The 70th Cannes Film Festival ended on Sunday, with Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s biting social satire The Square winning the Palme d’Or. It was an interesting choice from the Pedro Almodóvar-led jury, a rare comedy win and something of a welcome rebuke to a darkness that consumed much of the competition lineup. (Though, there is plenty of darkness in Östlund’s film.) In a year marked, and marred, by political anxieties, Cannes was often a strange place to be during the festival’s 11-day run, its opulence and excitement standing in stark contrast to the grim goings on surrounding it.
Which often made for tough, off-putting viewing. The jury’s second-place winner, the marvelous AIDS drama Beats Per Minute, offered some sense of hope amidst the despair, but many of the films premiering at the festival trafficked in a bleakness, a nihilism that made them hard to engage with. There was much praise heaped on one of the last competition entries to screen, Lynne Ramsay’s ponderous rescue thriller You Were Never Really Here (it won best actor and screenplay on Sunday), but I walked out of the film feeling utterly disconnected from it, hungry for some real feeling to go along with all its beautiful and forbidding imagery. I felt similarly about Yorgos Lanthimos’s brutal The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which shared the best screenplay prize with You Were Never Really Here. Ramsay and Lanthimos are directors of abundant talent, and yet their Cannes films were so cramped and muted and misanthropic. I had hoped for visions that were more expansive, less alienating. Maybe I would have responded to these two insular downers more positively in a different year, but at Cannes in 2017, they left me cold.
Despite the near-perfect weather—70s and sunny almost every day!—coldness was the presiding feeling at the festival. I heard complaints that, despite a luminary-stacked lineup, the festival was an oddly muted one, with some disappointments from established directors (Todd Haynes’s cluttered children’s movie Wonderstruck comes immediately to mind) and few exciting discoveries. Cannes always suffers a bit from its context—it’s hard for any film to live up to the lavish expectations set up by the festival, set so picturesquely on the Riviera and drenched in glamour and pomp—but this year the festival seemed particularly at odds with itself. That may be a problem of my own perspective, the festival’s fabulousness fading some as it becomes more routine each year I attend. But I heard many other critics say similar things throughout the two weeks. Something was off, there was an imbalance, an unease.
Maybe it had something to do with all the guns. There were soldiers and police officers everywhere along the Croisette, many of them carrying large automatic weapons. Seeing them was a daily reminder that France has been ravaged by terrorist attacks in the last couple years, and that the broader global temper is one fraught with fear and animosity. It’s hard to say if all the security precautions made one feel more safe or less. Mostly, festival-goers just griped about the long lines at metal detectors and bag checks, people simply doing what we so often do, reducing larger, more unwieldy issues down to petty grievances about our own convenience. Perhaps that’s something Michael Haneke was getting at with his competition film Happy End, about a bourgeois family living rather obliviously at the center of a socio- and geopolitical storm.
I can appreciate that messaging, as I can appreciate the heavy allegory of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s beautifully made but deadly somber Russian drama Loveless, which took third prize on Sunday. The problem is, that just wasn’t what I wanted from Cannes this year. I suppose I was naively hoping for films that grappled with our modern world’s ills in ways that were instructive, or hopeful, rather than so dejected, so pessimistic. Bong Joon-ho’s riotous Okja delivered on that front, telling a story of resistance with a spirited, but not delusional, sense of possibility. Beats Per Minute, shattering as it is, provided some of that same uplift, that galvanizing energy too. As did Sean Baker’s excellent Director’s Fortnight entry The Florida Project, another of his close-ups on the fringes of American life, this one following a young girl and her mother living a hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth existence in the outskirts of Orlando. America’s staggering socioeconomic inequity casts a long shadow over The Florida Project (as do the looming mouse ears of Disney), and yet that shadow doesn’t tamp the brightness, the humanity of the lives depicted in Baker’s rollicking, rambling film.
So there was good stuff at Cannes this year, stuff to feel, well, nice about. Juliette Binoche was in a romantic comedy for God’s sake! (Claire Denis’s Director’s Fortnight film Let the Sunshine In, a wordy and exceptionally well-acted delight about a Parisienne looking for love in some of the wrong places.) And I realize it’s silly of me to talk about what I wanted more of, rather than assessing and appreciating what Cannes so generously already offered. But I found myself startlingly out of sync with the festival this year, and realized that I’m perhaps just not as receptive to dark and cold and unrelenting as I used to be pre- . . . all of this. (O.K., fine, I’ll say it: pre-Trump.) Maybe I just saw the wrong movies—I’ve heard great things about Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, as well as Agnès Varda’s Faces Places—or maybe I went in hoping for too much. But that transporting Cannes moment, coming twirling out of the theater feeling lifted, seen, better understood—like after Mommy or Personal Shopper—didn’t really happen this year. Though, I suppose it’s possible that no single movie is capable of doing that for me right now.
I went to Cannes this year seeking comfort and transcendence, but instead many of the films there wanted to drag us down and rattle us even more than we already have been. Which I probably should have been prepared for. Hopefully I can grow a bit more backbone by next year, and can confront a barrage of dark material with a bit more grit and resolve. But I also hope that the films themselves have more to say. For all the technical marvels of Sacred Deer or You Were Never Really Here or the Safdie brothers’ raved-about thriller Good Time, all that style was used in service of stories that were dismayingly small and inward-facing and familiar. (We have seen a variation on You Were Never Really Here’s grizzled-man-saves-imperiled-girl plot a thousand times.) That’s any director’s prerogative, of course; they have no onus to encourage us or Make A Point or do anything beyond make the movie they want to make. But in these times of ours, all this navel-gazing, “things sure are fucked up, huh” shrugging felt rather, well, useless. So, hey, maybe it’s not just me being a wimp who pathetically sought warm words of solace from challenging international art-house films. It’s also that I wish more of this year’s challenging international art-house films had offered some kind of genuine insight, had contended with the world and its problems rather than simply gesturing toward them and wallowing around in the mud. We’re all too aware that the world is a bad and broken place. Perhaps some deliverance would have been nice.
Ah well. At least there was Beats Per Minute, and Okja, and The Florida Project, and the ingenious best-director winner The Beguiled, and 120 or so brilliant minutes of The Square’s 142. And, yeah, I went on a yacht and tried a sip of $3,000 cognac and went to some fabulous parties and all that stuff. It was still Cannes, after all. It was just a Cannes that unfolded in troubled times, which the festival and its films were bound to reflect somehow. It was an off-year, though an off-year at Cannes is still better than an on-year almost anywhere else. I already can’t wait to see what wonders they show us next year—hopefully in happier times.