A Year Without Cannes: Why It Hurts to Lose a Festival That Can’t Be Replaced
Art and Experience: 2020 is about to become the first year without Cannes since 1946. On what would have been opening night of the 73rd edition of the world’s most revered film festival, regular attendees David Ehrlich, Eric Kohn, and Anne Thompson discuss what Cannes means to them, why this loss is uniquely poignant among the pandemic’s many disruptions to the film industry, and how its absence might ripple throughout the rest of the movie world for a long time to come.
DAVID EHRLICH: Today marks what would have been the first day of the 73rd Cannes Film Festival. Instead, it’s just another Tuesday in purgatory — some things can still hit like a punch to the gut even when you see them coming two months in advance. The film world was supposed to be gathering together along the French Riviera to dress fancy (bowties and heels or else!), drink rosé, and watch the latest work from internationally beloved auteurs like Wes Anderson, Spike Lee, Leos Carax, and Mia Hansen-Love. No one is asking you to weep for us, and it goes without saying that we all have bigger things on our minds at the moment.
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On the business side of things, this is nothing new — the movies have been adversely impacted by the pandemic from the moment the virus became a national crisis in China, and the decision to nix SXSW just a few days before that event was scheduled to begin served as an overdue wake-up call for the global community. Shock gave way to sensibility after that as the weeks that followed saw dozens of other festivals either pivot online or pull the plug completely. Such moves were suddenly par for the course at a time when theaters have been shuttered, major studio blockbusters have been delayed, and hundreds of thousands of people from all facets of the industry have lost their jobs.
Nevertheless, there’s reason to suspect that the fallout from 2020’s Cannes-cellation will reverberate far beyond the people who were planning to attend the festival and/or consider themselves part of the film industry — that this loss that will be felt by everyone who loves movies the world over, and perhaps more dramatically than any of the other disruptions so far. Plenty of ink has been spilled over the logistics of a year without Cannes, but the absence of this festival might ultimately be defined by its more abstract and unmeasurable repercussions.
Cannes may be a flawed institution, but even among the other elite festivals there’s really nothing like it. Yes, it’s stuffy and draconian and resistant to change even when it represents progress, but the fact that the festival is stuck in the past is also what gives Cannes its power. In a decentralized world where virtually every surface can be used as a screen, Cannes focuses the entire planet on a single orgiastic spotlight that makes each premiere feel like the most important thing on Earth. It automatically confers importance on these movies by mere virtue of playing at the festival, and that’s only compounded further by the excitement around the individual titles. Watching fans swarm the United Center for Michael Jordan’s first game since un-retiring in “The Last Dance” reminded me of the scene outside the Palais before the premiere of Jean-Luc Godard’s “The Image Book.” Last year’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” premiere felt more like a revival than a film screening. Being at Cannes is a kind of cinephilic ecstasy that’s hard to describe, and impossible to equal.
If Sundance is motivated by discovery, Cannes is driven by solipsitic celebration of all things cinema. Where else do black-tie audiences rise to their feet en masse when an auteur is announced into a room, and give them a standing ovation just for being there? Where else are thousands of critics compelled to queue for hours in the rain to see the debut feature from an African filmmaker? What other festival is capable of launching a Korean thriller straight into the pantheon and positioning it for a historic Oscar run? Even if you’re just watching along at home, Cannes does more than any other event to insist that movies still matter, and that good ones matter even more. The repercussions may be temporary, but what are we going to lose when we lose that?
And on a more personal note, Anne and Eric: What will you miss most about the festival this year? Will a Cannes film still feel like a Cannes film if it premieres at Toronto?
ERIC KOHN: Will a Cannes film still feel like a Cannes film without Cannes? The answer to that question requires some investigation into the nature of the beast, with a healthy dose of personal experience. So here goes.
The first time I went to Cannes, some 13 years and many gigs ago, I had no idea about the insane, physically demanding journey in store. “Brave man,” one senior colleague wrote me in advance. I stayed on the outskirts of town, getting up at the crack of dawn to fight my way into 8:30 a.m. press screenings for “No Country for Old Men” and “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” only to fail on both counts; I dashed down the Croisette to make the last screening of Anton Corbijn’s “Control” at Directors’ Fortnight, only to fall asleep before the opening credits; I shrugged through “My Blueberry Nights” and “Sicko.” I lived on a diet of cheap baguettes and Cliff bars, fought with brawny grey-suited ushers who forced me to check my bag, and sometimes all I wanted to do was collapse on the beach.
Yet for every moment of uncertainty or stress, the purpose of Cannes came to life. I became instant Abel Ferrara and Catherine Breillat stans thanks to “Go Go Tales” and “The Last Mistress,” and made a point of organizing a post-festival Bela Tarr binge after enjoying bits and pieces of “The Man From London.” I had a heated debate with someone after hours on the lawn of the Grand about the merits of “Paranoid Park” and why it deserved that competition slot, while Christoph Honoré’s “Love Songs” did not; pushed some new distribution pals to make time for Lee Chang Dong’s mesmerizing “Secret Sunshine,” and delighted at the blend of sophistication and whimsy that made “Persepolis” such a gratifying adaptation.
Jeon Do-yeon, “Secret Sunshine”
Oh, and I saw early works from Celine Sciamma and the Safdie brothers, then caught a mind-blowing “Silent Light” before dashing off to Roy Andersson’s “You, the Living,” which made for quite the disorienting double bill. I was elated — and that night, I sat with Quentin Tarantino for a raucous Cannes Classics screening of “Cruising” that gave that ridiculous movie a whole new resonance in the room.
OK, it’s true: I started with an exceptionally strong year, but most editions of Cannes feel that way on the ground. That’s the thing about this festival: You have to be there, the midst of it all, to experience the ways in which Cannes validates the culture and industry of moviegoing from around the world each time out. The sheer mania of it all — the ego, the programmings quirks, the rudeness baked into every bleary-eyed exchange as the days speed by — operates in tandem with the underlying idea that Cannes has a profound representational value: It’s a living statement on why the movies belong in this world. David, you mention the chaos on the streets outside “The Image Book,” which is telling on its own, but it was just as notable inside the Palais, as the opening credits started to roll, when one audience member shouted “Godard, forever!” and some 2,000 people cheered as if their lives depended on it.
All of this is to say that I think the absence of Cannes smarts because we’ve been able to count on it for so long. Year after year, questions loom about the viability of cinema in an ever-changing media environment, and whether the art form itself can remain current despite a range of cultural and industrial challenges. And year after year, those of us who go to Cannes emerge with no doubt: Yes, the cinema is alive, and here are the movies to prove it. If the ensuing 12 months push back on our confidence, we return a year later to be proven wrong again.
Without the festival in a traditional form, we don’t have that journey at hand, no precise curatorial experience to debate against the glamorous backdrop of the French Riviera, as if it’s the only conversation that matters now and forever. This week, we’re doing what we can to replicate some aspects of the void left in the wake of Cannes this year, writing about films from previous editions and tracking future titles. So what now? I’m an eternal optimist who believes that paradigms will shift to support this art form no matter what. And it’s important to note that other major festivals, from Sundance to Locarno, embody aspects of this experience in their own unique ways. They all have their flaws — programmatic and business ones alike — but they’re just as imbued with purpose, and I suspect some of them will find a way to continue to reinforce the ethos they stand for in some shape.
But there is an ethos driving Cannes that has no real parallel. I have never forgotten the line that Thierry Fremaux fed me nine years ago: “Cannes does not compete with anyone. Cannes is Cannes.”
On one level, that kind of outrageous hubris embodies the frustration for so many working professionals striving to get through each new edition. On the other hand, it’s a perfect distillation of the conviction necessary to force an impractical proposition onto the world stage. Hollywood doesn’t need Cannes to make a buck, though it certainly helps the red carpet stand out. No, Cannes is Cannes because it reminds us that the cinema is the greatest art form in modern history, and if you don’t buy that case, it’ll fight you on it. And Cannes fights dirty.
Just…not this year. For the time being, all we can do is acknowledge that the essence of Cannes goes beyond specifics and embrace the concept as new paradigms settle into place. But they’ve done that before. Anne, you’ve been going to Cannes longer than either of us. How would you say this festival has remained relevant over the years — and what chance does it stand of getting through this mess?
ANNE THOMPSON: Yes, I should be heading for Cannes, as I have done most years since 1986. That was the year I first met Harvey Weinstein, over a vodka tonic and salty peanuts at the Majestic Bar (where he stayed for years), after we both first saw Lizzie Borden’s scrappy indie “Working Girls.” Later on, I hung out with Steven Soderbergh before he won the Palme d’Or for “sex, lies and videotape,” Quentin Tarantino before he won for “Pulp Fiction,” and Spike Lee before he was robbed for “Do the Right Thing.” One memorable night, I stayed out late with Tarantino, Marina Zenovich, and Tim Robbins at the Hotel du Cap — where I’ve interviewed Oliver Stone, the Coen brothers, George Clooney, Jodie Foster, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ewan McGregor, the Taviani brothers and many more.
I learned how to handle hallucinogenic jet lag, black tie protocol (yes, those guards turned me away the first time), and sending stories via telephone. I started out filing for the LA Weekly and Film Comment, then later, Empire, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and last but not least, IndieWire. Early on, I had the luxury of jamming my head with film discoveries, interviews, parties, and market trends and filing at the end. Not at the trades, which published daily papers during the festival. Nor digital-only IndieWire, which calls for posting 24/7.
Every morning at Cannes, I sprang up like a fresh new penny for the 8:30 a.m. press screening at the Palais, no matter how little I’d slept the night before. I cried at Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” with 2,300 fellow press from all over the world, and defended Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Stealing Beauty” after they flapped the seats. After the morning screening, I’d grab my daily press materials from my casier, an espresso and Orangina from the press room, and cover the daily press conference. Jack Nicholson turned up for Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt.” Martin Scorsese defended the delayed “Gangs of New York,” and Trier put his foot in his mouth at the conference for “Melancholia,” leading to him being forever barred from the festival. I did the last Cannes interview with the penitent director that year.
Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia
And every night I felt energized as I trawled the after-parties on the plages, the yachts, and in sprawling chateaus in the hills, often winding up at the Majestic, The Grand or with the noisy crowd outside the Petit Carlton. The conversation was heady, cinephiles sharing what they had just seen, what to catch — and what to skip. And nothing’s better than critics fighting over flashpoint movies like Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and Richard Kelly’s infamously unfinished “Southland Tales.”
One year, I stood on Roger Ebert’s balcony to watch Madonna whip out her Gautier pointy bra as she ascended the Palais steps for “Truth or Dare,” and witnessed Time’s Richard Corliss kneel at her feet at the after party. One heady night, I somehow got out of a car behind Sylvester Stallone as he climbed the Palais Tapis Rouge to meet Elizabeth Taylor wearing white, clutching her white dog. It was like two planets colliding. In another year, as I left the annual MTV Palm Beach fete, I recognized a tall woman in a designer gown who was trying to get in. I stepped over to the guard and said in my loudest authoritative voice, “Don’t you know who this is?” A grateful Chrissy Hynde glided past me. I walked back from that club to town along the Croisette in my stocking feet many times, heels in hand.
And the next day I’m back in the hunt, racing up and down the Rue d’Antibes to get into market screenings of the hot titles — “Delicatessen” by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Zentropa,” by Trier, “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders, “Virgin Suicides” by Sofia Coppola, “Pillow Book” by Peter Greenaway, “The Pianist” by Roman Polanski, “The Driver” by Nic Winding Refn — before they got bought by the likes of Weinstein, Bingham Ray, Bob Berney, Ira Deutchman, Barker & Bernard, Nancy Utley and Jonathan Dana.
Over time, you can see how the festival vaults a young filmmaker like David Robert Mitchell from breakout “The Myth of the American Sleepover” to horror classic “It Follows” to an ambitious mess like “Under the Silver Lake.” Cannes makes and Cannes takes away. And that’s the thing. Even if it seems like an old world European festival far across the ocean, Cannes is the lifeblood of our business. It feeds and nourishes and replenishes and pushes forward the filmmakers who go on to other things. I love that Spike Lee was following his Cannes triumph with “BlacKkKlansman” with running the Cannes jury. Yet again, he’s been robbed.