Cannes Report #1: Change Is in the Air
It’s easy to forget that for the French seaside city of Cannes, the film festival is basically a pop-up, one of many conventions that annually roll into town. Last month, Cannes hosted its first fest devoted to television, Canneseries, and next month, the annual music event, Midem, returns to the French Riviera. And though you may learn from locals that the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity draws attendees who spend more money, the film festival and its famous red carpet continue to bring the widest attention to this tony and tacky Cote d’Azur town, setting the stage for the coming year in international cinema.
All of this is worth considering, as the Cannes Film Festival opened amid renewed scrutiny of its reputation and history and the role it plays in representing film culture. On the business side, a public spat between the festival and Netflix has left titles liked by its programmers out of the lineup; at the same time, criticism of the consistently slim representation of female filmmakers in its coveted competition lineup has only grown louder in the wake of revelations about horrifying off-screen abuses, some of which occurred here. (Last fall, Asia Argento told The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow that she had been raped by Harvey Weinstein in Cannes.) In its history, just over four percent of the films in competition for the Palme d’Or have been directed by women, and the top prize has only once been awarded to a woman: Jane Campion for The Piano in 1993.
While in recent years festival head Thierry Frémaux has laid the blame on a global film community that has failed to put women behind the camera, this year his tone has changed. Announcing the lineup last month, Frémaux likened the revelations of sexual assault and abuse to an earthquake. Then on Monday, during an impromptu press conference on the eve of opening day, he said, “It is not just the Cannes Film Festival that has changed since the Weinstein scandal, the whole world has changed . . . Cinema has always been in the hands of men. We’re doing our best to ensure that our selection is well-balanced and diverse. There will be more and more [women filmmakers] in the future.” Frémaux also announced on Monday a hotline where anyone abused or assaulted can seek help or support during this year’s festival.
On opening day, the festival’s diverse jury sat down for a press conference prior to embarking upon their work evaluating this year’s 21 competition titles. The group, this year lead by Cate Blanchett, includes actors Chang Chen, Léa Seydoux, and Kristen Stewart; filmmakers Ava DuVernay, Robert Guédiguian, Denis Villeneuve, and Andrei Zvyagintsev; and musician Khadja Nin.
Every year Cannes stirs up talk about the state of film culture and the industry, and in 2018 the conversation is perhaps even more pronounced. I asked the group to reflect on why movies matter today.
Villeneuve began: “It’s more relevant than ever. At a time where, in media, truth is in a kind of danger, I think that cinema has a role to play to bring truth to the screen.” Stewart agreed, seated a few spots away on the dais, adding: “You hold up a mirror in front of everyone. It’s so important to consistently self-assess and also explore and also be shown things that you are not currently living with. Introspection and self-reflection and opening your eyes to things that are nothing like yourself, that’s the only way to grow.”
In responding to the same question, DuVernay, in Cannes for the first time, marveled at the notion of being from Compton in South Los Angeles and now sitting on the film world’s stage. DuVernay said that foreign films gave her a window into other cultures when growing up: “There was nothing outside of my window to orient me to my place in the world. It was film that did that. It was film that allowed me to assert my voice in the world.”
“It’s so important that we are inclusive of the different ways in which we participate in film,” DuVernay continued, touching upon the debate that has recently divided Cannes and Netflix. DuVernay directs movies, but she also works in television. Her next project is a series for Netflix, so she pushed back on the notion that film’s home is exclusively the big screen. “So, whether that’s in a theater or not, it’s still film. This is a question that the industry, artists, and executives are grappling with right now. But film is a story told by a filmmaker, and I don’t think the way in which that film is presented to an audience has a bearing on whether or not it is a film.”
Eugene Hernandez is Deputy Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Co-Publisher of Film Comment.