Max Borg’s Cannes Film Festival 2023 Diary

Following two extra-large lineups in 2021 and 2022, partly motivated by a desire to support films ahead of their theatrical release in France (most movies playing at the event already have distribution before the premiere), the Cannes Film Festival stated its intention of scaling things back for 2023, with an Official Selection more in line, in terms of quality, with pre-pandemic years. 

While this was technically true, one key detail quickly revealed the flipside of the statement: by virtue of having a few too many films clocking in at 150 minutes or more, the available slots were roughly the same as in the previous two years, with scheduling proving to be a bit of a nightmare in some venues: the Debussy theater, home to the official screenings of Un Certain Regard and Cannes Premiere as well as several press screenings (some of which were supposed to start at 11 PM), was particularly beset by delays on a daily basis throughout the first week of the festival. 

Such an arrangement ended up doing little favors to the films themselves, and even some of the directors spoke out on the matter. Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice went as far as publishing an open letter explaining his choice to be absent at the premiere of his fourth feature film (and his first since 1992), the magnificent Close Your Eyes. A moving meditation on time, friendship and the impact of movies, even in an unfinished state (complete with scenes extolling the virtues of the preservation of physical film prints), it was by far the best work playing at the festival overall. Which meant, of course, it was excluded from the main competition, relegated to the by now cumbersome Cannes Premiere sidebar. 

A similar fate befell Takeshi Kitano, who was back in Cannes for the first time in thirteen years with the gloriously violent samurai epic Kubi. His customary knack for on-screen carnage was transposed from the crime genre to the costume drama, with more than enough decapitations to make up for the dense plotting, which may prove a bit hard to follow for anyone who isn’t a Japanese history buff. 

Not that the Competition didn’t boast a few strong entries in its own right. While I didn’t see four of the big winners (including the Palme d’Or), I was among those who readily embraced Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves, which won the Jury Prize and would make for a perfect double bill with Ken Loach’s The Old Oak. Both filmmakers have a recognizably unfussy style, deal with the underdogs of society, and use drinking establishments as key locations. But whereas Kaurismäki used his new film to come out of retirement, Loach has stated this is his swansong, so the bittersweet conclusions – another hallmark of both directors – hit very differently at the end of each screening. 

Conversely, one wonders what Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Black Flies, a meandering drama about paramedics in New York City, was doing in the Competition lineup (beyond the obvious answer that festival head Thierry Frémaux is tight with lead actor Sean Penn). What made it stand out like even more of a sore thumb was its standing beside the other two U.S. contenders for the Palme d’Or: Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, which adds a creative crisis angle to the usual take-it-or-leave-it quirky shenanigans (personally, I took it, at least for now), and Todd Haynes’s May December, a clever analysis of media scandals and the relationship between truth and fiction, with Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore as an increasingly brilliant double act. 

The Cannes Classics strand, which showcases restored films and documentaries about cinema, scored the festival’s biggest coup with the world premiere of Jean-Luc Godard’s final work, a posthumous short film that, in true Godard fashion, is pitched as a trailer for a different film that will never exist. Less poignant, but interesting nonetheless, was the documentary Room 999, a sequel to Wim Wenders’ 1982 effort Room 666. This time around, the German director was one of the interviewees on the subject of the future of cinema. A repetitive exercise, with streaming singled out as the main culprit should the art of motion pictures die out, but select answers were more thought out or just admirably weird, such as Kirill Serebrennikov’s completely wordless take on the matter. 

Speaking of streaming, HBO Max (or rather, just Max) was also in the Cannes Classics program with the first part of its tribute to Warner Bros’ 100th anniversary, but the real oddity was the surprise comeback of Netflix. Famously barred from the Competition due to a 2018 clause that makes it mandatory for all entries to have a traditional theatrical release in France, the company was one of the producing partners involved in this year’s opening film, Maïwenn’s Jeanne Du Barry

And giving the opening slot to that movie, a confused period piece that tries to be irreverent and conventional at the same time, was the perfect metaphor for the festival’s current condition, as it tries to embrace modernity while staying true to its decades-long traditions. Johnny Depp, a major talking point prior to the premiere due to his troubled recent legal history, was surprisingly subdued both on and off screen, underplaying as Louis XV (probably because he had to deliver his lines in French) and then putting his supposed comeback in perspective, showing a more realistic worldview than his most ardent fans. 

As for the closing screening, that honor went to Pixar’s Elemental, a charming, funny, and visually ambitious animated adventure that harkens back to the feel of simpler days for the Emeryville studio, back when Disney didn’t treat its crown jewel – animation – as though it were just a content farm for streaming platforms. As such, there’s a certain romantic mindset in the choice of giving the festival’s final slot, in the prestigious Grand Théâtre Lumière, to a film that is likely to face an uphill battle at the box office as a result of two years’ worth of destructive business decisions for Disney’s two animation studios. 

The Mouse was also present with Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, which managed to pull off the near impossible task of making some attendees nostalgic for the Cannes screening of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull fifteen years ago. And yet, James Mangold pulled off the kind of old-fashioned adventures the previous installment had partially undermined with its CGI excesses, giving our favorite archeologist the send-off he deserves. 

Of course, it would have been nice to let as many people as possible partake in that joy, but another casualty of the festival’s programming bulimia was Indy’s curtain call having only two screenings, as opposed to the usual four or five. Granted, everyone will be able to see the movie a month from now, but the idea of Indiana Jones being a niche phenomenon in the context of the world’s most prestigious film festival sort of says it all about how the event has become too big for its own good. It’s no longer about promoting cinema as a versatile art form, it’s about having the largest collection possible, viewers be damned.

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