The Best and Worst of Cannes, Maybe Coming to a Theater Near You

Posted May 17, 2018 5:15 p.m. EDT

Over the next year or so, a number of the great, good and absolutely unnecessary movies at the 71st Cannes Film Festival will trickle into American theaters and then onto streaming platforms. Some will open with a splash, like Gaspar Noé's flashy, amusing, then disappointing “Climax,” which played in a parallel program and has been picked up by the distributor A24. If we are lucky, others, like Alice Rohrwacher’s lovely “Happy as Lazzaro,” will also open, though probably far more quietly, buoyed largely by the ardor of critics. It is unlikely that most of these movies will mean much to the American box office, which is dominated by industrial product.

Every year, Cannes presents an overstuffed, witless event movie that generates publicity for the festival and reminds the world that the event can go commercial when it wants. Sometimes the movie is a forgettable French divertissement; this year it was “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” But the festival’s reputation has not been built on Hollywood megaevents. It has been built on strategically positioning itself as the paramount champion of global cinematic art — “the mecca,” as Spike Lee called it the other day — while being the world’s largest film market.

That commitment to art cinema — and specifically to the international auteurs who burnish its standing — is only part of the story. You wouldn’t know that from some of the reports in the American entertainment media, though, which has been announcing the festival’s irrelevancy for years. Whether Cannes matters (oui! non!) makes for a catchy headline, but the better question is who the festival matters to and for what reason. It certainly matters to France, which subsidizes the festival, which in turn promotes the country’s cultural heritage, generates a great deal of revenue and helps tourism. Cannes sells movies; it also sells France.

As always, the festival has a significant international presence, offering a bounty of movies from around the world suggesting that borders remain open, at least in art. Set in rural Italy, “Happy as Lazzaro” traces the story of a blissful innocent who with several dozen relatives works the land for an imperious owner. With a sensitive touch that makes every face, tree and ray of light come alive, Rohrwacher creates a textured, vibrant portrait of a lost world that is at once emotionally sustaining and grossly exploitative. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s delicate, beautifully paced “Shoplifters” centers on a very different marginalized Japanese family, though one as affecting.

Among the strongest competition entries is “Burning,” from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. Based on a short story by Haruki Murakami, it centers on a young man who, in the midst of a family crisis, becomes pulled into an increasingly unsettled, unsettling relationship with a young woman who in turn takes up with another man. Lee creates a seductive intimacy — pulling you close enough to think you’ve figured everyone out — that grows progressively ominous and dangerous. In a crucial role, a terrific Steven Yeun (who was here last year with “Okja”) proves that he’s a star, even if the American industry hasn’t yet figured that out. Two directors in the competition were barred by their governments from attending, including the Russian Kirill S. Serebrennikov, who in “Leto” looks back at the Soviet rock scene during perestroika. The story is a fictional gloss on the story of the real Viktor Tsoi (the swoony Teo Yoo), who helped lead the rock revolt in grungy clubs, jam sessions and pastoral idylls. Another director whose absence became a reverberant presence this year is Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who plays himself (or a version of that persona) in “3 Faces,” a moving multigenerational portrait of three independent female performers, including a woman who was banned after the 1979 revolution.

Yoon Jong-bin’s “The Spy Gone North,” a rollicking cloak-and-dagger adventure about a South Korean agent who infiltrates North Korea, is the kind of genre title that the festival often relegates to special sections, which it did in this case. Presumably the movie was seen as too commercial and slick for the competition; it’s also a lot of fun and I’d rather watch it again than revisit David Robert Mitchell’s grating “Under the Silver Lake,” which is in competition. Movie allusions and Andrew Garfield’s hardworking star turn as a Los Angeles slacker is about all that holds together this labyrinthine, wildly self-satisfied mystery. Garfield of course is also useful for red-carpet duties.

The red carpet at Cannes has in recent years also become a symbolic battlefield, specifically when it comes to women. The festival’s dress code is vaguely defined (in principle it is just black tie), but the enforcement of that code by employees monitoring the carpet has led to dust-ups, including one a few years ago over a woman’s shoes that was labeled Heelgate. (Women have pushed back and this year Kristen Stewart kicked off her stilettos.) It’s an unfortunately silly nickname that obscures the reality that Cannes relies on the spectacle of a rigid ideal of female beauty — cue elegant wraiths promenading in designer gowns — to sell its image to the world. And, all too often, a fair number of the women walking, smiling and smiling some more on the red carpet are doing so in support of a male director. Only three of the 21 movies in the main competition are from women, though the numbers are better elsewhere. As in the United States, this imbalance can be blamed in part on the inequities of the movie industry. A 2016 report from the European Women’s Audiovisual Network found that only one in five features was from a woman. But programming plays a powerful role in the cinematic biosphere, which is why the number of mediocre male directors who pop up here each year can be so frustrating.

For much of its history, after all, Cannes has sold male auteurs, one reason it was moving to see “Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché” here in a special screening. Directed by Pamela B. Green, this documentary explores the life, career and fade-out of the woman thought to have been the first female director. Born in France in 1873 (she died in 1968), Guy-Blaché made the leap from secretary to director while working for Gaumont, where she directed hundreds of films. She went on to found a studio, Solax, in the United States, only to fall on difficult times and — as she was excluded from one history after another — into obscurity.

Green discovered Guy-Blaché while watching a TV documentary about female filmmakers. “I never thought of a first,” Green told me, “and I never even thought of a woman director.” But she was intrigued and her curiosity led her on an eight-year odyssey that found her scouring archives across the world, cold-calling possible Guy-Blaché relatives and making stunning discoveries, including a clip of this foundational figure holding a camera that seems to have been shot by those other pioneers, the Lumière brothers. The determined Green isn’t yet finished with the movie, which she has financed through donations, including from Hugh Hefner.

When I asked what the chances were that she could get more money to finish, Green wasn’t optimistic. “Difficult, believe it or not — I mean we talk about the #MeToo and Time’s Up, etc.; Hollywood has not funded this movie,” she said. “All the people who have come forward are outside the business.” Green, who discovered a trove of material while making the documentary — old letters, photographs — said that she planned to start a foundation named for the filmmaker. Green wants to help in the restoration of Guy-Blaché's films and make them accessible, doing her part to write a woman back into the history she helped make.