Cannes 2023 Dispatch:
A Curators’ Dialogue
By Eric Hynes and Edo Choi
For the second year in a row, Museum of the Moving Image’s film curators visited the Cannes Film Festival together. In the following exchange, begun while on the ground at the Croisette, Hynes and Choi pass notes in the hall between screenings, discussing the culture of and around the festival, the occasional confusion of categories, the anxiety of trying to catch it all, and, yes, the occasional film.
Edo Choi: Eric, as we cross the halfway point, I genuinely am energized by this year’s festival. It’s a notable contrast to last year, my first in Cannes, when I couldn’t help feeling a sense of disappointment with the unglamorous reality of this most mythologized of film events. I can’t attribute this change in feeling to the films themselves, which taken together don’t strike me as markedly better or worse than last year’s. Nor can I attribute it to the weather—definitely worse. Rather I think I’ve just hit my stride with Cannes’s peculiar, and peculiarly designed, rhythm. With the cadence and density of its scheduling, the anxieties of its overtaxed (though now functioning) ticketing system, and its teeming human scale, Cannes can be an exhausting experience, and, as I remember Kent Jones once reporting for Film Comment, it’s a great place to see movies but a terrible one to actually think about them. This is because we are so inundated by the quicksilver formation of lines of debate around anything from a particular film, an overall slate, a backstage scandal, or an outfit on the red carpet.
This year, I’ve somehow managed to insulate myself from this phenomenon. I’ve not been reading much coverage of the festival or its films, and I’ve had as few of those self-reflexive “state of the festival” conversations with peers as possible. Instead, I’ve simply tried to see as many films as I can spiritually accommodate, while scheduling a healthy amount of downtime to explore the revitalized Marché du Film, which has apparently set a new record for attendance. Finally, it’s this sense of a return to business as usual that I think has made this year’s experience so satisfying thus far. The art of cinema, and the industry that undergirds it, has been through a lot since 2019, but somehow it’s still here, still alive in the south of France, and I’m immensely thankful to be witnessing it.
Eric Hynes: Edo, I’m inspired by your positivity and gratitude. Maybe if we watched more movies together it could rub off on me. That the art and industry have survived is indeed heartening. As is the fact that these grand rooms in this weird beach town remain annually in service to significant new works of cinema. But I'm struggling with a few aspects of the “festival experience” at the moment (while not boring either of us with further complaints of sleep, sustenance, and deprivation of normal adult conversation).
As I did last year, I've come to Cannes via Warsaw, where I attended the Millennium Docs Against Gravity festival, and the whiplash of going from a country bordering Ukraine to a city and festival that prides themselves in living in Teflon, self-mythologized, half-fictionalized versions of their former selves, has been wicked. The best film I saw at MDAG, which won Best Polish Film from a jury on which I served, was In the Rearview, in which Polish filmmaker Maciek Hamela is also the driver of a van evacuating Ukrainians from their homes to points westward, usually to the Polish border. Nearly all of the film takes place inside that van and from a small set of vantages, not just evoking films such as Abbas Kiarostami's Ten and Jafar Panahi's Taxi, but also, in its ability to immerse us in the experience, the nowness, the meaning, and significance of movement, earning a place among such company. In the Rearview is also here at Cannes, in the scrappy ACID section for first features and films without French distribution, but so far this year there's been even less lip service paid to what's happening beyond the Croisette, just more stopwatch journalism bemoaning running times and beholding ovation durations.
Another not especially new thing I'm struggling with pertains to the films themselves. Every day I walk into a theater excited to discover something, seeking out filmmakers and national cinemas about which I've everything to learn, and instead encounter familiar forms and stories. The stoic, silent young man whose promising future is imperiled by an explosion of violence in the third act; the beautiful young woman bristling against societal repression; the abusive or absent fathers; the overbearing or absent mothers; the entirety of a region's culture and history funneled into a single character/vessel who/that looks striking in a thumbnail image. Day after day, it can get wearying at best, depressing at worst. Are we failing to adapt to the rapidly changing world? Does an industry dependent on tenuous funding and international coproductions and infinite pitching sessions and rough cuts inevitably lead us to a bland sameness? Or is this just a function of what is preferred at Cannes, by programmers, producers, sales agents, and state funders? I've got some theories, but right now my questions prevail, perhaps in hopes that there’s something simpler and more fixable that I’m overlooking.
Edo Choi: In fairness to the stopwatch journalists among us, many of the replacement-level films you describe have overstayed their welcome this year, hammering the same tired narrative tropes and rote formal gestures over the course of an average two-hour plus running time. If festival movies aren’t growing longer, they’re also certainly not getting any shorter. It’s less a matter of length than the pervasive lack of economy and dispatch in these films, which often feel as though the filmmakers have hewed so dutifully to scenarios crafted to satisfy their various stakeholders—labs, fellowships, funds—that their initial spark of inspiration has been snuffed out, as surely as the magic marble of light harnessed by the indigenous orphan (eleven year-old Aswan Reid) in Warwick Thornton’s The New Boy vanishes after he is baptized by the desperately well-meaning Sister Eileen (Cate Blanchett). Thornton’s film, presented early in Un Certain Regard, cultivates a form of broad storybook populism that recalls the overstated aesthetics of inspirational, made-for-TV dramas I watched as a child in the nineties. Like Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn, it approaches a traumatic subject with a soft, bright tone that somehow never completely sublimates the profound pain it exists to express. At the same time, Thornton’s visual style can feel mannered and overwrought. If his film is not a complete success, it’s nonetheless a rare, wholly idiosyncratic expression at Cannes. Unfortunately, one can’t quite justify it as a discovery. Thornton may not be a household name among cinephiles in the United States, but he has been making films for more than 20 years and has even recently been featured on the Criterion Channel.
For me, the one true discovery of this year’s festival has been Rosine Mbakam’s fiction debut Mambar Pierrette (pictured above), the highlight of Quizaine des Cinéastes. Mbakam herself is already an established documentary filmmaker, but hopefully this film will mark a career breakthrough. A portrait of Pierrette Aboheu, a real-life seamstress in Douala, Cameroon, Mambar Pierrette isn’t merely “closely observed” or “intimate.” Rather it’s a film made with such a knowing, familial complicity with its subject and her social environment that the presumably fictional events out of which it has been constructed flow as fluidly and naturally from one to another as the commingling currents of a river. I certainly would have welcomed more films like Mbakam’s at Cannes this year, but one is more than enough to sustain my spirit for these closing days.
Eric Hynes: You've made me want to see Mambar Pierrette, that’s for certain. It always feels like just as I’ve gotten my footing during the early part of the festival and sorted out what’s worth seeing, what’s worth seeing isn’t playing anymore. Another nonfiction-to-narrative director made one of the standouts of Critics’ Week, which this year seemed overladen with autobiographically infused minor-key dramas in the wake of last year’s Aftersun breakout. While Paloma Sermon-Daï's It’s Raining in the House fits that description, it finds its own lane through the lived-in specificity of a Belgian lakeside community and the unique dynamic between teenaged siblings played by real-life brother and sister Makenzy and Purdey Lombet. Purdey is nearing 18 and planning for a life outside their rundown house. But since their mother is an alcoholic who frequently ghosts them for weeks at a time, Purdey can’t abandon the brooding, disorderly, pubescent Makenzy, whose needs for attention and care are glaringly obvious. They play against each other with equal parts antagonism and affection, innately knowing that their only safe outlet for expressing either extreme is with each other.
Meanwhile, a narrative-to-nonfiction turn charmed me far more than I expected it would. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Pictures of Ghosts sees the Bacurau filmmaker stalk the homes and halls of his hometown of Recife, Brazil, mixing archival footage, home movies, playfully staged encounters, and the director’s warm, inquisitive voiceover to create an entertaining, stealthily profound rumination on all that lingers and fades in the spaces we occupy and abandon. Pictures of Ghosts played in the outrageously rich Special Screenings section, which tends to be where nonfiction films orphaned by Cannes’s unyielding auteurism—vaguely old school, self-serious, con brio, Sean Penn–adjacent—are relegated. This year the section had films by Wim Wenders, Steve McQueen, Pedro Almodóvar, Pedro Costa, and Wang Bing. Both Wenders and Bing actually had other features in the Main Competition; one premiered on the day of this missive and the other premiered earlier in the festival—I plan to cover on a forthcoming Make It Real column.
Where a film plays within the festival can’t possibly matter to anyone not currently power-downing 5-euro rosés in tacky tourist-trap bistros right now, but it’s serious business here nonetheless. On the occasion of what might be his cinematic swan song, Open Your Eyes, 82-year-old Spanish director Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive) elected not to travel to Cannes in protest of festival director Thierry “The Fighter” Fremaux apparently never informing Erice of the section in which his ambling and uneven 169-minute opus would appear. It played in “Cannes Premiere,” neither in Competition nor “Out of Competition,” and thus without the red-carpet fanfare offered Sam Levinson’s instantly ignoble episodic trash The Idol. The level of ick in the air here can’t be understated and somehow endures, unrepentantly, proudly, regardless of however else society and the industry and most other festivals evolve.