Making Sense of a Cannes That Struggled to Reflect the World Outside

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A fractured view from the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Photo: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

By the time Ruben Östlund’s The Square won the Palme D’Or at the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival, I was almost at the end of the eight-hour flight back to New York City, and already well into that post-festival feeling that the last week or two of my life was a dream that few outside of it would find interesting. This is not true in general, of course — plenty of eyes are on the festival, and Cannes is as good a harbinger as any for the films the rest of the world will be talking about by the end of the year. (Last year’s competition included Elle, American Honey, Toni Erdmann, and The Handmaiden.) But this year, my overall reticence might not have just been my own insecurity talking — as the spotlight fades, I’m seeing and hearing more and more agreement that it’s been a down year for the festival, in more ways than one. This is reassuring, but not very helpful: More than usual, I’m left wondering what to take away from all of it. What can I confidently tell people to look forward to? Is there a single new awards concern to be had? Which Cannes film can I recommend to my mom?

Perhaps the most damning irony of the festival is its most headline-friendly controversy looks worse for the festival than it does for its scarlet nemesis. This is the first year that Netflix’s original films have premiered in competition on the Croisette — that would be Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. It’s also the last, according to an announcement from the festival committee prior to opening day, which says that as of 2018 the festival will no longer accept films without a planned French theatrical release in the competition. This all but dashed any Palme hopes for either of Netflix’s films (and, for that matter, Amazon’s two titles, Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here — though Amazon does more significant theatrical runs, its logo was booed just as Netflix’s was, seemingly on principle.) But, perhaps uncoincidentally, Okja and Meyerowitz were two of the most generally well-received films in the competition, not to mention two welcome breaks from the punishing doom and gloom that characterized much of the rest of the slate.

They also both include noteworthy performances by big-name actors — Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal’s gonzo turns in Okja, and Adam Sandler doing some of the best dramatic work of his career in Meyerowitz. Those sorts of headline-grabbing performances were in short supply this year, especially for women. You may hear some spin that this was a low-key-great year for women at Cannes, but I’m with Jessica Chastain: Women both onscreen and off- had a rough time of it. One Sofia Coppola confederate matriarchy couldn’t make up for the fact that too often the female characters were either one-dimensional allegorical monsters (Loveless), one-dimensional allegorical victims (You Were Never Really Here), or vacuous collateral. I was particularly disappointed by Ramsay’s film, given how deftly she’s explored the emotional states of women whose lives deviate from society’s norms. The filmmaking is as phenomenal as ever; I’m still thinking about Ramsay’s virtuosic skipping-record raid sequences. But its troubled-man-redeemed-by-little-girl story felt out of step with what I need — critically, spiritually — from the movies right now. Ramsay’s split screenwriting win and Coppola’s directing win (only the second for a woman in the entire history of the festival, shamefully) were hailed as triumphs, but they felt arbitrarily assigned. If anything, Ramsay should have gotten directing, Östlund should have been a home run for screenwriting, and Sofia Coppola should have gotten the Palme for The Beguiled — not because it was great by any stretch of the imagination, but because not much was better, and Jane Campion is lonely.

Throughout all of this, the outside world threatened to steal the thunder of the films, with events often more dramatic, instructive, and darkly funny than what was going on onscreen. The festival took place against an embarrassment of a presidential world tour, a horrific terrorist attack in Manchester, and newly damning evidence of the Trump campaign’s cooperation with Russia. Even in the balmy fantasyland of the Croisette, stringent security and huge blockades had visions of suicide bombers dancing through our heads as we trudged up the red carpet day after day. (There was even a blessedly false bomb scare before a press screening of Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable, which I skipped for reasons unrelated to terrorism.) It was a fascinating context in which to watch some world-class Important Cinema, and especially to compare American and European approaches to political awareness.

There’s a wealth of turmoil stemming from every political and socioeconomic corner of the world right now, but the highest-profile European films at Cannes seemed preoccupied with the obliviousness of bourgeois and cultural elites. The upper-middle-class families of Loveless, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Happy End, and the art-world buffoons of The Square were continually held up for condemnation and mockery, but it was not always clear to what end. (I did not see Fatih Akin’s neo-Nazi revenge tale In the Fade, which was probably among the most directly topical entries in the competition and certainly came at its politics from a different angle.) There was a stuck feeling to a lot of these films, unable to gracefully connect their characters’ sheltered worlds to a bigger picture. In stark contrast, many of the finest American films took place on the fringes of society and lower classes, from the desperate Queens criminals of Good Time to Sean Baker’s standout The Florida Project and Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, the latter pair highlights of the Director’s Fortnight sidebar. Though less overtly political, they had more to say about shifting, disappearing, and otherwise unstable ways of life.

It was strange to reach the end of my Cannes stay and realize that all my favorite films were American, and two were in sidebars. The filmmaking and storytelling of The Florida Project, Good Time, and The Rider, all by comparatively young American filmmakers, made me more excited about the future of cinema than the selections from the more internationally established pros. Zhao in particular getting top honors at the Fortnight felt like a particularly important moment, especially for an Asian-American female filmmaker working in the far-from-stereotypical milieu of South Dakota rodeo boys. These directors aren’t dragging their chosen medium behind them like a ball and chain: They’re exalting in it, wrapping themselves in bright colors and sweeping cinematography and loud music even in the midst of turmoil.

I’m happy to recommend Östlund’s big winner The Square, which is consistently smart and laugh-out-loud funny in all its liberal-creative absurdity. But it’s a film that made me think far more than I felt, which makes it pretty representative of my Cannes experience. On the third or fourth day of any festival, if one hasn’t yet seen anything breathtaking, a critic can enter a manic emotional-junkie state, ravenously looking for anything that disproves one’s own terminal anhedonia. (This year’s Sundance went similarly for me, but at least it was capped off by Luca Guadagnino’s euphoric Call Me by Your Name, which many critics have speculated would have killed if it played in the competition.) This was only my second time at Cannes, so hearing the muted response from Chastain and the rest of Pedro Almódovar’s jury was somewhat reassuring to me. If Will Smith, Park Chan-wook, and Maren Ade can all agree the festival needs to do better, maybe I’m not crazy. Because when it’s magic hour and you’re alone in Cannes drinking rosé, freshly let down by one of your favorite filmmakers, it’s hard not to feel like a shallow hedonistic American, in search of a good time when there’s none to be had.

Making Sense of a Cannes That Struggled to Reflect the World