The city of Cannes on the Côte d’Azur has long been a place of retreat. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain Henry Brougham began vacationing there. His regular patronage helped establish the small port town as a luxury getaway, especially among Anglophone travelers. A couple of decades prior, Napoleon had decamped just outside Cannes at the very start of his “Hundred Days” march back to Paris from Elba. And late in the eleventh century, long before le petit caporal strode the earth, Cistercians built a community on the small island of Saint-Honorat that sits a short distance from Cannes’ sunny coast, where Christian monks had been since at least the fifth century. Though today the former backwater has become a global name, it still retains, implausibly, something of that former sense of escape and sanctuary.
At least that’s the way it felt to me as I arrived for the start of the seventy-second annual Cannes Film Festival last month. I was there on a short-term pass, and during my brief visit I felt that I had come to a place both familiar and fantastical. Sure, the trappings of wealth were all too obvious: gaudy $100 million yachts cluttering the harbor; boutique jewelers dotting the boulevard; glitterati and social climbers preening for the cameras. And yet, the festival stands as a latter-day monastery dedicated to film—with the sprawling Palais des Festivals a kind of motherhouse, welcoming weary pilgrims from all corners of the world. Languages blend together, strangers strike up conversations on the street, giddy excitement swarms around the most highly anticipated premieres—the spirit is not at all dissimilar to that which one finds at the great cathedrals of Christendom. A common love covers over a multitude of small differences. All this lends the festival a certain charm, a naïveté, quite at odds with its actual purpose.
After all, Cannes is distinctly an industry event. Unlike the Sundance or Toronto festivals, tickets are not on sale to the public (though a number of passes are granted to “cinephiles”—mostly film students and enthusiasts). Production companies are there to acquire new clients; producers introduce star actors to potential financiers; journalists and critics sniff out storylines that will last until awards season; and investors come to Cannes to see and be seen. One feels distinctly that this is where the sausage is made. Much like the great cathedrals of the world, Cannes is simultaneously a place of worship and a place of business. And business is booming: the U.S. box office raked in $11.86 billion in 2018, easily outpacing an anemic 2017; the British box office had its best year in decades; Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia (especially China), and the Middle East are all large, growing markets; and worldwide ticket sales in 2018 reached a new high-water mark of more than $41 billion. It has become fashionable in recent years to lament the waning prospects of the film industry, but commercial trends simply don’t bear out such pessimism.
It’s true, of course, that the industry’s renewed success is largely a result of gargantuan blockbusters of dubious artistic merit—at the time of this writing, Avengers: Endgame has single-handedly earned more than $2.6 billion in global sales. But the Marvel machine hasn’t yet colonized Cannes: the glitziest film among the official selections this year was Rocketman, the ham-handed Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton (Kingsman) and directed by Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody). Films like these serve their purpose: they get people in the door and help keep entire studios afloat. Even for the auteur directors and discerning critics of Cannes—high priests of the global church of cinema—it is impossible to ignore or dismiss the changes to the industry landscape wrought by the mega-franchises. Still, most of the films in competition were quieter, more richly textured meditations on love, loss, and identity. What’s more, younger audiences are refusing the choice between splashy smash hits and indie art films, instead opting for both. The Canadian director David Cronenberg may have admitted last year that he had barely been to the movies in the past five years, deciding instead to trust the Netflix algorithms; but industry figures from Germany, America, and elsewhere suggest that young people who frequently use online streaming services are more likely to attend the cinema, not less.