CANNES, France – When Jeff Nichols first attended the Cannes Film Festival, he was a 21-year-old college student doing an internship at the event’s American Pavilion. Most of his days were spent waiting at tables, but every now and then Nichols would snag a premiere ticket, don a tuxedo his mother had bought him, and perch high on the balcony of the Grand Théâtre Lumière. Whenever he landed there, he felt like he was at the pinnacle of everything he wanted to achieve in life.
Since then, Nichols has returned to the festival with two films he directed: Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, and drama Mud, directed by Matthew McConaughey. This year he will be one of the jurors to decide on the winner of the Palme d’Or. At a jury press conference on Tuesday, Nichols, now 43, declared his invitation to be an honor.
“I can guarantee you that I will look at each of these films with the same enthusiasm I did when I was 21,” said Nichols.
Moderator Didier Allouch added dryly: “You better sit there.”
Now in its 75th year, an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival remains in high demand, even though the film industry has changed irrevocably in the two decades since Nichols first attended. With French theaters lobbying for the festival to ban streaming films from competition, Cannes sometimes feels like a throwback: a place where the big screen is so revered that it’s little suspected that the outside world is consuming art films on much smaller screens , if any.
The most significant concession Cannes has made to changing viewership habits is the profusion of billboards and banners along the Croisette, the city’s main boulevard, promoting the short video app TikTok, an official partner of this year’s festival. Does this union mean the festival is hedging its cinematic bets, or is it just a clever way for Cannes to reach a user base of over a billion young users?
Perhaps it’s a reminder that Cannes has more to sell than just art films, though some of those entries — like Palme d’Or-winning “Parasite” or last year’s hit “The Worst Person in the World” — hit a cultural one Chord. Cannes also sells glamor in the form of red carpet images that are beamed around the world. And the scenic backdrop of the Croisette, where the red carpet is set against an azure summer sky and an even brighter blue sea, also provides the perfect launchpad for studio blockbusters: Top Gun: Maverick and Baz Luhrmann’s glittering Elvis is out this year will debut in Cannes alongside indies like Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up, starring Michelle Williams as an artist tending a wounded pigeon.
After the 74th edition of the festival was curtailed by the emergence of the delta variant of the coronavirus, this year’s Cannes is the celebration at its peak again. The number of journalists here has nearly tripled since last summer, the parties are once against a rush, and the opening film, Final Cut, was directed by a well-known Cannes graduate — French director Michel Hazanavicius, whose film The Artist debuted here 2011 before winning the Oscar for Best Picture.
Hazanavicius has experienced all the ups and downs that Cannes has to offer: three years after his victory with The Artist, he returned with the war drama The Search, which at its press launch earned as jeering boos and whistles as the film barely alive escape the Croisette. Still, Hazanavicius couldn’t stay away: although his zombie comedy Final Cut was originally set to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film moved to Cannes when Sundance went virtual-only.
“I feel like I was born in Cannes for The Artist, but I died in Cannes for The Search,” Hazanavicius told IndieWire this week. “It’s a poker game. You come with your cards, but you never know.”
And you come because there is nothing like it when Cannes follows. Perhaps that is why the opening ceremony of the festival on Tuesday evening was able to attract a prominent surprise guest: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who appeared via satellite. Dressed in his military uniform, he spoke to the couture-clad crowd about the power of cinema to reshape how we think about war and the people who wage it. Quoting Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Zelensky said: “People’s hatred will pass away, and dictators will die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.”
As he spoke, I thought back to the jury press conference where the judges – including actress-director Rebecca Hall and Jury President Vincent Lindon, who starred in last year’s Palme d’Or-winning Titane – were asked if Film still retains a cultural primacy in a world dominated by the likes of TikTok. Another judge, The Worst Person in the World director Joachim Trier, chimed in, saying filmmaking is “a very radiant, progressive art form that we all love.” Then he grinned.
“People say it’s dying,” Trier said. “I don’t believe it for a second.”