Une Vie Sans Fromage: Our Report From Cannes 2019

Why is this festival different from all other festivals?

Returning to the Cannes Film Festival for the third time, and my second proudly representing the fine folks at Birth.Movies.Death., I felt obligated to provide something new with my annual wrap-up report. The attractive, intelligent BMD readership doesn’t need to hear for the umpteenth time that the beaches are beautiful (though they are) and the sun is merciless (though it is, dear lord, we’re all indoor kids here and not prepared for this much Vitamin D). So over the past couple of weeks, I’ve tried to focus my observations along the guiding lines of change, both in the proceedings and this humble attendee. To put it in Passover terms: Why is this festival different from all other festivals?

Head honcho Thierry Frémaux would have us believe that Cannes has spent the last year evolving, shedding the refusal to catch up with the times heretofore passed off as “prestige.” Above the entries to the magnificent Debussy and Lumière theaters loom gigantic banners emblazoned with the festival’s official artwork, and this year’s shouted its subtext at you every time you sauntered in for a screening. A young Agnés Varda stands crouched on top of an anonymous man’s back, peering into a camera perched on a platform, the Mediterranean Sea glittering behind her. Aside from a well-deserved commemoration of the master filmmaker’s recent passing, the image serves as a message that it’s time for men to get it together and support women. Whether the programming has borne that out is another question entirely.

Cannes still has the edge on Berlin and Venice as the world’s most important film festival, and recent iterations have found the key decision-makers figuring out how to maintain that reputation while fostering talent from female filmmakers without the industry foothold of a Malick or a Tarantino. On one hand, this year’s Competition selection included the highest number of women-directed films. On the other hand, that number is four. Progress comes incrementally, and on a relative scale, but it’s progress all the same.

Cannes has dipped its toe a little further into a deep pool of distaff talent, and found that the water’s not so cold after all. Three of the four films were good-to-excellent; sorry, Justine Triet, but Sibyl’s script might as well be held together with paper clips and chewing gum. I reviewed Jessica Hausner’s haunting, ingenious Little Joe for this very publication, and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire has earned rapturous praise from the critical corps across gender lines. Yet I saw the brightest vision of the future in Atlantics, the first feature effort from French-Senegalese actress-turned-director Mati Diop. Her status as an insider may have helped her worm into the notoriously exclusive Competition slate; she’s worked with Claire Denis, currently presiding over the Un Certain Regard sidebar section, and her uncle just so happens to be the legendary filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. Still, she represents a burst of fresh blood with a novel perspective that makes this festival a richer and less predictable experience.

That being said, there’s still a strong chance that 2019 will go down as the year Cannes gave a home to Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo. I treated myself to not seeing this particular movie — I’m only human, I have my limits — but my colleagues in attendance for the three-and-a-half-hour gluteal showcase from Abdellatif Kechiche reported back to me as if in a daze. A previous Palme winner for Blue Is the Warmest Color, a.k.a. The Movie With All The Scissoring, Kechiche returned with an even more shamelessly horny leer-a-thon that cast doubt on whether the selection committee’s really seeing the big picture. The director’s presence reinforces an undesirable view of the festival from which Frémaux and the other higher-ups are keen to distance themselves: unfailingly faithful to the directors they’ve allowed in their inner circle, no matter how indulgent or buttock-obsessed their work might be. With quotes about the director liquoring up his actors and pressuring them into performing unsimulated sex scenes now coming to light, posterity will only get crueler.

For those of us with boots on the ground, the most significant shift this year concerned scheduling, a byzantine game with impossible-to-understand rules. In an effort to put the kibosh on negative reviews from press pre-screenings that tarnish the big gala premieres, the powers that be rejiggered the press timeline to do away with the notorious 8:30 a.m. Competition slot. This sure sounds like good news, until you learn that each day’s two must-see Competition titles have been stuffed into the cramped timeframe of the late afternoon or evening. Sometimes, this means they overlap, leading to situations like my ninety-minute wait for a high-demand makeup showing of Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory that ended with all lowly blue-level badges turned away. Sometimes, this means that a big-ticket movie’s only screening will begin at 10 p.m. — though I’d be hard-pressed to argue that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, shown this way, was anything but worth it.

It was in the endless lines, so charmingly referred to as “queues” by my esteemed European housemates in our “flat” located within the old Le Suquet neighborhood, that I felt the festival’s growth starting to dovetail with my own. The previous paragraph’s kvetching notwithstanding, I made a concerted effort to do more appreciating and less grousing. The unending, record-smashing holdup preceding the big premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — possibly three hours, possibly several consecutive eternities — could have been a major aggravation. I chose to take it instead as an opportunity to catch up with the pals camping out near me and a chance to meet a few new people, all of us united in our devotion to American pop cinema and our thin sheen of flop-sweat.

As a freelancer, you train yourself to remember that even the fun stuff is still technically work, otherwise you’ll get taken advantage of by people who can sense what you enjoy enough to do for free. But privately, I remained conscious that attending Cannes really is a privilege, a perk that gets increasingly rare as the contracting film-crit biz squeezes out a few more of my peers every year. This marks the first festival at which I attended any manner of officially sanctioned social function; turns out all you had to do to get into the Director’s Fortnight sidebar party was email some guy. Tipsily swaying on the beach under a sky undimmed by light pollution, I chose to ignore the freelancer’s persistent anxiety over allowing time to go un-maximized for productivity, if only for a night. The glass of rosé helped. The fifth glass of rosé helped more.

2019’s Cannes Film Festival, at least for me, will be remembered as the one in which I finally forsook cheese. At the behest of my doctor, who recently informed me that I am “extremely lactose intolerant” and that constant internal discomfort is not “just the way life is,” I got off dairy. No easy task in France, where everything served to you arrives with at least a dusting of fromage. I did my best to firmly request sans fromage with each and every meal, but some waiters aren’t so easily deterred. A few ignored my request, while my favorite nodded attentively and then chose to disregard the instruction, assuring me upon serving my pasta, “don’t worry, this is very good cheese.” He was not wrong, it was ridiculously good cheese, perhaps the best I’ve ever had, and yet that had no bearing on the gastrointestinal consequences that followed.

I like this as a big, all-encompassing, smelly metaphor. Knowing full well that I’d be a hot-air balloon within ninety minutes, I cherished every bite of that dinner. I did this in part because I do not have whatever mechanism of personality it takes to send a plate of food back to the kitchen, but because in the hectic whirlwind of a major film festival, you’ve just gotta make the best of it sometimes. Multi-hour stand-a-thons, 3 a.m. walls of writer’s block, disagreeable milk-sugars — you’ve just got to allow yourself to like it. Besides, though cheese and I have consciously uncoupled, my relationship to bread has never been stronger. Au revoir, mon fromages amours, and until next year.