While every major festival slate features its fair share of Monday morning quarterbacking, the 2017 Cannes Film Festival has been a particularly contentious affair. This year, Cannes parted ways with tradition by including two Netflix titles among its lineup – one of which, Bong Joon-Ho‘s “Okja,” will compete for the Palme d’Or – and two television series, Jane Campion‘s “Top of the Lake” and David Lynch‘s long-anticipated sequel to “Twin Peaks.” Some might argue that Cannes is simply evolving to follow the talent, making room for new platforms as more and more talented filmmakers choose to dabble in new media. Others — those more prone to hyperbole, perhaps — might say that Cannes is in danger of losing its essence as a premiere destination for cinema’s most important films. If we’re being honest, there’s probably some truth in both.
Following last week’s selections, Cannes director Thierry Frémaux sat down with ScreenDaily to talk about the festival. It’s a pretty wide-ranging conversation, but one that highlights the thought process behind the Netflix and TV inclusions, and one that also answers a few questions people might’ve had about the lineup.
In discussing the Netflix titles — arguably the most controversial element of this year’s festival — Frémaux was quick to downplay the streaming platform’s role in the selection process. “I chose Bong Joon-Ho’s film because he’s a very good filmmaker,” Frémaux said. “I hardly spoke to Netflix. And “The Meyerowitz Stories” came to us through the producer Scott Rudin.” For Frémaux, then, the destination of each film is secondary to the quality contained therein; this interview certainly gives the impression that Frémaux would have included both titles regardless of whether they were distributed by Netflix, a studio, or a YouTube channel (alright, maybe not that last one). It doesn’t untangle some of the complicated politics of Netflix being included in the festival, but when you focus just on the filmmaker and not the business component, it makes a fair amount of sense.
Frémaux also used the same reasoning in the selection of “Top of the Lake” and “Twin Peaks.” The director noted that both television shows, while certainly a departure for the festival, were “a way of checking in with two important filmmakers – both Palme d’Or winners as well as former presidents of the jury – who happen to have now made TV series.” This is probably Frémaux’s point I’m most sympathetic towards. If you value the storytelling skill of a particular filmmaker, then you’re only doing you and your audience a disservice by preventing them from participating in the festival just because you have narrowly defined the type of art you’ll recognize. But don’t expect to see Cannes launching a television category anytime soon; this decision had more to do with Campion and Lynch than the format itself. “Cannes is a festival of cinema,” Frémaux explained. “TV series can also be cinematic but they’re also something else. Even at technical level a film festival is not the same as a festival dedicated to TV series’. Cannes is about cinema.”
Frémaux also addressed the lack of studio films in this year’s lineup, noting that none of the ones that interested them would be ready for exhibition by the deadline. “When they have films ready we show them but this year nothing was ready at the right time for a Cannes premiere,” Frémaux explained. “”Alien: Covenant” comes out two weeks before Cannes and “Dunkirk“ was not ready. It’s a coincidence.” Compare this to last year, when Steven Spielberg‘s “The BFG” and Shane Black‘s “The Nice Guys” both screened out of competition, and it is surprising to see no major studio titles anywhere in the lineup. But if Frémaux is correct and the films weren’t ready to be publicly screened, then it’s probably fair to treat this year as more an aberration than the beginning of a new trend.
There are a few more nuggets in the Frémaux interview — including his comments on the rumors that “Redoubtable” was going to open the festival, which he dismisses as the “press [reading] the press” – but all told, the conversation paints an interesting picture of an institution that is both evolving and rigidly adhering to its original mission. Cannes is about filmmakers, pure and simple, and while they might mix things up a bit to support the filmmakers they love, at the end of the day, they go where the artists and the movies take them.