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Cannes gets an added dose of drama as Netflix makes its festival debut

EPA/Julien Warnand

Cannes gets an added dose of drama as Netflix makes its festival debut

EPA/Julien Warnand

The red carpet has been rolled out and the stars are taking their photo calls as the aristocracy of the film industry gathers at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes for the 70th annual film festival. From Afghanistan to Zambia, film makers, buyers, screenwriters, distributors, critics, academics and cineastes bunker down together for 12 days of communal cinematic consumption in dark rooms interspersed with heady business and critical discussion in the glare of the Mediterranean sunlight.

Opening the 2017 Festival is French director Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts, which is screening out of competition and kicks off a line up that includes 49 films from 29 countries, 12 of them by female directors.

The festival groups its selection (invited from more than 1,000 submitted films) into a number of strands: “the Competition”; “Un Certain Regard”; “Director’s Fortnight” and “Critic’s Week” all of which have their own programme of films. Complementing these strands are special events such as “Midnight Screenings”, “Cannes at 70” screenings, “Cannes Classics” and “Out of Competition” screenings – including, this year, a new thriller from Roman Polanski.

Thierry Frémaux, the Festival’s artistic director, is in charge of selection – and this year his choice is characterised by a lower number of Hollywood films than usual. He has also gone for a more pronounced political tone in the films, on themes such as migration, sex trafficking and the refugee crisis. Another feature of this year’s selection is the screening of films financed by media streaming platforms, including Netflix and Amazon, and the inclusion of “cinematic” television dramas.

Strong competition

The competition films compete for the festival’s Palme d'Or, its most prestigious award – which was won last year by Ken Loach for I, Daniel Blake. This strand includes a number of Cannes regulars – directors such as Michael Haneke, Lynne Ramsay and Sofia Coppola in a programme of 19 films from more than a dozen countries.

Haneke’s 12th film, Happy End, brings together French actor Isabelle Huppert with the UK’s Toby Jones in a story set in Calais which explores the ongoing refugee crisis and a family’s moral blindness to suffering on its doorstep. Haneke, who is from Austria, has already been awarded the Palm d'Or twice before for The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012).

Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, who was last at the festival in 2011 with her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, will present You Were Never Really Here – which was jointly developed by the UK’s Film4 and BFI and features US star Joaquin Phoenix in a thriller set within the world of sex trafficking.

Meanwhile, another festival favourite, Sofia Coppola, is in Cannes with her updated version of the 1971 Clint Eastwood classic The Beguiled, which stars Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Colin Farrell.

New players

The inclusion in the competition strand of two Netflix-funded films caused a heated controversy in the days before Cannes – which will doubtless continue throughout the festival. Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Okja by the Korean director Bong Joon-ho are both Netflix original productions, and represent titles that will air on the media streaming platform before being seen in commercial film theatres – if at all.

There were rumours that these two Palme d'Or contenders (and possibly also those funded by Amazon Studios) would be deselected and not screened at Cannes. This was due to pressure from French exhibitors who are concerned that Netflix-backed films may not be released for screening in French cinemas. However, the festival’s organisers have confirmed that the Netflix titles will indeed be screened – but that the festival rules will be changed for 2018 so that all films in competition will have to be guaranteed a French theatrical release and not reserved for subscribers to Netflix or Amazon.

In coming to this decision, Cannes has opted to welcome new funders of cinema such as Netflix, while at the same time reaffirming its commitment to the traditional mode of theatrical exhibition of film in France and beyond.

In future, any film wishing to compete in competition at Cannes will have to commit itself to being distributed in French cinemas. As Netflix and Amazon (and other new players in this field) continue to disrupt traditional business models for the financing, production and consumption of film, it will be a challenge for international film festivals (such as Berlin, Venice, London and Sundance) to respond in positive ways to accommodate these new production models.

Small screen, big impact

Rival events in the environment of the film and television industry (for example, a proposed Cannes TV Festival in 2018 and more tolerant selection criteria at other international Film Festivals, such as at SxSW in the US) have prompted the Cannes Film Festival to sever its stone wall resistance to television drama series.

With the admission of Twin Peaks and Top of the Lake into its 2017 programme, Cannes’ hitherto unbreachable “no TV series” rule has been broken. To some die-hard cinephiles, this is akin to having the TV barbarians not just at your door – but ransacking your living room. It’s the first time that television in an episodic form has been invited to Cannes – and it marks a significant step in a new direction.

Twin Peaks was originally produced in 1990 and 1991 for ABC television and was followed by a feature film in 1992. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – which David Lynch devised as a prequel to the television series – was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992 and was loudly booed. Top of the Lake aired on BBC in 2013 to great acclaim.

Both television series come from auteurs (David Lynch, Jane Campion) whose cinematic credentials as past winners of the Palme d'Or at Cannes (Wild At Heart; The Piano) are watertight – and in that regard it makes the Cannes decision more palatable than it might have been. Because it’s now very clear that, for all that Cannes is revered as a movie festival, the TV and streaming genies are now out of the bottle and on show.

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