Jacob’s ladder

Rating: NNNNNCANNES -- There are days when this is an utterly glorious place to be. On the final Saturday of.

Rating: NNNNN

CANNES — There are days when this is an utterly glorious place to be. On the final Saturday of the festival, for example, the sun is lovely, a cool breeze comes in off the Mediterranean and I have no screenings.

There are also days when the mood is best expressed by two critics I overheard on my seven-minute walk from the Palais to the Noga Hilton.

“You know, there are some people who think this is a dream job.”

“And then there are those who know that the only advantage is that you get to see the bad movies first.”

Big film festivals are essentially unquantifiable. No one can grab hold of the whole thing. There are about 50 films in the official selection (Competition, Special Screenings, Un Certain Regard) alone, another 45 or so in the parallel festival (Director’s Fortnight, Critics’ Week), and that doesn’t even begin to count the market.

I can’t say I had a good Cannes this year, and for that I blame Gilles Jacob, head of programming for the Cannes festival proper.

Not unified

Remember that Cannes is not a unified entity like the Toronto or New York festivals. We’re talking about three different festivals, each with its own staff, publicists, programs and agenda. The Fortnight and Critics’ Week have their own apparatus. The staffs of those festivals will accredit a journalist who has Cannes fest accreditation, but that’s only because it’s convenient.

Jacob has run Cannes for more than two decades, and he has the impulses of any big bureaucrat. This, by the way, is what film festival directors are — they just happen to be big bureaucrats who get to talk about art.

They run immense cultural institutions that must grow or die. It doesn’t matter if we’re in the midst of a horrible cinematic drought, or if there aren’t enough good films to fill the slots in a section — every festival has to be built up each new year as the biggest and best, even when it isn’t.

Real commerce

The reality of what happens in the interstices of commerce and culture prevents Jacob from announcing, “There aren’t that many good films this year, so the competition will be reduced to 15 films,” any more than the Perspective Canada crew in Toronto can say, “There are only four really good Canadian movies this year, and another five that are kind of worth seeing, so that’s all we’re showing.” It will not happen.

Go to the Cannes festival site (http://www.festival-cannes.fr/) and take a peek in the archives to see some of the films that dazzled the Competition in years past. There have been films here every year that should never have been screened outside the filmmakers’ living rooms.

However, Jacob is especially good at what he does, and he likes to load up the Competition, raiding other programs and overbooking the section.

There was a good deal of curiosity about how Terence Davies’ adaptation of The House Of Mirth wound up with market screenings. People who saw it thought it was superior to The Golden Bowl, the Merchant-Ivory Henry James adaptation in Competition. Jacob booked it for the Competition, saw a couple of other things he thought were more interesting, and downgraded it into the festival’s secondary series, Un Certain Regard — at which point the producers of The House Of Mirth pulled their film and decided to go to Venice.

Jacob creates an atmosphere that makes us want to to see the Competition. So he overloads the Official Selection — there were 23 films in the Competition this year, plus 11 Special Screenings outside of it, including new titles by Denys Arcand, Roland Joffé, Ang Lee, Agnès Varda and John Waters.

Reduced status

If one simply sticks with the main Palais screenings, that’s three and a half films a day. Doesn’t leave a lot of time to see anything else, does it? Not for a journalist who’s filing eight or nine times during the festival. Not when a lot of those movies run well over two hours.

My FIPRESCI jury duties compelled me to spend my days and early evenings off at the “other” festivals, the Fortnight and Critics’ Week. It has been like stepping into another world. Come back to the Palais and start talking to people, and they’re all seeing the Competition. Jacob has quite successfully managed to reduce the status of the Fortnight to a sidebar.

Looking back at my first Cannes, in 1986, at least four, maybe five of the films in the Fortnight would have been promoted to the Competition if today’s policies had been in effect: Decline Of The American Empire, Sid And Nancy, probably the Japanese film Comic Magazine. And that wasn’t a bad Competition on its own, featuring Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, Blier’s Menage and Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law. The Palme d’Or that year went to The Mission, if anyone needs reminding.

I haven’t seen a great film this year, except possibly Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, an homage to the great days of the kung fu movie. But it’s a great movie rather than a great film.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that there weren’t any great films this year. It’s just that the constraints of jury duty meant that I didn’t see them. At this writing, the prizes have not yet been awarded. (See sidebar, this page, for info on the prizewinners.) Looking at the lists of past winners, I can almost guarantee that this will be the first time since 1986 that I’ve not seen the Palme d’Or winner.

I’ve now done three of my last four film festivals on a FIPRESCI jury. I want my freedom back.

And if that means the freedom to see those three-hour French period films in the Competition, so be it.



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