For journalists, the process of accessing the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès de Cannes begins months before the first film. The application, designed to weed out all but the most persistent, requires the submission of an extensive dossier (which must include: the circulation – print and digital – and schedule of your publication; a tally of its various social media followings; a signed letter from your editor attesting to your employment and describing the nature of your commission; examples of your latest film criticism – three pieces minimum; a long form of personal details; scans of photographic ID and any professional passes you might hold, and a passport-style headshot). Accreditation acquired (after several weeks’ wait) and badge collected (following a lengthy early-morning queue that winds around the yacht bays of the vieux port), there is still the hurdle of security. A snaking line of white barriers is guarded by bronzed contractors dressed in the kind of smart, pinching uniform usually worn by air hostesses who will, at gated intervals, demand to scan your badge’s QR code, inspect the PDF of a film ticket, check your bag, marshal you through a full-body scanner, pat you down and finally, wave you inside the Riviera’s ziggurat temple of cinema.
From here, make your way to the fourth floor; to the single elevator (located between the Salon des Ambassadeurs and the Terrasse des Journalistes) that links the upper levels to the basement, its doors half obscured by a wilting palm. Descend to level -2, then follow a pathway outlined in chipped green paint, past the stock rooms in which thousands of rolls of toilet paper are being unloaded from large trolleys onto smaller ones, through the vending machine hall which seems to have no onward exit but, beyond the battered armchairs in its far right-hand corner, opens onto a U-bend corridor that spits you into a fluorescent dining room ranged with Formica tables and chairs and a wall-length buffet counter of hot plates and salads. The workers’ canteen is the quietest room for miles. On the final day of the festival as banners are cut from the balconies and white sheets are thrown across the conference tables, only the low thrum of fridges and the occasional chatter between colleagues break the silence. Everyone is exhausted, visibly far too tired to disturb with requests for comment; it is time, you realise – at four o’clock in the afternoon on the last Saturday in May – to go home.
The seventy-sixth iteration of the event known simply as ‘Cannes’ was a twenty-million-euro festival of retirement, the long-rumoured death of cinema pre-empted by a fortnight of curtain calls for the biggest stars and directors of the last half century. Will Scorsese actually, as he has intimated, cease production after his latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon? And Tarantino – a guest of honour this year – after his? At eighty-six, Ken Loach, most people agreed, has earned his pension. Unusually for the entertainment industry, at Cannes, which has long run on the fumes of cinematic heritage (the honorary president in 1939 was Louis Lumière), old age is something of an advantage. Crowds packed the Salle Buñuel to hear Jane Fonda, eighty-five, recount her memories of anti-Vietnam activism, the technical trials of shooting flight scenes in Barbarella, and details of co-starring with Robert Redford (‘not a kisser’) and Alain Delon (‘a kisser’). Her introduction to the final evening’s award ceremony was a brazen synopsis of the two major functions of the fortnight as a whole: insistence on the rude health of the seventh art as a major entertainment industry – ‘I’m sure that this festival has made you feel renewed hope for the future of cinema’ – and an opportunity nonpareil for the marketing of consumer brands – ‘I’m so proud of L’Oréal!’ Accepting the Palme d’Or for Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet ruffled feathers by ascribing a social purpose to filmmaking, while also indicating an ancillary function of the festival – as a demonstration of the singularity of French culture: ‘This year the country has experienced a historic contestation… and cinema is no exception. The marketisation of culture, defended by the neoliberal government, is destroying French cultural exceptionalism.’
Triet’s speech was a rare moment in which the reality of French social and political life threatened to puncture Cannes’ global bubble. The contestation Triet signalled? Ongoing protests against the retirement reforms forced into law by Macron and Borne earlier this spring and the brutal repression of protesters by the country’s police forces. On the central Sunday of the festival a crowd of around two hundred – mostly in their sixties – answered the call of the CGT to assemble beside a roundabout on the Boulevard Sadi Carnot to demand the repeal of the retirement reform, and to build enthusiasm for a national day of action on 6 June. Earlier in the week, the union had staged an illegal protest outside the Ritz Carlton highlighting the plummeting working conditions of the hotel staff. Three days later, CGT members cut the gas supply to the bustling restaurants along the seafront during the midday service, as part of an action whose aim was to target ‘symbols of capitalism’ such as ‘the hotels and restaurants of the Croisette’, ‘the Cannes police station’ and the ‘Palais des Festivals’.
Beyond the employment conditions in the service economy around the festival, did anything link Cannes to the demands of the demonstration, I asked a protester in her early sixties, a hospital worker three years retired, who wished to remain anonymous: ‘Down there,’ she pointed towards the Palais, ‘you see the power of the rich. They’re against the workers who demand good salaries, affordable food, the right to protest in the streets. The government does everything for the rich and nothing for the rest of us. We’re already cutting back on water, electricity, food – soon there’ll be nothing left to cut back on.’ Stéphane, a municipal worker in his late fifties, emphasised the role of the CGT in the creation of the festival. ‘There’s a rich history that links Cannes and the union’, he stressed. Animated by the desire to challenge the fascist film competition in Venice’s La Mostra, the efforts of CGT members were integral to the construction of the infrastructure in 1939 (the inaugural event was delayed to 1946 by the outbreak of war); the union remains part of the organising committee and runs its own parallel film screenings each year. Given the scale and force of the government’s reaction, what were the chances of success for the next wave of demonstrations, I asked a couple who were nearing retirement from the postal service: ‘I don’t think it will work, but we have to keep it up anyway. We want to try and show people elsewhere in the world that things don’t have to be like this.’
That Cannes has become a metonym for a bonanza of industry trading and red carpet photocalls only does so much to distract from the fact that it takes place in a city also called Cannes. This is a deeply strange place, devoid of the usual enjoyments associated with spending time in France – the restaurants are terrible and expensive, the beaches segmented into private strips, then paved over with temporary parquet bedimmed by canopies bearing the idents of food and drink companies: the Magnum Dipping Bar, the Campari Pier, the Nespresso Plage Californian Dream Pop-Up. Every night, these tents hold ‘parties’ that no one on the guestlist wants to attend (the dominant attitude among festival-goers is that there is always a better party than the one to which you’ve been invited, a sense that an imminent call or text will finally get you into the room that matters), while those without tickets stand outside peering past the bouncers at an empty strobe-lit dancefloor.
The coastline of Cannes is often compared to that of Southern California – an analogy no doubt prompted by the reference points of the Angeleno encampment that sets up for two weeks every May – but, demographically speaking, it is surely closer to Florida. On my first night, over dinner in a tourist-trap Italian restaurant with two critics, a raisin-faced Dutchman leaned over from his table to tell me he’d retired here after a career in ‘dance’ (later, a spot of light Googling revealed he had hosted a ballroom competition on Flemish TV before briefly taking over a three-star hotel on the edge of town – an acquisition his Wikipedia page described as ‘not without complications’). Keen to inform us that he had known Weinstein in his heyday, and once, at a festival soirée, seen Iman model entirely nude but for the ‘world’s largest diamond’, he was even keener to try and rent us his retirement yacht for next year – ‘why buy a house in Holland when you can have a boat on the Med?’ In the haunted atrium of the Gray D’Albion mall, a piece of prime real estate that links the beaches to the shopping hub of the rue d’Antibes, only a handful of businesses were occupied and open: a ‘luxury’ realtors whose windows were filled with English-language listings for bungalow villas in the adjoining commune of Mougins (in the interwar period a hub of poets and painters, now a sought-after third-age neighbourhood in the hills above Cannes); an interior design store selling fish mosaics and curlicued mirrors; and a weapon shop where a toy katana and a BB gun could be had for roughly the same price as a salade au chevre and half a dozen oysters at one of la Croisette’s extortionate seafront brasseries. All, in other words, that the adventurous but security-minded pensioner might need to set up and defend their last investment.
The purpose of Cannes – the festival – is not to watch films but to sell them. The organisation works on three levels: market, carpet and press. Arranged here in order of importance they also service one another’s needs: sales of films by agents to distributors are driven by the glamour of the associated premieres; the press, in the form of reviews, provides part of the marketing for the titles whose rights are mortgaged against anticipated ticket sales, while the chance to interview actors and directors – as well as to see advance screenings of the year’s upcoming titles – brings journalists to the Palais in person. The activities of the ‘marché’ dominate, the trade press covering breathlessly the price fetched by territory rights and distribution partnerships in their daily bulletins (large-print magazines with the glossed feel of travel brochures and for whose back pages underemployed critics moonlight). This year, an atmosphere of panic buying predominated, prompted by the Hollywood shutdown enforced by the Writers Guild of America strike and the threat of concurrent action over the summer by directors and other industry workers. ‘It’s not a question of money, since we don’t pay until the film delivers’, one distributor told the Hollywood Reporter, ‘but if everything shuts down, eventually we’re going to run out of movies.’
Common to virtually all cultural institutions, and no less true of Cannes, is the sentiment that it used to be better. Two peaks are evoked by seasoned regulars, one beyond most attendees’ memories – the 1960s, when it is said you could walk onto the beach and see Kirk Douglas braiding Brigitte Bardot’s hair – and the other squarely within it – the 1990s, when fortunes were made by film execs who flew in from LA, London and New York to cut deals and other substances. The long shadow of this latter decade still stretches over the industry side of the festival today. Cannes and the kind of cinema it typically represents – high-profile arthouse filmmaking by star directors with star actors vying for awards (though not as brazenly, most people seemed to believe, as in Venice) – have not recovered from the spectacular crash that ended the Weinstein era. If MeToo was once more in the spotlight thanks to the stunt selection of Maïwenn’s Jeanne du Barry as the festival’s opening film, it is rather the diminution of Miramax-style mega-company filmmaking that has most unsettled the business of cinema. Streaming service deals, not distribution sales, now account for the biggest payments of the fortnight – this year’s record was the purchase of North American rights to Todd Haynes’s May December by Netflix for $11 million. Killers of the Flower Moon offers an interesting example of the uneasy but occasionally reciprocal relation between the new titans of cinematic industry and the old distributor model: though it was made by and for AppleTV, by partnering with Paramount as a theatrical distributor, Apple gained access to Cannes as a marketing coup; in return, Cannes got the most famous director in the world premiering in the Salle Lumière. The streamers, it is clear, will inherit Le Palais – should they want it.
‘The film industry is not what it used to be’, Sam Brain, a freelance screenwriter and producer confirmed. ‘People don’t go to the cinema anymore, the cinema is really expensive – in part because people aren’t going – and so the glamour seems faded because the stakes aren’t as high. All the focus is on TV, because that’s where there’s more financial opportunity and creative space. The power in the industry is no longer in the international pre-sale market that Cannes functions to serve’. The amount of energy expended during the festival on denying and fighting this entropy is enormous and can even be detected in the form of the films themselves, as the critic Jonathan Romney, who has been attending since 1992, explained. ‘Cannes works under the assumption that everything is as it always has been: we must protect the sacred flame of cinema. The business rolls on, the stars turn up on the red carpet. But there’s a conservatism that’s emerged this year. Many of the films, even very good ones, in competition have been extremely classical. Kaurismäki for instance has made a wonderful film but it is the Kaurismäki film’. Such predictability, plausibly a sign of craft refinement among competition directors, can also be read as a further symptom of the festival’s endemic stagnation. ‘Cannes is like North Korea’, an editor and programmer for a section of this year’s festival told me over paper cups of wine at Le Petit Majestic, the bar descended on by critics after every evening’s final press screening. ‘Once hired, everyone stays in the same post for twenty years. They complain about it of course, but very quietly.’
What role, then, for the critic at this trade fair? For Yal Sadat, a writer at Cahiers du Cinéma, the end of cinema-going as a mass leisure activity, combined with the cultural shift to a preference for TikTok-length videos as entertainment, has produced a parallel death-spiral within film criticism. ‘The very idea of cinema has weakened, because of this economic problem caused by lack of desire for films, and for watching films in theatres. People are less interested in auteur cinema, and producers are no longer interested in criticism of their films.’ Numbers of tickets sold, scale of theatrical release, online views – these are what count now for producers, not critics’ reviews. At the same time, Sadat noted, there are still a few directors and producers for whom a good write-up in Cahiers is important. Even if the journal’s circulation is declining, its ‘seal of approval’ still counts. But auteur cinema, or an interest in cinema as an artform, is more and more a niche pursuit, the lifestyle choice of a select few, and further than ever from the cultural life of the many: ‘If cinema is dead, paradoxically, cinephilia is still alive and well.’
Viewing the films at Cannes, as a critic, is often surprisingly difficult. The ticketing system has its own hierarchy baked into it – a 7am online release slot is stratified by badge colour, with more tickets available to those at the top. The move to a booking website – as opposed to regular daily press shows for all competition films – is rumoured to have been triggered by a tantrum thrown by Sean Penn when (bad) reviews of one of his films were published after the afternoon press screening but before the glitzier evening slot. Critics were in two minds whether this year’s process was an improvement on the last, when the website would repeatedly fail but, if functional, tickets would at least be available to book. This year, waking up at 6:55am (CET) might only result in one ticket for four days’ hence – and rarely the one of your choice. If the marché du film is where the financial activity takes place, a smaller barter economy exists among the press, as those with higher-ranking badges trade tickets with the correspondents (yours truly) who lack film-world status.
And the movies themselves? Look beyond the death throes of criticism, the immiseration of industry workers, the jewel and ice cream experience pavilions that encircle the Palais, and it is still possible to spend days watching exceptional cinema at Cannes. Standouts of this year’s competition were Hung Tran Anh’s exquisite paean to gastronomic art and pleasure, The Pot-au-Feu, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s novelistic treatment of a school teacher’s midlife crisis, About Dry Grasses, while short films by Wang Bing and Pedro Costa played in a double bill before the lunch hour. (Stinkers included Loach’s trite post-Brexit parable, The Old Oak, Nani Moretti’s humourless self-tribute, A Brighter Tomorrow, Marco Bellochio’s hysterical melodrama, Rapito, and Karim Aïnouz’s embarrassing ‘lean-in’ treatment of the life of Catherine Parr, Firebrand.) An unexpected highlight, as part of this year’s superlative Quinzaine des Cinéastes programme, was the Georgian film Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry, the second full-length feature by young director Elene Naveriani. It tells the story of Etero (Eka Chavleishvili), a single woman approaching menopause in a mountain village, stigmatised for her decision to live unmarried and alone. As other women boast of the feats of their children, a friend tries to warn Etero that the future of her shop is threatened by plans to construct a large shopping centre nearby. ‘Then I will retire’, she answers, a look of relief spreading across her face.
Read on: Julia Hertäg, ‘Germany’s Counter-Cinemas’, NLR 135.