Cannes: Despite French Boos, Okja Proved It Deserves to Be Netflix’s First Big Film

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Jake Gyllenhaal in Okja. Photo: Jae Hyuk Lee

Perhaps my sympathy is misplaced when it’s extended to a multi-billion-dollar, industry-dominating superpower, but as Netflix’s new movie Okja began to unspool at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday morning, I had to wonder, Can Netflix catch a damn break? The streaming-video giant has had a controversial first foray onto the Croisette: Though its two titles in competition, Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories, appear to be exactly the sort of auteur-driven fare a Cannes programmer could want, reps for French theaters strenuously protested their inclusion, since Netflix has no plans to actually release either film into European theaters.

The argument got so heated that Cannes officials were forced to make a rule change: Beginning next year, studios must pledge to put their films into theaters or lose their shot at a prestigious Cannes slot. Still, the damage was done, and the anti-Netflix sentiment was so strong among the French critics here that when Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck debuted here yesterday, the French jeered the Amazon Studios logo simply because Amazon is another streaming service, though at least that company promises a theatrical window for its marquee films.

With all that tension in the air, it was anyone’s guess how the Okja press screening would go, but I doubt that Cannes or Netflix expected it to begin with a disaster. As the lights went down, the Netflix title card before the film provoked the expected loud jeers, but also competitive applause from a segment of the audience clearly prepared for countermeasures. That was a mere prelude to the real action, though: As Okja began with a high-energy scene where eccentric entrepreneur Tilda Swinton rolls out a line of giant, genetically engineered pig-creatures, the film was misprojected, with the top part of the image playing well above the screen.

Now there were jeers of a different sort for Okja to contend with. As the movie continued with no resolution to the framing problem, viewers shouted, booed, and hissed, trying desperately to call attention to the issue. A fix was long in coming: Seven rowdy minutes into the movie, the film finally came to a halt, the lights went up, and the whole audience was buzzing. It took even longer for the problem to be solved, with the film restarting in the proper ratio. Once again, the Netflix logo was booed, this time even more lustily. The misprojection was the fault of the festival, not the streaming-video giant, but if anything could further strain the relationship between a Netflix movie and the big screen, it was exactly this snafu.

How could Okja recover from this misbegotten start? I think a quiet film would have had trouble retaining such a riled-up audience, but the bright and busy Okja eventually proved to be the right match. At its core, Okja is about a little girl who goes on an incredible journey to reunite with the titular super-pig pet, but Bong Joon-ho has dressed up that simple story in flashy clothes and big ideas, embroidering his film with chase sequences and over-the-top performances. Swinton is a strenuous hoot as the businesswoman who kicks off the super-pig project, but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal who will have people talking: As a short-shorted TV show host who tangles with Okja a time or two, Gyllenhaal delivers a performance so flamboyant, you can see it from space. I can’t wait for the whiplash in his inevitable lifetime-achievement montages when Gyllenhaal’s sensitive, subtle work in Brokeback Mountain runs right up against a clip of him shrieking, “Half-wit degenerate fucktards!” from Okja.

That kind of wild seesawing between different performance styles, tones, and even genres would have likely made Okja a hard sell for major studios. Netflix spent $50 million on the effects-laden project, but I can’t imagine a conventional theatrical release would have recouped: You’d have to go wide and spend tens of millions more to even entice people into theaters, and the movie is just too weird to survive that kind of thing. (Even Bong’s embattled Snowpiercer was, in its own dark and genre-driven way, a somewhat easier sell than this.) On Netflix, Okja will be touted first by the film fans who are predisposed to like it, and then embraced as a discovery by a second wave of watchers who feel they’ve stumbled upon something singular; but in theaters, it’s exactly the kind of bracing, bold vision that would have been branded with a C-minus CinemaScore in its opening weekend and dinged for fooling audiences with a mainstream marketing campaign. If, say, Warner Bros. had paid $50 million for this girl-and-her-giant-pig movie, they would have stormed to set after the first crazy dailies of Gyllenhaal rolled in, and they never would have let the film go out with a slaughterhouse denouement so brutal, it could convince a shark to go vegan. While the French may jeer Netflix, there’s no question that few other places would have let Bong Joon-ho execute his vision just as he’d wanted.

Ultimately, that’s what matters, according to Swinton. “Let’s be honest: There are thousands of films that are screened in the Cannes Film Festival that people don’t see in the cinema,” Swinton said at the press conference after the screening. “The most beautiful, the most esoteric films that people never see in the cinema.” What did Swinton, who has served on Cannes juries before, make of jury president Pedro Almodóvar’s comment that he couldn’t imagine awarding the Palme d’Or to a movie that might not play in theaters? “The truth is, we didn’t actually come here for prizes,” said Swinton.

I believe that’s true, though Netflix certainly wouldn’t mind a prize if one came. The streaming-video service came here to make a splash, and that they did, though the water looked choppy for a moment. While Netflix has had countless successes with shows like Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black, and 13 Reasons Why, the company has not yet had an original movie release that earned that same level of buzz. Perhaps Okja, which has already earned so many headlines, can change that up. “It’s truly a blessing when any art gets to reach one person, let alone hundreds of thousands or millions of people,” Gyllenhaal said at the press conference. We’ll see how many people Netflix is able to reach when Okja is released to streaming on June 28.

At Cannes, Okja Proved It Should Be Netflix’s First Big Film