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The Show Must Go On: The Cannes 2021 Film Festival

Quick! Get the “In a World…” trailer guy!

Ah. He’s no longer available?

We all carry his hyperbolic intonations in our memories, right?

Recite with me:

‘In a world where the globe’s biggest and most important film festival comes up against a killer virus — not to mention a stubborn streaming service that rhymes with Pet Ticks — and emerges not only intact but better than ever and raring to go, July 6th will usher in the excitement of the 74th Cannes Film Festival.’

Over 100,000 people have died from Covid-19 in France, but the number of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths goes down every day. At the June 3rd press conference for the Cannes Film Festival, held in in a 1000-seat cinema on the Champs-Elysées where the legally permitted 35% capacity was enforced for the double feature “Social Distancers Do Paris” and “They All Wore Masks,” artistic director Thierry Fremaux talked — and talked and talked and digressed and talked — for 90 minutes during which the titles of the 24 films in Competition, the 18 films in the sidebar Un Certain Regard and the many tantalizing movies to be shown at midnight, at “special” screenings, in the new “Cannes Premieres” section and more were revealed.

Fremaux and his closest programming associates made their final decisions concerning the official line-up at 10:30 p.m. the night before.

For the record, the jury can’t be expected to watch and assess more than 24 feature films in 10 days, but the programmers inevitably find way more than two dozen films they’ll be delighted to show. So, whether we’re talking about films by established directors or complete unknowns, the “Official Selection” is far more wide-ranging than the Competition and its Palme d’Or. It is not a snub to be invited to show work in another category of the Official portion of the festival. And, skipping ahead, it is dumb to gripe that the jury didn’t give a prize to this or that film because, well, there are more films than prizes. That said, at the 1946 festival, a prize WAS given to each and every film. That’s a good way to sidestep hurt feelings and international incidents but not terribly effective at designating excellence.

Should a Reasonable Person Plan to Attend Cannes this Year?

Will you have to expectorate your saliva every 48 hours in order to prove that you should be admitted to screenings? Perhaps. But the tests are free of charge and will be available a short stroll from the Palais des Festivals from 8 in the morning until 8 in the evening. If you’re going to spit, wouldn’t you rather do it near the pleasure craft bobbing in a picturesque harbor on the French Riviera? (I missed my calling with the tourism board, I know.)

Proof of vaccination or of antibodies from having survived a bout of Covid-19 will be scrutinized as closely as your festival credentials. Grab the nearest French-speaker and get them to help you prepare your “Arguing with Security” phrases. These used to range from:

“But I need that granola bar to ward off starvation because I have to watch 3 films in a row and write 5 reviews — please don’t confiscate it!” to “But if you don’t let me in to sit on the last uncomfortable fold-down seat with a partial view of the screen, my editor will give me a choice between eating blow fish sashimi and gargling with wasabi.”

But in 2021, switching from trying to smuggle in visible food items to bragging about one’s invisible arsenal of antibodies, will give rise to exchanges with Security personnel such as: “I’m telling you this IS an official QR code from the health authorities in my country, which you have just insulted by implying that it’s a crossword puzzle shrunk down on a photocopier!”

Over a year ago when the growing health crisis obliged organizers to cancel the edition that should have been held in May 2020, a list of films that would have been shown had it been possible was announced. Fremaux thanked the many directors who decided to accept the Cannes 2020 designation instead of skedaddling to offer their wares to other events later in the year. “There will be a line-up in the record books for 2020,” Fremaux explained. “We watched submissions and made these choices. We did everything we could to support those films wherever they were shown between the re-opening of movie theaters in France on June 22, 2020 and when the gate slammed shut on Oct 30 until it opened again this May 19.”


The 2021 Line-Up

Here’s a fun fact. Lea Seydoux appears in four films in the Official Selection this year. She’s French film royalty. And if you’re trying to place her, she’s the older of the two women in 2013 Golden Palm winner “Blue is the Warmest Color” and she’s the mellowly eclectic flea market vendor who warms to Owen Wilson’s character in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris”—both sterling examples of the best reason to go to Cannes: to have a crack at seeing stupendous films before one’s colleagues have given away what they’re about.

Charlotte Gainsbourg—the daughter of French singer-songwriter extraordinaire Serge Gainsbourg and versatile Brit-babe-turned-serious-thespian Jane Birkin—has made a doc about her mom, “Jane by Charlotte.” Fremaux elucidated: “It’s a nod to the film dear departed Agnes Varda made about Jane Birkin, (1988’s) ‘Jane B. par Agnès V.’ This is Jane B by C.” (In France, a nation where you can earn your high school diploma with a specialization in film history, knowing one’s ABCs means Agnès, Birkin, Charlotte.)

What am I most eager to see? In the new section called “Cannes Premieres” (“It’s an excellent name because it works in both French and English,” says Fremaux) Oliver Stone’s extended “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.” If the delusional individuals who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6th because they were in thrall to the lunacy of QAnon had stayed home and obsessed over an all-American conspiracy theory with real meat on its bones—namely, who killed Kennedy—Democracy would be a lot better off.

I am eager to see Todd Haynes’ out-of-competition film “The Velvet Underground.” (Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine” won an award in Competition in Cannes back in 1998.)

Speaking of music paired with the word “underground,” since I loved his previous film, I am curious about Kirill Serebrennikov’s new film “Petrov’s Flu.” The stage and screen director was not permitted to attend Cannes in 2018 to present “Leto,” his ode to Leningrad’s underground rock scene in the early 1980s, as he was under house arrest. Says Fremaux, “We don’t know if he can come to Cannes. And if he does come to France, we don’t know if he can return to Russia.”

Asked how programmers decide whether to choose veteran Chinese directors or younger emerging talents more likely to give the established Chinese power structure a critical eye, Fremaux said that “why” a film is chosen is a complex question but that the guiding principle is storytelling artistry.

That’s diplomatic, but it’s common knowledge that the Festival has gone out of its way to show work by directors prohibited from making movies or who find themselves under house arrest. In 1997, the year Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” shared the Golden Palm, the film wasn’t even mentioned in the official festival catalog because it seemed so unlikely that the director would be allowed to attend. While no arms were twisted, a member of the 1981 jury told me that it was “strongly suggested” that the Golden Palm go to Andrej Wajda’s “Man of Iron” in order to encourage the Solidarinosc movement in Poland. Although the jury president preferred another film, he went along with the idea.

Speaking of prevailing social conditions being less than ideal, I can’t wait to see Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” a fact-inspired costume picture centered on a feisty lesbian nun in which plague-like illness is apparently a narrative component. “Benedetta” was ready for the 2020 festival that couldn’t take place, but director and producer decided to wait a year in order to be loyal to Cannes. The same loyalty applies to the Opening Film, Leos Carax’s “Annette” in which Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard will sing a great many songs by the brothers of musical duet Sparks, who wrote the screenplay.

Also loyal to Cannes is Wes Anderson whose “The French Dispatch”—shot in large part in the French city of Angouleme—seems to be a love letter to getting one’s news from utterly analog paper-based sources. The cast is so mouth-watering that somebody might wish to gather DNA from all concerned in order to rebuild the international film industry should anything wipe it out.

Fremaux says that if two trends can be said to have emerged in this year’s 2000 or so submissions they’d be “the mysteries of coupledom” and “the prospect of losing everything.” (Budding screenwriters looking to hit the sweet spot might consider working on a tale of characters who burgle houses but install secret video cameras in order to watch how the twosomes who live there react to the loss of their worldly possessions. Depending on how the burgled react, the burglars either put their stuff back or don’t. You can thank me later.)

Fremaux referred to one title as “one of the few longish films this year,” digressing to explain that “We didn’t put the running times in the press kit this time. First of all, they’re not necessarily accurate—a lot can change in the next 5 weeks. And in years when there are several films over 2 hours long you all mope around, acting as if you’re being sent to the salt mines.”

This is true. And completely irrational given that many of the same people are probably perfectly willing to binge-watch films or series for hours on end.

Asked about Hollywood “blockbusters,” Fremaux promised that there would be at least one such critter shown on the beach. But, cutting off several avenues of speculation, he specified, “You’ll be thrilled but it’s not the James Bond and it’s not the Spielberg (West Side Story) and it’s not Dune. It’s a surprise.”


The Virtual Days Are Over

Fremaux has been defiantly adamant at every stage of the pandemic that Cannes is a Film Festival and that by definition is an in-person spectacle—it is not something you watch digitally from your home. A ball game played without fans in the stands is missing a certain je ne sais quoi. “A year ago we had no idea ‘how’ to stage a major sporting event without fans witnessing the players and even less of an idea about how to hold a film festival that didn’t consist of people coming together to discover films in a darkened room gazing at the biggest possible screen.”

Streaming one’s entertainment during lockdown and using systems like Zoom were miraculous substitutes for human contact and human gatherings during the darkest days of the pandemic but, at least in France, people are now voting with their feet, their eyeballs and their wallets. In the 10 days following the May 19th re-opening of France’s 6000 movie screens (that’s 25% of all the movie screens in Europe), 3.5 million tickets were sold. Consider this: even with a federally mandated maximum capacity of 35% and no 10 p.m. show due to a 9 p.m. curfew, that’s as many tickets as were sold in a normal week in 2019. Cinema managers reported the sight of customers bursting into tears when they opened their theater’s doors. No popcorn or candy for sale yet due to hygiene protocols. Just movies. And after movie theaters were shuttered for six and a half months, there are approximately 450 titles “backed up.”

And French audiences are lined up to see them.

My French colleagues want me to explain how movie theaters in America—entire chains!—can be “allowed” to go bust. This sometimes leads to lively debates about how aristocrats could be “allowed” to get their heads sliced off by the guillotine before bloodthirsty mobs.

“You may have read a lot about the so-called death of movie theaters,” Fremaux scoffed. “Going to the cinema is definitely NOT dead — the extraordinary, triumphant return of audiences proves that.”

If the Cinerama Dome was in France, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the Minister of Culture announce that a Cinerama Dome Rescue Tax was to be collected, effective immediately and hardly anybody would object.

France, it so happens, built NEW movie theaters during the pandemic. How’s THAT for faith in the future of movie-going? Fremaux and Cannes Festival President Pierre Lescure were grinning ear to ear while describing CINEUM, the new 12-plex about to be christened in La Boca “about a 15-minute drive from the heart of Cannes, in a car or via public transportation.” In concert with the magnificent screen in the Lumiere Auditorium—the theater those steep red-carpeted steps lead to—the new complex boasts what Lescure described as “the second most glorious screen in Europe.”

The French Dispatch
The French Dispatch

What it Means to the City of Cannes

After most of their revenue stream vaporized for over a year, I imagine the Cannes locals—at least the ones who own or work in hotels, shops and restaurants—will be happy to see free-spending visitors anew, but it might be awkward for several hundred out-of-towners to try and get on the same bus to La Boca on a tight schedule.

The City of Cannes also completely renovated the Miramar theater where International Critics Week—celebrating its 60th edition this year—is housed. A movie theater in an excellent waterfront location was not turned into a supermarket or a Starbucks or condos. It was renovated with public funds and will carry on its life as a theater.

The programming committee was faced with what Fremaux called “one and a half or one and three quarters worth of ‘crus’”—using the French term for a vineyard or a season of wine. Rough English translation: “Man, we had a hell of a lot of movies to watch.”

Fremaux seemed sincere when he said that the obstacles brought on by the pandemic may even have heightened creativity and lent a certain urgency to visual storytelling the world over. “We did receive some confinement-themed films—not that many, but some. Lots of films made with cell phones and on computers.

“Films,” Fremaux rhapsodized, “running a fever — pitched high and urgent. Lots of poetry and new forms.”

“We dreamed of putting on a festival without a limit on seating capacity and we will hold one at full capacity. But the pandemic is not over. That said, we can hold dinners, so long as no table seats more than six people.” (As I write this, only outdoor terrace dining is allowed nationwide. The plan is to permit indoor dining starting June 9th and semblance-of-normal behavior starting June 30th. The Festival gets underway just 6 days later.)

The Festival is in close contact with the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, say Fremaux and Lescure. “For example, if a French person who lives in the U.S. wants to attend the Festival, they’ll be admitted to France but will they be able to get back into the U.S.? President Biden is due in Europe in 10 days and that should help clarify a few things.”

The Streaming Giants Stay Home

Speaking of clarification, Fremaux was asked about the absence of films purveyed by Netflix. Fremaux has been saying for years that when a Netflix production is of Cannes-caliber quality, they would be delighted to show it in an out-of-competition slot. Or a Competition slot if Netflix wasn’t so blinkered and stubborn. (You read that right—I’m calling Netflix blinkered and stubborn, NOT the Cannes Film Festival.)

“We have rules,” says Fremaux. “Any film selected for Competition must be made available to be shown in French movie theaters. The people of France must be able to see the Competition films in a cinema. Netflix doesn’t wish to comply with that rule and they aren’t interested in a programming slot that’s not in the Competition. So, no — there are no Netflix films in the Official Selection this year.”

“The job of a film festival is to defend and support and accompany movies in movie theaters,” says Fremaux. “A festival is a living thing, a kind of performance.”

If you’re thinking that’s an unreasonable stance in 2021, consider that because of the way the process heats up servers, streaming is one of the worst things you can do from an ecological standpoint. Downloading a film or borrowing a DVD from the library or going out to a theater are all infinitely better for the environment.

The Moral Obligation of Cannes

Without announcing which films will fall under this heading, Fremaux promised 5 or 6, mostly docs, that will remind festival-goers that climate change is, ahem, closer to a real-life horror movie than sci-fi. “We believe that large gatherings including film festivals have a moral obligation to address climate change. We must showcase good work about this crucial topic. We’ve done so in the past with Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio and we’re asking every attendee for a 25 Euro contribution to offset our carbon footprint.”

This past September, during the Deauville Festival of American Film in Normandy—which hosted the world premieres of 10 films that had received the Cannes 2020 designation—Fremaux announced that he wanted the filmmakers whose work had been chosen, to come to Cannes for the NEXT edition and enjoy that stroll up the red-carpeted steps of which they’d been deprived by a virus. “We invited everybody to come this year,” Fremaux explained on June 3rd. “Most, but not all, will be able to make it. Some are shooting new films.”

During the Festival, nobody gets inside the Palais without the right credentials. Which is why it was so heartening to know that at the start of the pandemic last year, the City of Cannes turned portions of that same magnificent structure—home to concerts and trade shows and festivals of renown—into a homeless shelter, providing cots and medical care and meals for those who needed them.

Cannes is where movies from all over the world come to have a roof over their heads.

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