There was glamour on the red carpet but gritty themes on screen at this year’s festival – and the spectre of terrorism cast a shadow over proceedings, writes Matthew Anderson.
1. Cannes knows how to celebrate itself with style
The Cannes Film Festival raised a glass to itself this year, with a whole series of photo-calls, parties, and ceremonies to toast its 70th anniversary. The first festival was intended as an alternative to Venice’s, which was founded in 1932 and whose fascist administrators and top prize, the Mussolini Cup, made French, British and American film-makers uneasy. The premier Cannes was due to take place in 1939 but on the opening night, Hitler invaded Poland and the whole thing was called off. It was 1946 before the festival finally got under way, and so this Tuesday Isabelle Huppert took the stage of the Grand Théâtre Lumière to welcome guests to the most lavish of the festival’s 70th bashes. The event was marked by misty-eyed nostalgia and hearty self-congratulation, but amidst all the backslapping, Huppert managed to work in a dig of sorts at the festival’s neglect of women directors: “70 years of Cannes, 76 Palmes d’Or, only one of which has gone to a woman,” she said: “No comment.”
2. It’s hard work keeping thousands safe
Security has been tight in recent years, but in 2017, in the wake of recent terrorist events in France, it moved up a level. Helicopters buzzed overhead, snipers paced the rooftops, and enormous concrete flower pots lined the Croisette to prevent the type of vehicle attack seen last year in neighbouring Nice. At one point jittery officials evacuated a theatre when a suspicious object was found – although this later turned out to be a false alarm. The difficult business of searching the masses before each screening seemed to overwhelm the festival’s security team, causing delays as well as moans and groans from attendees. But these complaints were silenced when word of the attack on Manchester came through: it put everything in perspective.
3. The Manchester attacks cast a pall
At 15:00 on Tuesday, the festival came to a halt to remember the victims of the suicide bombing at Manchester Arena. Festival director Theirry Frémaux led a dignified minute’s silence on the famous red carpet – although many in the queue had to be shushed into the moment of reflection. Flags were lowered to half-mast and in keeping with the sombre tone, the fireworks planned to commemorate the 70th anniversary were cancelled, as was a champagne reception to promote Pixar’s new film, Cars 3. Fatih Akın’s In the Fade, a film in competition about a woman who seeks revenge when her husband and son are murdered by a terrorist’s bomb, took on an extra poignancy in light of the events. “I haven’t slept in days, thinking about what happened,” the film’s star Diane Kruger told a press conference on Friday.
4. Netflix was the festival’s pantomime villain
Cannes big controversy of the year began before the red carpet had even been rolled out. After an outcry from the body representing French cinemas about the inclusion of titles from streaming services Netflix and Amazon, the festival changed its rules so that in future, films must agree to a theatrical release in France. The president of the competition jury, Pedro Almodóvar, appeared to suggest that he would not vote for any film intended for the small screen – although he later clarified that this was not what he meant to say. Booing Netflix’s logo when it appeared in a film’s opening credits became a bit of a running joke throughout the festival – although initial reports of jeers at a screening of Bong Joon-ho’s Okja were misattributed. Although there were some boos (as well as counterbalancing cheers) for the streaming giant, the audience’s main beef was that the film was being shown in the wrong aspect ratio and no-one could read the subtitles.
5. Nicole Kidman is this year’s queen of Cannes
The last year has been a busy one for Australian actor Nicole Kidman: she swept into Cannes with four projects to present – more than any other actor. These performances showed off her range: she was a lesbian mum in the first two episodes of Top of the Lake: China Girl, the prim headmistress of a girls’ school in The Beguiled and a blank and icy doctor in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. These all drew praise from critics – but there were lows as well as highs: Nicole’s cockney accent in How to Talk to Girls at Parties seemed to veer between Dick Van Dyke and Crocodile Dundee, and BBC Culture’s film critic, Nicholas Barber, appraised this movie as one of the worst he has ever seen.
6. Cannes is finally taking TV seriously
Other film festivals like Berlin and Sundance have been including previews of hotly anticipated TV productions for years, but Cannes has been slower to embrace the small screen. Perhaps this has something to do with the tastes of the festival’s director, Thierry Frémaux, who told Variety: “I’m not a big fan of series myself, and I don’t quite understand all the hype.” In any case, there were special presentations this year of the first two episodes each of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks reboot. Lynch has impeccable credentials and won the Palme d’Or in 1990 for Wild at Heart, so many Cannes cineastes were excited to see the new show. But some were disappointed that the screening was scheduled for Thursday, four days after the first episode had gone out on US and UK TV: not so much a preview as a catch up.
7. Virtual Reality is coming into the movie mainstream
If it’s taken nearly 80 years for Cannes to get with the programme on television, the festival has been quicker on the uptake with virtual reality. The nascent technology made its first appearance in the official selection this year with a work by Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñarritu that put viewers in the shoes of migrants crossing the US-Mexico border. Carne y arena (Flesh and Sand) was one of Cannes 2017’s hot tickets – not least because it could be experienced by just one person at a time. Most of those lucky enough to secure a booking and make the trek to Mandelieu Airport where it was presented in an aircraft hangar were suitably impressed; those who couldn’t get a slot could make do with one of the many unofficial presentations of the technology on the festival’s fringes.
8. There’s room for politics at Cannes
As well as Iñárritu’s virtual-reality work, there were several films in the official selection that dealt with the mass movement of people. Vanessa Redgrave made her directorial debut at the age of 80 with Sea of Sorrow, a documentary-essay on Europe’s current refugee crisis, a film the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw found well-intentioned but clunky. A Syrian refugee mysteriously acquired the power to fly in Kornél Mundruczó’s strange and beguiling Jupiter’s Moon, and asylum seekers from Calais’ ‘Jungle’ camp were the ghosts at the feast in Michael Haneke’s austere Happy End. The inclusion of Al Gore’s climate change documentary An Inconvenient Sequel further demonstrated the festival organisers’ impeccably right-on politics – but where then were the films criticising Donald Trump? These haven’t yet been made. Watch out next year for the return to Cannes of Palme d’Or winner Michael Moore with his documentary about the US president, Fahrenheit 11/9, a current work-in-progress.
9. These are dog days for canine actors
There were some stellar animal performances this year, including a bizarre, unexplained cameo from a chimpanzee in Ruben Östland’s The Square, a tear-jerking turn from a tortoise in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and an intense, steely outing from a cat in François Ozon’s L’Amant Double. But one species with no real stand-outs was Canis domesticus – which is a bit awkward, as the festival has an unofficial prize just for these. In the end, it was Bruno the poodle who took the Palm Dog (as the award is called) for a rather bland an inconsequential performance in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. In a sign of just how thin the competition was, the honourable mention went to security’s sniffer dogs.
10. It was a year for first-world problems
In addition to films about refugees there were pictures about Aids activists (120 Beats Per Minute), animal cruelty (Okja) and the collapse of civil society in Russia (Loveless, A Gentle Creature). These sort of weighty, ‘issue’ films usually play well with the Cannes jury, but this year it was a satire of middle-class manners that carried off the top prize. The Square is set in a contemporary art gallery in Stockholm and shines a light on the pretentions and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie – something the film has in common with its competitors Happy End and The Meyerowitz Stories. But whereas Happy End was stern and excoriating, and The Meyerowitz Stories affectionately forgiving, The Square is having it both ways: a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s a clever tactic that’s delivered the Palme d’Or to a very good film, but maybe not a great one.