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Does Cannes Have a Future? Yes, but the Festival Needs to Change

At the moment of foreign language cinema's commercial slippage, the festival needs to spend less time making rules and more time rolling out the red carpet.

The red carpet, in America, is a flat expanse of star-studded glamour, a VIP corral. At the Cannes Film Festival, the red carpet starts off as an expanse but then, as it approaches the Grand Palais, it ascends, in 24 Cinderella steps — a literal stairway to heaven (echoed in the ocean-to-galaxy trailer, set to the sublimity of Saint-Saëns, that plays before each movie). The meaning of that stairway isn’t stardom. It’s all about what the films, and the competition, aspire to. It’s about how they want to lift us aloft, to carry us into the shimmering pantheon of Art.

By the time this year’s awards ceremony was over, the mission, as always, felt like it had been accomplished. A new auteur had been crowned high king: Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose winning of the Palme d’Or for “Shoplifters,” a tale of family, poverty, and social injustice, had an “It’s time” earnestness about it. (In cinephile circles, the Kore-eda cachet has been building for years.) The Grand Prix went to Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” an American racial drama that just about pops with relevance (the second-place honor helped to offset what Lee, for 30 years, has claimed to be a bitter snub — the passing over of “Do the Right Thing” for the 1989 Palme d’Or in favor of “sex, lies, and videotape”). And other awards went to filmmakers who would now be perceived as waiting in the wings, like Pawel Pawlikowski, who as winner of this year’s best director prize for the stylish memory play “Cold War” now looks like a high king to come. From the lofty heights at the top of the carpet, Cannes carried on business as usual.

Yet that didn’t stop a great many people, throughout the festival, from asking: Has Cannes lost its luster, its excitement, its relevance? Has its status as the world’s most prestigious and sexy and important film festival been dimmed? Has it been undermined by a perfect storm of elements, from the rise of Netflix to the power of awards season? To put it in the most blunt terms possible: Are the great films now playing somewhere else?

That question is less about Cannes than about the world around it. It’s about how Cannes has changed by not changing. You could argue, however, that the mystique of the Netflix factor was ritually overstated. Yes, the streaming giant withheld several juicy titles from the festival, ranging from Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” to the ambitious assemblage of Orson Welles’ final film, “The Other Side of the Wind.” Yet since when has a festival like Cannes been dependent on a single studio? If you’re going to argue that Cannes’ relevance is slipping, then the reason for that isn’t that the executives at Netflix reacted to France’s overly regulated streaming/distribution system by throwing a snit fit. (That said, they really did go too far in not letting the Welles film play, which would have been a win for Cannes and for Netflix.)

A deeper reason, and one that many people don’t want to talk about because it’s too painful, is that non-English-language film culture has experienced a serious slippage in currency. A lot less people see these movies than used to, which doesn’t, in itself, mean that the films no longer “matter.” Yet for half a century or more, starting after World War II, what we referred to in America as “foreign films” (a parochial term, to be sure, since they’re not foreign in other places) found a way to be part of the conversation. They were movies that periodically produced lines around the block. With rare exceptions, that’s no longer the case. The numbers aren’t there. And so any analysis of Cannes must acknowledge that the films that are its defining essence have, themselves, declined in relevance. That’s the uphill battle the festival can’t win.

Increasingly, the world of movies is dichotomized — between blockbusters and indies, between the commercial spectacle that we still go out to see and the refined art cinema that we increasingly don’t. A sign of how deeply the division resonates in everyone’s bones was the peculiarly hostile reception, at Cannes this year, that greeted the opening-night film, Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows.” It’s a swirling soap opera, set in a village outside Madrid, starring Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem in the tale of a kidnapping that lays bare a family’s secrets. It’s a movie I liked a lot more than most did, but what struck me — and, in a way, set a tone for the festival — is the complaint I kept hearing repeated like a mantra: that Farhadi, arguably the most accomplished filmmaker working in Iran today, wasn’t “comfortable” with the Spanish setting — the language, the culture, the world.

If you didn’t like the movie, fine, but it struck me that Farhadi was supremely comfortable in the setting, in contrast to so many filmmakers who have stumbled badly while working outside their national idiom. The subtext of the complaint sounded like a liberal version of xenophobia: that Asghar Farhadi shouldn’t try to “be” anything but Iranian. It’s as if his attempt to make an international success was stepping on the (misplaced) purity of the Cannes mission.

The real problem at Cannes 2018 was the lack of event films that truly resonated as events — films that meant more after you’d seen them than before. A good example is Lars von Trier’s serial-killer drama “The House That Jack Built.” It wasn’t the hideous exploitation nightmare that some had feared (or maybe, on some level, hoped for), but therefore what was it? It seemed, like so many other von Trier films, to be designed to create a symphony of outrage, and when the symphony didn’t arrive, we were left with a creepy and “interesting” mixed bag.

“A Star Is Born,” the new remake starring Bradley Cooper (who directed it) and Lady Gaga, might have grabbed the kind of headlines that can define a festival, especially if it turned out to be an enthralling film. Cannes wanted to play it, but the movie isn’t coming out until the end of the year, at the height of awards season. So its studio, Warner Bros., didn’t want it at the festival; it was thought that there was too big a risk in revealing it so early. In a sense, it’s hard not to see the studio’s logic, but the question is: Is what happened with “A Star Is Born” a prototype for the future of ambitious mainstream cinema at Cannes? Does the stark fact that awards season is now a great big whirring machine that gets switched on during the last third of the year — kicking off with the new power triumvirate of the Telluride, Venice, and Toronto film festivals — doom Cannes to second-class status?

The answer is: Not necessarily. But to solve the problem, Cannes is going to have to do something it’s gotten too used to not doing: courting the studios as if its very existence depended on it. Because it may. It’s going to have look like a festival that’s eager to move into the future instead of one that’s living off the fumes of the past.

The festival’s new ban on red-carpet selfies may have sounded like much ado about nothing, but it was, in its way, symbolic — of the festival’s reticence about the 21st century. It’s also hypocritical. The term paparazzi, coined from the name of the news photographer in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960), was crucial to the original cachet of the Cannes Film Festival, its flashbulb mania incarnating the nexus of glamour and art (e.g., Bridget Bardot was the world’s hottest sex symbol and the star of Godard’s “Contempt”). Celebrity selfies are an organic extension of that — they’re part of the new culture where we’re the paparazzi. By cracking down on them, the festival seemed to be scuttling a dimension of its appeal. And talk about the lost opportunity for free publicity on social media!

One way for Cannes to thrive, and not just survive, would be to heed the powerful words of Cate Blanchett and Agnès Varda, who led 82 women on the red carpet to symbolize the paltry number of films directed by women that have been shown, in 71 years, in the Cannes competition (approximately one in 24). Yes, we need to remedy that situation for primal reasons of parity and justice. But the glorious other half of the equation is that women’s voices now have the potential to add just what’s missing, to let new oxygen — new fire — into the Cannes patriarch-maestro global-cinema art matrix.

All the chatter about relevance comes down to one thing: The cinema that is showcased at Cannes — including any number of the Palme d’Or winners — is, in many ways, no longer cutting it. The festival missed out this year on “A Star Is Born” and the Netflix films, but it’s not as if those were the only options, and the question may come down to: How hard are they trying? Even the world’s most legendary film festival is still a human institution. In 1979, Cannes delegate (and future festival president) Gilles Jacob made his name by persuading a reluctant Francis Ford Coppola to premiere “Apocalypse Now” at Cannes. As Jacob told Variety in 2010, “There is always, somewhere, a film which [a festival president] desires absolutely. For which he would be ready to sell his soul.”

But is that still true? If it isn’t, then it needs to be. Next year, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (opening in August 2019, 40 years to the month after “Apocalypse Now”) would be an obvious natural for Cannes. But what if Sony, the studio releasing it, won’t play ball? The festival should treat it as its holy mission to premiere that film. Of course, even that’s only one movie, so it has to be part of a more inviting and impassioned strategy. Going forward, Cannes needs to spend less time making new rules and more time rolling out the red carpet.

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