Every year in May since 1946, the epicenter of World Cinema shifts from California to the French Riviera. Hollywood, Bollywood, Asia, Australia, Europe and Latin America premiere both their highest-quality and their most commercial feature films at the International Cannes Film Festival, which celebrated its sixty-ninth edition in 2016. As usual, luminaries like Paul Verhoeven, Woody Allen, Jodie Foster, Pedro Almodóvar, Nicolas Winding Refn, Shane Black, Park Chan-Wook and Sean Penn premiered their most recent work at the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès. George Miller, enjoying his renewed relevance after his Mad Max: Fury Road, accepted the honor to head the Cannes 2016 jury. However, in this new era of digital production and rehashed economics, is any of this still relevant? What is the point anymore?
The late Roger Ebert, one of the most respected and prolific critics of the United States, attended Cannes for thirty-five years, even after a long bout against jaw cancer left him without the ability to speak. Ebert loved all kinds of movies and adored Cannes. Nevertheless, he once expressed his doubts that there would be a Cannes Festival in thirty-five years. “If there is, it will have little to do with the kinds of films and audiences we grew up treasuring”, he wrote. “More and more, I’m feeling it’s goodbye to all that.”
Such comments could be interpreted as the complaints of an elderly man left behind by the times, submerged up to his shoulders in the warm waters of nostalgia. That may have been the case, but we can excuse Ebert if we consider the glorified age to which the critic is referring.
In that era, the Nouvelle Vague started by Truffaunt, Godard and their contemporaries inspired a whole new generation of filmmakers in the mid 1960’s to break the rules of film and to appreciate the aesthetics of cinema even in the trashiest of flicks. Thanks to Fellini and his compatriots, Italy’s Cinecitta dominated the world of the art film, despite (or probably because of) Sergio Leone’s reinvention of the western. Impossibly beautiful women like Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren and Catherine Deneuve showed a whole generation the meaning of desire. Ingmar Bergman broke barriers with his Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal) and only improved from there with age. After many years of Hollywood dominance, the rest of the global film industry had found its new voices, whom made themselves be heard. And the Cannes Film Festival felt like the source from which all of this stemmed, grew and spread.
The official promotional image for the 69th International Cannes Film Festival. (SOURCE: Festival de Cannes)
Cannes Film Festival: That was then, this is now
But that was back when media coverage of entertainment was scarce and Cannes’ only competition were other festivals, equally important but different enough that they could all co-exist in peace. Filmmaking had democratized a bit by then, but it still held that air of awe and mystery the Studio System had established during of the Golden Age of American cinema. Entry into that world required hard work, lots of ambition and the willingness to make a big splash. Whoever did so in any other prestigious film festival would be renowned in his own country. Whoever did it in Cannes became known around the world.
Today is different. Advances in technology allow any young talent to create a masterpiece at home and then promote it everywhere through the Internet with a lot less effort. The web itself has dethroned festivals in general as the only places prior where we could appreciate our favorite movie stars and get to know them intimately.
Long Live Cannes
Which begs the question: Does the Cannes Film Festival still matter? Why, yes. More than ever, I’d argue. Just as previous editions, the Cannes Film Festival decays into tabloid fodder as it unfolds, swarmed with bustling audiences, as well as paparazzi focused obsessively on “pretty faces” and “sex symbols”. But even so, the event itself hasn’t lost a bit of its charm, romanticism or essence. It’s where directors like Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh debuted and left their mark. It’s still the place where aspiring young creators wait outside the cinemas for a great filmmaker to take pity on them and give them a free pass, a favor they know they must pay forward when they reach the top. As long as movies are still produced, there will always be Cannes, a place where art and entertainment sit together in a darkened theater and mutually surprise each other.
The International Cannes Film Festival runs each year during the month of May. Visit the official site for more news and information.
The original version of this essay first appeared on the May 2011 issue of Revista U magazine. This translated version was updated with information regarding the 2016 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, but the initial concept remains intact. Click here for the original article (in Spanish).