WVUM alum Edgar Rojas-Masferrer recaps Cannes for our listeners.
From a distance, the Cannes Film Festival really doesn’t seem like it should exist. The basic setup is hardly shocking; the bulk of the film industry—its stars and its power brokers—converging on the south of France to navigate a network of yacht parties fits snugly within our idea of how the industry operates. But what has often seemed inconceivable to me, is that all of these people drag their money and the public gaze with them to the Cannes to celebrate the kinds of directors who are hardly driving box-office figures. How is it possible that this massive, gilded party could be built to celebrate the singular visions of our Hanekes and Cronenbergs, the types of directors an American audience often only encounters in a handful of theaters in each of its major cities? To anyone who can relate to a time when every Friday night involved making laps through the aisles of a Blockbuster, maybe lingering too long around the covers displaying a familiar golden palm, Cannes will always feel largely like a dream. This is also exactly why attending the actual festival is an exercise in tempering expectations.
If you ask a young Parisian about the city of Cannes, their description will probably remind you a lot of the way someone would describe Ft. Lauderdale. It has charm, but a kind that likely only appeals to the elderly. You also get the impression that the town only has any sort of life during the two weeks of the festival. By life I mean swarms of tuxedoed teenagers trying to get invitations to the premiere of Madagascar 3. Pushing your way through these crowds when entering the festival’s “Palais” reminds you of the various tensions embedded in the festival.
You could maybe define “Auteurs” as the kinds of filmmakers who are able to create singular artistic visions within a film industry machine that is working hard to extinguish all imagination within its products. The machine is doing so efficiently and profitably, which makes the existence of a Terrence Malick some sort of miracle. So while Cannes is clearly the Auteurs’ home, you get the impression that they accept the festival uneasily: that marketplace, with fifty imitations of every conceivable blockbuster, must remind them of how improbably they are allowed to make the movies that they do.
I haven’t talked about the actual screenings yet, because that is where the daily routine of attending the festival begins to turn into something unexpected. Moving from those crowds into the screening rooms, it’s amazing how quickly the tone shifts. Outside the theaters is a reminder of how pitilessly this business tries to make you believe that there is a way to engineer movies until they are optimal—uniform and maximally pleasurable. It is easy to see yourself eventually giving in, and forgetting everything you thought Cannes could offer. But within every screening are condensed reminders of why film actually exists, the ways in which the best films assault your sense of the world. Within the context of the festival, you begin to appreciate the films that can be challenging and infuriating. You will welcome the films that drag you tediously and prod you unrelentingly, until you get to a place where you are ready to reconfigure everything you’ve grown accustomed to believing.
Within this recap, the only film I saw which I feel any urgency to talk about is Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. All the films I enjoyed provoked me in the way I’m describing, but Mungiu’s does it most memorably. In both 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and Beyond the Hills, Mungiu explores how we organize modern life: through families, governments, religion. He builds his characters microscopically, working from the most mundane details of their lives. And then as things unravel—darkly and comically—we begin to understand just how vulnerable we are. We have designed our individual and cultural lives to avoid the questions that are most crucial and haunting. Mungiu shows us how our faulty designs can collapse, at which point the truths we avoided us drag us down by the hair. Trying to maintain composure within the festival’s bloat, I began to see that I needed films like these more than I realized.