Cannes Film Festival 2018: A journalist's view of the iconic event and its touching commitment to cinema

Cannes’s rigid adherence to protocol may be second only to that in the Buckingham Palace.

Baradwaj Rangan May 07, 2018 12:48:36 IST
Cannes Film Festival 2018: A journalist's view of the iconic event and its touching commitment to cinema

The Cannes Film Festival is a curious beast. There’s no doubt it’s more snobbish than, say, the Berlinale – but this aloofness is part of the attraction.

The old Groucho Marx quip (later appropriated by Woody Allen in Annie Hall) comes to mind: “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members.” Journalists from all over the world – 160 countries, this year – jostle and stand in lines unbecoming of their status, all so that they can write about the world’s biggest, most prestigious film festival.

The feeling of power and popularity one enjoys back home is much diminished at Cannes, where you are one among many – unless you are a truly global star like The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw or the late Roger Ebert.

I remember how disappointed, even angry, I was after watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer, by Yorgos Lanthimos, whose earlier film (The Lobster) I had loved. Exiting the screening, I tweeted that it was “a huge, gimmicky disappointment.” A little later, Indian critic-friends told me, with horrified looks, that Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux had said no one should tweet about a film after a press screening – and for a second, my heart stopped. I felt like a school kid summoned by the principal. My friends’ faces suggested that I had farted in front of the Queen of England, which is probably an appropriate analogy.

Cannes’s rigid adherence to protocol may be second only to that in the Buckingham Palace.

So it was oddly touching to receive a note, via email, where the Festival team explained itself to the press. Sample line: “The Festival celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, a venerable age that might foster a degree of immobilism. Yet our wish and ambition are quite the opposite!” In other words, change is being promised in a Festival. The note continued, “Access to films has therefore always been one of the pillars of our commitments to journalists, and it will remain so.” There was even a dose of sentimentalism, when the Festival said they continued to accredit, despite capacity problems, critics who are no longer active, “out of respect for their past in Cannes, for their dedication to films and their makers.”

This is where Cannes stands out: this commitment to cinema, those who make it, and those who foster it (unless the latter is named Netflix, but let’s not go there now) – sometimes at the cost of being politically incorrect.

A few weeks ago, in this column I wrote about Frémaux’s acknowledgement of the #MeToo movement, and his simultaneous refusal to apologise for the overwhelming number of male filmmakers in the selection. “The question of a quota in no case concerns the artistic selection of a festival,” he said. “Films are chosen for their quality.”

More recently, Frémaux welcomed Lars von Trier back to the Festival. To refresh your memory, in the press conference before the premiere of Melancholia, in 2011, von Trier said, “[Hitler] did some wrong things, absolutely, but I can see him sitting there in his bunker at the end ... I sympathise with him, yes, a little bit... But come on, I am not for the Second World War, and I am not against Jews. I am very much for Jews; well not too much because Israel is a pain in the ass. But still, how can I get out of this sentence ... OK I’m a Nazi.”

The gasp in the press room was heard around the world, and von Trier found himself banished – though if you watch the clip above, you’ll see it was more an awful joke that sounded more awful because it didn’t land. At the time, Frémaux said (and can you imagine a representative of another Festival saying this?): “I would like the filmmakers to think about the fact that Cannes has a big ego, and reflects a lot of things, so they have to be careful.” But now, he said, “I am personally happy that Lars von Trier is here because it is time to acknowledge that he was a victim, certainly of his bad jokes, but also of a punishment that was disproportionate and that had lasted long enough... And whether we like it or not, we are dealing with a great film and a great filmmaker.”

The chance to watch and write about the new von Trier movie – The House That Jack Built, a psychological thriller starring Matt Dillon as a serial killer – is why critics like me swarm to France. Reviews from Cannes are so powerful that they can break films scheduled to open later in the year. A badly reviewed film can see its release dates (and thus, in the US, its Oscar prospects) majorly affected. Nothing can be done about this, of course. But the Festival has shuffled its schedule around so that the gala premiere screening, attended by the film’s cast and crew, is not impacted by reviews. (Press screenings will happen simultaneously, or later.) So the people associated with the film will walk the red carpet with hope in the heart, without any knowledge of what the reception will be like.

This, again, is about respect for cinema. Otherwise, as the email note put it, “as soon as a film is screened, the social networks turn it into confetti-like strips of rumors.” Many festivals offer journalists what Cannes does: for instance, dedicated press rooms (with wifi and computers) – though without the terrace we get at Cannes, where you can still find the clichéd image of the journalist typing away with a cigarette stuck in his mouth.

But it’s still touching to see Cannes try to come to grips with the modern era, understanding that immediacy is what matters most in today’s communication. “We are apprised of the economic difficulties affecting the media,” the note concluded. “And we appreciate your boundless engagement during these 12 days to cover the event.” The appreciation is mutual.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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