cannes film festival

Cannes…from the Heart of an Outsider

Leila Hatami, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Jeon Do-yeon, Carole Bouquet

An American boy on the sands of Cannes, France: that’s how I’d imagined myself ever since I was seven (maybe eight?) years old, yearning for transcontinental air travel and a responsible adult to accompany me to the grandest of the world’s film festivals.

It’s a rather odd dream for a child to want to travel to a small town that comes alive in the international spotlight only once a year to celebrate an art that’s far beyond his comprehension. It’s also rather selfish. What the kid in me didn’t understand was that spending thousands of dollars of your hard-earned coin to relish in the best that world cinema has to offer benefits little more than the airline, taxi service, and bellhop who carries your bags. Casual Cannes-goers ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of the festival circuit, where moneymaking is all that’s left for anyone in an industry that–when it comes down to the life and death of it–could disappear off the face of the earth with little more than a monetary crater in its wake.

I don’t think, in the early months of 1997, my little brain even knew who Ang Lee was. If you would’ve asked me to sit through LA Confidential or Funny Games, I’d have told you I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies. The understanding of film, however, is an ever-evolving entity, and Cannes fosters an appreciation for the various perspectives in film that make it such a diverse, captivating industry.

But, how characteristic of a child is it to yearn after the flashiest, most sensational aspects of something you don’t quite understand? I wanted nothing more than to be a part of the machine that makes Cannes tick. The stars are out in full red carpet glamor, the journalists buzz about, the businessmen shake hands and exchange their millions.

Of course, Cannes is all about business, too. Just today, a $20 million deal for a film was inked by Paramount for Amy Adams-starrer Story of Your Life. There are deals here and deals there, as beautiful films from the brightest artists still come with a hefty price tag.

I can now read about who purchased what or who thought what about which film in the trade papers, but the fact remains that I am now, and always have been, a Cannes outsider. The way I view Cannes is filtered through the lens of those in attendance, and the type of coverage I could  be giving from my cramped, wood-paneled bedroom only speaks to my career aspirations that may or may not come at a later date; most bloggers like me only have the luxury of covering other coverage when it comes to festivals like Cannes or Toronto or Telluride. I’m either building a foundation to get paid to write about Cannes–from Cannes– in the future, or I’m wasting my time on a ship that will never set sail. Either way, I’m not there now.

But, that’s the flaw of living in the quick-fix film industry of today. It’s all rather infantile, really. We’re told that we all matter. My desire to cover Cannes without being there is difficult, but Hollywood consistently pushes each of us up the ranks of self-importance. We’re told that our dollar is worth spending on every tentpole that comes out. We’re pushed en masse to the theater, encouraged to tweet our reactions, to wear the t-shirt, to rep the brand for free under the guise of engaging in an elite sort of fandom; though, when it comes down to it, we’re all outsiders to the heart of the industry that beats at a place like Cannes. We lose sight of that from time to time, so perhaps it’s best if some things are left to the protected, sacred mystery of exclusivity.

Though, it’s funny how in such a fast-paced, easily-accessible world, we can still feel so disconnected from something as widely-covered as the Cannes Film Festival. There’s only so much a review of the opening night film or a photo of the crowds lined up to see the day’s most buzzed-about feature can do to satiate one’s yearning to be there. It’s difficult to put your finger on just what makes the festival so alluring, but it has got to be something, because the appeal is wide.

Cannes draws celebrities, filmmakers, publicists, and businesspeople from around the globe; the jury that decides the recipient of the festival’s top prize (the Palme d’Or) this year is made up of Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Winding Refn, Leila Hatami, and Willem Dafoe among others; essentially a mishmash of someone from here, someone from there and everywhere in between.

The films in and out of competition represent diverse artists above all else. They have a place there because their films matter. They’re different. They’re things we haven’t seen before. They’re not bogged down with spandex, capes, and cheap romantic subplots.

There are films from established directors, and films from people we haven’t seen much from before. In that sense, Cannes makes insiders of the outsiders and places them on the same plane of presentation as the big boys, giving them a stage for the rest of us to see at some point down the line when the hoopla of the festival has withered away and all we’re left with is a remote and a subscription service with On-Demand capabilities.

It’s the job of the journalists at the festival, then, to make Cannes really mean something in the moment. We’ll all be invited to the party of opinion at some point, but these are the people who travel–sometimes on their own dime–to the waters of Southern France all for the sake of seeing, posting about, and championing films that will likely make it stateside within a few short months. These people sacrifice their sleep, sanity, and time, but it’s really a donation of all those things when you look at the big picture; world cinema–often under-appreciated in large markets like the US–is covered. It’s truly covered (in every sense of the word) by the hordes of writers who pack the screening rooms day after day and present their impressions to readers. Why? Because they’re the insiders who’ve been chosen to make it known. The prestigious torch is theirs to carry. They have a responsibility to promote the art in a climate that fosters the desire for spectacle versus creativity. They can’t afford to lose sight of the types of films that are shown at Cannes.

The journalists, while heralding films of worth, can also destroy the stragglers of the pack. Just yesterday we witnessed the downfall (more like the kick while it was already down, following a nasty dispute over final cut between Harvey Weinstein and director Olivier Dahan) of Grace of Monaco, the festival’s opening night film, which didn’t seem very Cannes-y in the first place. Still, the film’s stars (namely Nicole Kidman) and creators showed their faces, gave interviews, and upheld the tradition of a Cannes insider.

For most of us, all we’ll ever be to Cannes is someone hovering around the perimeter, holding out our basket, hoping to be thrown a few scraps here and there. We won’t show our films at special screenings, we won’t know how the sunlight hits our faces through the flash of paparazzi bulbs, how the salt air of the Mediterranean Sea wafts over the crowds waiting for the morning’s first screening. We won’t know how the wine tastes at the cafe around the corner from the best screening room. We won’t know what it’s like to be shut out of a screening because our press pass hasn’t been upgraded to “pink” from the standard “blue.”

We will always know, however, what it’s like to consume. Isn’t that the goal of it all, when you break it down? The filmmakers, the artists, the studios, the stars; each of them are vying for our consumption of their product.

We outsiders know nothing about the actual experience of Cannes, yet reap so much from it as these consumers. The kinds of films that have been shown and championed at Cannes rarely ride their glory all the way through to Oscar season, but the esteem is enough to last a lifetime. Tracking Oscar potential at Cannes is to miss the point entirely, though. Correlation is tricky to pinpoint, and it doesn’t matter. The Oscars have their ideology (and are a preservation of adult and art films in their own right), and Cannes has its own. Cannes is a celebration, a showcase, a hand on the ticker of the industry propelling world’s artists forward as they come together to say “look at what we can do,” and so we do just that. We obey, and we look on.

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I’m lucky now to be older, wiser, and more aware than my 7-year old self to know the whys, the ins, and the outs of why I want to be there in the first place: to experience that magical confluence of minds, talents, and to get swept up in the waves of collective appreciation shone from the world stage.

That’s something else I didn’t understand as a kid; the importance of Cannes across so many mediums speaks to the unison the art of cinema promotes. People spend thousands of dollars just to be there in the moment, in the magic of it all. People watch multiple movies–back to back–each day, writing about them in rented flats, cramped hotel rooms, and buzzing cafes.

People travel across oceans and trek mountains for the movies.

Though I can now experience the festival after sifting through journalist’s Instagram accounts, festival hashtags on Twitter, and hourly updates on the trade sites, I am still there secondhand, and that menas I’m not really there.

Cannes is a cloistered shell with pearls on the inside. Its mystery and allure are prestigious, and a great way to pinpoint the art we often lose track of. The exclusivity keeps the world’s eye on the prize. It elevates film to the level of the all-important instead of demeaning it to the easily-accessible. The films are challenging, complex, and fueled by creative passion from international perspectives, but at the end of the day, we’re all watching movies; alas, that’s the point–Cannes is so magical because it’s not about simply seeing a film, it’s about watching them and looking out for the ones that matter, because they often find a home there. We’ll all get that chance sooner or later.

So, as I sit here, some thousands of miles away from Cannes, I take pleasure in looking forward to upholding my end of the bargain when I buy my ticket to Foxcatcher or Maps to the Stars in a few months. It’s all about grasping the thread when it passes by, and I trust everyone at Cannes to push it in my direction.

We must trust that Cannes is one of the few remaining treasures left for world cinema. We trust that the filmmakers, artists, journalists, and insiders value the preservation of this congregation, that despite business deals and publicity, the fruit of the labor isn’t measured in such petty terms. They’re there for the art, for the treat of inclusivity, for the treat of being there when it all happens. They’d better enjoy it after all; they’ve moved across mountains and oceans to get there.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Predator or Sponge? – The Role of the Camera in ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ and ‘Gravity’

Blue is the Warmest ColorIt sees for us, though we often–literally and figuratively–see through it.

At the root of it all lies a single tool we all too often take for granted: the camera.

It’s our immediate recognition of the camera’s innate desire to funnel our perspective that unites us all. Film students, critics, and entitled bloggers alike love to throw around terms like “sexual objectification” and “penetrating” when referring to the way the camera sees sexuality. We find it so easy to implicate the presence of bare flesh–a nipple or the genitalia–as a window into the filmmaker’s mind. It’s either “he’s penetrating the character with his gaze,” or “overcome by his own sexuality,” quite possibly “objectifying the female form as a desirable conquest.”

It’s hard to separate the truth from a viewer merely seeing what they want to see or find fault with. With the open forum of the internet affording nearly everyone the opportunity to hold filmmakers to new standards of accountability, it’s extremely difficult for a director to escape such accusations while in any capacity exploring topics of sexuality.

In 2013, decades after sexuality found its way into commercial films post-Production Code, Abdellatif Kechiche gives us Blue is the Warmest Color, his adaptation of a French graphic novel about two young women involved in an intricate, fiery, fiercely-sexual, and powerfully-emotional relationship.

The film is a masterwork on countless fronts, though its explicit depictions of raw sexuality have become synonymous with even its mere mention, allowing an unfair predicate to–in some instances–overshadow the quality of the film itself. Again, thanks to the internet and the public’s fixation with sex, the film has gone from being a work of art to “that lesbian movie with the 20-minute sex scene.”

Kechiche was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and, in a rare turn of events, the prize also went to the film’s two stars. Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos shared one of the most renowned recognitions in the industry with a director accused of degrading their bodies, when it was the actress’ openness to lend their physicality to the depiction of a beautiful, pure, and honest depiction of love and sexuality–seeing past the superficiality of sexuality as a mere image–which legitimized the honor.

While Kechiche undeniably incorporates heapings of nudity and graphic sex throughout his film, he does not allow their presence to go unjustified. Removed from context, any sex scene is merely “porn” (that’s not to degrade pornography, but merely to reduce it to its intent: to elicit a sexual response or accompany the experience of your own sexual pleasure). Blue is the Warmest Color pairs the adult qualities of sexuality with the playful innocence of budding maturity in young adulthood.

Its focal character, Adele (Exarchopoulos), is a young woman on the brink of her adult life. She’s still in school, messily chews her dinner with her mouth open, and struggles to find her identity beyond fitting in to what society tells her being a young girl should be. She experiments with boys and girls, but ultimately develops romantic feelings for Emma, an artist well into her twenties.

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As their relationship blossoms, Adele is not confined–in terms of script or the camera–to being an object of sex. Sex becomes a part of her, as she explores herself socially and within the scope of her relationship with Emma. We never get the sense that the immediacy or urgency with which the sex scenes unfold is exploitative, as Kechiche also shows us tender nuances outside such scenes.

For every tongue that meets vagina in the bedroom, there are two sets of lips meeting in front of a sunset, the light cascading from behind to envelop the scene in overwhelming beauty. Scenes of tender beauty and raw sexuality characterize a relationship, not a director’s fixation with sex. Why waste time shooting a film for 5 months to satiate his own desires?

As Adele matures, so does the film and what Kechiche chooses to show us. Messily eating her mother’s homemade spaghetti and her distaste for shellfish are soon trumped by Adele’s newfound ability to singlehandedly cook for an entire party or sling back oysters with Emma’s family.  Adele grows, and sexuality is a natural part of human evolution. We experience all aspects of Adele’s maturation with her, and the blossoming of her body into a sexually aware one (versus sexual experimental, as it was with a boy from her class early in the film) is comfortable, fluid, and beautiful.

Kechiche’s camera is a sponge for atmosphere and his characters’ desires, not a predator seeking to titillate us on a personal level. This is Adele’s story, and we need to see what she sees and how she sees it.

The sight of flesh does not mean we are meant to gaze upon it in blind lust. Real sex is exploitative to an extent, is it not? To satiate our own desires and receive pleasure from another person is, at the core of it, using  them. Observing the act (whether prolonged or explicit) on a cinema screen makes the act a part of something much larger that has little to do with us, and therefore becomes art.

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Kechiche is not one to let us forget that the human body has been sexualized all throughout history. He peppers the film with bountiful discussions about classic literature, shots of early paintings which exaggerated the female form, and pillowy shots of Adele sleeping–fully clothed–in contorted, primal positions.

Art is art with or without implication beyond its means, and he creates a convincing portrait of growth by pooling from the elements which make us all human, not by “othering” his stars’ bodies as sex objects. His camera is aware, and it is lustful when the film’s narrative calls for it. Adele is overwhelmed with sexual desire, and Kechiche makes sure we’re along for the ride, and it’s that mindful presence of it all having purpose that frees the film from any accusations of exploitation.

Gravity, another fantastic film from 2013, proved itself as a rare female-driven formidable force at the box-office. Sandra Bullock carries the film–a one-woman show–as Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut cast adrift in space after rogue debris destroys her ship and the rest of her crew. Emotionally scarred by long-ago earthly happenings, Dr. Stone is forced to confront her own mortality alongside budding existential crisis, which forms the basis for the film’s running metaphor for rebirth.

The camera in Gravity initially serves to dominate Dr. Stone, often dwarfing her body against the neverending backdrop of space as if she were a tiny embryo at the beginning stages of life. As the film progresses, the dynamism of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera becomes clear, as we alternate between sweeping shots of the cosmos and intense, personal close-ups of Dr. Stone’s face as she faces her demons alongside her physical predicament.

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While Dr. Stone remains in a bulky space suit for the majority of the film, there are a few key scenes of her boarding a space craft and removing it. She slips the top off, shimmies her way out of the bottoms, and reveals Sandra Bullock’s slender body. While the shedding of space gear rings sexual in a film like Alien, the undressing of Dr. Stone instead functions to humanize her amidst a sea of titanic atmosphere surrounding her.

In one scene, her body glistens against a circular backdrop of the air lock, she brings her feet to her chest, and a few expertly-placed hoses just behind her navel create the image of Dr. Stone as a fetus. She is nearly nude–only small black underwear and a skimpy shirt cover her–though the scene is completely devoid of sexuality, as Dr. Stone isn’t defined as a sex object. She is vulnerable and fresh, ready to begin her emotional and spiritual rebirth as the film progresses. In shedding the suit, we allow her to become pure and reborn in front of us. Whereas Adele’s journey to full-on nudity matures her, Dr. Stone’s revealed flesh takes her back to the infantile form of beginnings.

Kechiche and Cuaron are two filmmakers with a clear vision, with endowing everything within their frame with significant purpose. It is lazy and disrespectful to the craft when placing personal opinions about what justifies sexual objectification next to our analysis of a film. There is so much more to Blue is the Warmest Color than its aspects of sexuality. There is much more to the “male perspective” than sexual desire, and a male behind a camera capturing female flesh does not equate exploitation.

We must learn to have a little more faith in the camera. It guides our vision, though a skeptical eye will see only what it wants to.