Once upon a time in Cannes, a wild-eyed rebel kicked his foot through the basement window of Hollywood, stealing helter skelter from his favorite B-movies and lowbrow genres, and splicing them into the king of all cult movies. Mind you, that was a quarter-century ago, the year Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” won the Palme d’Or.
It’s a different world now, and Cannes is a different beast. Unspooling 25 years to the night after “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino’s latest meta-movie remix, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” may have been the hottest ticket of the event, but the film hardly made the same impact. The 159-minute fetish exercise — an epic homage to dirty feet, neon-lit classic L.A. dives and showbiz in-jokes, set half a century ago, on the eve of the Manson Family murders — got the customary standing ovation following its red-carpet premiere (that’s standard practice at Cannes), but elicited nary a clap at the press screening two hours earlier (unusual for such a hotly anticipated title). On closing night, the Alejandro G. Iñárritu-headed jury, which gave prizes to nine of the 20 films in competition, didn’t so much as mention the movie.
What a curious situation: Tarantino’s film (a last-minute addition to the lineup), together with the rhinestone-embellished Elton John biopic “Rocketman,” may have saved Cannes’ reputation for another year, but the festival may not have done it any favors. Set in 1969, Tarantino’s “Hollywood” contends with how television changed the film biz — ironic, considering that worldwide, more people were tuned to the finale of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” than what was happening in Cannes. Had either of those two glitzy pics skipped the Croisette, however, it would have made the festival’s decline undeniable.
Where Cannes once stood undisputed as the most coveted place to premiere serious works of film art — and by extension, a kind of cinema mecca for filmmakers and critics — it’s been losing ground in recent years to a trio of end-of-summer showcases: Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Cannes has felt less crowded these past couple years, and in terms of sheer auteur wattage (on paper, at least, not to be confused with overall breadth and quality), not a single edition this century can rival last year’s Venice lineup, which boasted not just “Roma,” “A Star Is Born” and “First Man,” but new films from Yorgos Lanthimos, Mike Leigh, Jacques Audiard, Carlos Reygadas, László Nemes and Olivier Assayas — all directors traditionally associated with Cannes.
You could blame that on changes in Hollywood’s awards-season strategy, as well as the rise of a single disruptor — namely, Netflix. A desperate strategy of banning the streaming service’s offerings from competition has sent the new-media studio looking elsewhere to launch its choice titles: independent, auteur-driven works that have every right to be shown alongside those destined for theatrical distribution. Don’t be surprised to see Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” premiere at a fall festival, the way “Roma” did at Venice, or “The Outlaw King” kicked off Toronto last year.
To make up for those films getting away, festival director Thierry Frémaux needs to convince Hollywood distributors that it makes sense for them to premiere their prestige films in Cannes. In his favor, there’s Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” which became a major contender in the Oscar race after playing Cannes. But that strategy backfired on David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silver Lake” for A24, all but destroyed by bad reviews from critics who come with knives sharpened (for whatever reason, the press is kinder in Venice, seldom booing the way they do in Cannes). When films skip Cannes, the standard explanation is that they “weren’t ready,” but it’s still telling that James Gray’s “Ad Astra” (previously dated for a May release), Benh Zeitlin’s “Wendy” and Miranda July’s upcoming feature appear to be eyeing fall festivals instead.
Frémaux has no control over when films will be ready, and is ultimately limited to the titles available to him in late spring — which presumably explains why films such as Claire Denis’ “High Life” and Mike Leigh’s “Peterloo” skipped Cannes last year. But it’s telling that certain producers are no longer rushing to get their films done in time for the festival’s cutoff: In the past, the prospect of premiering in Cannes has been so important to some that they’d scramble to be considered (in 2004, a work-in-progress print of Wong Kar-Wai’s “2046” arrived still wet from the labs) or turn down invitations from Berlin and other festivals in hopes of debuting in Cannes (with “The Tree of Life,” Terrence Malick held off an entire year for the honor). Now that DCPs have taken the place of 35mm prints, filmmakers can cut it closer than ever, working right up to the last minute, which leads to a different set of problems.
Afraid of losing an important film (or several) to Venice, Frémaux is often forced to accept movies that aren’t yet done when he screens them. This is normal practice for film festivals, by the way, although I can’t think of a more exasperating example than Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo,” a continuation of the “Blue Is the Warmest Color” director’s sprawling, body-ogling 2017 “Canto Uno” (which Frémaux may have regretted letting go to Venice instead) that runs an monotonous 206 minutes, centered around a three-hour nightclub sequence in which his actresses twerk the night away — interrupted for 13 minutes to accommodate a marathon oral-sex scene, in which Kechiche explicitly demonstrates how gluteophiles express their appreciation. Practically any shot from the film might be considered gratuitous, but the sum total is downright punishing. It’s enough to make “Cheeky” director Tinto Brass blush, and in no universe does it deserve the kind of platform Cannes gave it.
Rumors suggest that Frémaux screened 25 minutes of the unfinished sequel in late April, and on the strength of what he saw — the film is so repetitive that a random core sample taken from any point should have been fairly representative — invited the Palme d’Or winner to screen in competition. It’s hard to imagine a worse decision on the part of Frémaux, who’s been obstinate about his reasons for not including more female directors. As he told Variety in 2018, “Many of these films directed by women are first or second films. They are still young filmmakers, and I wouldn’t be doing them a favor by putting their films in competition.” (Whereas men, he seems to imply, can take the scrutiny of that spotlight.)
Granted, the press reactions at Cannes can be harsh, and though I’ve never heard boos at a red-carpet premiere, they’re not uncommon in press screenings — which is no doubt one of the reasons why Frémaux canceled the practice of showing competition films in advance to critics, as no director wants to walk the red carpet knowing that his film had been rudely received earlier that day. But putting “Mektoub” in competition is nothing short of scandalous, revealing just how deep the festival’s chauvinist double-standard goes. Publicly, Frémaux says loud and clear that Cannes won’t lower the bar to include works by women, when it’s abundantly clear that they’ll take whatever garbage a more established man tosses their way. (Personally, I loved Malick’s “A Hidden Life” — a woozy, wide-angle meditation on heaven and earth from an artist who’d lost his way — but its detractors found it to be another case where the festival accepts familiar works from male artists, but doesn’t stretch to accommodate innovative forms from avant-garde women.)
Meanwhile, it says something that of the four female-made movies in competition this year, three earned prizes: French-Senegalese director Mati Diop’s “Atlantics” (acquired by Netflix), Jessica Hausner’s “Little Joe” and Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” There’s no question that juries are now more motivated to celebrate the cinematic achievements of women. So are critics and audiences, who’ve been forced to rely on more inclusive showcases — such as Sundance, SXSW and Toronto — to find the female talents whose work festivals like Cannes and Venice refuse to accept.
Of these films, Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” distinguishes itself as the most political, dramatizing via an 18th-century encounter between two women — one a female artist, the other the noblewoman whom she’s been commissioned to paint — the way that so much of the female experience went undocumented. When art, literature and cinema are forbidden from depicting certain forbidden practices — such as an abortion, or erotic love between women — then everyone who dares to engage in such behavior feels as if she is inventing it for the first time. “Portrait” captures the thrill and challenge of that discovery, and beautifully makes the case that every artist perceives things differently, and that female artists in particular have much to add to our understanding of the world, if only because their outlook has been suppressed for so long.
Contrast the way Sciamma portrays sex and the female form from “Mektoub,” and it’s instantly apparent that Kechiche — with his leering, hot-and-bothered gaze — is literally taking the place from someone more deserving in competition. He’s entitled to his point of view as well, but it repeats and exaggerates the worst tendencies in hyper-sexualized objectification, and carving out a space for such a stunt (for there’s no doubt that Kechiche is baiting and antagonizing his critics, without adding anything meaningful to the conversation) denies other original voices a spot in competition.
We should be grateful for those others who, offered entrée by their reputations, are doing something new in their latest films. Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You” and the Dardenne brothers’ “Young Ahmed” both feel like the work of young directors, despite the fact the filmmakers each have two Palmes already to their names. I’ve often resisted the work of Bong Joon-ho, but have no complaints about him winning this year’s festival with his latest, “Parasite,” which puts his slick, genre-melding skills in service of a venomous class portrait. And just when I thought queer Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar had gotten comfortable in his late career, he caught me completely by surprise with his latest — and best — film, the intimate autofiction “Pain and Glory,” in which Antonio Banderas delivers the performance of his career as a director partly inspired by Almodóvar himself.
Which brings us back to Tarantino — the 800-pound gorilla in this year’s competition. Where nearly every one of the director’s previous works has rocked the film world, leaving audiences bristling with excitement for every minute of their deranged running times, this one feels unforgivably self-indulgent. It’s bogged down by long, dull stretches (into which the director crams excerpts, real and imagined, from duly forgotten film and TV episodes of the time) during which we experience none of Tarantino’s usual gift for tension. The auteur’s signature strategy is to manipulate anticipation and suspense on a scene-to-scene level, creating situations of imminent and unpredictable violence — a diabolically polite Nazi officer searching for hidden Jews, two gun-toting hitmen tasked with recovering a stolen briefcase — and stretching them to all-but-unbearable lengths via directorial showmanship and colorfully written dialogue, before letting these risky situations snap back on themselves like the elastic band of a slingshot.
Here, instead of masterfully playing our nerves at such a micro level, Tarantino attempts — and stumbles — with a different high-wire act. Early on, he indicates that events are pointing to Aug. 8, 1969, the night the Manson family murdered Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate: The film’s co-dependent protagonists, faded star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusty stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), live on Cielo Drive, where the bloody home invasion took place; Hollywood history buffs may recall that a stuntman was murdered around that time at Spahn’s movie ranch; and Tate, radiantly oblivious to her fate, even appears as a character (played by Margot Robbie). Confident those elements all point to who-knows-what kind of confrontation to come, Tarantino no longer focuses on generating electricity within individual scenes, trying instead to make it span the entire picture.
Between Tarantino’s indulgence, Malick’s resurgence and Kechiche’s concupiscence, the festival was heavy with men who felt they’d earned the right to fill hours of screen time with their most personal preoccupations. Such is the luxury of the established filmmaker. But where Cannes really ought to be using its power — and the fact that, for what could be a limited time, it has first dibs on new work — is in finding the emerging voices who don’t yet presume to have audiences’ attention, but have the freshest things to say. It’s the paradox of being first: The world expects big names, but relevance depends on bold, outside-the-box choices.
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