It is not often that the opening day at the Cannes Film Festival turns out to be controversial, but this May as the 12-day event unrolled its landmark 70th edition on Wednesday, the air seemed to be pregnant with all things that are not what one has seen at the festival in a long, long time.
To begin with, the Cannes veteran, Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts, was unbelievably disappointing. No movie in this writer’s long history of Cannes coverage had been so silly. Despite some marvellous performances by Mathieu Amalric, Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Desplechin’s French work sank.
In fact, if Ismael’s Ghosts did not attract booing from Cannes critics -- known to be brutally acerbic -- it appeared to be only a sign of respect for a French work, and the fact that the festival was celebrating something as significant as seven decades of cinema. As the credits rolled marking the end of Ismael’s Ghosts, the hundreds of journalists at the screening rose without offering any sort of appreciation. No applause could be heard, and this seemed unusual. For, Cannes has somehow managed to get its opening night work right -- if this writer’s memory serves right.
The Guardian critic, Peter Bradshaw, damned the movie with the unkindest words one can ever imagine: “The Cannes Film Festival has begun with a twirl of pure time-wasting silliness from French film-maker and Cannes veteran Arnaud Desplechin. This is an unfinished doodle of a movie, a madly self-indulgent jeu d’esprit without substance: a sketch, or jumble of sketches, a ragbag of half-cooked ideas for other film projects, I suspect, that the director has attempted to salvage and jam together”.
One could not agree more with this veteran critic. Ismael’s Ghosts was confusing and jarred ever so often as it narrated the story of a movie director, Ismael (played by Amalric) -- who tags himself a widower 20 years after his wife, Carlotta (Cotillard), disappears causing anguish and pain. Not just to him, but also to her old father.
However, as Ismael is all set to helm his new film, Carlotta turns up with an explanation as vague as that she was wandering around the world, even getting married to an older guy in Delhi! Appeared like Cannes’ homage to India’s 70 years of Independence -- which falls this August.
This could not have been more of an upsetting development for Ismael -- who had in these decades learnt to accept his wife’s mysterious disappearance and console himself by offering his shoulders to the grieving father. Also, Ismael had in the meantime found new love, Sylvia (Gainsbourg). And it is into this cosy arrangement that Carlotta walks into looking unkempt and positively selfish.
Really, Amalric could not have offered a sillier piece of work, and Cannes could not have chosen a movie as terrible as this to herald something as important as its 70th edition.
Day one presented yet another shock with the jury conference turning into a platform for raising the ugly Netflix issue.
As we had written in these columns, the festival had picked two Netflix titles -- Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories -- to compete for the prestigious Palm dÓr. But in the face of immense resentment from the French theatrical lobby -- which insists that the festival’s titles be shown in the country’s cinemas, a venue that Netflix does not care about -- the festival announced that come 2018, the American streaming giant would have to agree to release its Cannes fare in the local theatres. This would be a non-negotiable pre-condition for inclusion in the festival’s main Competition.
And this proved to be a flashpoint at the jury press meet - which has seldom seen any kind of opposing views or debates. Certainly not in a long, long time.
But on Wednesday, two of the star jurors, president of the panel and Spanish master Pedro Almodovar and the Hollywood star, Will Smith, chose to use the meeting to air their differing views on the Netflix imbroglio.
Almodovar agreed with Cannes -- and also many other European festivals -- that films should be seen on the big screen. He even went to the extent of saying that a movie should not be considered for awards if they skipped the cinema. His defence was passionate.
Reading from a prepared statement, he said: “All this doesn’t mean I’m not open, or don’t celebrate the new technology and the possibilities they offer to us.
“But while I’m alive, I will be fighting for the one thing the new generation is not aware of -- the capacity of hypnosis of a large screen for a viewer.”
The director added that he could not think of a Palm Ór being given for a work that could not be seen in a cinema.
And he got a resounding applause from the dozens of journalists gathered there.
But Smith - known for some brilliant performances - stuck a diametrically opposing note when he quipped that he completely disagreed with the Spanish cinema legend. And obviously so, for the American actor has an under-production work with Netflix. He averred that his two children did go to the theatres, but also watched Netflix.
“There’s very little cross between going to the cinema and watching what they watch on Netflix,” he mused, saying they were “two different forms of entertainment” and that Netflix “brings a great amount of connectivity”.
For many Cannes veterans, including this writer, such open disagreement between two jurors during the inaugural media conference is unheard of. And one could hear some critics voicing concern over such lack of unanimity being aired so openly. Will this reflect on the outcome of the jury decision?
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Cannes Film Festival for over a quarter century.)
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