about three laughs), and it was lavished with praise for its performances (by Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman, both fine in thinly written roles) and its subtler re-imagining of the 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood pulp psychodrama. But that movie was no classic — more like grindhouse Tennessee Williams — and watching Coppola’s remake, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there’s not enough there there. But maybe that will help it to become a megaplex hit.
Underpraised: “Redoubtable.” Michel Hanazavicius’ fascinating movie has the temerity to dramatize the love life of Jean-Luc Godard (played by Louis Garrel, who I wish looked more like him). But it’s really about the moment in 1968 when Godard turned his back on his audience, just as it was starting to turn its back on him. The film entertainingly evokes the poison-pill tragedy of Godard’s transformation, when he slipped through the looking glass of a “radical” political evolution that became his way of rejecting the world. Hanazavicius is a clever formalist movie nut, and with “Redoubtable” he may have stumbled onto a new genre: the inside-the-auteur biopic.
9. If Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos got into a fight, who would win? Nothing makes a budding world-class auteur seem cutting edge quite like an undertone of hip misanthropy. For a while, Haneke ruled the stoic-camera-gaze, ice-pick-into-the-heart-of-the-bourgeoisie, how-deep-is-your-cruel? waterfront. Then he made “Amour,” a work of lacerating humanity, which may be why his new film, “Happy End” (warning: title is heavily ironic!), felt like a warmed-over version of the usual Haneke ice. But stepping up to take his place, and maybe steal his crown of feel-bad nihilistic cachet, is the director of “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” What happens in Lanthimos’ movie fuses the compelling, the daring, the shocking, the hateful, and — the more it goes on — the inexplicable. Sound familiar? The clincher is that his aggression, like Haneke’s, is really always pointed at one place: the audience.