The 2018 Cannes Film Festival has officially opened. Huzzah! The terrible time leading up to the festival, several interminable weeks of listening to critics, pundits and other dark wizards prognosticate about the so-called weakness of this year’s competition lineup, has come to an end. It’s true, this Cannes lineup is missing some heavy-hitter, big-ticket movies that many of us were hoping for, like Barry Jenkins’ James Baldwin adaptation If Beale Street Could Talk and Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. But often the movies made by not-household-name directors (and what households talk about movies anymore, anyway?) end up, once they find their way onto the U.S. release schedule, being the best thing to open in any given week. If movie lovers’ hope can’t spring eternal in Cannes—well, it’s probably finally dead.
That said, the festival did institute some changes this year, making the see-it/review-it routine much more challenging. In the past, films having their big gala evening premiere would screen at 8:30 that morning. But critics were writing their reviews so fast that their possibly negative words would stream out via the social media foghorn even before the first dainty sandal had hit the red carpet. In other words, writers were just too good at doing their actual job. But from the festival’s point of view, those too-early reviews were stealing too much thunder and raining too heavily on the parade. And from a filmmaker’s standpoint, a bunch of ratty reviews that hit right before you present your work to the world is an absolute downer.
So festival director Thierry Fremaux made the decision, hugely unpopular with critics and other types of film writers, to axe that morning screening. Instead, journalists and critics watch the film—in a separate theater—at the same time that gala premiere audience does, or the morning after. Then, many of those writers must race home to write their reviews. That may not sound so bad if you’ve never done it—hey, we’re still in the South of France, watching movies. But that kind of superfast writing is never anyone’s best. So in a world where we already have so many words flooding in, by the minute and by the second, on every topic under the sun, from Cannes we now have hastier, less-well-chosen words flooding in.
The new system was in place at last night’s festival opener, Asghar Farhadi’s Everybody Knows. The movie itself is a pretty listless affair. Iranian writer-director Farhadi—the force behind the Oscar-winning 2011 A Separation—made the film in Spain, with Spanish stars, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz. So that right there is something: Farhadi wrote the film in Farsi, and it was then translated into Spanish. He doesn’t speak Spanish himself. I’m not sure many directors would dare to go for that.
But Everybody Knows—which is billed as a psychological thriller, though it’s really more of a family melodrama—feels meandering and indistinct. Cruz plays Laura, a woman who has lived in Argentina for years but who is returning to her home village in Spain for her sister’s wedding, her two kids in tow. Javier Bardem’s Paco still lives in the town—he’s married to a local teacher, Bea (Bárbara Lennie). The complications pile up rapidly. Laura and Paco used to be deeply in love. Some sort of betrayal occurred. And there’s land involved. Plus a kidnaping. It’s a lot to take in. At one point during the screening, as Bardem’s Paco tries hard to digest a big revelation, a few members of the press audience began giggling. Bardem was acting the heck out of the moment, as subtly as anyone could. But the news to which poor Paco was responding probably represented one WTF plot twist too many. A guy can only take so much.
Everybody Knows is a classy-looking thing: It was shot by master Spanish cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, and sections of it take place in a church bell-tower whose key feature is a luminous clock face. That tower interior is gorgeous, and somehow super-Spanish-looking, though Farhadi seems to have struggled to work it into the plot. Too much of Everybody Knows is a struggle. The every-which-way story line includes so many family members, and so many friends of family, that it’s hard to keep everyone straight. After a while, you give up caring.
But if Everybody Knows is a case of Cannes starting off with less than a bang, the opening ceremony that preceded the film was something else, if only because it gave us the first glimpse of this year’s jury en masse. Opening ceremonies aren’t the sort of thing critics are invited to; this time, as we waited for the screening to start, we were treated to a live feed of the event. I use the word “treated” lightly and somewhat facetiously—festival opening ceremonies are generally sort of dull, in a self-congratulatory, glitzy-gown kind of way, and this one was no exception. Even at Cannes, the most dazzling festival in the world, the opening ceremony is still a little like the Annual Tinytown Corn and Sow Extravaganza, where the mayor gets up and makes a speech.
But wow, this jury! Cate Blanchett, all caryatid elegance and poise, is the formidable president. Standing pretty damn tall around her are Ava DuVernay, Kristen Stewart, Burundian singer Khadja Nin and Léa Seydoux. Since you asked, or even if you didn’t, here are the men: Taiwanese actor Chang Chen, directors Denis Villeneuve and Andrey Zvyagintsev, and director, screenwriter, producer and actor Robert Guédiguian, But enough about them! Collectively, the women jurors cut a fine sartorial figure: Nin wore a gorgeous, vivid wax-print gown and contrasting headwrap. Seydoux strutted out in a white gown that looked like a bathing-beauty swimsuit with a sparkly nightie over it, but in the good, “Hey, she’s French, she can do whatever she wants!” way. DuVernay, as always, looked regal yet approachable. Stewart—get this—practically rolled her eyes when Fremaux introduced her onstage. It wasn’t a rude eyeroll; really just a flicker, a shadow gesture that said “It’s great to be here” and “What the hell am I doing here?” all at once. That’s Cannes in one glitter-and-gilt nutshell. Let the games begin.