OPINION: the Cannes Festival’s strange pas-de-deux

Last Updated: March 21, 2020By Tags:

Canceled, not canceled. And now–maybe–merely postponed? The Cannes Festival, in a PR pas-de-deux that has sowed confusion and let on few key details, has issued a press release last night. In its usual imperfect English (but their heart was in it), the Cannes communiqué went :

“Today, we have made the following decision : The Festival de Cannes cannot be held on the scheduled dates, from May 12 to 23. Several options are considered in order to preserve its running, the main one being a simple postponement, in Cannes, until the end of June-beginning of July, 2020. As soon as the development of the French and international health situation will allow us to assess the real possibility, we will make our decision known, in accordance with our ongoing consultation with the French Government and Cannes City Hall as well as with the Festival’s Board Members, Film industry professionals and all the partners of the event. In the meantime, the Festival de Cannes lends its vocal support to all of those who firmly call on everyone to respect the general lockdown, and ask to show solidarity in these difficult times for the entire world. See you very soon.”

Strange, right? I suppose the organizers felt some pressure to speak out on this. But, placed within the larger context of the current pandemic situation, the message has a familiar ring, an echo of the confusion, the fear and the uncertainty that a large majority of the denizens of planet earth are probably also feeling right about now.

Who knows where we will be, come “end of June, beginning of July, 2020”?

I won’t pretend having insider knowledge of the Cannes Festival. I don’t. But I do know that the festival’s organizers, Thierry Frémaux and Pierre Lescure, are beholden to a number of stakeholders, from the festival’s own executive board to industry heavies, to the mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, to Bernard Gonzalez, the governor of the Alpes-Maritimes region, where the city of Cannes is located and, here I’m hazarding a guess, to the region’s council. Because logically, if one were to follow the money, the Cannes Festival is answerable to them, too. And I’m not even mentioning Frank Riester, France’s culture minister (he recently tested positive for the coronavirus), the man who holds the purse strings for a sizable portion of Cannes’s budget, or the CNC, France’s film lobby (with the smaller Unifrance acting as French cinema’s plenipotentiary ambassador).

Is the decisionmaking (or lack thereof) process behind whether to cancel or carry on a problem of too many cooks in the kitchen? Perhaps. But with a vast and complex institution such as the Cannes Festival, the best film festival in the world (my words), one that draws from public funds for a large part of its 20M euro budget, it probably couldn’t be helped. I listed some of those above, there are so many constituencies that the festival’s organizers have to assuage, to say nothing of the 6,000 festival goers who attend Cannes every year. But because the Alpes-Maritimes region (“la Région,” a territorial and administrative concept in France that is like something between our own counties and states, in terms of size and authority) gets a payday of 200 million euros because of the Cannes Festival each year, I’ll hazard a guess that the people sitting on the region’s council will have their say in the decision on whether to cancel this year’s festival, or not.

What a gordian knot this is. On the hand, the stakeholders. On the other, the risk that holding the festival in May 2020 may pose a health risk. How truly dreadful.

When will the speculation end? What is the right course of action? As American, I am pragmatic, so I would cut my losses, cancel altogether, dragging this out further may create more of a conundrum for people. Think of all the festival-goers who are already trying to book their train ticket for some as-yet unannounced date in July, only to be disappointed, again. And depending on which direction this coronavirus pandemic goes, a few weeks, or a few months, how many of the usual 6,000 will actually attend, if the Festival were to go on in the summer?

In the current climate, with each day bringing its raft of bad news, it almost seems trivial to be thinking about whether the Cannes Festival will go on or not. In the larger scheme of things, does it really matter?
It’s debatable. Because who wouldn’t relish some measure of normalcy? For myself, as journalist, normalcy means spending eleven days every May month at the Cannes Festival, being among the first people on earth to discover new cinema, indulging in the pleasure of sitting in darkened theaters with thousands of others and reacting along with them to what goes on on the screen, talking shop with friends and colleagues, taking it all in, as the supremely well-orchestrated machine that is the Cannes Festival projects grandeur and puts cinema on the kind of pedestal that filmmakers, big and small, notorious or notoriously-unknown, could not dream of.

Does it really matter anymore? Of course, it does!

But, I can but invoke some as-yet unidentified spirit who handles such matters : please accompany these Cannes men on their journey as they decide the fate of the world’s best film festival in the world. And if this year’s a total loss, let us meet again in Cannes in 2021.

And be safe out there.

NEXT : if this year’s festival goes on, and I truly hope that it does, announcements regarding who will sit on the jury this year should be made shortly and, finally, a press conference where the official selection will be unveiled will be organized in mid-April in Paris.



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