Why Cannes Matters to Every Movie Fan

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To the portion of the population that doesn’t care at all about movies, the Cannes Film Festival has been creeping toward irrelevance for years, and there’s no convincing these people otherwise. But to those who care—to those who still care, now that streaming has so radically blurred the line between movies and television—Cannes, as both the world’s biggest, glitziest film festival and a sort of spiritual concept, may now be more important than ever, not because it speaks to everyone, but because it speaks so loudly to a passionate few. Let’s put it this way: if you think of Cannes and the Oscars as fraternal institutions with an investment in both celebrating and preserving the artistry of movies, it’s the Oscars’ relevance that’s taken a nosedive, not that of Cannes. After all, only one of these organizations launched a “fan favorite” poll that ended up being highjacked by zealous Zack Snyder fans who just happen to be very good at using the Internet.

Whether you, movie lover—as I presume you are if you’re reading this—end up liking or hating the movies that premiered at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped on May 28, is inconsequential. That only puts you in the same boat as nearly every journalist and critic who attends the festival: every year, it’s de rigueur to complain loudly about the competition slate or the winners or both. This year’s winner, Triangle of Sadness—Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s overlong satire of rich people and Instagram influencers—has its fans and detractors, and I happen to be in the latter camp.

But in the greater scheme of our movie landscape, what matters is the breadth and variety of the movies chosen by the festival’s programmers—in the complete official selection as well as in the competition—and the fact that, with just a few exceptions, these were all projects intended to capitalize on every inch of the big screen as opposed to the small one. That’s as true of the commercial films playing out of competition—Top Gun: Maverick, Elvis, Three Thousand Years of Longing—as it is of more intimate projects like James Gray’s semiautobiographical ‘80s snapshot Armageddon Time or EO, 84-year-old Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s moving and gorgeously filmed plea for vegetarianism starring several captivating donkeys. (Accepting his Jury Prize for the film at the awards ceremony, Skolimowski named and thanked each one.) If you care about movies, you also care about Cannes, whether you want to admit it or not.

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To say movies are in a perilous place is to continue banging a tedious drum that almost no one wants to hear. There are still people who want to watch movies in theaters, as well as people who want to watch movies but only at home, and people who don’t really make much of a distinction between movies and television as long as the product holds their interest. Movie studios, to the extent that they even exist anymore, don’t know how to make money off that equation; not even Netflix, which has at least supported the idea of traditional movies by funding projects from esteemed directors (Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Steven Soderbergh), knows how to make money off it. Movies are on life support…maybe. But even if they segue into becoming a boutique interest rather than one of our chief forms of mass entertainment, they’ll survive and maybe even rebound, as vinyl did. Too many people love them too much to let them go.

That puts Cannes and other major film festivals like Venice, Berlin, and Toronto in a position of influence rather than weakness. Perhaps it’s influence over a shrinking kingdom—but then, with our siloed interests, our fractured attention spans, our insistence on having whatever we want when we want it, what kingdom isn’t shrinking these days? The thinking has always been that festivals cater to film snobs, not to regular people. But if regular people no longer care about the movies, then catering to the people who do care magnifies rather than shrinks a festival’s importance. The chief value of a festival like Cannes is to provide a world showcase for filmmakers from all over the globe, which is how a film like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, the winner of the festival’s highest honor in 2019, the Palme d’Or, can go on to become an Oscar winner—which meant that lots of Americans, not just fans of Korean cinema, sought it out. And last year, the festival’s Best Screenplay award went to Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, a film that piqued the curiosity of American audiences when it was nominated for two Academy Awards. (It won Best International Feature.) That’s a pretty astonishing journey for a three-hour Japanese movie about grief and Chekhov.

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Will any movie from Cannes 2022 have the same impact as either of those two? That’s hard to say, although I’m sure Triangle of Sadness—which is very funny in places, even if Östlund bears down so heavily on his ideas that he ends up grinding them down to dust—will find an audience in the States, where people seem ready for its particular brand of wicked side-eye. Gray’s Armageddon Time, beautifully made and a memoir that speaks to larger social issues, will find its way to American theaters—and, eventually, to streaming—soon. Decision to Leave, from Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, is a lush, complex noir romance worth seeking out. (It also earned Park the festival’s Best Director prize.) Some of my other personal favorites—like Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, starring Michelle Williams as a prickly, solitary ceramic artist in the Pacific Northwest, and Leonor Serraille’s lustrous, subtly devastating Mother and Son, the story of a woman from the Ivory Coast who makes a new life in France with two of her sons—will take a little more effort to see, but they’re more than worth your time.

Of course, Cannes also makes a place for movies that lots of people are already excited to see, like Baz Luhrmann’s frenetic but heartfelt spectacle Elvis. And the Cannes premiere of Top Gun: Maverick was accompanied by some showy flying from French Air Force jets trailing plumes of red, white, and blue smoke, the shared colors of the French and American flags—though the roar of the planes as they soared over the festival Palais, sudden and deafening, was perhaps a too-vivid reminder of the brutal air assaults now buffeting Ukraine.

Cannes is a place of over-the-top spectacle, even if it is in some ways still deeply connected to the world around it: the plight of refugees in Europe was the focus of numerous films this year, including the Dardenne brothers’ angry and finely wrought drama Tori and Lokita. But the festival is ultimately a bubble, a kind of movie Brigadoon that pops up once a year and then vanishes, a place where, for 11 straight days, nothing else matters but film. In the moment, it can be a bit much. Yet for the journalists and critics who fight to get there (the costs of lodging, always high, have further increased post-COVID-19), for the hopeful bystanders who line up in evening dress, holding up signs scrawled with pleas for a ticket to this or that premiere (“EO, s’il vous plait!”), even—or especially—for the filmmakers and stars who trek out in their tuxedos and jewels to show off what they’ve achieved, Cannes is also a place to show solidarity. Those who come to the festival and those who look on from afar, wishing they could be there, are all on the same team. Whether that makes us outliers, elitists, or dreamers locked in the past, we’ll take it.

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