James Gray Explains Why Cannes Palme d’Or Winners Are Often “Incredibly Boring To Watch”
Art and Experience: We’re couple of months away from the world’s most prestigious (and sometimes gaudiest) movie event, the Cannes Film Festival. It’s where the creme de la creme of global cinema is served on the lushest of red carpets, and plenty of Very Important Films are either feted with laurels or heartily booed. However, one favorite of the Croisette, James Gray — who’s had four of his films screen including “The Yards,” “We Own The Night,” “Two Lovers,” and “The Immigrant” — sees something troubling in the kinds of movies that are generally celebrated in the south of France each year.
In an interview in the March/April issue of Film Comment, Gray is asked about the mixed reception to “The Immigrant,” and why it was “perceived as unreleasable in certain quarters.” The director attributes it to his narrative approach, one that he believes the Cannes critics are allergic to because they are stuck in the past. Here’s what he had to say:
Because [‘The Immigrant’] adheres to some aspects of classical narrative form, but not all. I have a sort of bigger philosophy about the movies, which is that the cinema essays of Godard are obviously extremely important in the continuum, but…he did them already. No one else can follow him doing that. It’s sort of like someone who comes along and tries to do a drip painting — it’s like, uh, ok, that happened already, so what are you doing? So I feel like that moment has passed, and my own obligation is to revisit traditional forms of storytelling but almost double down on the emotion of it.
In other words, we’ve now acknowledged that our indulgence in narrative is a bullshit fantasy that we require. We’ve deconstructed it. Okay, good. So now what? We can just go ahead and say the fantasy is nonsense and bullshit, so then fine, you can just kill yourself now. What’s important is that now that we’ve acknowledged that the fantasy is bullshit — that our need for narrative, our need for the extension of sympathy, is some kind of extension of our our desires — now we have to delve even further into that fantasy. And in my view, and this is not a popular one, a lot of film criticism out of Cannes, for example, is filled with critics who are stuck in 1968. And still want to see the deconstruction.
….So that’s why the Palme d’Or winners and the films perceived as great out of Cannes are generally movies with very little staying power and are incredibly boring to watch. And it’s why there’s this terrible feedback loop of critical response in Cannes, which are in some ways every bit as clichéd as ‘Batman v Superman.’ Handheld camera, austere, working class…I’ve been a juror, and you can smell them a mile away. It’s a joke almost.
Gray admits about “The Immigrant” that “it’s also possible the movie just stinks,” but adds that The Weinstein Company essentially shelved the movie following the reception in Cannes, and only gave it a nominal release after being pressured to get it out there. And Gray is a bit torn by the more positive reviews the film received when it hit theaters. “…if you say cinephiles like the film now, that’s great, tremendously gratifying. But in some ways it hurts, because where was everybody in 2013 in Cannes?” he said.
For what it’s worth, the year Gray was on the jury at Cannes, the Palme d’Or was awarded to Michael Haneke‘s “The White Ribbon” (it was an insanely packed 2009 Competition lineup that included Lars von Trier‘s “Antichrist,” Quentin Tarantino‘s “Inglourious Basterds,” Park Chan-wook‘s “Thirst,” Andrea Arnold‘s “Fish Tank,” Gaspar Noe‘s “Enter The Void,” Jane Campion‘s “Bright Star,” and Pedro Almodovar‘s “Broken Embraces“).