Judging from its coverage in the American trade papers, you'd think the 50th anniversary edition of the Cannes Film Festival had nothing in particular to do with good movies. The Hollywood Reporter devoted a page of its daily feed to reviewing the studios' parties (rated on a scale of one to five martinis). And while Variety's film criticism appeared almost brilliant by comparison, the paper never failed to report at length on any Hollywood big shot who happened to announce a new deal, open a Planet Hollywood, or draw a crowd.
But at the same time, and especially if you focused on actual films rather than the many overcrowded "media events," this was a festival for cineastes, with screenings in handsome theaters named after Andre Bazin and Ingmar Bergman; a film-historical press conference given by Jean-Luc Godard; an ongoing retrospective of Cannes classics titled "Cinema du Toujours"; and a poetic assemblage of clips from various world-cinema gems, preceding each of the 19 features in competition.
But what about the stargazing, you ask? Well, let's start by saying that Cannes is not a place for ordinary people to meet Robert Redford--or Isabelle Adjani, this year's president of the jury. Even B-list actors are well-protected by a slew of French gendarmes, venturing out only in carefully orchestrated, street-blocking productions designed to attract a literally captive audience. Thus, the most prestigious film festival in the world is defined by the most extreme contradictions: culture and glamour, art and commerce, sunny beaches and dark theaters, critical debate and crass deal-making, challenging cinema and mainstream product.
Such dichotomies seemed encapsulated by this year's closing-night film: Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power, an artful studio movie by a hallowed auteur and Hollywood moneymaker, a critique of absolute power and the thing itself. But Cannes also makes room for the likes of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherry, a gorgeously minimalist character study of a man's consideration of suicide, included at the 11th hour in the wake of opposition from the Iranian government. (Kiarostami's film shared the top-prize Palme d'Or with The Eel, a gently quirk-laden melodrama directed by Japanese master Shoei Imamura.) Like any big-budget production, the festival had its own meticulously scripted and tidily resolved three-act narrative: Some dismal competition titles established dramatic tension; the plot thickened midway through with the arrival of auteurist sellouts and flawed masterpieces; and the jury heroically saved the day by voting in favor of uncommercial art.
Cannes is political and always has been. The festival was launched in 1939 as the French response to Mussolini's influence over the Venice Film Festival--and when Hitler happened to invade Poland on the first fest's opening night, the event was put on hold until after the war. Fifty years later, there's still an element of international one-upmanship here. Amidst Hollywood's vulgar efforts to colonize Cannes, with oversized 3D ads for summer blockbusters adorning every hotel on the Croisette, one senses that if an American film doesn't win the Palme d'Or, an American studio will at least make sure to buy the one that does. Meanwhile, although some French cineastes appear protective of their country's art films to the exclusion of all else, the festival's own attitude is ambiguous. Who knows what it meant that the opening-night film was The Fifth Element, a Hollywood-style sci-fi blockbuster by a French director (Luc Besson), financed largely with French money. Was this a case of international cooperation, or co-optation?
As the French have a long tradition of passionate movie-loving (and a track record for recognizing our great movies before we do), Cannes feels like the ideal location for buffs to reflect on the state of the art, and to consider various unanswerable questions. For instance: Notwithstanding the two worthy Palme d'Or winners, and a pair of indelible experiments by directors Atom Egoyan and Wong Kar-Wai, did the generally disappointing schedule of films this year reflect the festival programmers' poor choices, or the poor health of world cinema circa 1997? And if it's the latter, does that reflect a temporary malaise, or a chronic one resulting from the trend toward multinational blockbusters and familiar pulp fictions? Although the festival jury did see fit to honor those deserving exceptions to the rule, there was still plenty of evidence to encourage conspiracy theories about aesthetic homogenization and populist programming--especially since it's impossible to know why certain films were chosen at the expense of who knows what.
After all, you'd think a movie's inclusion at Cannes would be synonymous with excellence--and perhaps it has been in the past. But some of this year's dreadful competition films--like Mathieu Kassovitz's Assassin(s), Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, and Johnny Depp's The Brave--couldn't help casting aspersions on the tastes of (and pressures upon?) the selection committee. Likewise, the jury is out on whether a hit at Cannes necessarily becomes a hit at the U.S. box office: The last three Palme d'Or winners have been the $100-million Pulp Fiction, the unreleased Underground, and the modestly successful Secrets & Lies. Ironically, this commercial uncertainty seems a good thing, as it may help shift the balance of power away from money men and toward moviegoers.