The Truman Show is a 1990s Hollywood film about a man who lives in a bubble, cut off from the world. Played by Jim Carrey, Truman Burbank – surrounded by actors, his every move monitored by cameras – sets a scene and believes it’s real. In the film’s final scene, he climbs the stairs, finds a door, and prepares to escape from his golden cage.
This key image – the rise of Truman against a painted sky – is now the official poster for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, soon to be plastered across programmes, blu-tacked in shop windows and rigged like a deity across the Palace in concrete. And while we should be wary of judging an event by its cover, the choice of image seems appropriate. The organizers chose it, they say, because it “represents a poetic celebration of the quest for expression and freedom”. Others may read it as a self-proclaimed commentary on the festival as a whole.
This is the eternal question about Cannes, this playground for millionaires on the Côte d’Azur. Is it the bubble or the door, the disease or the cure? A creative response to the misfortunes of the world or a way to whitewash its worst excesses? No one is certain. The jury is still out. Cannes thrives on friction, contradictions; that’s part of its appeal. But pull too hard on the rubber band and sooner or later it will break.
This year marks the 75th edition of the festival, a sort of anniversary. It’s the perfect excuse to step back into the event’s past, celebrating its history as a place of provocation, the breeding ground for the New Wave, New Hollywood, good wave Latin American cinema. But it’s also a chance to reset the compass, to chart the future. At first glance, this year’s lineup looks great. There are new films by David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, George Miller, Kelly Reichardt; a clever balance between arthouse delights and tasty cinematic junk food (Top Gun: Maverick; Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis biopic). It’s almost enough to distract from the problems piling up all around. Industry upheaval. The pandemic. Ukraine.
It’s already been a good year for British producer Mike Goodridge, who has two films in main competition. Triangle of Sadness is the new comedy from Ruben Östlund, which won the 2017 Palme d’or for his satire on the art world The Square. Tchaikovsky’s Wife is a historical drama by Russian dissident director Kirill Serebrennikov. Cannes banned official Russian delegations this year, but individual performers (most of whom disagree with Putin’s regime anyway) are still welcome. The producer thinks that’s fair enough. Serebrennikov, he explains, has just spent several years under house arrest: “He is the last person who should receive a cultural boycott.
Goodridge first arrived in Cannes in 1991. He himself has been a journalist, salesman and festival director. So he came to the event from almost every angle and largely made peace with its obvious contradictions. Cannes, he claims, remains the most exciting film festival in the world. Plus, it may be the last great champion of cinema itself, stubbornly clinging to the old theatrical business model and forcing made-for-TV Netflix content to be screened in Venice instead. “Cannes is dedicated to protecting the sacred art of cinema,” he says. “And the Palais de Cannes, in addition to being a place of discovery, is the cathedral par excellence of cinema. It changes your life. It changes the way you see the world. »
Inevitably, there is also a downside. “The worst thing about Cannes, I guess, is its rarefied nature. It’s elitist. It’s snobby. And yes, it is slow to change. The selection process is not flawless. It takes more fresh blood, just to mix it up. You’re sick of seeing the same old faces in the main competition.
We are back to these Cannes frictions. Every action has a reaction. For every high, a crushing low. I’ve been coming to the festival for years and still can’t figure it out. It’s both radical and narrow-minded, serious and silly, horribly hierarchical and slightly democratic.
Or to put it another way, Cannes is the Walt Whitman of film festivals. It contains multitudes. He contradicts himself. Outside the Palace, the impenetrable arthouse puzzler gets the same red carpet treatment as the top-tier Hollywood blockbuster. Inside, the main scholarly competition is offset by an unscholarly film market, selling Asian erotic thrillers with scrambled English texts (“In a small apartment, she was almost like an old goddess to him”). At night, on the port, the yachts of the oligarch also serve as cinema locations. Partygoers raise their champagne flutes en masse to toast the latest social realist shout of heart from Bucharest or Timbuktu.
Undeniably, it was more tumultuous, more of an obvious circus. I miss the human traffic that swept along the Croisette before security was tightened. Upstart student filmmakers bellowing into megaphones; the newsagent shouting “Liberation! on the steps. In recent years, Cannes has become safe, almost cloistered. But does that make it more of a bubble than before?
Filmmaker Mark Cousins vehemently disagrees. “I don’t have time for this argument,” he says. First, Cousins explains, Cannes’ natural affinity has always been for the innovator, the outsider, the kind of artists who would normally be left out in the cold. Second, and most importantly, it remains a physical festival, “a moment in the moshpit”, a vital connection with the offline world. “What used to be called life,” he says.
Goodridge compares Cannes to a cathedral. Cousins, for his part, reaches nautical comparisons. The festival, he tells me, is like a dike against erosion, or a beacon in the storm, “battered but sentinel”, directing its beam to the four corners of the globe. That’s a bold claim about an event that once staged a stunt involving Jerry Seinfeld in a bee suit on a zipline, but he might be right. Because if there’s a comedy in Cannes and a celebrity in Cannes, then it follows that maybe there are fundamentals in Cannes, something to cling to when everything else flies away. Also, it is comforting to think of Cannes as the beacon, honest and unyielding. Better that than seeing it as the storm itself.
When we talk about the radical golden age of Cannes, we invariably cite the insurrectionary fireworks of May 1968, when Godard and Truffaut stormed the great hall and stopped the demonstration with a bang. But the political roots of Cannes go much deeper than that. This is the 75th festival, although by law it should be older. It was explicitly conceived as a carnival of resistance, a response to the fascist event in Venice, which made Joseph Goebbels its guest of honor and awarded the “Mussolini Cup” to a painting by Leni Riefenstahl. The first Cannes Film Festival was to begin on September 1, 1939. When Hitler’s tanks rolled into Poland, the festival was canceled a few hours later.
I sometimes think that the champions of Cannes could benefit more from this genesis. It’s like a superhero origin tale: a call to arms, an uprising. Politics is in the DNA of Cannes. French writer Agnès Poirier argues that her story is fundamental. “More than any other festival, it was never afraid to take a stand on the world,” she says.
Cannes was built in a spirit of inclusion, tolerance and empathy with other cultures. This is why she likes the provocative artists who shake our cages (Hitchcock, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier). That’s why he loves dissident artists who shed light on injustice. Sergei Loznitsa’s film Donbass sounded the alarm about an emerging crisis in eastern Ukraine. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless warned of the creeping moral rot of Moscow’s middle class. Cannes has it both ways, but it engages with the world. Photocalls and fashion disasters make the festival stand out. But these stage-managed frivolities sell its wares everywhere.
“Well, it’s interesting that you say it’s frivolous,” Poirier said. “It’s probably a British perspective. In France, Cannes has never been considered frivolous. For us it is very serious. It is our political class. It is our university of geopolitics. This is where we come to know the parts of the world we have never visited.
For 12 days this month, the faithful of Cannes will gather in front of the Palace. They’ll be kicking under the giant image of Truman Burbank climbing against the painted sky, still searching for its way out. Once through the doors, these guests have access to the program for free; the only limit is time. They can see a masterpiece. They can see a turkey. They can be taken to São Paulo, Harare or Muscat. They may witness something that changes the way they see the world. Of course, Cannes is a bubble. But films: they are doors.
The 75th Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17-28.
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