Cannes 2017 Dispatch 1: Netflix vs. the festival, 'Ismael's Ghosts,' 'Loveless,' 'Wonderstruck'
The sun is shining over the French Riviera and an unspeakable amount of rosé is flowing down the glitzy Boulevard de la Croisette. It’s the 70th edition of Festival de Cannes, the ultimate, most prestigious film festival and celebration of cinephilia in the world. Look, Day 3 is already upon us.
This infamously traditionalist, dizzyingly glamorous and (especially for first-timing rookies like me) oftentimes bewildering festival rolled out its red carpet and kicked the festivities off just a couple of days ago on Wednesday. But I have been on the ground since Tuesday morning to get in the time zone and get settled, a process that includes the heart-stopping job of press badge collection. Why is it so frightening? Well, because the Cannes accreditation system is a mysterious beast in itself. It follows a strict caste system, where journalists are classified under badge colors based on prominence and who knows what else. Lucky ones get pink. Luckier ones get the same with a yellow dot on it (don’t ask me the difference – I haven’t yet figured it out.) Gods and goddesses receive white: There isn’t a higher press honor one can receive. Below pink is blue: respectable, manageable but comes with a set of challenges (longer wait times is the chief of them). Then there is the lowest color group, yellow, which I am not even sure how one festivals with. So Tuesday was a “hold your breath” moment: phew, blue.
Netflix vs. Cannes…this year’s most prominent story
Blue badge wasn’t the magic bullet to get me in to the traditional Day 1 jury press conference, a star-studded lineup that included Maren Ade, Jessica Chastain, Fan Bingbing, Agnés Jaoui, Park Chan-Wook, Will Smith, Paolo Sorrentino and Gabriel Yared, led by jury president Pedro Almodóvar. So I joined the live stream viewing in the pressroom next door, alongside Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Keegan and Indiewire’s Anne Thompson. And predictably, the topic of Netflix was brought up, on the heels of a recent controversy over two Netflix titles, Bong Joon-ho's Okja and Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories, being screened In Competition here at Cannes. After protests from French exhibitors that neither film will take the theatrical route, Cannes introduced a new rule starting next year that only films with confirmed theatrical distribution will be eligible to compete for Palme d’Or. Clearly expecting the question, Almodóvar read a statement he previously prepared. “What I prefer is to be seen not only in 190 countries, but [also] always to be seen on a big screen. Digital platforms are a new way of working with images, which is enriching and positive. But these platforms should not take the place of existing forms such as going to the movie theatre. The only solution is, new platforms accept and obey the existing rules. I think this is the only way to make them survive. I personally do not conceive the Palme d’Or [or] any other prize being given to a film and then not being able to see this film on a large screen.”
Causing some possible conflict, Will Smith (who stars in the upcoming Netflix title Bright) came to the defense of the streaming service, noting that his children, in their teens and 20s, watch Netflix and still go to the theatre and the two experiences complete each other. “In my house Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit,” Smith continued. “There are movies that are not on a screen within 8,000 miles. And now they get to find those artists and they get to look them up online and they make contact. And there is this whole underground world of artists that gets born from that kind of connectivity. In my home it has done nothing but broaden my children’s global cinematic comprehension.”
Film press was quick to jump in and label Almodóvar’s comments as a dismissal of Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, and Smith’s as disagreement with his jury president. But when you read between the lines, the truth is a lot more complex than an “Almodóvar vs. Smith” narrative. For starters, I took Almodóvar’s statement more in general terms and not necessarily as a way for him to throw the two Netflix films under the bus. And in his defense, one actually has to look only as far back as Sundance to see what happens to a festival winner when it’s buried within the Netflix interface. Even on its premiere day on Netflix, one had to really look for I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore (2017 U.S. Dramatic winner at Park City). It was neither prominently featured on the homepage (compare that to Hulu’s promotion of The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, or more accurately, how Amazon champions their acquisitions), nor categorized in a sensible way that could excite the viewer and create a sense of exclusivity in them. One certainly can’t imagine the same fate for a Palme d’Or winner.
On the other hand, Smith’s point is unambiguously valid, too. Not every film finds a theatrical route. And not every film that finds a small release reaches all around the country or the world. Netflix undoubtedly provides an invaluable platform to those films that would not be seen otherwise. Perhaps one day the conversation will truly evolve beyond “pick one and stick with it” and instead further focus on ways both platforms can co-exist, and what Netflix can do to truly push the films under their wing out to the public, making sure they find their audience.
Among the films I have seen, the biggest disappointment of the first couple of days was Kornél Mundruczó’s Competition Title Jupiter’s Moon, an intriguing idea suffering from self-indulgence. As he did with White God, Mundruczó constructs another social parable here with a spiritual, futuristic story (with touches of The Matrix, I kid you not) but the film never becomes anything other than a concept. It received some of those famous Cannes boos. I learned today that they are real. Mathieu Amalric's Barbara (Un Certain Regard), which he directed, wrote and stars in, will certainly speak to the fans of the legendary French singer (Jeanne Balibar is terrific in the role), even though its "film within film" structure isn't always quite palatable. Other than these, below are the major titles I viewed thus far:
Ismael’s Ghosts (Out of Competition)
To my delight, my badge smoothly got me into the opening night film Ismael’s Ghosts (Arnaud Desplechin), starring French A-listers Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsburg and Mathieu Amalric. This spiritual and unsettling story of a love triangle, which forms when filmmaker Ismaël’s (Amalric) longtime runaway wife Carlotta (Cotillard) returns and disturbs the peace of her ex and his new lover Sylvia (Gainbourg), sadly gets overshadowed by over-indulgent artistic impulses. Desplechin, the earnest filmmaker of rich and layered human dramas like A Christmas Tale and My Golden Days, overstuffs his movie with unnecessary diversions and the film within the film (perhaps a trend this year, along with the aforementioned Barbara), lessening the emotional qualities of the main story at its heart. As encapsulated by the title, there is a suggestion of supernaturalism here (which is not a new territory for the filmmaker, even with the two previously mentioned titles), but Ismael’s Ghosts lacks the honest richness of either earlier film. Still, it will keep his hardcore fans engaged by giving them enough to nibble on, until the whole thing collapses in the film’s final act.
Already nabbed by Sony Pictures Classics just a day after its premiere, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s cold, grueling and cumulatively devastating slow-burn Loveless is the festival’s first knockout. This won’t come as a surprise to the fans of his masterful beast Leviathan, Russia’s foreign-language Oscar nominee from 2015, in which Zvyagintsev also offered up an acerbically critical study of Russia’s social and political systems through a familial story. That deterioration, frustration and simmering anger are back in his Loveless, except they are louder and even harsher than you remember. If you are wondering whether the title will be fulfilled, have no worries. The world that Zvyagintsev creates along with his screenwriter Oleg Negin is as bleak and chilly as it gets—one in which a child, growing up amid anger, neglect and hate, runs away from home. This isn’t the movie that follows his adventures, however. That movie, with the child's distressing trauma and possible peril in unknown whereabouts, runs in your head parallel to what’s on the screen. Zvyagintsev is brutal. That constant fear and worry made up of (my) worst nightmares is, thanks to him, suffocating. But Loveless follows his parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin), whose bitter and frightening fight one night causes their son (suffering quietly behind a door and hearing just how unwanted he is) to run away. Despite being seriously involved with other life partners, they unite around a common goal (OK, “unite” is quite generous here) and each step cracks open yet another dysfunction in individuals, relationships and entire systems. The film's studied long takes, shockingly real performances (Spivak and Rozin will disturb and frighten you in equal measure) and other various elements that touch on timely global political worries all add up to one painful kick in the gut. The rest of Cannes will have a lot to live up to.
Loveless wasn’t the only film that was centered on a kid running away from home. Next day came Todd Haynes’ beautiful and impressively scaled Wonderstruck (adapted by The Invention of Hugo Cabret author Brian Selznick from his own book), his hotly anticipated Carol follow-up that ambitiously charts the adventures of two children through two different eras in New York. With Ben (Oakes Fegley of Pete’s Dragon), a Michigan kid sufffering a recent hearing loss, we find ourselves in the vivid 1970s. Ben sneaks out of his hospital bed after the strange accident that cost him his hearing and heads to New York City to find his father. There he meets young Jamie (Jaden Michael), a friendless kid who joins in on and even gleefully leads Ben’s adventures. And with Rose (the terrific Millicent Simmonds, a real-life deaf actress playing a deaf child), we are in the '20s, following her quest to find her famous theatre actress mother (Julianne Moore). Haynes gives the 1920s section a gorgeous silent-movie treatment, paying an artistic homage to the era. The 1970s are brought to life with earthy tones, warm colors and the frequently used track “Space Oddity”. A lush Carter Burwell score accompanies Wonderstruck throughout, underlining the exceptional craftsmanship on display in every corner, from Sandy Powell’s breathtaking costumes to Ed Lachman’s swoon-worthy cinematography. The double narrative and intercutting don't always score big emotionally. But Haynes impressively keeps all the moving parts (and there are many) in check, leading them up to a heartwarming and satisfying resolution that earns the audience's tears. Wonderstruck might be new territory for the auteur: It’s basically a film for all ages. But traces of his earlier work, from Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story to Safe and Far From Heaven are everywhere. Wonderstruck, even with its imperfections, is a firm reminder that Todd Haynes is one of the most important and inventive American artists of our time. During the film's press conference that followed the screening, Haynes said this film is a celebration of things we do with our hands: from sign language to building miniatures. He voiced his desire that children not abandon the joys of using their hands in an overwhelmingly digital/touchscreen world. Wonderstruck romanticizes that concept with an old-fashioned sense of melancholy and adventure.