Cannes Has Failed Us Again

The Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious film event in the world, and often the most frustrating. Closed to the public with only celebrities and critics in attendance, Cannes is also home to an absurd dress code where men must wear laced black shoes and at least a suit, and women must wear heels, no flats. Cannes is also and infamous for its juries, which are not a singular voting bloc, but a rotating cast of directors, writers, actors and celebrities, all of whom have different opinions and bestow prizes only based on their personal preference. This frequently means the most-liked films by critics are usually not the ones that win. The last three years of Cannes, with this year’s ceremony just wrapping up Sunday, May 22, have been especially trying for the festival in terms of prestige, with three unremarkable films taking the top prize, the Golden Palme.

2014 was a weak year in general, with Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Winter Sleep” taking the Palme without any real competition except from Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which now is considered among his best, though it was not at the time, the inexplicable win of Jaques Audiard’s “Deephan” the next year, even though there were at least five films considered better than it at the festival. It was seen as a compromise pick by pretty much all involved. But this year? This year hurts, for a number of reasons.

To be straightforward, here’s what happened. Like here in America with #OscarsSoWhite, Cannes has famously had a problem admitting women into the Competition for the Palme. Head programmer Thierry Fremaux, who decides what films get shown as part of the Competition, has blamed this on the fact that financiers do not give women directors the same platform as their male counterparts, so he is picking the best of what he can until men and women get equal funding and submit in equal amounts. Combine that with his refusal to let anyone who has had major attention at Cannes go into any of the lesser categories like Uncertain Regard, you have a system that generally feels like women cannot win. In fact, they cannot. Jane Campion, for “The Piano” has only won the Palme once, and that was a tie. With dismal results for women directors in recent years, it seemed like a woman who could win the Palme solo was not going to come for a long time.

This year, however, was supposed to be different. Three women out of 21, high by Cannes standards, had gotten into competition, and while Nicole Garcia for “In the Land of the Moon” had a dismal showing this year with her film, the remaining two had done very well. Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” while divisive among critics as any film that features Shia LaBeouf dancing to Rihanna on a checkout counter would be, surely, had its champions.

The one everyone was rooting for was Maren Ade. The first woman director from Germany to make it into Competition, her film “Toni Erdmann,” about a father who tries to restore his adult daughter’s sense of humor through a series of surreal pranks, was considered by all critics not just to be the best film at the festival, but the best film to screen there since Leos Carax’s jaw-droppingly nuts “Holy Motors” four years ago. It received immensely high notices, and Ade, who is considered one of the best young directors in the world and had her place as a future classic all but cemented here, was seen as the shoo in to win if not the Palme, at least one award.

And she got nothing. Not a single peep. It would be one thing if she lost to some of the other stupendous films that screened, including Alain Guiraudie’s “Staying Vertical,” Kleber Mendoca Filho’s Aquarius, or Paul Verehoven’s Elle. Even I, an elitist who hates when Americans win things, would have been more than fine with American indie titan Jim Jarmusch winning for his Adam Driver-starring, bus driving poet story “Paterson”—come on, who does not want to see Kylo Ren write poetry! Also, Jeff Nichols winning for his interracial marriage drama “Loving”—speaking of which, expect that to be a major Oscar player in a few months—triumphing over “Ade.” But instead the Cannes jury, led by Mad Max director George Miller, went with the safest possible choice in Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake.”

To be fair, Loach is probably the best director in the history of Ireland, a committed hard-left socialist whose dramas including the amazing, life-changing “Kes” have not only moved people but enacted major societal examination in the UK in terms of legislation and politics. But he is almost 80, he has been talking about retiring for years, and he already has a Palme for “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” a film that, while not amazing, is still a much more deserving choice. It is incredibly hard to win the Palme once, let alone twice, and to give it to the oldest of the old guard at the festival speaks not only to the politics of Cannes but their refusal to acknowledge the future of cinema.

Well, they did do that with the Grand Prix—essentially second place at the festival—but how they did it was controversial to say the least. Rather than give it to “Drive” maestro and all around maniac Nicolas Winding Refn for “The Neon Demon” or “Oldboy” evil genius Park Chan-Wook for “The Handmaiden,” they chose instead to give it to Xavier Dolan, perhaps one of the most controversial directors at work today. This is not because of his work—incredibly shrill melodramas about mommy issues is the typical way to sum up his work, though he has his defenders—but his age. Dolan, a former child star, is only 27, and has made several films before this one, famously making his debut as a director at 19 with “I Killed My Mother,” a film he wrote when he was 16. Dolan also directed Adele’s “Hello” music video. But his latest film, “It’s Only the End of the World,” is widely regarded far and away as his worst, the film equivalent to a teenager imagining how sad everyone would be if he died. You think I am joking. I am not, that is actually the plot of the movie, albeit put in a very mean way. Combined with having several meltdowns during the press junket where he personally insulted a few critics, as well as rumors about how awful he was when he was on the Cannes jury last year has resulted in Dolan’s reputation tanking. Time will tell if his first American film “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan” starring Kit Harrington, Jessica Chastain and Adele—among others—will put him back on the right track.

To be fair though, it was not a total loss, namely because “A Separation” director Asghar Farhadi picked up two awards for his newest film “The Salesman” winning Best Screenplay and Best Actor. When most films winners typically only get one award, this is a major sign of confidence, and proof that sometimes even great art can be recognized. Combined with the fact that the movie considered far and away the worst of the festival, Sean Penn’s Doctors Without Borders romance—no, seriously! That’s actually what it is about—“The Last Face,” which got the worst reviews of the festival since Vincent Gallo premiered “The Brown Bunny” over 12 years go, got nothing at all, and will not get distribution in America, means at least some good taste prevailed.

I am being overly mean. Cannes has had its ups and downs, and there is a good chance it will soon get back to the highlight that was 2012 as early as next year. It just would be nice, as in the case of “Ade,” if they recognize greatness when they saw it, instead of after the fact as it looms on Best-of-the-Decade lists in a few years. At least it is coming to America. Sometimes, life is not fair, but at least we get to see good movies.