Cannes ups its game: the 2018 programme isn’t resting on any laurels

With innovation and discoveries the promise at a decidedly anti on-demand festival, Cannes seems to have decided to burnish its leadership credentials.

Nick Roddick
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Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) is competing for the Palme d’Or

Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice) is competing for the Palme d’Or

At times, it has seemed as though Cannes boss Thierry Frémaux has been running a one-man crusade against the digital revolution, a latter-day Knut striving to stem the technological tide as it swept across the Croisette. As recently as this year’s annual Selection press conference, he launched into a tirade against selfies, which he has banned from the red carpet.

Plus, between Cannes 2017 and Cannes 2018, he has revamped the arrangements for press screening, so that the ‘official’ screening, not the shows, constitute a film’s first Cannes screening – but also, one suspects, to stop journos from competing with one another to tweet the first critique of a Competition film.

More fundamental, meanwhile, has been the hoo-ha about Netflix, which dominated the run-up to this year’s Selection announcement. If Netflix wanted its films screened in Cannes, the Festival said, they would have to observe the statutory requirement for every film to have a theatrical release in France, just as a film must have screened in a New York or Los Angeles cinema to be eligible for an Oscar. Last year, Netflix acquiesced, giving the three selected films a day-and-date release in cinemas and on the platform. This year, not so much.

Reports vary on whether Cannes wanted to screen five Netflix films and the online giant said ‘Too many’, or whether Cannes just wanted two and a miffed Netflix said ‘Too few’. Either way, negotiations fell spectacularly apart two days before the press conference and as a result shut out two films, reportedly the latest from Paul Greengrass and Alfonso Cuáron.

Riley Keough in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, one of two US films in the Competition

Riley Keough in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, one of two US films in the Competition

It’s easy to portray Frémaux as a luddite, clinging to an outdated notion of cinematic purity (easy to do in Cannes, where nothing else matters). And certainly the ‘sense of cinema’ was set up as a kind of absolute in Frémaux’s introductory speech. But, as the line-up was revealed, it soon became clear that the Cannes boss had moved on, whether because of or despite the Netflix row, and had re-energised the Selection in a number of brave and exciting ways.

At this point, I should make it clear that this is being written long before the Festival and that I have not, therefore, seen any of the films in Selection. But for the first time in many years, ‘excited’ is not an exaggeration: this is game change. Like any film festival, Cannes has to balance a number of things: inviting enough stars to front-load the red carpet versus showcasing the best available films; encouraging new talent versus honouring established masters; Hollywood versus arthouse… It’s an impossible compromise which more often than not pleases no one completely and some people not at all.

This year, however, Cannes has gone back to basics, addressing the fundamental question ‘What is a film festival for?’ – a question which can be answered at different places on a scale running from ‘celebrate’ to ‘promote’. As the world’s biggest festival, Cannes should show the way. It hasn’t always, but here it does: the Official Competition line-up this year is heavy with directors whose names are at best vaguely familiar, and at worst unknown to most readers – and indeed most critics. Actually make that ‘at best unknown’: you can’t discover something you already know.

Joanna Kulig in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (Zimna Wojna), also in Official Competition

Joanna Kulig in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War (Zimna Wojna), also in Official Competition

Of the 18 films so far announced, a third are from the Middle East or Asia, seven from Europe (three of them – Stéphane Brizé’s At War, Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel and Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book (Le Livre d’image) – from France) and two from the US (Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman and David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Moon). Neither of the US films is from a major studio, although Solo: A Star Wars Story restores a little of the glitz with a special out-of-competition screening. It is – and I write this with considerable pleasure – the token Hollywood movie. In the Un Certain Regard sidebar, innovation, in terms of origin or style, is even more to the fore.

This is important because, in the ecology of a film, festivals in general and Cannes in particular have an increasingly important role to play. This year’s line-up reminds us what that is, by offering a showcase to a number of lesser-known filmmakers who would be otherwise unlikely to travel through the rest of the system which brings them to a wider audience, wins them friends in the production and distribution sectors. What’s more, not only does the 2018 line-up include no Netflix movies – it includes none of the kind of movies Netflix has tended to promote.

In effect, what Frémaux has done, drawing on the 1,906 films he claims to have screened, is reclaim the word ‘platform’ from the VOD honchos, for whom it means a streaming link, and restore it to its proper place in film world: the high-profile, much-hyped and extensively written-about event it once was and, in 2018, shows every sign of becoming once again.

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