I Saw That at Cannes!
My producer and friend Rebecca Lamond had decided a few months ago to make her first trip to Cannes, primarily for business meetings to pitch our next feature film. I’d also never been, and initially I didn’t see the point of joining her given the cost of flights and everything else. But when changed circumstances meant I was going to be in France in May and Rebecca said she had a sofa I could sleep on, it seemed logical to go. After all, there are other reasons to go to Cannes: the films, obviously, and the people that make, program and write about them. I’d always enjoyed reading critics’ Cannes reports in publications like Senses of Cinema, Film Comment and Cinema Scope. The festival seemed to bring out a special combination of giddy excitement and pained, existential introspection from its correspondents, ambivalent about their own bondage to the annual spectacle of commerce, celebrity and art. And something about it moves writers to survey things broadly: the industry, in general; festivals, in general; criticism, in general; cinema, in general and, of course, their own careers and place within it all. As a fan of loose generalizations, I was interested to see whether the same topographical mood would take me. Maybe I’d even be gripped by genuine revelations, clarity about cinema and the world or, even better, my next project.
I had reservations, of course. I hate pitching, everything about it. As the words leave my mouth, and as I try to maintain the appropriate upward curve in my lips and twinkle in my eye of a person delighted by all the things they are saying, I feel like cold concrete is being poured into the spaces inhabited by my beastly little ideas. I like fumbling my way through the writing process and, perhaps paradoxically, I need the world of a film in its early stages to be an inexpressible one if I’m to stay excited about it. No doubt, there’s an element of vanity to it, feeling like the film is so much more than these generic descriptors and reference markers. But it’s more than that—it feels like a betrayal of the nebulous feeling that’s actually at the core of the writing, and of the essence of the finished work, too. I like films that have ambivalence at their heart, films that are and aren’t in equal measure. Pitches require you to pick a side, be clear about it. I’m a prevaricator and something of a crab, so this is not a good start.
A lot of the meetings at Cannes are in poky hotels lined along the heaving waterfront promenade. One minute, you’re facing the beach and conga lines of people in bikinis and tuxedos, and next, you’re in a tiny lift going up to meet someone who may or may not help you make a movie. They are generally friendly, smart people but also fatigued and (necessarily) skeptical types who take 10, 15 meetings a day for 10 days straight. If you get them in the afternoon, you can feel your head turning into a cold glass of rosé as their eyes glaze over. As someone prone to anxiety and also committed to vague, borderline unpitchable films (I self-funded Friends and Strangers partly to avoid the difficulty I have with these examinations), I found these visits too much. After pussyfooting my way through the first couple of meetings, I decided to stay away. My clenched presence was throwing Rebecca off, and she had lots of productive encounters after I disappeared. Though I had some shame—like I was somehow shirking the work I’d come to do—I instantly felt so much lighter once I’d made this decision.
Rebecca and I had been advised by Jonathan Page, our domestic distributor for Friends and Strangers and a Cannes veteran, to save on accommodation costs by staying in a town outside Cannes called Golfe-Juan. It was certainly cheaper, but I wouldn’t do this again. I have a Bean–like capacity to lose my bearings, and my first time using the regional train I went the wrong direction, finding myself about 30 kilometers from Cannes and guaranteed to miss my first session, Pietro Marcello’s Scarlet. I soon found that Cannes has a fearful system of punishment for those who don’t show for screenings they’ve booked, dropping you down in its invisible algorithmic pecking order with consequences that can never be known precisely. The new online ticketing system was already farcical—it was nigh impossible to book tickets to anything in competition in the first few days, such was the dysfunctionality of the website. But I seemed to have a harder time of it than Rebecca. Morning after morning, we’d wake at the same time and she could log in to make bookings while I could not, no matter what device I was using. I couldn’t get any clarity from people at the ticketing desk. If I were more robust spiritually I think this would have bothered me less, but I was pretty down for the first week. After all the buildup in my head about this festival and the movies on the program this year, and after years of reading about critics describing the excitement of prancing from one highly anticipated top-shelf competition title to another, day in, day out, I had the feeling that somehow I’d gotten it horribly wrong. I was getting the exasperation, the overpriced meals, the bewilderment in the crowds and the heat, the sense of rushing even when you’ve got nowhere to be, but none of what it was all meant to be for. Cannes does seem to have a way of making you feel always on the outside of whatever it is “in there”—the secret special thing behind the velvet rope, behind the barrel-chested security guard, behind the tinted window.
I love getting drunk, and I was fortunate through the kindness of my friend Michelle Carey, a programmer at Director’s Fortnight, to get sought-after tickets into a few official afterparties. These functions were typically held in pop-up style venues near the water that reminded me of the sprawling monstrosities filled by the sons and daughters of capital in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and North Shore. Free drinks meant they were always at capacity: facing beleaguered bar staff fighting a losing war against queues 10 bodies deep made getting a drink feel a bit like getting a ticket to a movie. And needing to be up before 7:00 a.m. every day to refresh the ticket page for an hour in the hope of getting those tickets made late nights less appealing.
I started to wonder to myself, what is the point of all this? Aside from being able to say to other people later, somewhat stupidly, “I saw that at Cannes!,” as a punter I don’t really find there to be anything important about being among the first to see new films. I also realized early on that going to a festival like Cannes as a director who doesn’t have a film in the festival can flummox people. After introducing myself, people would reasonably assume I did, and always seemed slightly disappointed when I said I was here for pitching. Maybe they hated pitching as much as I did. Disappointment would turn to incredulity after the obvious next question, about how the pitching was going, was met with the reply that I’d stopped going to them. “So, what are you doing here?!” they’d say with great amusement. “Well, seeing lots of films, of course” and a feeling of solemnity would suddenly take hold—”Ah, of course,” as if there was something sad about coming to Cannes just to watch films. One time, I added, “And for conversations like this!,” which elicited a slightly disturbed widening of the eyes and an urgent need for this man to excuse himself.
It wasn’t until the second half of the festival, when I started to have more luck with the ticketing system and finally saw a few films that really excited me, that it all started to make more sense. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the new film by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor showing in Directors’ Fortnight, was a revelation and an insight into how the contradictions at the heart of Cannes can actually lead to interesting and original experiences of films. At a time when the lack of sleep, lack of films, frantic social intensity and sense of vulnerability around the new project was starting to manifest in a feeling of enervated dejection, I found myself swimming inside other people’s sedated bodies as the filmmakers’ microcameras (attached to surgical tools during real medical procedures) led us on a squiggly, thrusting journey through and around brain folds, urethras, irises, crooked spines, tumorous breast tissue and more. Once I got through the ick, I found seeing indifferent doctors pincer, suck and hammer body parts we all have in common oddly invigorating. I’d entered a ball of nerves and left almost euphoric, feeling more connected to the people around me, the privilege of generally good health and the joy of discovering with others a radical cinematic work that is able to muse on what it means to be human in such an original way. I had moments of comparative joy with João Pedro Rodrigues’ Will-o’-the-Wisp, also in Directors’ Fortnight. I’ve been a fan of Rodrigues since I saw The Last Time I Saw Macao at Melbourne International Film Festival way back and always look forward to seeing his new films. Watching only a few rows behind the cast and crew, who seemed like a big family with tremendous affection for each other, made this session feel like a privilege to be a part of, and I’m still feeling the afterglow.
This experience fed into more thoughts about this social dimension that I started to see is the heart of what Cannes is really about: one place and time that people who work in film have the chance to come to and have rapid-fire encounters with dear, but rarely-seen, friends and colleagues. No other festival seems to have this grand central meeting point feeling. In that sense, I imagine Cannes is something that grows and improves as one’s own plexus of acquaintances expands. And while there is something grotesque and elitist about a festival almost exclusively for the insiders who can afford to be there on a regular basis, and moreover something problematic about the number of air miles burned through to make it all possible, the opportunities it affords to strengthen friendships across a delicate global networks of cinephilia is a real positive. Self-funding Friends and Strangers meant not traveling outside Australia at all for most of my twenties and then, as fate would have it with the pandemic, for almost none of the festival release, either. This was bitterly disappointing, not just for me but also for the very talented crew and cast who gave so much to the project. Australia is isolated in a lot of ways, and when people are working for much less money than they’d get on advertisements or television, the prospect of traveling at the end to an overseas film festival with collaborators and loved ones is a big draw. I’d had one very positive experience of traveling with a film to a film festival previously, when my short film You Like It, I Love It screened at Clermont-Ferrand and the Berlinale in 2013. There’s perhaps a danger as a filmmaker in getting addicted to these sugar hits, but as life spent self-funding projects is slow and filled with many moments of loneliness and doubt, attendance at festivals does play an important role in feeling like you’re part of a broader community, especially as allies in the highly commercialized structures in Australia can be few and far between. Though I wasn’t at Cannes with a film, it was nevertheless a special experience to meet in the flesh some of the lovely people with shared interests and values I’d come into contact with over email through the release of the film.
The highlight of my festival experience was the premiere of Albert Serra’s Cannes competition debut Pacifiction—a sublime work of art that I’m certain will be among my favorite films of the decade. I only managed to see two films in the official competition and by coincidence both had colonialism front and center: Serra’s and the droopy, unwholesome mess that was Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon, set in present day Nicaragua. Where Stars at Noon struggled to know how much to commit to and position itself within its own involuted clutter of real and fictional historical reference points, Serra succeeded in creating an exceptional film that wafts through present day Tahiti like a humid breeze, passing around political corruption and France’s corrosive colonial legacy with a dreamy, deceptive insouciance as it explores the sinister depths of predatory egoism. In many ways, it seemed a return to a structure most clearly explored in 2013’s Story of My Death—a languorous contemplation of a complacent man (played brilliantly in Pacifiction by Benoît Magimel) lolling in tainted luxuries and his own sense of importance, slowly overtaken by a formless, existential terror: a phantasmic pall neither entirely of the world nor fully in the mind of the protagonist. That in both films the source can’t be located precisely in terms of logic is important; in the vacuum, all circles back on the affective qualities of the film, the fading light, the bleeding sounds, the void between word and gesture.
Pacifiction is Serra’s first foray away from period settings, and he is completely in command of mood and pace, perfectly calibrating his ethereal, solipsistic performances to the haunted colonial context and endless-sunset atmospherics. While there’s a powerful relationship here with the notion that an invading power’s greatest weapon is a kind of imaginative warfare—the insidiously slow usurpation of Indigenous ways of thinking by the colonizer’s languages, stories and dreams—this climactic crisis of perception is also pure cinema, a raw expression of the medium’s productive instability and its power to multiply material textures, abstract generalities and subjective impressions to profound effect. Leaving the cinema after seeing the premiere of this film at the gaudy, mall-like Palais, which felt itself like an unsettling extension of Serra’s seedy, waterside world of open-shirted schmoozers and devourers, was another reminder of how the festival can reverberate with the films in fascinating ways. And is there not something imperial about the way all great films, or any works of art, take up residence in our minds? Certainly, the buyers are looking for things that have this potential. But perhaps as a viewer it’s more akin to seduction. Here, we feel a more agreeable complicity—one must be open to being seduced.
There’s something treacherously seductive about Cannes, an aspect the festival seemed to acknowledge in this edition’s The Truman Show-inflected poster of a man walking up a stair to the heavens, just as he’s realizing the sky and clouds are painted on. His face is turned from us, so we can’t be sure: is he dismayed, delighted, resigned? Is he even conscious or caught in a dream—fated to stumble desiringly onwards, forever?