Festival Diary: the 68th Cannes Film Festival

May 23, 2015

by Jake Howell

Tomorrow, after two weeks of the finest names in world cinema, one of 19 films will take home a Palme d’Or at a ceremony with jury presidents Joel and Ethan Coen. It’ll be the bowtie ending to the 68th Cannes Film Festival, an event that seemed to have audiences divided from Day One.


With so many critics from so many far-flung countries, it’s rare that any film debuting here will receive uniform praise. And while that’s true for many film festivals, the 2015 edition of Cannes – a hotbed of debates and queue discussions and What did you think of the Villeneuve? – this year felt like it was specifically defined by division. Industry professionals, programmers, critics – I’ve heard an unpredecented range of opinions with this year’s slate, and nothing seems to have a significant lead going into the awards ceremony. And if it does, just take a walk down the Croisette for a few steps; it’s guaranteed you’ll overhear in moments why your favourite film is the biggest piece of trash to ever be projected in the south of France.

Consensus is never the goal, but it’s interesting to see critical reception this unruly. Does that mean this year was no good? Perhaps, but it will be spun that way regardless. It all started politely enough with the Kore-eda, the first film to premiere in Competition this year. Our Little Sister, a sweetly gentle piece of Japanese domesticity, tells the story of a young girl coming to live with her three step-sisters. They enjoy cooking, chatting about boys, and being useful members of society – care to join them for two hours? It was fine. More importantly, while it never held past the first day of discussions, it certainly wasn’t the worst film here to be set in Japan, a sad honour that Gus Van Sant flew home with.

Van Sant’s Matthew McConaughey vehicle The Sea of Trees received more boos than I’ve ever heard at a Cannes premiere, and there have been many films subjected to this offensive and lamentable tradition. While nothing should ever be booed, it’s clear why it was. Van Sant went to camera with a melodramatic script that induced ricochets of laughs at all of its press screenings, and any film about suicide that’s unintentionally hilarious is doing something incorrectly.

It’s always interesting to see what stands out and what doesn’t, when all is said and done. The Van Sant stands out for being a dreadful sit. But finding the good stuff is just so much harder, because although the Competition wrapped this morning, I still have to look at the entire list of films and jog my memory. Frequently I’m met with my mind saying: Oh yeah, I did see that. Right.

You forget titles because people stop talking about them. Poof, they’re gone. It’s bizarre. It only happens at events like Cannes, where everyone has the same prix fixe menu to guide them. You and I could attend TIFF and see 30 films apiece, but when we compare notes it’s possible we would only have a minor amount of overlap. That’s an entirely different vibe. People see what they want. Not so at Cannes, where in 2015 missing films like the Haynes or the Audiard or the Lanthimos was, in many ways, a critical waste of time.

The weather was sunny, seriously. But the Palme remains cloudy.
The weather was sunny, seriously. But the Palme remains cloudy.

Films slip through the memory cracks here. It’s just what happens, despite a manageable 19 Palme pitches (sidebar films fill one’s day, however). Because when titles only get one screening at the Grand Theatre Lumiere, or they’re slotted against other films that aren’t even in Competition – which reminds me, why wasn’t Pixar-perfect Inside Out given a Competition shot? – they get forgotten about.

Like this year’s crop French cinema, which for critics outside of the festival’s country received low-to-middling praise; titles like Valley of Love, The Measure of a Man, Marguerite & Julien, and Mon Roi failed to remain relevant past their premiere. The only French film to capture any attention at all was a bit of a canard from the get-go, as Gaspar Noe’s Love comes pre-packed with sensational 3D pornography – an easy sell when it comes to headlines, and a film designed to burn the barn. It wasn’t in Competition.

On May 24th, look for titles like Carol, Son of Saul, The Assassin, Sicario, Youth, The Lobster, and Dheepan to be lauded by the jury in some capacity. Making predictions for Cannes awards is a fools’ game, though what isn’t is reporting back on what people have been talking about here. Certainly, those films are shining brighter than others, all of them making positive cameos in some way or another in queue chats or cocktail party banter.

But when it comes to the Palme? I have spent many years trying to find narratives in the selection process, often to no avail, but this year the fun seems especially pointless. It’s pointless for two reasons: number one, the rules always change, or juries invent ways to circumvent them – hell, we have two jury presidents this year. (What will that mean for the only seven movies that made significant waves in the Mediterranean? Will they receive anything at all? Am I wrong to assume those titles are somehow more prevalent than others? Are we seeing the same films? Are the jury members having the same discussions as we are?!)

The other reason it’s pointless is because films are never better with a golden trophy attached to them, and it’s thoughtful works like Youth, Paulo Sorrentino’s latest meditation on art and aging, that remind us of that. Because art isn’t objective. Art that resonates is what matters, and when I’m on a plane flying back to Toronto this coming Monday, the film that wins the most prestigious prize in art cinema won’t necessarily be the one jostling around my mind as I reflect on the festival in a pressurized cabin.

(That said, go Team Carol!)