The Cannes Film Festival rolled out the red carpet for the first time in more than two years, launching the French Riviera spectacular with the introduction of Spike Lee’s jury and hopes of shrugging off the pandemic and a punishing year for movies.
The 74th Cannes opened with as much glitz as it could summon.
Lee, who is heading the jury that will decide this year’s Palme, arrived wearing a 1619 baseball hat and trying to keep a low profile.
“I’m not trying to be a hog,” he said to reporters, urging them to ask his fellow jurors questions.
But Lee’s presence was hard to ignore. His face as Mars Blackmon from his 1986 feature film debut She’s Gotta Have It (which premiered at Cannes) adorns this year’s poster at the festival central hub, the Palais des Festivals.
Lee is the first black person to ever lead Cannes’ prestigious jury. In his first comments, in response to a question from Chaz Ebert, widow of Roger Ebert, Lee spoke about how little has changed since 1989’s Do The Right Thing — which made a controversial debut at Cannes.
“When you see brother Eric Garner, when you see king George Floyd murdered, lynched, I think of Ray (Radio) Raheem,” Lee said, referring to the Do The Right Thing character.
“After 30-plus years, you’d ‘think and hope’,” Lee said, “That black people would have stopped being hunted down like animals.”
Much of the talk on Tuesday at Cannes centred on injustice and survival. That the festival was even happening, after last year’s edition was cancelled, was a surprise to some.
Maggie Gyllenhaal, who will see the 24 films in competition for the Palme as a member of the jury over the next 12 days, said it will be her first time in a movie theatre in 15 months.
When Parasite actor Song Kang Ho was invited to be a juror, he said: “I thought: Will there really be a festival?”
But Cannes has pushed ahead in much its usual form, with splashy red-carpet displays and a line-up of many of the world’s most revered filmmakers, including Asghar Farhadi, Wes Anderson, Mia Hansen-Love and Paul Verhoeven.
Festival-goers are tested every 48 hours, seated shoulder to shoulder and masked for screenings.
But much of the usual pomp is toned down this year. There is a relative dearth of promotion up and down Cannes’ oceanfront promenade, the Croisette, and Hollywood has less of a presence than in years past.
In that context, the regular topics of concern at Cannes were perhaps dwarfed. But the jurors made passionate cases for the future of movies — and a more inclusive future. T
his year’s competition line-up includes a Cannes-high four female filmmakers, but they still make up a fraction of the 24 filmmakers vying for the Palme.
“I think when women are listening to themselves and really expressing themselves, even inside, about a very, very male culture, we make movies differently. We tell stories differently,” said Gyllenhaal.
She recalled watching Jane Campion’s The Piano (the lone film directed by a woman to ever win the Palme) as formative and unfiltered. “It just went in straight.”
The rise of streaming also took the spotlight. Cannes has refused to select films without French theatrical distribution for its competition line-up.
The festival and Netflix have been at odds for several years. On Monday, Thierry Fremaux, festival director, cited Cannes’ record at discovering filmmakers and asked: “What directors have been discovered by (streaming) platforms?”
Lee, who made last year’s Da 5 Bloods for Netflix, hardly bated an eye when asked about the future of movies.
“Cinema and screening platforms can coexist,” said Lee, who called Cannes “the world’s greatest film festival”.
“At one time, there was a thinking that TV was going to kill cinema. So, this stuff is not new.”