Cannes 2010: The Festival Stays Strong
On his return from Cannes, FilmInFocus’ Scott Macaulay looks back on the 2010 edition of the world’s most high profile film festival.
Anyone traveling the festival circuit during the last year has picked up on a certain anxiety concerning festivals and their role in today’s film industry eco-system. Should film festivals be more responsive to shifting audience taste, shorter attention spans, and the trend toward watching films on small screens or in their homes, on demand? Should they take note of the economic tsunami that’s been rocking the film business’s established revenue streams with business initiatives of their own? In the States, festivals like Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW have been grappling with these issues by partnering with cable and online providers to stream films for home viewers during the festival, or by sending their films on the road, or by programming sidebars of work that breaks with film’s established formats.
Not so Cannes. In what can be viewed, depending on your point of view, as either a weakness or a strength, Cannes remains the same — the film world’s most impressively choreographed spectacle devoted to the premiere of international art cinema. The Palais, where the Competition and Un Certain Regard films screen, remains an imposing monolith, with guards quick to bar the nighttime audience member who didn’t make it back to his hotel for black tie in time. The bar at the Hotel du Cap in nearby Antibes is still filled with the film world’s rotating power elite. And the nighttime parties remain impressively stage-managed simulations of fun, even as the most deep-pocketed hosts change each year. (This year, the most lavish parties were thrown by the Middle Eastern festivals, with Abu Dhabi and Doha organizing the splashiest events. At the latter, Martin Scorsese appeared and then fireworks lit up the sky as the Doha Film Institute announced a three-year partnership with his World Cinema Foundation that will lead to the restoration of culturally significant international classics.)
Given the monumental edifice that Cannes has built for itself over the years, it seems unreasonable to expect Cannes to change. And if it did, could the art film industry survive without the spectacle and aura of importance that the festival provides? In his roundup, Roger Ebert offers his opinion. “I've been to 35 festivals in Cannes,” he writes. “I'll tell you the truth. I doubt if there will even be a Cannes Film Festival in another 35 years. If there is, it will have little to do with the kinds of films and audiences we grew up treasuring. More and more, I'm feeling it's goodbye to all that.”
All this is not to say that social, technological, and political change was absent from this year’s festival. The online site The Auteurs used Cannes to relaunch itself as the less-Gallic “Mubi” and to announce a plan to bring its rich library of art cinema to the Playstation 3. And one of the festival’s best-received films was Olivier Assayas’s Carlos, the French director’s rousing account of the life of famed terrorist Carlos the Jackal. It wasn’t eligible for prizes, though, as it played outside of the Competition. Because the five-and-a-half hour film was financed as a three-part TV miniseries and scheduled for cable premiere the day of its Cannes screening, it was deemed ineligible for the Cannes competition — despite the fact, as its sales agent Vincent Maraval told Variety, that French television is the dominant funder for most movies that premiere in theaters.
Smaller kerfuffles surrounded Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, the latest cultural/historical jape from the ornery genius of European cinema. Again repped by Maraval’s company, the Wild Bunch, the film was scheduled to be available on VOD alongside its premiere in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section — a decision that could flaunt French exhibitor law and prevent its theatrical release. But for non-French speakers, the film’s controversies were of a different sort. In Film Socialisme, Godard’s camera prowls a luxury cruise ship full of gaudy vacationers that’s docking at a series of ports in locations ranging from Barcelona to Naples and Odessa. The digital video images range from painterly and beautiful (of the deep ocean) to garish and distorted (the vacationers discoing on the ship’s dance floor), and the sound design is thrillingly jarring, with radical left-right separation and blasts of wind noise when the mic is taken up to the deck. Of the story, I won’t say much due to Godard’s decision to subtitle the film in what was described as “Navajo English.” Long bits of dialogue and literary quotations were reduced to lines like “German Jew Black” or, for “Money was invented so we don’t need to look God in the eye,” “money invented.” Of course, the ability to access meaning is culturally determined, and, as the Navajo allusion might indicate, the American film industry has been complicit in reducing the ability of other cultures to create meaning. That said, for non-French speakers, after about 20 minutes it became hard to take Film Socialisme, which might play better in a gallery context alongside Godard works like Histoire(s) du Cinema, as anything other than a sour provocation.