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Art Alone Endures: A Parisian’s Take on the 2021 Cannes Film Festival

Paris-dwelling American film critic Lisa Nesselson just attended her 33rd Cannes Film Festival. Which means she has spent 11 months of her life in the city of Cannes, mostly inside in the dark. We asked her to reflect on how Cannes 2021 hewed to or departed from tradition after the 2020 festival was cancelled.

With seven films directly addressing climate change and several major measures to reduce waste (well, no initiative can combat wasting one’s time watching a bad movie ...), the 74th edition of the Cannes Film Festival (July 6 - 17, 2021) declared itself to be ecology-minded. Do humans fuming over film festival conditions contribute to global warming, I wonder?

If so, the heat-generating frustration of dueling with the online reservation system for an administratively “dematerialized” edition (where tickets and promotional materials were concerned) may have cancelled the benefits of eliminating paper, frowning upon plastic water bottles and (for the first time ever) charging an application fee to help offset the festival’s carbon footprint. Printed-to-order, the hefty, smelling-of-fresh-ink catalogue that had always graced the festival bag could be had only if purchased in advance.

My first “Wow!” of this year’s festival concerned not a film but learning that colleague Ben Kenigsberg, who initially struggled with the film-reservation system from New York when it went “live” three days before the festival opened, had successfully used it aboard his Air France flight from Paris to Nice, en route to Cannes. I thought of computer servers accessed from a pressurized aircraft at a height that was science-fiction for human life less than a century ago and wondered whether this really was a better way to get into a movie than standing in a line for x amount of time before the screening and flashing the accreditation badge hanging around your neck—a piece of essential plastic that is still being issued, and was needed along with proof of full vaccination or an approved negative infection result within the prior 48 hours to access the festival hub (Le Palais) but not its two glorious auditoriums named after French innovators Lumiere and Debussy.

By good fortune or design, the festival—which at least 20,000 people attended—fell into a sweet spot that the French call “an enchanted parenthesis.” Maximum capacity in enclosed entertainment spaces nationwide—including movie theaters—was increased from 65% (with vacant seats between patrons) to 100% just six days before the festival began. And just four days after the festival ended, as of Wednesday July 21st, prospective movie theater customers throughout France must be able to present a government-approved clean bill of health to enter any establishment with more than 50 patrons. Some cinemas have signs up saying they will sell 49 tickets and then stop, meaning no official vaccination document is needed.

The move may be the correct one for public health, but it has proved disastrous for the box office—movie-going dropped 70%. The three cinemas closest to my Paris apartment are showing half a dozen films that premiered in Cannes, including Golden Palm winner “Titane” by French director Julia Ducournau. Three neighbors who rushed out to see it stopped me on the street to tell me it made them feel ill and to ask me “why” the jury gave it the top prize. Don’t ask me—I don’t even think it belonged in Competition. If I ruled the world, a midnight slot in Official Selection Out of Competition would have been just right.

In addition to the vast reduction in paper goods, there was a conspicuous absence of promotional billboards or giant banners festooning the hotels whose elegant facades were completely visible. There was plenty of jumping through hoops but next-to-no hoopla. Gone forever are the days when Hugh Hefner might show up to celebrate his 75th birthday with the seven shapely young women purported to be his then-current girlfriends. (I bumped into them all leaving a space I wanted to enter, so I know this really took place.)

Before the inexorable rise of the Internet, covering Cannes was hardly a leisurely or sedate affair but the tyranny of immediately generating often-disposable dispatches astride insta-ratings was not yet the norm.

In some ways, the festival has become more democratic. Anybody with an Internet connection and an attention span can watch press conferences online after the fact. Previously, if you didn’t bring your own tape recorder, you wouldn’t have a consultable record of what was said. And you couldn’t SEE the participants unless you had been in the room.

As a card-carrying member of the last analog generation, permit me to reminisce about how in the late ’90s the festival had a bank of pay phones in the main building with RJ-11 ports designed to hook up a dial-up modem. I can remember the time-sensitive juggling act of inserting a prepaid phone card into the slot, dialing the surcharged AOL number for nearby Nice, cradling the receiver twixt ear and shoulder while listening for the tell-tale sputtering static-and-dinging of a successful connection and pressing ‘send’ from one’s portable computer before the system hung up on you.

Lyon’s Bernard Chardere (born 1930), who founded the monthly film magazine POSITIF, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary next year, can tell you about the days when French reporters would go to Cannes’ central Post Office (since converted into a snazzy hotel) and dictate their copy to a special typist who would (slowly) transmit it via a distant cousin to the fax.

(I just paused to try and picture myself dictating this essay to a postal employee in any nation. Does not compute.)

I can remember banks of pay phones outside the press conference room and the cacophony of languages as reporters dictated their scoops or opinions to somebody in a distant newsroom.

Now, of course, a “smart” cell phone serves as typewriter, fax, camera. The only excuse you can give an editor is “The dog ate my WiFi.” [Which Publisher Chaz Ebert can tell you all about since the internet signal at her hotel left a great deal to be desired.]

So, how else was 2021 distinctly different from its recent predecessors?

One thing that seemed to have gone extinct was the chilly reception.

Evidently, people were just so, well, happy to be sharing the communal experience of discovering a new film on a (very) big screen that at non-press screenings people burst into applause even before the film began. They clapped as soon as the lights went down, applauding louder when the Golden Palme logo graced the screen. Evening gala screenings consistently resulted in standing ovations. Robust applause after the showing I attended for the (very good) French film “The Divide” lasted, I believe, 12 minutes or so.

From all reports, this ritual took place whether the film was particularly good or not. Did all the people who boo or sometimes even hurl insults at the screen choose not to attend this year? 

So, one could spontaneously commune with 2000 strangers but maybe not with old friends.

I saw a Swiss friend the very first day—and not once after that. He said he barely bumped into anybody he knew. With staggered arrival times—supposedly to facilitate social distancing—we missed out on making new friends or catching up with old ones while waiting in line.

If there are any babies out there who were the result of your folks getting acquainted while being stuck in the same line at Cannes in years past, well, based on the 2021 edition you’d never be born.

In keeping with the saturation of all-digital communications, no press boxes—the space they had occupied for decades was unnervingly vacant—meant no press kits. While I didn’t like shlepping them home in my suitcase, I’m delighted to have quite a collection of these sometimes elaborately produced objects. Not only nifty to behold, they are time capsules of festivals gone by, often bearing the names of deceased publicists and defunct distribution companies that once wielded considerable influence. (As the French poet Théophile Gautier put it: “All passes. Art alone endures.”). A classic example of Gallic graphic pizazz: The French-language press kit for “Pulp Fiction” was, fittingly, designed to look like a book.

When I was on the Camera d’Or jury in 2014 (representing the French Union of Film Critics) I brought along my handsomely designed 21-year-old French press booklet from “The Piano” in case I got to meet Jane Campion, who presided over the main jury. Sure enough, we were invited to the same dinner, and she did sign it for me. (Uma Thurman, who was sitting next to Campion, said, “I love your earrings!” She was quite resplendently wearing extremely valuable baubles on loan from a Festival-connected jeweler. Mine were dangly clear plastic Eiffel Towers that had cost 20 francs—about $3—at the French dime store Monoprix in the 1980s.)

In 1993, when Campion’s “The Piano” shared the Palme d’Or with Chen Kaige’s “Farewell my Concubine” (both outstanding films that have stood the test of time), Campion had already headed back to the Antipodes because she was very pregnant. Sam Neill collected the award with a gracious quip about how it figures that when a woman wins an award a bloke turns up to accept it.

The 2021 edition sported some darn good excuses for not picking up an award in person.

When her “Murina” won the Camera d’Or in a field of 31 first films across all sections of the Festival, Croatian filmmaker Antoneta Alamat Kusijanovic wasn’t on hand to accept because she had given birth to her first child the day before.

And Leos Carax sent the Mael Brothers of the musical duo Sparks to accept his Directing award for the extravagant musical “Annette” (which they had originated and scored) because Carax was suffering from a wretched toothache.

On the topic of music, I realized early on in the festival that I missed the clanking musicality of the hundreds of aforementioned metal press lockers popping open and shut.

Deciding to go paperless was like waving a not-so-magical wand that turned the traditional hubbub of journalists checking their lockers after the 8:30 a.m. press screening into an almost stately blank space. It might have been just as well in a time of social distancing, but it felt like a fun tradition had gone ‘poof’ with nothing to replace it.

The press lockers were where the world’s press schmoozed, ranted, took the pulse of the proceedings or luxuriated in the rosy afterglow of a freshly experienced masterpiece. I missed overhearing French colleagues. I missed butting into their conversations to say, “Wait a minute. Don’t tell me you LIKED that?!”

Despite a still-deadly pandemic, Cannes remains the world largest film festival and its market is still an essential component in the international film ecosystem. 

If anything, 2021 expanded the number of films on offer—in part because there were more for programmers to choose from since the event had not been held since May of 2019. One stunning change is that the trade coverage in English has shrunk. Variety and The Hollywood Reporter sent fine critics, but you could count them on one hand if you were missing three or four fingers. The British/European trade paper Screen International (to which I’ve contributed since 2008) had the most critics and reporters on location in Cannes, which would have been near-impossible to imagine not that long ago.

Something that has NOT changed is the amusement factor of comparing the day-by-day critics ratings charts carried by Screen in English and Le Film Francais and Gala in French. For almost any title in the Competition, you will find professionals who think the world would be a better place had the director never been born alongside other film professionals who believe the exact same film is deserving of a medal.

Fun fact: In France you must be 16 to see “Titane” and only 12 to see Paul Verhoeven’s entertaining fact-grounded 1625 lesbian nun romp “Benedetta,” both currently on French screens. From the invention of motion pictures, the U.S. has rated/censored more when it comes to sex and France has stepped in when it comes to violence. Check out that racy middle-aged couple sharing a low-wattage peck in Thomas Edison’s 1896 thriller “The Kiss” and tremble for the future of American morals.

Fictional characters wearing surgical masks cropped up in at least three Competition films: Japan’s “Drive My Car,” Belgium’s “Restless” and Norway’s “The Worst Person in the World.” Festival director Thierry Fremaux has said that years from now young people will wonder “Why were there masks in those movies?” When watching movies made prior to 1960 I sometimes marvel at how all of the men wore hats. They handed their hats to coat-check girls and servants or placed them at a cocky angle to express a mood. There is no cocky angle for a surgical mask properly worn. If it’s dangling under your chin, any stray COVID particles will not be impressed.

Many a pundit believes the future of filmgoing consists of streaming directly to individual devices. If that IS an accurate prediction, then I believe that France will be to brick and mortar movie theaters as Egypt is to pyramids. They will always be there.

France has continued to build theaters. The spanking new Cineum 12-plex in neighboring La Bocca got rave reviews from fest-goers who took the shuttle to experience its IMAX screen. It is sobering to think that the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles may languish into disrepair while filmgoers in the similar climate of Cannes and environs are lining up to see movies at the Cineum.

By the way, our current levels of streaming are unsustainable in terms of damage to the environment. The most ecologically responsible way to watch a movie is to buy a ticket to a commercial cinema or go to a free screening at your local library or buy or rent or borrow a DVD (84 different companies in France still design and market DVDs of restored or never-released films from all over the world, often with excellent bonus material including freshly commissioned books packaged with the discs.) Streaming draws on servers, generating heat. And, on the purely aesthetic side, if there’s a film you think you might want to see again someday or share with a friend, do not count on the flawed notion that it will always be available, uh, somewhere.

Climate-change permitting (it’s not unthinkable that the Cannes beachfront will be underwater), not only do I think movies will still be a going concern when the 100th Cannes Film Festival rolls around, I think it’s entirely possible that Catherine Deneuve will still be with us.

We almost lost her—or at least the version of her fully able to continue performing—when she suffered a stroke on the set of Emmanuelle Bercot’s mostly hospital-set drama “De son vivant” (Peaceful) in late 2019. Although she was in a clinic for a long time and underwent physical therapy, she completed the film—which showed out of competition and is very good—and attended the press conference. I was seated roughly seven feet away from her and she looked and sounded great.

On July 11, within hours of the triumphant gala screening that Deneuve, who has been to Cannes countless times, characterized as possibly the most moving experience she had ever had at the festival, Deneuve’s mother, Renée Dorléac died at age 109. She had been the oldest living actor on the planet. Born in 1911, she made her stage debut at age seven and decades later went on to a career dubbing major English-language actresses from Olivia de Havilland to Judy Garland into French.

Catherine Deneuve will “only” be 103 for the 100th Cannes Film Festival.

By the way, as a reality-check on your likely news sources if you’re in the U.S., every time you read that “actors no longer wish to work with Woody Allen,” keep in mind that within the past two years, both Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Huppert (numbers 23 and 2, respectively, on the New York Times list of the 25 best actors of the 21st century) have expressed their wishes to work with Woody whenever he says the word. Thirteen of Allen’s films have played in Cannes, always out of competition, often as the Opening or Closing title. Not counting re-showings in the Cannes Classics sidebar, that seems to be a tie with his beloved Ingmar Bergman, whose ghost was almost certainly slapping its ectoplasmic forehead at the irrationally acclaimed sustained superficiality of Mia Hansen Love’s Competition entry “Bergman Island.”

Bergman’s erstwhile home on the Swedish isle of Fårö has its landscape and print media have theirs. Windswept Fårö may be holding up better.

When I began reviewing for Variety in 1991, every single film in every section of the festival was assigned for a review AND our small battalion of intrepid critics was encouraged to try and see (which sometimes meant sneaking in to) as many movies showing for prospective buyers in the Market as we could, too. There was a world of readers counting on us to ferret out talent or to discover obscure gems. What jumped out at me this year is that it is now possible to make a movie and have it accepted into the Cannes Film Festival and go unnoticed by media outlets whose priorities (read: budgets) have changed.

A film or a performance that might deeply affect—or even change the life of—a viewer who stumbled in (not to mention the people who made or appeared in it) may go completely unheralded, except as a listing in the catalogue. If a cinematic tree falls in the forest and nobody with a media outlet is there to note the tumbling arc of its trunk, does it make a sound?

I mention this because in International Critics Week in 1992, a cult-classic-to-be made its premiere. The faux-documentary portrait of a charismatic and irreverent serial killer made by two Belgians and a Frenchman who met at film school in Brussels, ‘C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous’—"Man Bites Dog,” in English—would travel the world and eventually grace the front cover of the Village Voice.

After "Man Bites Dog," the three film school buddies who made it had very different dates with destiny. Benoit Poelvoorde went on to a varied and still-flourishing acting career (he was a member of the Cannes festival Jury in 2004 at the request of jury prez Quentin Tarantino), Remy Belvaux killed himself in 2006, and Andre Bonzel never really got much else off the ground. He has collected 'found footage' all his life.

Bonzel was convinced that his childhood had been one way. As an adult he got a call from a notary saying that a relative had died and left boxes of what appeared to be home movies and Andre had 48 hours to come collect them. (You can't make this stuff up.)

And the boxes held a treasure trove, including footage of Andre as a boy, that seemed to tell a different story than the one he remembered. He used these choice raw materials and an entertaining voice-over to weave together a lovely meditation on images and memory titled “Et j’aime a la fureur” (Flickering Ghosts of Loves Gone By).

This personal documentary was presented this year in Official Selection Out of Competition. There were fewer than 100 of us in the audience. It was a bittersweet highlight of the festival for me. And so far as I can determine, the words you’ve just read are thus far the only mention of this movie’s qualities in the English language.

Credit: All images courtesy of the Cannes Film Festival. 

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