Cannes 2019: Portrait of a Festival on Fire

In less than a week, the Cannes Film Festival sees the premiere of Celiné Sciamma’s Palme d’Or contender, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a fitting title when considering the festival’s identity of late. It’s apt for two reasons that exist on opposite ends of the socio-cultural spectrum.

In one sense, the festival is ablaze in cultural prominence. It remains the north star for all wandering cinephiles who yearn for creatively diverse artistic exploration of the medium, a respite from mind-numbing spectacle. Whether you’re lost in a megaplex sea of stale blockbusters or still scrolling through shoddy straight-to-streaming leftovers, you can always look to past Cannes lineups to point you toward a goldmine of films you won’t forget — films that offer new perspectives, challenge the way you think, glow with originality, and meet a certain threshold of artistic merit, no matter how unalike.

The programming is as strong as ever, with modern masters flocking to the scene as if there is only one place for their newest feature to premiere. The thought of Pedro Almodóvar, Jim Jarmusch, the Dardennes, Arnaud Desplechin, Ken Loach, Terrence Malick, Bong Joon-ho, or Sciamma debuting their long-awaited new films elsewhere is relatively preposterous, barring a timing issue that lands one of them at Venice or Toronto. The directors want to be there as much as the programmers want them to be there. So long as that feeling is mutual, it’s hard to imagine anyone overtaking the French festival on its eminent throne.

Take Quentin Tarantino’s star-studded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for example. It was originally missing from the announced lineup, but that didn’t squash the media’s assertion that the film would end up premiering on the only stage fitting for it, despite already having a July wide release date set in stone. Alas, less than two weeks before the festival, Tarantino was finished with the cut and his film was officially announced, the yearning for its inclusion seemingly mutual.

And if the directors keep coming, so will the stars, themselves another chapter title in the handbook of Cannes cultural significance. Not only are they one of Cannes’ major attractions in their own right, but they ignite a glitzy high-fashion scene throughout the small rustic beach town that pairs dreamily with the Côte d’Azur, a glass of wine, and paradisian summer weather.

They don elegant handcrafted gowns and tuxedos as they saunter up the steps of the Palais des Festivals, the breeze of the royal blue ocean fanning their stardust into the air for all to be intoxicated by it. Chief designers at Gucci, Prada, Dior, Givenchy, Balmain, and more pull the loftiest tricks from their sleeves for the red carpet while the fashionistas across the globe tune in from afar with gleaming eyes. People who couldn’t care less about film come to Cannes for fashion and star power alone.

This year is as good an example as any. We expect to see Isabelle Huppert, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Penelope Cruz, Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, Antonio Banderas, Léa Seydoux, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Robert Pattinson, and Willem Dafoe take the Croisette, and that’s just getting started. There’s zero doubt they’ll all be looking fly as fuck.

Every film festival has its mantra, and Cannes’ is quality — the most illustrious celebs adorned in the most luxuriant fashion in the most elysian town. It stirs confidence, the kind of confidence that led Festival Director Thierry Frémaux to recently quip, “Roma, I’ll remind you, was a Cannes Film Festival film, but one we showed in Venice.” The joke didn’t land with the press, but Frémaux implicitly stated what we all know to be true: Cannes gets the best films. It always has and there’s little reason to believe that’s going to stop now.

However, if there is one thing that will slow Cannes down, it’s Frémaux & company’s insistence on doing things the way they’ve always been done. In most cases, that preservation of tradition is warmly welcomed for the sake of honoring the rich history of the medium on a diverse, international stage. Yet, that diversity has only ever extended toward the ethnicity of the filmmakers, not the gender. In continuing the tradition they’ve been tasked with carrying on, they also keep the custom of a male-dominated festival alive and well. And in doing so, Cannes quite openly neglects the talent of women and gender non-conforming directors everywhere.

In this sense, Cannes is aflame with social and ethical criticism and only trying plaintively to put the fire out. Over the years it has solidified itself as an unreliable source of gender inclusivity. In 71 years, Cannes has only slated 82 films by women, Variety reports. In contrast, a whopping 1,600 plus films by men have competed for the Palme d’Or, leaving women at a shockingly low 4.3 percent of all films ever played in competition. Jane Campion is the only winner among them.

Of course, I’m far from the first one to point this out. Decades of frustration and cries of inequality culminated in an 82-woman protest led by Jury President Cate Blanchett and their beloved Agnés Varda last year on the red carpet. And what did Cannes do? Well, they made the right decision — a rarity for people in power over institutions. Frémaux signed a parity clause that he guaranteed would be met by 2020 and openly acknowledged the ugly state of affairs, critiquing Cannes’ “practices, traditions, habits, and history,” and noting that “Cannes has stats that speak for themselves — and in a negative way.”

Yet here we are, halfway through the working period of the clause, and there are only four women in competition at the 2019 festival. Many have noted that the number is relatively high (the most since 2011) as if to suggest it should satisfy our gender diversity expectations. No, Frémaux signed a 50-50 parity clause, not a 75-25 parity clause, which he would still be one film short of. And given that they’ve slated four women in competition before, it doesn’t stand out as an explicit move in the right direction. Some might argue 13 out of 47 films originally announced across multiple sections of the festival is a more impressive number. But, it’s a minuscule difference, both landing below 30 percent.

The disappointment in gender diversity this year comes across like the festival clinging to its final year of lopsided gender representation, or worse, a transparent signal that parity will not be achieved in the coming years at all. Sciamma, Jessica Hausner, Justine Triet, and newcomer Mati Diop are all exciting prospects in this year’s lineup, but there’s a gaping wound that still needs treatment and there’s only one year left to bandage it. In the meantime, there should be no sighs of relief or articles of appreciation until parity is met.

The festival has always had their favorites — e.g. Campion, Claire Denis, Sofia Coppola, and Varda (pictured in memoriam on this year’s sunset-themed poster, effortlessly mounted on a camera technician’s shoulders while shooting La Pointe Courte in 1962)—but favorites will not cut it. New voices are needed and plenty pass Cannes’ standards with flying colors. Not to mention, parity is in the festival’s best interest artistically.

It’s not merely a social issue. There are countless astounding women directing films that would enrich and further diversify Cannes’ lineup every year beyond the aspect of social representation. Look to Dominga Sotomayor Castillo, Chloé Zhao, Josephine Decker, Dee Rees, Lucrecia Martel, Andrea Arnold, Kelly Reichardt, Anna Biller, Sara Colangelo, Mira Nair, Marielle Heller, Lucile Hadžihalilović. They’re doing things with a pen and a camera that are reshaping the medium.

Still, there is another problem facing the festival, and while it only minimally affects the programmers’ ability to slate films made by women, it proves to be a more holistic challenge across the board: Netflix. Cannes and Netflix have been at a standstill for two years now ever since the festival programmed a couple of Netflix films in competition and met backlash from the lion’s share of the industry in France for highlighting films that wouldn’t get screened in French cinemas.

Frémaux insists that relations are tip top between Cannes and Netflix, and while it’s easy to imagine him and Reed Hastings being friendly and having a drink together on a yacht in the marina, the media speculation of this whole conflict isn’t personal. It’s not about a fight between two people. It’s about a fight between two institutions — one representing tradition and the other, modernity — powerful enough to play a significant role in determining the future of film.

Both parties want worthy Netflix films by master auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón to play at the festival. It’s a win-win situation. That’s not the issue. The heart of the issue lies in an anachronistic French windowing law that prohibits any film screened in theatres from streaming until three years after its theatrical debut. With a business model reliant on immediate streaming, Netflix is obviously not going to play their films in French cinemas. They will avoid this law at all costs.

Cannes is backed into a corner with two parties screaming at them. On one hand, the French film industry lambasts them for even considering supporting a film that rejects the theatrical experience, the pinnacle and foundation of the medium. On the other hand, Netflix chides them for participating in such a ridiculous windowing law. But Cannes does not make the laws, so as long that one stands in place, will anything change?

Netflix will continue to refuse Cannes’ honors for Palme d’Or consideration like they did with Roma, and Cannes will continue to exist under the law of the land they live in and hold fast to French tradition that prioritizes the art and experience of the medium over the trending consumerism and technological immediacy that they find laughingly unimportant. Frémaux has been abundantly clear on this point.

“But we remain vigilant because it is an essential movement that will change our habits and will change more in the future with the new [streaming services],” he asserted at the same press conference he joked about Roma at. Though, he is understanding of Netflix’s position and feels vindicated in the festival’s priorities, saying, “They aren’t there yet and we understand that very well… And we aren’t there, I dare say, far from it — especially when we receive the encouragement of Steven Spielberg or Jean-Luc Godard and exhibitors and a great many filmmakers. We don’t want to accept films in competition that won’t meet audiences in theaters.

If you’re doing the math, you realize there’s a happy medium here. Netflix plays at Cannes, theatrically distributes their film in France, puts on their website for streaming whenever the hell they want to (realistically, after the theatrical run is over), and they run the whole thing back the next year. The only thing standing in the way? The window law. Hence, it is the crux of the conflict. But Frémaux seems hopeful looking ahead. “Generally speaking, we can’t have fixed windows for all films. We have to find rules that are more supple and evolving,” he admitted.

Wherever institutions take us, for better or worse, we will find a way to adapt. If 15 years from now, Netflix has monopolized Hollywood film production and controls the industry so handily that Cannes absolutely has to deny the theatrical experience and accept Netflix films without compromise, we’ll find something to celebrate. Or maybe it will swing toward the other extreme. Netflix continues to finance auteurs and give them creative control, but France won’t budge on its laws or its spectatorial ethic, so Netflix and Cannes remain deadlocked forever. We will still find something to celebrate while we critically engage the topic.

And let’s be honest. As of right now, Cannes is in the clear without Netflix and vice versa. They’re like high school hallway friends who only wave and mutter salutations in awkward one-on-one situations they can’t avoid, but are otherwise content without one another, albeit unaware of their true potential together.

All the same, Sciamma’s hotly anticipated new film is an apt metaphor for the festival engulfed in flames. The questions then become: which ones can they put out and which can they keep burning? How long can they maintain an ontology that shirks the necessity of gender equality and representation? How long can they remain in a cold war with a streaming giant who is transforming the industry exponentially? How long can they keep a steady source of oxygen to the fire of their film festival reign? Perhaps Cannes 2019 will provide some answers.

Luke Hicks: @lou_kicks Luke bleeds film and music, got his master's in film & ethics at Duke, and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or basketball.