Todd McCarthy: A Quiet Cannes Film Festival Grasps at Relevance

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood La Belle Epoque Pain Glory Split - Publicity - H 2019
Photofest; Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival; Courtesy of El Deseo

With both seasoned and less-established auteurs delivering the goods, the main competition slate met the usual standard? — ?but the question of these films' capacity to reach beyond the Croisette loomed large, writes The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic.

You could pick up a subtle sense of shifting sands in Cannes within the fest’s first day or two. The streets and restaurants were not as crowded, the billboards not as ostentatious, the yachts less evident, the inebriated late-night revelers less rambunctious. And while a substantial array of international films was once again on display along the Croisette, the question of who would be seeing these movies after the fest — and, perhaps more important, where and how — hung in the air.

While the whole nature of the industry has been changing radically the past few years, the flow of what we call, for lack of a better term, "art cinema” or "film festival fare," has continued apace. Cannes filled its 21 competition slots with a solid selection of the usual suspects — Tarantino, Almodóvar, Loach, the Dardennes and others — along with newcomers to the main slate, most notably Céline Sciamma with her precision study of a female love affair in 18th century France, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, surely the most widely acclaimed film this year. Add in other worthy titles from France, Romania, Brazil, China, Russia and the U.S. and — with three or four mediocre exceptions — you had quite a respectable lineup, one that felt very much like a traditional Cannes.

But aside from Quentin Tarantino’s blissful? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which opens in July; Terrence Malick’s considerably less sublime A Hidden Life, which Fox Searchlight acquired here for big money; and Jim Jarmusch’s fitfully amusing vampire comedy, The Dead Don’t Die, which will come and go in June, how many top Cannes titles will be seen to any significant extent in American theaters? How widely can the work of exciting international auteurs, many of whom this festival has launched, be viewed on the big screen anymore? How do the serious movies Cannes promotes fit into the lives and agendas of busy people who have so many choices of where and when to watch something?

In short, whither art cinema? That thought has buzzed in my mind for two weeks as I pondered the relevance of the films I was watching to any kind of broader audience. Said relevance may not be any reflection of the quality of a piece of art, but it is certainly integral to its ultimate impact. 

French director Ladj Ly’s powerful debut, Les Misérables, a police drama set in a volatile Paris suburb inhabited mostly by residents of African and Arab origin, presents themes and situations that anyone in any country can understand, no matter the language. It deserves to be seen beyond France.

Another tale of violence, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles' Bacurau, also feels at least somewhat universal. Centering on people who sequester themselves with their guns in a remote patch of Brazil, the pic, while not always artful, strikes a powerful note at a moment when many nations appear to be coming apart at the seams.

Meanwhile, a much mellower movie, Almodóvar’s autobiographical Pain and Glory, will certainly be seen around the world thanks to the international reputation of its director as well as its stars, Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz. I found the film lovely in many ways, but Almodóvar’s Proustian specificity about the things that have been important to him somewhat hindered my connecting with his story, leaving me only half moved.

But there were a few examples of the?festival’s loyalty to certain directors proving ill-advised. Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo, a three-hour-plus indulgence in night-clubbing and sex from Abdellatif Kechiche (who won the 2013 Palme d’Or with Blue Is the Warmest Color), caused many jaws to drop, and not in a good way. Italian Marco Bellocchio’s lengthy Mafia drama The Traitor plays like an old-fashioned television show. And a few titles from respected directors new to the main Cannes lineup — including Jessica Hausner’s thriller Little Joe and Ira Sachs’ Isabelle Huppert vehicle Frankie — just weren’t of competition caliber. The legacy of auteurism remains very strong at Cannes, for better and sometimes for worse.

As for Tarantino’s mature, richly human ode to late 1960s Hollywood, starring a superbly matched Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, I was transported and elated. (Full disclosure: ?My son was a production assistant on the shoot.) While some have criticized it for an over-relaxed attitude toward storytelling, I see it as a daring exercise in seeing how far you can go with digressions; the way Tarantino drives his narrative without staying on the straight-and-narrow is exciting, even breathtaking. 

The other hot American ticket was in the Directors’ Fortnight side section: Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, a two-hander about 19th century Maine lighthouse keepers going mad. Eggers is ostentatiously talented and stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson go toe-to-toe in an exhilarating way. But then it all becomes too much, with Eggers trying to top himself a few too many times. Like his 2015 debut, The Witch, it’s good, but not that good. 

Perhaps the most unexpected delight was a wonderful French film that played out of competition. Nicolas Bedos' La Belle Époque, about a man (Daniel Auteuil) who gets to literally revisit his past, is as quick-witted a farce as I’ve seen on the big screen in ages. It’s the rare Gallic comedy with real potential for popularity abroad — and a sign that Cannes, even if a bit diminished, still reigns as the year’s premier film festival.

This story first appears in the May 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.