I've been fortunate enough to have been able to go to Cannes for the past four years now, and I'm getting ready for my fifth. And, as I often say when explaining film festivals to people who've never been to one, it's not just an adventure; it's a job. Cannes is a "get-away" the same way running from a burning building is "a tour of the grounds"; there are plenty of movies, plenty of work, and the overall emotional tone of the event is a mix of exhaustion and exhilaration. The heady moments of pure movie magic come fast and furious with the muck-and-money reality of international financing and distribution happening all about you.
Going to Cannes means seeing at least 40, maybe 50 or more movies in 10 days, never mind actually thinking and writing about them; you'd think that that kind of pace would soon turn into a blur, and it does, but it's a glorious one. Here's some of my favorite movie going moments (highly subjective, of course -- I've not included last year's ridiculously strong quartet of Persepolis, No Country for Old Men,The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, as they're still so fresh in my mind) from the past four years of the Cannes Film Festival; think of these as the rushed recollections of a film critic who knows exactly how lucky he's been.
1) Oldboy (2004)
Unlike other film festivals, where press screenings often take place in tucked-away venues with tiny screens, the press screenings for films in competition at Cannes take place in the Grand Lumière theater, or the equally impressive Salle Debussy. These are big, beautiful and gorgeously-maintained theaters; they make it hard to go back to, say, the converted hotel ballroom press screening rooms at Sundance. And one of the most mind-blowing movies I've ever seen splashed up on that big screen was Oldboy, Park Chan-wook's operatic story of revenge and violence where cold-blooded plans culminate in white-hot moments of violence. Choi Min-Sik plays a ordinary, shabby business man, plucked from his humdrum life and locked in a hotel room. For 15 years. He's let out, and given a series of imperatives that will bring dire consequences if he should fail. He has a plan, though. And so does the person responsible for his plight. Bold and brawny and terrifying and funny and bleak, Oldboy is one of the most riveting movies I've ever seen, but seeing it in such a glorious setting was the proverbial icing on the cake -- albeit a cake made of blood and fists and hammer fights and vengeance and psychosis and fury.
2)The Holy Girl (2004)
Before any film festival, you plot and plan and research; you craft a shortlist of movies you'd like to see based on their directors or stars or themes or writers. And then, as that careful plan becomes the casualty of battle, you also find movies that you didn't expect, hadn't heard about, that are unburdened by expectation and often wind up making a startling impression. I stumbled across The Holy Girl by accident -- it was playing in a blank spot on the schedule, and I'd never seen director Lucrecia Martel's previous film, Swamp -- and was amazed by how assured and human and striking and strong it was. The Holy Girl combines fiercely naturalistic acting with big sweeping themes of sex and salvation, guilt and grace, and no mere plot synopsis can do it justice. Martel's newest film, The Headless Woman, is playing at Cannes this year -- and I can't wait.
3) Caché (2005)
The city of Cannes looks lovely and glamorous and well-off when you see it in coverage of the festival -- and it is all those things, to be sure. But it's also a city like any other, and once you get away from the backbone of the festival, La Croisette, you see the same things you'd see in any similar-sized town; schools, mini-malls, hospitals, the places people actually live. And, just as I can walk out my front door in L.A. and walk only a few blocks and see people trying hard to make a dollar out of 85 cents, you can walk a few blocks in Cannes from the Palais du Cinema to your flat and find people who aren't trying to get a film deal but just trying to get by. Michael Haneke's tense, brilliant Caché is about those two worlds - the conflict between East and West, between haves and have-nots ... and it's a truly amazing film that left me with plenty to think about on the walk home that night.
4)The Battle of Algiers(2004)
Now and then, the hand of fate likes to program film festivals. A classic story about occupying troops pitted against insurgents, The Battle of Algiers played at Cannes in 2004, as American troops faced a similar challenge in Iraq. I'd never seen it before -- never mind seen it on a big screen -- and I knew I had to go; director Gillio Pontecorvo was in attendance at the screening, and the audience was transfixed. A lot of film criticism and festival coverage (especially on the web) is obsessed with the new, the now, the next; seeing The Battle of Algiers in Cannes was a great reminder of how important it is to stop, step back, and look to the past, too.
A lot of the time, movies provide escapism; I've often said that film festivals offer an escape from escapism -- a rare chance to see the dramas and stories that big-money movie making usually shuns. And L'Enfant is a great example of that. Directed by the Dardenne Brothers, it follows a young couple as they try and scrounge cash, make enough cash for the next high and get by. They have a baby. And he (Jérémie Renier) comes to see the child he's had with her (Déborah François) as not a reason to be responsible but as a resource they can both profit from. ... L'Enfant is grim and bleak and haunting, and when it won the Palme d'Or, the highest honor at Cannes, it was a nice reminder that while film can help us escape, that's not all it can do.
6) Pan's Labyrinth(2006)
Not only a great movie, but a great setting for it, as writer-director Guillermo Del Toro used the images and icons of fantasy to talk about real European history. Seeing Pan's Labyrinth in Europe -- in a country that had suffered under fascism, like the film's setting of Spain -- gave the movie a little extra kick of power, with Del Toro's themes and ideas resonating even more strongly than they might have if I'd seen it back home. It was one of those moments you get to witness very rarely; before that Cannes Film Festival, Del Toro was an interesting genre movie-maker; after that, he was a major filmmaker.
7) The Last Waltz (2005)
I'm sure this sounds a little sad, but after 10 days of watching movies for work, you kinda want to kick back and watch a movie for fun. Every year I've been at Cannes, the Festival knocks pilings into the surf and erects the Cinema de la Plage, a big screen that's visible from La Croisette with beach chairs and blankets, screening films from the competition and some just for the heck of it. And in 2005, on the closing night of the Festival, the Cinema de la Plage screened Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz -- a great concert film, depicting the swan song of The Band. And sitting in France, under the stars, the sound of the ocean in the background, listening to songs I grew up with -- "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down," "Caravan," "Forever Young" -- was one of those moments you would probably reflect on as profound and significant, if only you weren't having so much fun.