Nolan Kelly left New York for two weeks to unveil all the contradictions of Cannes film festival. “In a time of political correctness and reality-star presidencies”, he writes, ” the politics of art seems more important than ever.“
In recent years, Europe has received a reputation for exclusivity. The small continent is broadcasted to the rest of the world as being full of sleepy countrysides, aided by the tranquility of welfare, a rustic idyll that comes at a steep price.
For many Americans, it’s become more tempting than ever to reach out to expatriate friends or distant relatives in search of a vacation or exit. But this pressure is insignificant compared to the thousands migrating from Africa or the Middle East in search of asylum or prosperity. The recent refugee crisis has led everyone to feel that Europe is too small or to set in their ways to accommodate the rest of the world. As time goes on, the clump of nations seems to only get smaller, and harder to reach. If you can pinpoint the zenith of this process, the genesis of our idyllic image, it would likely be the French Riviera in springtime, at an event which this year celebrated its 70th anniversary.
For two weeks, the Cannes Film Festival transforms the sleepy little beach town into its own kind of life raft, where prosperity and opulence await absolutely anyone who can find a way onboard. There are three things which set the experience apart from all others. The first is its prestige – it remains the highest honor for selection and awards of any film festival on Earth. Next is its market; Cannes is one of the only festivals which fosters the buying and selling of film in its official capacity. And the third and most important is its closed nature – those who manage to get a festival pass and decent formal attire have the feeling of nearly complete access, but passes aren’t sold to the public, and to get one you have to demonstrate some connection to the entertainment industry. This makes festival passes, in some sense, priceless.
The American Pavilion offers one of the more interesting ways to climb aboard. Culinary, film, or hospitality students can all apply to intern and work at or through the pavilion, a large tent situated on the beach behind the main theater, which acts as the United States’ main cultural hub. The internship is expensive, and essentially means paying to work a likely menial job, anything from serving industry execs coffee to washing down Harvey Weinstein’s yacht. The Cannes pass makes this all worthwhile.
It just so happened that Cannes was my first stop on my very first trip to Europe. I left New York City the day after finishing my freshman year of college at The New School. In the whirlwind of finals and packing, I didn’t have a lot of time to take this in, but I was sure of one thing: my first impressions of this new place would be Europe at its most presentable, most excessive, and most gilded. The young, scrappy, and hungry spend their time dreaming of Riviera nights; entry isn’t usually granted until they make something out of it. I had been given what felt like a free trial, and a chance to figure out the proper way in. It was easy enough to consider myself an outsider, at least I’d have a front row seat to study how the insiders operate.
The beautiful thing about Cannes, I soon realized, is that no one is allowed to attend without embracing a few contradictions. This is perhaps the truest remnant of the founder’s intentions to create a truly international film festival.
The first thing I noticed that didn’t meet my expectations going into the program was the collaboration between the East and West. Cannes is the international film festival of recognition, yes, but I had been primed by the American Pavilion to see the coming weeks as a Hollywood invasion of the Riviera. This was true only compared to the traditional standards of French country life, and though Cannes was both glitzy and gossipy, it was refreshing as a film student to see a celebration of film that wasn’t overrun by the L.A. County crowd. In fact, it seemed, the diverse and inclusive world of the film simply met in the middle, and threw themselves a party.
It’s true that American standbys such as Jessica Chastain and Will Smith were on the jury, and Barry Jenkins secured a spot as head judge of shorts just months after his film Moonlight won the best picture at the Academy Awards, but these people were just some of the crowd that was in charge of enshrining and judging the official selections. This is the first platform I’d ever encountered where “foreign films” are given the same criterion of judgment as English-language, rather than a single category of recognition, like at the Oscar’s. It has everything to do with the fact that American films are foreign-language here. And power rests squarely in the hands of the many.
For example, Pedro Almodovar, the head of this year’s jury, is a Spanish filmmaker who garners international respect from film critics. I had the pleasure of meeting Almodovar in person one night as he was walking down La Croisette at around 9 pm, surrounded by a few plainclothes security guards, iconic yellow sunglasses in hand.
Here was perhaps the most important man in town taking an evening stroll, unrecognized by the constituents that praised him. I was able to thank him for his work and shake his hand without arousing the suspicion of any photographers dining nearby. Here, the scope of quality is so wide that there’s a place for anyone, and from this, a coexistence emerges.
Of course, a big part of this is that many, if not most of the people with a festival badge, are what I refer to as the carnivorous industries to film. Cinema was the first art form in which oodles of money were to be reliably made, in which a right movie at the right time could culturally polarize the world, and whole professions of sellers, buyers, promoters, and photographers have emerged just trying to absorb and capitalize on that blow.
It wasn’t until I arrived at Cannes that I realized this relationship to the art of the movie is not parasitic but symbiotic. I’ve been watching movies since childhood in awe of their artistic vision but never asking how it was that they arrived at a screen near me. The idea that genius begets greatness is as backward as believing rain follows the plow, and only at film festivals does one see the thunderstorm of creativity meet its lightning rod. Often there are masters of their craft who go unrecognized and unutilized out of a lack of connection with the right publicist, producer, or distribution agent.
One night at Cannes I had the pleasure of watching Wind River, a gripping true crime thriller by Taylor Sheridan, a rising star actor and screenwriter making his directorial debut at Un Certain Regard. Sheridan had partnered with The Weinstein Company for his production, and at the screening, Harvey Weinstein was the first one in the theater and the last one out.
Before the film started he was talking on the phone and holding an ice pack to his knee, looking not unlike a mobster who’d just offed a guy. It took me a while to realize that when the film’s leads. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson, received their standing ovations upon walking in, people were really clapping for Weinstein; he was the one who had provided the star power and gotten them in the room. The ovation at the end, too, had a double meaning: a feather in the cap of Sheridan but a progress report for Weinstein. He was capitalizing on his investment. Running into a few of my friends at the theater’s exit, he asked the Millennials, “So you liked it? You didn’t fall asleep?” But he already knew the answer. To him, this was all business.
That side of Cannes is important, if only because it gives the artists the prestige, money, and attention to make their work count. Here, film buffs and business execs sit side by side watching the same movies with two very different sets of eyes. Like the red-and-blue lenses in 3D glasses, it is only this combination of vision that allows the movie to really be seen.
This fusion also generates the political specter of Cannes, of which I have quite a lot of ambivalence. In a time of political correctness and reality-star presidencies, the politics of art seems more important, or at least more distracting, than ever. This is truer nowhere else than on film, where the tedious tendency emerges for the powerful to portray the meek. In Hollywood, a peculiar kind of armchair activism emerges from this, and the question of empathy’s ability to cross socioeconomic boundaries comes into play. Many of the best movies in the competition had strong political allegiance:
In Hollywood, a peculiar kind of armchair activism emerges from this, and the question of empathy’s ability to cross socioeconomic boundaries comes into play. Many of the best movies in the competition had strong political allegiance: Okja vs. GMOs and the meat industry, 120 Beats per Minute celebrating gay rights, The Beguiled as a feminist retelling of an originally misogynist movie. And yet I found myself watching three films in three days which graphically depicted rape scenes (Wind River, Okja, and the Cannes Classic restoration of The Ballad of Narayama (1983), each with a unique level of political awareness and validity – all to be outdone and outvoiced by Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here).
Jessica Chastain, at the end of the festival, stated “This is the first time I watched 20 films in 10 days, and what I really took away from this experience is how the world views women. It was quite disturbing to me.” She noted, of female characters, “They just don’t react to the men around them. They have their own point-of-view.” This chiding is applicable to any number of Official Selection films, all but three of which were directed by men. And besides two South Korean and Japanese screenings, all directors
This chiding is applicable to any number of Official Selection films, all but three of which were directed by men. And besides two South Korean and Japanese screenings, all directors were white and made movies starring white actors, the kind of small-minded selection which got the Oscar’s roundly and justifiably criticized two years ago.
I came to the French Riviera to watch movies – about the most passive thing you can possibly do. But I wasn’t expecting the emotional and intellectual challenge of a dealing with a diverse community promoting, selling, and generating narratives both deeply personal and globally significant. The beauty of Cannes is that this challenge is extended to all of the salespeople, filmmakers and movie stars who join in on this two-week voyage into the frontier.
No one can come and go with their frame of reference intact, and in today’s world of polarization and echo chambers, that’s what makes the Cannes Film Festival an experience worth having. It’s art at its most reverential.