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Column: Cannes we not? This year’s film festival left a sour taste

Each year, the Cannes Film Festival offers an early glimpse of some of the most ambitious filmmaking about to hit the market, with a forward-facing emphasis on the art rather than the commerce of cinema. (Make no mistake, behind the scenes the latter is a key element of the festival as well.) But something about this year’s fest, which wrapped Saturday, left a sour taste. Filmmakers seemed disconnected from reality. The concerns of festival workers about unfair labor conditions were barely covered by U.S. journalists. And the self-congratulatory way the celebrity industrial complex kept chugging along as if nothing was amiss in the world felt … amiss.

At least that’s how it played out for me, taking it all in Stateside. Apparently many of the films are quite good. I won’t be writing about that here because I haven’t seen them yet. What I can comment on is the vibe and a general sense of cluelessness emanating from the festival this time out.

Writing for the Hollywood newsletter The Ankler, Claire Atkinson found that nearly everyone she spoke to “at the rooftop parties, in the street, in the see-and-be-seen hotel lobbies or even over the phone, says the same thing: This is the year that excitement about movies has returned.”

That may be wishful thinking. It was business as usual at the star-studded press conferences and red carpet events. But “the movies” as we know them are undergoing an existential crisis. What kind of theatrical life is any film destined to have? Director Sean Baker echoed this concern when he picked up the top prize Palme d’Or for his romantic comedy “Anora.” The world, he said, “has to be reminded that watching a film at home, while scrolling through your phone and checking emails and half-paying attention is just not the way, although some tech companies would like us to think so. Watching a film with others in a movie theater is one of the great communal experiences.”

Director Sean Baker poses with the trophy during a photocall after he won the Palme d'Or for the film "Anora" during the closing ceremony at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 25, 2024. (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Director Sean Baker poses with the trophy during a photocall after he won the Palme d’Or for the film “Anora” during the closing ceremony at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 25, 2024. (Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Alas, box office results have been telling a different story. The walls are crumbling down around the industry, but the parties on yachts continued unabated and the pro forma standing ovations following screenings were dutifully timed and reported by journalists, as if this information meant something.

A primary concern of the Hollywood strikes last year was the threat of AI, not that you’d know it at Cannes, where a producer was on hand with a “sizzle reel of AI-translated trailers of international films,” according to the Hollywood Reporter, noting the tech is a “chance for hit international films to cheaply produce a high-quality English-language dub that will make them more attractive for the global market.” That’s bad news for actors who make a living dubbing foreign films. It gets worse. Also being shopped was a biopic about Vladimir Putin that uses AI to re-skin an actor with Putin’s face, creating a deep fake. The film’s Polish director Patryk Vega, also known as Besaleel, told the Hollywood Reporter that he predicts “film and TV productions will eventually employ only leading and perhaps supporting actors, while the entire world of background and minor characters will be created digitally.” Perhaps in the coming years, Cannes will simply introduce a new award category called the AI d’Or.

Let’s turn to filmmakers who are still doing it the old fashioned way. Francis Ford Coppola brought his $120 million, years-in-the-making allegory of our times “Megalopolis” to Cannes in the hopes of finding a buyer. At his press conference he noted, “It’s not people who become politicians who are the answer (to our nation’s problems) but the artists of America.” A lofty statement. But if he genuinely believes it, who does he think will fund and distribute films that challenge and critique the very systems studios actually benefit from? (Coppola is an outlier who is rich enough to self-fund his latest movie.)

Here’s what was conspicuously missing from much of the coverage around Coppola: Only days earlier, a report emerged that the filmmaker behind “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now” had allegedly behaved inappropriately during the filming of some scenes for “Megalopolis.” According to The Guardian: “Coppola came on to the set and tried to kiss some of the topless and scantily clad female extras. He apparently claimed he was ‘trying to get them in the mood.’”

These accusations were seemingly a non-issue at Cannes. Perhaps that’s fitting. One of Coppola’s stars who walked the red carpet was Shia LaBeouf, who is being sued by former girlfriend FKA Twigs. The civil case, which is pending, alleges “‘relentless’ abuse by the actor, including claims that he strangled her, knowingly infected her with a sexually transmitted disease and threatened to crash a car they were both in.” Producers were also at Cannes pre-selling a crime drama to star LaBeouf.

Other producers were selling an action-thriller starring James Franco. Two years ago, he settled a class action lawsuit brought by former acting students alleging they were sexually exploited by him. The presence of both LaBeouf and Franco prompted Variety to ask: “Is anyone really canceled in Cannes?” The Ankler’s Atkinson quoted a culture editor at at French TV channel who said 75% of the films at this year’s fest have a female protagonist “seeking revenge, fighting back, finding her place.” How does that square with Cannes welcoming, with open arms, men who put real women in those kinds of circumstances?

Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett was at the fest promoting a dark comedy called “Rumours,” about world leaders who find themselves lost in the woods, literally. Sitting for an interview, she talked about the persistent lack of women working behind the camera: “There’s 50 people on set and there’s three women. It’s like, when is this going to deeply, profoundly shift?” Her concern rings hollow: Blanchett is an A-list talent who is likely key in securing financing — if she believes things need to change, she could start by leveraging her own clout.

Cate Blanchett at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Cate Blanchett at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival. (Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

Even the red carpet — heavily photographed for its supposed glamour — took on a nasty tinge this year. Singer Kelly Rowland attended a premiere and was rudely hustled up the steps by an usher who kept her arm extended behind Rowland as a barrier, as if she were a bouncer escorting a rowdy patron off the premises. Afterwards, Rowland said: “There were other women that attended that carpet who did not quite look like me and they didn’t get scolded or pushed off or told to get off.” The same usher was subsequently filmed being aggressive with at least three other women, going so far as to physically accost one of them.

Kelly Rowland arrives for the screening of the film "Marcello Mio" at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 21, 2024. (Antonin Thuillier/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Kelly Rowland arrives for the screening of the film “Marcello Mio” at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France, on May 21, 2024. (Antonin Thuillier/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The fest has long cultivated a culture of elitism and exclusion, as Deadline critic Valerie Complex put it, writing about her experiences a couple years ago as one of the few Black writers in attendance. The microaggressions, she said, were constant: “I sat down in a reserved row, and three different seat ushers came over to my seat to check my ticket to make sure I was in the proper place. They weren’t checking anyone else’s tickets, just mine.”

Let’s wrap it up on a positive note, because there was one bright spot at the fest this year: Yet another dog to steal everyone’s heart. Last year’s Palm Dog winner (a real award) was Messi, the dog in “Anatomy of a Fall.” This year the honor went to a mixed breed named Kodi, who appears in the Swiss-French film “Dog on Trial,” a courtroom drama about a lawyer who takes on a dog — who has bitten three people — as a client. The story is apparently loosely based on a real case in France.

If Cannes is going to the dogs, at least there are actual dogs around to lighten the mood.

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic

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