CANNES - you have to love the paradox. Cannes 2003 had the weakest program in the festival's last 10 years - arguably the limpest lineup ever - but the strongest weather. There were no rain days - no overcast days, for that matter. Since Cannes is no longer the only festival that matters (though it still thinks of itself that way), it's virtually impossible to extract meaning from the program's low quality.
It doesn't mean that Cannes is dead, or that the rest of the film festival year will be horrible, or that the world will stop spinning on its axis. We've got SARS, terrorist attacks, mad cow disease in Alberta and, however seriously one takes the movies, let's be honest - there's a lot more to worry about than the aesthetic health of one film festival in one year.
One way to explain the weakness of the selection is that an awful lot of films by good filmmakers weren't ready for Cannes - or their directors decided to ignore Cannes. Lots of filmmakers take this option, preferring to attend the less circus-like Venice Festival or to get an ego boost from Toronto's movie-mad audiences. A well-known director once said, "If Toronto festival audiences don't like your film, you should reconsider your career choice."
The competition at Venice in 1952 included Ford's The Quiet Man, Clément's Forbidden Games, Rossellini's Europa '51, Asquith's The Importance Of Being Earnest and Wyler's Carrie, all of which are still watched and admired half a century later. Will anyone in 2052 really want to take a fresh look at Dogville? If you think I'm picking out 1952 because of a particularly great competition, note that 1954 included Kazan's On The Waterfront, Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, Fellini's La Strada and Visconti's Senso.
I didn't see anything in the class of those films at Cannes this year. Clint Eastwood's Mystic River is a very solid genre exercise with terrific acting.
Peter Greenaway's The Tulse Luper Suitcases is a dazzling exercise that may herald some future cinema or may mark the increasing self-referentiality of a remarkably hermetic filmmaker.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Bright Future is a throwaway from a ferociously prolific master of unsettling horror.
Even cutting the Competition in half this year, to a dozen films, would not have strengthened it much. Film festivals in general have gotten too big and too long. Cannes, with its various sidebars and parallel events, like the Directors Fortnight, has about 100 spots to fill; Toronto has over 250 feature spots. There aren't 250 good films made in the world in a year. There are barely that many watchable films made.
I rag festival programmers, but I wouldn't want their job. I'm told the Sundance programmers see more than 700 films to get their selection, and having seen some of the films that get into Sundance (or Toronto, or Cannes) I wouldn't want to spend my time watching those that don't make the cut.
The 10-or-11-day format (in essence Thursday to Sunday, and in the case of Cannes Wednesday to Sunday) is too long for any but the most diehard buffs to go on seeing three and four (and more!) movies a day. A week would be reasonable, but festivals want to get two weekends in, and "Since we're really starting the festival on Friday, let's have the opening on Thursday."
Six or seven days into a run of movies like this year's Cannes selection and it becomes work just to find the energy to go to another movie. It feels as if you're persisting on betting red just because black keeps coming up, and "it's bound to turn around soon."
I packed a bunch of DVDs with me for review purposes and realized that, after trudging up the hill to my hotel at night after a day of bad movies, I hadn't brought enough.