The 72nd annual Cannes Film Festival had not yet officially begun and artistic director Thierry Frémaux was already exasperated.
In a contentious press conference on the eve of the festival Monday, Frémaux batted away questions about gender equality, his decision to award an honorary Palme d’Or to controversial French actor Alain Delon and how the festival might minimize its carbon footprint. "People ask Cannes to do things they don’t ask other festivals to do," Frémaux said. "The Cannes Film Festival is asked to be impeccable and perfect."
Even a water bottle placed next to the microphone annoyed him. "It's as though people had crossed a desert and would feel very thirsty," Frémaux said, disdainfully removing the bottle from his view.
Some of this is just a standard Gallic welcome — as Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek tweeted, "The first day of Cannes is just a bunch of French people saying no." But some of Frémaux’s sour mood could be attributed to the challenges of running a festival steeped in history in a world and an industry that is changing faster than ever.
Certainly there are anticipated premieres of high-profile studio films at Cannes this year in Paramount’s Rocketman and Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and returning festival-favorite auteurs such as Jim Jarmusch with opening night political zombie movie The Dead Don’t Die and Terrence Malick with his World War II drama A Hidden Life. And the market looks to have a healthy batch of titles to ignite buyers, like the Chris Pine thriller Violence of Action, the Mel Gibson Santa comedy Fatman, and a Ben Foster/Kristen Stewart project inspired by the letters of William Burroughs, to name just a few.
But with Hollywood’s most deep-pocketed players, Netflix and Disney, sitting the event out, and with brands and billionaires playing a lesser role, this year’s Cannes looks to be a muted one.
"The business is changing, but I don’t feel like the festival’s moving along with it," says one industry source. "Streaming services are so much of the industry now. I’m not seeing the same presence with the brands. To me it feels very quiet."
Some of the bigger brand parties, like Dior’s, aren’t happening, luxury jeweler de Grisogono has downscaled its Hotel du Cap fashion show to a smaller luncheon in town, and Paul Allen, who died last fall, is clearly no longer available to host a bacchanal on his yacht. Alas, there does not yet seem to be any gathering on the calendar with the gonzo appeal of last year’s Gotti movie party at the Hotel du Cap, where John Travolta did a little soft-shoe on stage with 50 Cent, nor an extravagant market presentation comparable to when Jessica Chastain and her 355 film co-stars Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Lupita Nyong’o and Fan Bingbing sailed into the Majestic Hotel’s port for a photo call before meeting with potential distributors.
"This year there wasn’t that crazy billionaire who comes into town and says, 'I want to get a bunch of attention,' " says another insider. "Maybe people are getting more financially responsible?"
There’s still some glitter around — Vanity Fair will host its biennial dinner at the Hotel du Cap, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will convene a member soiree at the Terrace UniFrance, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Participant Media will honor the U.K.-based humanitarian organization Help Refugees on Nikki Beach. But the challenge will be drawing big names to the fetes. "I hate to say it, but you could always count on Harvey to bring the stars," says the industry source.
Yes, Cannes without Harvey Weinstein is different in all sorts of ways. After last year’s dramatic #MeToo- and Time’s Up-inspired red carpet protest of 82 women, and Frémaux’s signing of a gender-parity pledge, there is evidence of the festival attempting to evolve on the woman front. For the first time on Monday, Cannes shared data about its submissions, 26 percent of which came from female directors, while 19 percent of the competition films are directed by women. And there is a modest addition to the Palais this year — Le Ballon Rouge, a space for nursing mothers, families, and diaper changing, created with backing from the French gender equity group 5050x2020.
"We have a very lengthy history," Frémaux said at the press conference. "One shouldn’t draw hasty conclusions."
Fair enough. Still, it’s clear the festival landscape is changing, and no one comes to Cannes for understatement. Certainly not the man varnishing the deck of his yacht in the marina on Sunday while a worker in a cherry picker tied down the massive banner of Agnes Varda on the front of the Palais.
Nor the photographers, who had already staked out the spots for their ladders along the red carpet, securing them with bicycle locks. Nor the industry source who answered me, when asked about Cannes, "Well, Venice is gonna be on fire this year."