You’d think a pandemic never happened.
Mask-less cinephiles invaded the Croisette for the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival this week, and this year’s ethos seems to be all about putting the pandemic behind us. A little too early? Perhaps. The relaxed nature of the first three days of the prestigious festival is alarming, but either you go with the vibe or you don’t. France lifted all mask mandates just a few days before the festival kicked off with the silly and intrusively bland zombie movie, Coupé.
This year, 21 films are vying for the Palme d’Or and new works by elite filmmakers such as David Cronenberg, the Dardenne Brothers, Park Chan-wook, Hirokazu Kore-eda, James Gray, Kelly Reichardt, and Claire Denis are expected to make a major splash. These are maybe not the most familiar names to the average moviegoer, but to cinephiles attending this year, they are absolute gods.
The first competition title screened was Russian dissident filmmaker Kirill Serebrennikov’s ambitious yet messy Tchaikovsky’s Wife. Exiled from his home country, Serebrennikov received a standing ovation at the iconic Lumière theatre, which seats close to 2,300 people. Barely any masks in sight. And yet, what was more shocking to Cannes attendees was Serebrennikov’s defense of producer (and Russian oligarch) Roman Abramovich at the film’s press conference: “He helps modern art, and he has for a long time now. He’s a real patron of Russia and that’s been deeply appreciated. Thanks to him, we have arthouse cinema.”
The parties are also back this year. During the 2021 edition, Cannes had mask mandates, no partying, obligatory rapid tests and half the number of attendees. The movies were still great, but something was missing. Cannes boss Thierry Frémaux made sure this year’s fest would attain some kind of normalcy.
Tom Cruise showed up on the second day to premiere Top Gun: Maverick, a film decidedly un-Cannes-like, with its aerial-shot fighter-jet sequences and a new Lady Gaga song blaring over the closing credits. Has Cannes decided that Maverick, with its gung-ho nature and US$200-million-plus budget, was cinema? Most people I spoke to shrugged at the idea of going to the out-of-competition film’s screening, so much so that it almost felt like a badge of honour to skip it. It was a comforting notion that maybe Cannes isn’t fully ready for change after all.
But then there’s Netflix. The streaming giant’s films are still banned from the festival, a dispute that is now nearing its fifth year. Frémaux wants Netflix to show up on the Croisette -- he has admitted to loving many of their movies -- but only if they are also shown in French theatres the same day they are made available at home to subscribers. Netflix has vehemently refused his demand.
In short, that’s the gist of Cannes – it promotes an art form that many believe, with the rise of streaming platforms, is on its last breath. Frémaux disagrees, telling me in an interview that “cinema will never die, it will evolve, but it will never die.” Judging by the excitement people have for this year’s edition on the ground, you can’t help but truly believe in what the festival director is saying.
Some are less optimistic. A colleague of mine, attending her 10th Cannes this year, confided that, “This year, it feels more like a cult,” with thousands of people clinging to the idea that movies can still be seen in the dark with hundreds of people next to each other. Maybe she has a point, but for now, in the age of the streaming platform, Cannes does still seem to mean something to those who both make and love cinema. For the masses firmly planted here for the next 10 days, hanging onto the sensation and hope of seeing the next great cinematic masterwork is more than enough.
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