Motherhouse of Cinema

Letter from Cannes
Lérins Abbey, on the island of Saint-Honorat, near Cannes (Alberto Fernandez Fernandez / Wikimedia Commons)

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.   

What were we there in Cannes to worship, we pilgrims for film? And what were we seeking sanctuary from?

Besides commercial concerns, another specter loomed at the festival this year, too. The long shadow cast by a particular president’s orange bouffant covers the globe, and Cannes is no exception. In Cannes as in Hollywood, Trump is a figure of near-universal scorn; but Trump’s name was almost never explicitly mentioned at the festival, and in general the crowd here opted for icy neglect instead of histrionics. Which is not to say politics was avoided altogether. Speaking at a press conference toward the beginning of the festival, Alejandro G. Iñárritu (director of Birdman and The Revenant, as well as the first Mexican to head the prestigious Cannes jury) bemoaned the social isolation upon which our “cruel and dangerous” politics seems to turn, and presented film as a way of overcoming “otherness.” “Cinema must try to raise the global social conscience,” Iñárritu said later. Describing what “these guys”—by whom he meant populist leaders across the globe—are doing, Iñárritu warned: “They are writing fiction and making people believe those things are real. [But] we know how this story ends,” he said, referring to the outbreak of World War II in 1939.

Iñárritu’s reference to storymaking is interesting. On its surface, the charge might seem hypocritical, since that is exactly what everyone is at Cannes to celebrate: fiction, making people believe. But then this suggests that perhaps the familiar animosity between Hollywood liberals and conservative politicians is not so much a clash of ideological opposites as it is the sort of rivalry that arises between practitioners of the same trade: the ancient craft of mythmaking. Power always avails itself of a narrative, and a narrative that is capacious enough to include others is more powerful. At a time when Trump’s narrative takes up so much space (as an American living abroad I’ve come to expect the “T-word” within the first ten minutes of a new conversation) it is only natural that these fellow storytellers find themselves threatened. The fight for control over the stories we tell—over what images are projected onto the walls of the cave—is at least as old as Plato.

Which brings us back to those cavernous theater spaces at Cannes. There is an acute irony to the whole exercise: here we were in a sun-drenched Eden, leaving behind the coquettish enticements of the surf and the sand in order to march into primordial caves and sit silently for hours on end. These dark spaces are a central aspect of the festival’s enduring mystique. The Grand Théâtre Lumière, the flagship venue at the Palais, can seat over 2,300 viewers. Simply being gathered together with that many people makes watching these films feel different, especially from the average viewing experience at a cramped local cinema. Gone was the endless crinkle of snack wrappers, the half-hour of mindless commercials and infantilizing preliminary chastisements, the intrusive glow of tiny blue light from an errant mobile device. Rather, we were all engaged in the act of viewing—we were all enthralled. Within the Grand Theater, we were one body, vulnerable in that vast darkness to the stories we were being told.

The Oxford theologian Graham Ward, writing about the human capacity for imagination and its relationship to film and filmmaking, emphasizes precisely this “transcorporal” dimension. For Ward, diving into the caves of imagination is like being “devoured” and digested. The cave/theater becomes a stomach or, even better, a “womb” in which “bodies are entering and interacting with other bodies, emerging from other bodies.” Indeed, film is to be distinguished from other art forms—even from another representative art such as painting—by the fact that it depicts bodies in motion. And the language we attach to the filmmaking process—the camera as an eye, for instance—likewise evokes the idea of embodiment. The craft of filmmaking, then, might be judged by the extent to which it decenters our sense of self: Does a given film leave us as it found us, or (worse still) all the more confident in the categories we’ve devised for making sense of the world? Does it leave our body intact? Or rather, does it raze the bastions we’ve erected against “otherness” and push us toward some new exercise of imagination, toward some new birth of self? Thus Ward: “True film-making…offers us a seat in the planetarium of our vast and deep collective minds.” It is on this basis that we should understand Iñárritu’s criticism of Trump, from one mythmaker to another.

Some of the films I saw at Cannes succeeded by this measure: Monia Chokri’s La Femme de Mon Frère probed the porousness of the lines separating one person from another with wit and love. Bacurau, a standout Brazilian work by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, won the Jury Prize this year as a psychedelic, genre-bending exploration of group identity and memory. Other films failed miserably: Kantemir Balagov’s depraved sophomore outing, Beanpole, left me feeling only a cold disgust at the prospect of any human connection. But most of the films at least aimed at this kind of midwifery, this initiation into a more universal imagination.

What were we there in Cannes to worship, we pilgrims for film? And what were we seeking sanctuary from? The answer to both questions is the same: some sense of self, some experience of the other. We wanted to be digested in the belly of a story not our own. Whether these stories ultimately free us or enslave us is a question of politics—the question of politics. But they are our stories, as much in the viewing as in the telling. And in that sense, at least, the prayers that go up from Cannes this May will sustain us another year at least.

Published in the July 5, 2019 issue: 

Travis LaCouter is a DPhil candidate in theology at the University of Oxford.

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