Cannes 2022 Dispatch:
A Curators’ Dialogue
By Eric Hynes and Edo Choi
This was the first year that Museum of the Moving Image’s film curators visited the Cannes Film Festival together. Curator of Film Eric Hynes was returning for the first time since 2019—the last pre-COVID iteration of the festival—while 2022 marked Assistant Curator Edo Choi’s debut on the Croisette. In the following exchange, conducted after their return to New York, Hynes and Choi compare notes on the scene, the culture of the festival, this year’s slate, and what it might mean for programming initiatives at the Museum over the coming year.
Eric Hynes: I’m very curious about your overall impressions, Edo. This being my third Cannes, I was struck by how familiar it felt. I had a similar feeling attending True/False Film Fest in March: that even though we’ve all been through hell and are likely all individually changed by these pandemic years, the rituals, locations, and learned behaviors are too deep-dyed to have faded much. I found this to be both reassuring and a bit alienating. The former because I’d feared that anything and everything I found valuable about this work could be obliterated by COVID’s quaking the foundations of film and its attendant industries. And the latter because, well, I have changed so much myself, such that even the familiar can feel strange these days. The various sections, each with its own curious characters, were all there—Main Competition, Out of Competition, Un Certain Regard, Classics, Quinzaine, Semaine de la critique, and the filmmaker-programmed ACID (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema)—and back in their familiar venues, presided over by managers, security guards, and programmers I’d last seen in these precise places, wearing the same uniforms, three years earlier.
The biggest change since 2019 was initiated last year, when attendance was drastically reduced while the quality of the films, thanks to a glut of then-unreleased major movies, was high. Gone were the hours of endless, snaking queues outside each of the festival’s venues, with a descending priority of colored badge holders being permitted, cattle-pen by cattle-pen, and inevitably denying a crowd of heat-struck suckers the satisfaction of seeing, say, Ron Howard’s Solo, for all their troubles. This year you knew, several days in advance, what films you could see, thanks to an online reservation system. All told, it was an improvement. But lo, there were also hiccups and frustrations, such as when the entire system melted down, days when nobody seemed to get the tickets they needed, and a 7:00 a.m. daily ticket launch that made it impossible to catch up on sleep. And since you and I had different badges, Edo, we didn’t have equal access to films we had hoped and planned to see.
Edo Choi: Indeed, for me there was a real learning curve for Cannes, far steeper than that for the Berlinale, which I also attended for the first time this year. I have no basis for comparing this Cannes to previous years, but it certainly felt like business as usual on the Croisette, perhaps a tad desperately so, as if to insist, “we’re still the center of your cinematic multiverse,” and what most impressed me within 24 hours of my arrival was that this business seemed often to have very little to do with the movies on showcase. I’ll confess to being disillusioned and disappointed at the extent to which this festival, more so than any other I’ve attended, leaves so little space for reflection on what one has seen. This has less to do with the tightness of the scheduling, the rushing from one venue to the next, and cramming of meals and meetings in between—conditions that also prevailed at the Berlinale and I would assume all the large market festivals—than the whole tenor of the event, which places such a rarefied, Old World emphasis on exclusivity, regimentation, and pageantry.
As I was visiting the festival on a film professional accreditation, in order to see the premieres of the most anticipated competition titles I would attend the red-carpet screenings at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, as opposed to the coterminous press screenings in the Salle Debussy. For a first timer, the pomp of these events is something to behold, and it was especially touching to bear witness to the ceremony the festival creates around the filmmakers and their teams. Seeing a visibly moved James Gray thank the audience after the premiere of his autobiographical Armageddon Time was a personal highlight. “It’s my story in a way, and you guys shared it with me,” he said through tears. At the same time, it was dismaying to note the not-negligible number of walkouts, at practically every screening regardless of film, by guests who I surmise had come specifically to walk the carpet, have their picture taken, and then get on with their evening, like opera patrons in a Max Ophüls film. Meanwhile, outside the Palais, one would observe a standby line of dozens, even, in the case of Crimes of the Future, hundreds of people, standing for hours, cordoned off to the side by security. Many of these attendees were younger patrons, often film students on cinephile accreditations, all of them, I’m sure, would’ve told you they were there for the movie itself, and most of them ultimately wouldn’t be getting in.
EH: Such pageantry certainly cuts both ways—in one respect it’s the highest pedestal available for the exhibition of cinema, and thus something to preserve (even if desperately, as you put it) whilst film culture sinks further and further into the quicksand of streaming. (Pre-COVID, Cannes took a stand against Netflix on behalf of theatrical exhibition; post-COVID, the New York Times scarcely reviews a film if it’s not available online). In another respect, all that pizzazz is indeed ludicrous, and not conducive to film discussion or debate. Yet I’m not sure if market and industry-led film festivals are ever a great place for discourse. One aspect underdiscussed in the wake of the controversy around the choice to program the documentary Jihad Rehab at this year’s Sundance is how that festival, for all its down-home trappings and indie film bona fides, is also not very conducive to genuine discourse surrounding the quality or ethics of the works they’re premiering. These are festivals built to launch films, not evaluate or argue over them. That’s not an ideal environment for people like us—i.e. programmers, critics, and cinephiles who live for that kind of prismatic diffusion—even if the festival couldn’t actually function without the people like us who spend all year sifting, watching, and debating amongst ourselves to program the films.
Maybe we should shift to that aspect of things, then—to the distinct sections I mentioned above and what we might discern about their programming. I’ll start with an observation that does complicate the notion that Cannes is all about the red carpets and paparazzi: the Quinzaine and Critics’ Week sections have a very different format and feel to them. The former, with premieres located in a two-tier theater underneath the JW Marriott, actually makes room for Q&As with directors, cast and crew; while the latter, situated in a Walter Reade Theater–sized screening room downstairs at the Hotel Miramar, lets its programmers speak at length about why they’ve selected a film, and then offers each member of the cast and crew a chance to introduce it. I’ve found these approaches put me in a different frame of mind—a mind of selection, craft, and process—than when I’m in the Lumière or Debussy, where each screening is preceded by an infamous bumper in which a staircase of auteurs is ascended until heaven, aka Cannes, is reached. We both saw numerous films in those two sections: without giving away our thoughts or intentions about individual films, what were your general feelings about their character and quality?
EC: The Quinzaine was my favorite program at Cannes, not for the up-or-down quality of the work, which felt, at best, uneven, but exactly because of the no-nonsense and film-first style of presentation to which you’re referring. In contradistinction to that of the main festival, even the Quinzaine’s bumper, which consisted of a montage of stills and clips from former Quinzaine selections set to a low-key piano track, placed emphasis on the contingent glories of specific movie moments rather than the transcendent glory of its own brand. As many Cannes observers and critics have already noted, the lackluster 2022 lineups likely have more to do with the reduced capacities of local and regional film industries in the wake of the pandemic than with any flagging of the dedicated efforts of festival programmers. Rotterdam, Sundance, and Berlin also had weaker lineups than those of previous years, so it’s unsurprising, in retrospect, that the Cannes programs trended similarly. A good programming team will always make keen and unconventional choices, even in an off year, and that’s exactly what I saw reflected in the films at the Quinzaine and in the unfussy manner with which Paolo Moretti and the rest of the committee presented them. I was underwhelmed by a number of the movies that I saw at the Marriott, but crucially not a single one felt like a canned recycling of festival film orthodoxies around subject matter, genre, or mode of presentation. In particular, Mark Jenkins’s Enys Men was one of the only authentically experimental films I had seen at the festival, espousing a far more idiosyncratic, handmade sensibility than any other film being presented within miles. Jenkins had made the journey, and mentioned in his introduction that the film was a tribute to the remote part of Cornwall where he grew up, a broken transmission from a vanishing, pre-modern world. In the hyper plugged-in, now officially TikTok-sponsored environment of Cannes, the visitation of this artisanal maker and their work felt like a reprieve.
In the end, I was only able to see a few films in Critics’ Week, but, as you know, we programmed two films out of the 2021 program for this year’s First Look at MoMI, Omar El Zohairy’s Feathers and Julie Lecoustre and Emmanuel Marre's Zero Fucks Given, both narrative films that, to read about them, might sound more straight-ahead and less abrasive than they make as viewing experiences. One of the major problems confronting critics and curators in this discourse-fueled age is how to discern and then defend the genuinely original, particularly when dealing with work that assumes more familiar, easily subsumable forms. In the case of contemporary narrative film, I think it has become particularly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, but the Critics’ Week team leans into the task of finding and championing works that are fresh and distinctive in unassuming, hard-to-spot ways. This year, their big find by acclamation is Aftersun, but even those selections I saw that weren’t as completely successful had memorable qualities—an incandescent performance in one, a third act formal heel-turn in another—that suggested the sensitive eye with which they had been selected.
EH: One crucial note for programmers like us, which applies to these sections as well as to those playing in the big house: although it’s the most consequential international film festival in the world, Cannes is also a French film festival, and each section needs to have significant representation by French filmmakers. This dictum has little to do with the selection of an Arnaud Desplechin (Official Competition) or Mia Hansen-Løve (Quinzaine), but it does result in some dicier offerings along the margins. At best, a truly promising independent artist can receive a much bigger platform here than they (or any comparable artist at any other national festival) could otherwise get; at worst, and too often, the movies aren’t very good, and certainly aren’t worth our time as we scout for New York imports. Sometimes the movies are fascinating from an industrial or sociological standpoint—French genre exercises seem particularly preoccupied these days with postcolonial reckonings from the limited perspective of hand-wringing colonialists—but that’s not why we’re subsisting on stale bag-stashed bread and (admittedly excellent, cheap) rosé and catching four hours of sleep on an Mitterand-era futon for eight days. No, we’re there instead for…Top Gun: Maverick? Or Crimes of the Future, which I was thrilled to see but also came out theatrically in New York just one week later? No matter how much I prepare and strategize, it’s hard to justify and account for every decision we make at the festival. Neither of us works for a major media outlet demanding that we cover these titles, but it’s still hard to restrain ourselves from riding the wave of marketing-inspired buzz, from having and offering an opinion at the earliest possible moment.
Since our jobs at Cannes were twofold, encouraging us to watch as both programmers and critics, we couldn’t just ignore the hot titles (though we did indeed ignore Top Gun, the only title anyone asked me about when I returned home, natch), and you’ll certainly never see a bigger audience for Armageddon Time than you did at that premiere, which I think holds significant meaning as it pertains to film viewership. But it’s also crucial to ignore those waves, to show up at a screening for a film about which you know nothing. This is how you make discoveries, or more how you can see what the programmers have discovered for you. Since it’s what we want folks to do at our festival, First Look, it’s important that we take those leaps ourselves. (Even if it means countenancing a just-okay French film every now and then.) We haven’t compared all our notes yet, but we did make some of those discoveries at Cannes. For all the noise Cannes generates—and for all of the value that might have for the industry—my positive takeaways from this year were almost entirely unanticipated. Yes, I loved the new Claire Denis, and I’m excited about the Sergei Loznitsa, Patricio Guzman, and Verena Pereval/Lucien Castaing-Taylor documentaries (more on those in a forthcoming Make It Real column), but my Cannes was defined by titles like Godland, Joyland, Return to Seoul, and Rodeo. Films I’m eager to tell people about and showcase, rather than films I feel compelled to “weigh in” on.
EC: I’ll be honest, I was hoping for more discoveries. The four titles you mention, all of which I missed, were part of Un Certain Regard. Based on your and others’ enthusiasm, that section might have had the freshest, if not necessarily the strongest, slate in this year’s festival, but I think I drew poorly. I did see four films in the program, two of which weren’t bad but none that inspired. In the Quinzaine, however, I found a few titles to take away with me. I was, above all, impressed by the Ukrainian director Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Pamfir, a bravura piece of long take cinema, vaguely redolent in its technique and folkloric themes of earlier films produced in the Ukraine, but at the same time setting out on its own rugged and ruthlessly contemporary path. I also liked aspects of El Agua (Spain) and The Dam (Sudan), two hallucinatory works of docufiction from wildly different parts of the world. In collaboration with her son, the great French writer Annie Ernaux has taken the Super 8 home movies her husband shot of their family life over a decade and crafted a disarmingly sincere reflection on the drifting post-’68 leftist bourgeoisie in her gossamer The Super 8 Years.
And speaking of French movies, Philippe Faucon, Alice Winocour, and Léa Mysius all turned in pretty good films! Mysius, who worked with Desplechin on the screenplays for his Ismael’s Ghosts and Oh Mercy! and co-wrote the script for the new Claire Denis film, shows some real chops with her black magic thriller The Five Devils, a movie I wish wouldn’t have settled for skimming along the surface of so many of its themes, but which nonetheless keeps you in its grip from start to finish. The young actress Sally Dramé who plays the lead, alongside Adèle Exarchopoulos as her mother, is a real find, and the film is shot on beautifully underexposed 35mm by Paul Guilhaume (Paris, 13th District). Winocour’s Paris Memories is a vehicle for Virginie Efira, so it helps that Efira has quickly become one of the most compelling actresses at work in France. The film investigates the self-shattering effects of post-traumatic stress upon a woman who survives a restaurant shooting, clearly inspired by the terrorist attacks of November 2015. Its successes and insights are of the micro variety, but it plays its refusal to go macro as a strength. Finally, Faucon avoids the postcolonial trend you’ve divined by the skin of his teeth with Les Harkis, which resurfaces the shameful history of the French government’s abandonment of French Algerian soldiers after their withdrawal from the country in 1962. With one of the driest, most stripped-down approaches to a period setting I’ve seen in quite some time, the film accumulates real moral power by hewing to a minimalist blow-by-blow historical account that might verge on the systematic were it not for its baked-in allowance of unexpected moments of human connection, in this case most poignantly between the Harki volunteer Salah (Mohamed Mouffok) and the white French lieutenant Pascal (Théo Cholbi).
EH: I also admired El Agua, The Dam, and Pamfir, and there’s a lot to like about La Jauría (Colombia), which won the top prize at Critics’ Week. But I also found myself maxing out on films led by silent, steely male protagonists who inevitably burst, act out, or self-immolate in the third act, which might be why I was especially enamored of Rodeo (about an ace motorcycle thief) and Return to Seoul (about an adopted Korean woman who belatedly meets her birth parents), which starred verbose, volatile, mercurial women. There are genre elements strongly at play in each film, yet they feature protagonists and performances that strain against such packaging and predictability, such that I genuinely didn’t know where things were headed or where these women would want to take us. That’s what I tend to want from festivals, Cannes perhaps most of all. I don’t want to travel so far, to an environment explicitly international in purview, just have my expectations met. And maybe that’s why I was thrown by the familiarity of the environs. Since our world has been changed so much over these years—politically, culturally, psychologically—I’m wanting to see this reflected. In my experience, few things have ever explored shifts and changes, both major and minute, more successfully and compellingly than cinema. A wayward French girl steals a motorcycle from some suburban patsy, and has nowhere to go but fast, and I’m nowhere but there.
Photo by Edo Choi.