The best part of the Cannes Film Festival s guessing the drama behind the scenes. “Was it a love fest or was blood splattered on the walls and the carpets?” a journalist asked the jury about their selection process for the awards, announced Sunday night.
Jury president Pedro Almodóvar was clear that the bonhomie exhibited by this jury (including Jessica Chastain and Will Smith) on the red carpet was real and said they were very democratic in making their choices. This was clear from their selection of The Square and 1_20 Beats Per Minute_, respectively, for the Palme d’Or top prize and the runner-up Grand Prix; these were films liked by many and hated by few. Another film, Loveless, was more divisive, with some naming it the front-runner for the Palme while others (including, ahem, this critic) detested the overly controlled filmmaking and mild misogyny.
Could this have been one of the movies that Chastain took a jab at in the post-awards press conference? She had a fascinating response to a question about the female filmmakers awarded (including Sofia Coppola named as best director for The Beguiled, only the second woman to win and the first in 56 years). Chastain said:
“The one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women, from the female characters that I saw represented on screen. And it was quite disturbing to me, to be honest. There are some exceptions. But for the most part, I was surprised with the representation of female characters on screen in these films. And I do hope when we include more female storytellers, we will have more of the women that I recognize in my day-to-day life.”
“A couple of black folks wouldn’t hurt none for next year, either,” interjected Will Smith.
Another female filmmaker honored with an award was Lynne Ramsay, who won best screenplay for You Were Never Really Here, the internal noir about trauma and systematic abuses of power by men, with Joaquin Phoenix (also awarded Best Actor) as an off-the-books detective. This was the last competition film and the first one to be divisive in a way that indicates its quality. I was stunned after the last credits and remained in my seat, processing the intensity. But there was an isolated boo in my screening. A few boos is often the mark of Cannes films that become classics, maybe even more consistently than the winner of the Palme d’Or.
Another female filmmaker honored with an award was Léonor Serraille for Jeune Femme, which was described to me as “the French Frances Ha.” It is similarly about a young (but not so young…) woman in a city who suddenly becomes homeless after a break-up, in Paris instead of New York. But Serraille’s film pays attention to economics in a way that Frances Ha ignored in favor of fantasy.
Frances had parents she could return to while Paula, the red-headed effervescent mess in Jeune Femme, is not so lucky. Frances Ha resolved when she simply decided to get a full-time office job, even though it was made during the recession when full-time office jobs were rarer than unicorns. Paula’s resolution is less easy and so then more meaningful, more political. The movie is also a rarity in that it shows a Paris that’s not all white.
Also making an impressive debut was Zambian-British filmmaker Rungano Nyoni with I Am Not a Witch, about 9-year-old Shula who is exiled to a traveling witch camp, where women are held in place by long spools of ribbon. She’s told if she cuts the ribbon she’ll become a goat, but also told she can escape her fate (sort of) by marrying and following the route of respectability. It is a surprisingly hilarious film, with gorgeous imagery and incredible use of sound, from pop songs in headphones to cell phone ringtones.
This seemed the film that could be the biggest sleeper hit of the festival, a true crowd-pleaser. It was incredibly moving to see it premiere to a long standing ovation and tears in Nyoni’s eyes framed by her black and blue braids.
The best things I saw in all of Cannes, though, were two things on TV. One was the 1954 Jean Renoir movie, French Cancan, soundless on French TV while waiting to be taken off-site by black car to see Alejandro González Iñárritu's virtual reality exhibit, Carne y Arena. “Is this French Cancan?" I asked the woman behind the desk in the wait area outside the screening room. She looked at Jean Gabin on screen and nodded. It was moments like that you’re reminded that you’re in the center of worship for cinema, in France and especially in Cannes these ten days.
Will Smith also commented on the rich cinematic history of France: "I watch movies everywhere in the world, and the French film-going audience is an evolved audience. Because of the way it's been ingrained in the culture, there will always be a discerning sometimes harsh eye that the world will always look to for a higher perspective on cinema."
Watching Carne y Arena—which was co-produced by Legendary Entertainment and Fondazione Prada (where it will be exhibited in full from June through December)—felt simultaneously like cinema’s future and past. As I watched a group of migrants trying to cross from Mexico to the U.S., spotlights flashed on me and I felt fear, no longer an observer but a mistaken victim. When the guard dog chased after me within the VR experience, I screamed and dived into the sand, feeling both moved and like a sucker, like those audiences who screamed when the train came towards them at the earliest film screenings of The Great Train Robbery in 1903.
Even more remarkable than the VR exhibit was the process of getting there, a mysterious affair full of secrecy, which felt like something out of Twin Peaks. And interestingly, it was watching the first two episodes of Twin Peaks a few days after it aired on American television, though projected on a screen and edited as one movie, which was hands down the most challenging “movie” I saw in the Cannes Film Festival.
What role will TV play at Cannes in the future? What role will cinematic history play in TV going forwar?. It’s always a privilege to be at Cannes, to see the first public screenings of interesting films in a red-carpeted seaside town where they’re worshiped. But this year felt like a special privilege to see a festival in transition. The 70th anniversary felt like the last of what it was and the first of what it will become, no longer a place solely of white men auteurs as priests and the movie theater as the only place of worship.
Watch: The Best Advice Sofia Coppola Received From Her Dad, Francis Ford Coppola: "Don't Wait for Permission"