The Cannes Film Festival has been derailed a handful of times since the inaugural edition was postponed because of World War II. For the most part, the show has gone on since 1946, but not this year. The 73rd iteration, scheduled to start May 12, is no more. Instead, in June, the festival will release a list of movies that had been chosen for this year, anointing them with the coveted Cannes label. Our critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott and our awards season columnist, Kyle Buchanan, all festival veterans, reflect on what makes this event so essential for movie lovers.
KYLE BUCHANAN So much for the victory lap. After a superlative 2019 edition of Cannes that launched Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” — the first Palme d’Or winner in 64 years to also take the best-picture Oscar — expectations were sky high for this year’s festival, which was meant to begin in mid-May. But as a pandemic continues to hold the world hostage, it became unthinkable to proceed with a two-week gathering that draws film glitterati from all over the globe and hurls them into a couture-clad mosh pit.
So, Cannes is effectively canceled, with organizers hoping to regroup somewhere down the line. Manohla and Tony, you both know your way around the world’s most prestigious film festival. What is lost when Cannes is stricken from the calendar?
A.O. SCOTT Unlike the three major fall festivals — Venice, Telluride and Toronto — Cannes stands off to the side of the American Oscar season. Which isn’t to say that it lacks hype, but rather that its hype is more self-contained and self-regarding. It doesn’t need the academy, though it happily embraces Hollywood. For 11 or 12 days, the festival becomes a cinematic universe in its own right. When you’re inside it, the rest of the world seems unreal. From outside, it looks like a strange snow globe full of movie stars.
But it matters because, behind all the frantic photo calls and yacht parties and swanny red carpet marches is an almost religious devotion to cinema, an ardor for the art that isn’t snobbish or cynical. All kinds of movies show up in the main competition and the various sidebars, and even though some are destined to win prizes and catch the attention of the press, they are all given at least a moment of glory by the festival itself. There are few sights more touching to me than watching a first-timer walking up the Palais steps to their gala screening, walking the same path as Palme winners and pantheon auteurs.
You can’t get that kind of excitement on a streaming platform, or the serendipitous sense of discovery that ripples from Cannes into the larger movie world. I said before that there’s something religious about the whole thing, and losing it feels like seeing a page ripped out of the sacred calendar. The question is whether it can be stitched back in.
MANOHLA DARGIS I have no doubt that Cannes — and most festivals and theaters and movies and filmgoers — will return. Certainly I’m rooting for the festival, which I’ve attended for years and love. You’re seeing some of the finest new movies in the world in one big gulp, which is thrilling and exhausting and crazy-making, just because you want to see everything and can’t. And because it shows so many premieres, you can discover them on your own. I assumed that “Parasite” would be good because, well, Bong. But at Cannes I saw it before everyone could tell me (and tell me) that it’s great. Going is a privilege, on many levels.
If it’s hard for Americans to grasp the importance of Cannes to the rest of the world, it’s because our isolationism extends to culture. It was exciting to see “Parasite” take off in the States, which happened in part because of the festival. It’s a staggering publicity generator, and the thousands of journalists who attended last year’s event seeded interest in the movie internationally, giving it terrific momentum that only increased as it played other world festivals. Disney can dominate opening weekends with just its brand. But movies like “Parasite” need festivals, and to go really big, I think they need Cannes.
BUCHANAN You’re both right about the way Cannes, for all its glamour, treats auteur filmmaking like a divine calling: When thousands of people are dressed to the nines in the audience of a three-hour, slow-cinema art film — and when they jump to their feet with an ovation afterward — you start to wonder if the French lack the words for “superhero” or “franchise” and are better off for it.
But just as hidebound Hollywood is going through a streaming-era upheaval, so too is Cannes, and I’m always interested in how the tension between tradition and progress plays out there. Whether it’s the festival’s repudiation of Netflix, or the way Cannes grapples with the #MeToo movement and gender parity, the controversies on the Croisette can be instructive. It seems strange to say I’ll miss all that, but I find that Cannes holds a chic, cracked mirror up to Hollywood, and I always leave with a new perspective on what I’m returning to.
SCOTT In the past couple of years, the Cannes vs. Netflix querelle — yes, I’m going to pepper this with Gallicisms, just try to stop me! — has served as a piquant microcosm of the larger tensions within the global film industry. The French tradition of subsidizing and defending its cultural patrimony is often mocked by Americans in and out of the film business, but if I have to choose sides between France and monopoly-minded American tech companies, I’ll take France every time.
But there’s no doubt that le streaming as an economic and cultural force has been strengthened by the coronavirus, and that the question of whether Cannes will return plays into deeper uncertainties and larger anxieties about the future of cinema. Are people going to flock to Toronto and Venice in September? Will the Oscars be forced to make peace with Netflix and its ilk? Is moviegoing fated to become a quaint, niche pursuit, or one that involves a grave risk? I don’t think I’m the only cinephile experiencing a frisson of dread.
DARGIS I’m Team Cannes, too. I’ve been thinking about moviegoing a lot while in lockdown because I’m spending an inordinate amount of time in front of my TV (watching old Hollywood and a British cop show). There’s nothing like being forcibly kept home to appreciate the beauty of going out, including to cinemas. This has reminded me that while, like you both, I write about movies for a living, I don’t write enough about the experience of seeing them in theaters. But we should because it’s crucial to how we see and understand movies, and certainly how they affect us.
I recently interviewed James Gray, who has had four films in the festival’s main competition, including “The Immigrant,” in 2013. We started talking about moviegoing and he said that, basically, it is his aim as a filmmaker to keep your attention fixed. Or as he put it, “My job is to sit you in that theater from beginning to end where you’re not thinking about your bladder and you have no choice but to stay there — and that’s the whole idea of mounting tensions dramatically.” When you pause a movie or start texting midway through it, you turn a movie into television.
In a recent interview, Thierry Frémaux, the festival director, said, “Cannes stands up for films screened in theaters.” I love that. There’s a great deal to criticize about the event, including its commitment to certain terrible filmmakers and the behind-the-scenes deal making that invariably finds a mediocre French movie (or two) taking a competition slot. That said, Cannes — like all good film events of its kind — isn’t just about the movies. It’s about the collective experience, about weeping and laughing at movies together and talking about them afterward. It’s about community, which doesn’t exist when you stream Netflix at home while eating your Postmates delivery.
So, I stand up for films screened in theaters, too, and for Cannes (though sometimes while booing).