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Palais Intrigue

A dispatch from Cannes 2022

I spent a lot of my time at Cannes on the roof of the Palais, where you could look out across the Mediterranean toward an invisible Africa. Turning down the coast, south-west, the red-earthed Massif de l’Esterel was visible in the distance, where the train trickles through on its way to Saint-Tropez. Farther inland, the Cannes décor came into view: palm trees, terracotta tiles, the jostling mast-phalli of super-white yachts, superyachts in oil-black, beachside tents, provisional barriers, billboards for Top Gun: Maverick, and then finally, at the top of a hill, a rather unexpected church, always staring back at you. Perched on its outer stone wall was a ten-foot-tall sign that said “CANNES”—like “HOLLYWOOD,” but in miniature.

The Palais was purpose-built for the Cannes Film Festival in 1982 and serves as its central hub[*]. It houses the Grand Théâtre Lumière, used for red carpet premieres, which boasts over two-thousand seats (many of which even allow you to see the screen). Three other cinemas lie within: the not-as-Grand Debussy, the Ordinaire Bazin, and the Merde Buñuel. Varda is kept out back, where she at least has a nice view of the sea.

There’s a press lounge located on the Palais’s second floor, with a small deck that juts out over the Croisette—the Cannes main strip, which runs parallel to the beach and is lined with luxury hotels. From the deck, if you crane your neck north-east, you can spy the Lumière’s entrance. Used mostly for selfies in the morning, the space swells with excitement when celebrities arrive for premiere screenings, once in the afternoon and twice in the evening. Bad music blares while an announcer stays in step with the procession of big names: Bella Hadid! Kaia Gerber! Cara Delevingne!

It is here, lingering on the outskirts, that you’ll find the tuxedo people, a troupe of emphatic joiners-in. From 8 a.m. onwards, dressed in black-tie evening wear, with jewelry and high heels, full hair and make-up, they stand in ninety-degree heat holding little hand-made signs: “Un billet, s’il vous plaît!” Most of those I spoke to were French, having travelled from Marseille or Toulouse or somewhere else nearby. But I also met some Poles, Germans, Italians, and other Europeans, some who came from Saudi Arabia, from China, and so on. When they strut down the Croisette, what are ostensibly paparazzi take their picture. The photographers then make the images available for purchase at a nearby booth, located in a small carnival space with its own merry-go-round, for something like €40.

The finish line is asininity, and they all arrive together.

Cannes is built on tuxedo people. The festival is not so much about the films as it is about glamour and, even more importantly, access to it. The hierarchy of access extends to press badges, which run from pink to blue to yellow in order of importance; party invites; interview availability; a near-feudal ticketing system; and almost every other facet of the festival. But foremost, the hierarchy is this: there are those at Cannes and those who are not, and this is what allows the festival to function.

These days, Cannes mythmaking begins mostly on Twitter. Early on, I found myself repeating stuff I had read online about the event—stuff I’d witnessed firsthand and knew not to be true. “I heard that film had a lot of walkouts,” I would say, to other people who had heard the same. These rumors are crumbs for the lowest in the pecking order, giddily doled out by critics who seem to have come to Cannes just to post. When a screening ends (and sometimes sooner), they race to toss their takes online. The finish line is asininity, and they all arrive together.

Film is a temporal medium. You have an experience, and then a memory of that experience, and slowly the acids of your subconscious break down those memories into something your blood and bones can absorb. Once settled there, the film begins to mature. Sometimes it sweetens, and sometimes it rots. At the festival, seeing four or five films a day and getting equal hours sleep, none of my initial reactions lasted very long. By the end, I had a little bit of love for almost everything I saw. But the gauntlet of opinion confronts everyone leaving the theater, demands an answer: So, what did you think? Immediacy is antagonistic to art, but it’s good for sales. Daily dispatches are like tweets in longform; there isn’t time to say anything worthwhile. You can construct these pieces quickly by transcribing from the press notes, an informational packet sent out to anyone seeing a given film: state its title, director, cast and crew, where it was made, a plot summary, provide some scene setting—then adjectives, adjectives, adjectives. And if ever you need more words, just talk about other films. I never quite understood why so many critics willingly participate in a press circuit where they essentially function as an extension of the film’s marketing team, especially when publicity pays so much better, but maybe the glamor explains it well enough: people mistake proximity to fame for the thing itself.

Trade publications receive their own early morning screenings. This way, their opinion is the first, which means that distributors can tweet about “buzz,” or fold in quotes to their ad copy and Instagram images, until suddenly anecdotes have mutated into official campaigns: “See the film that prompted walkouts at Cannes!” These much-reported walkouts—and standing ovations, and boos—are usually meaningless. Most people who walk out are just old. Their internal prune alarm is ringing; they didn’t expect to encounter a two-hour black-and-white archival film. (Just what they expected, I don’t know.) One exception this year was De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the new film from Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, which takes advantage of sophisticated medical technical technologies to expose the inner workings of hospitals and human bodies. We see a prostate removed, a penis sounded, two nurses ripping open a womb with their hands. Each new horror prompted its own exodus. It’s a film worth watching in a packed theater, something fun to squirm through, but I’m not sure it has much to say. Paravel and Castaing-Taylor don’t quite get the institutional ironies of Wiseman’s Hospital, nor the compassion of Deniz Tortum’s eerily similar project, Phases of Matter.

Standing ovations often become anecdata on a film’s Wikipedia page. Already for the underserving Palme d’Or-winner, Ruben Östlund’s fun but shallow Triangle of Sadness, there’s note of applause lasting eight minutes, which is relatively low—Elvis got twelve. Again: the Lumière has 2,300 seats to fill, and necessarily does so with sycophantic tuxedudes. So, yes, of course these people are going to clap. The longer they do, the longer Tom Hanks smiles and waves! What’s more, most accredited people in these screenings aren’t critics but vague industry types—I spoke to one guy who couldn’t remember what production company he interned for—and typically work with the films being shown. They attend the premieres to applaud their own product, and eight or so minutes is on par for any act of masturbation.

Cannes is not a cinephilic festival. The entire project is propped up by the Marché, an enormous film market that occupies the Palais’s lowest circles. Here, the next few years of coming attractions are bought and sold—not just by producers and distributors, but myriad intermediaries I didn’t know existed. Companies purchase little booths with their barter plastered on the walls, film posters that resemble set dressing from 30 Rockthough none of them looked as good as Sherlock Homie. I spoke to many people here and learned very little: only that the world’s best and worst films are going straight to VOD.

The festival’s cynicism goes far beyond commerce, however. Cannes dropped its “International” label in 2003, but at this year’s edition, its seventy-fifth, there was an Olympic-like national village in addition to the Marché. Each tent represented a nation, though was not always represented by that nation. (The Swiss, for example, were represented by the Locarno Film Festival and other friendly faces.) But when a tent was represented by that nation’s governmental body or cultural institutions, a certain politics entered the fray.

I spoke to a programmer who works for a different European festival, and she mentioned something about international spies. It is apparently not uncommon for production companies to function as covert satellite operations, where “producers” who gain accreditation and entry to a festival—including safe passage over international borders—are in fact present to observe and report on behalf of their government. This partly includes policing what their nation’s artists have to say, which is unsurprising, given that those artists are more often invited for their value as dissenters than as filmmakers.

To celebrate the single ideological premise of Top Gun: Maverick—“military”—fighter jets scarred the sky with red, white, and blue.

Kirill Serebrennikov, for example, had one of the worst films in competition: Tchaikovsky’s Wife, an artless exercise in abjection. But Cannes 75 was held in the still-rippling wake of the war in Ukraine, making Serebrennikov more famous, and imminently more marketable, as Russia’s enfant terrible: in 2020, he faced six years in prison for what we must presume to be phony allegations of fraud. This is not to dismiss his presence. Given the recent and quite brazen political assassinations of Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh, the threat of incarceration, or worse, that Serebrennikov would face in Russia is likely very real—but the festival was willing to risk that fact in order to raise its middle finger to the east.

Serebrennikov was invited, but pro-Putin Russian press were not. Deadline cried scandal on this matter before the festival had even begun: Tchaikovsky’s Wife was funded by Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch recently forced to divest from Chelsea Football Club. Festival director Thierry Frémaux responded that it didn’t matter because the film was shot before the war began—the implication being: before anyone cared. Cannes then tried to kill the interview. Another scandal no one cared for was the fact that Asghar Farhadi made the jury this year while under trial for plagiarism. The accusation came as a riposte from his former student, Azadeh Masihzadeh, who Farhadi sued for defamation after she claimed that he had stolen her work. Masihzadeh won the defamation case, but had she not, she would have received two years in prison and seventy-four lashes from the Iranian government.

Not only were spies apparently sifting about the Cannes kebab shops and Gucci stores, neon nightclubs, and nudist beaches; they also infiltrated the silver screen. At least two films in this year’s competition lineup dealt with international espionage: Albert Serra’s Pacifiction, and Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon, an adaptation of the novel by Denis Johnson. The former deals with the misnomer of “post” colonial France; the latter, with a colonialism that will never end. In Stars at Noon, Denis contemporizes the setting of the novel, conjuring a Nicaraguan Revolution for the Covid era, where the CIA and Contra proxies still persist. With all its mid-coup mercenaries hanging about, patrolling streets, abusing freedoms, what stood out most was the fact that this world was not all that distinct from Cannes. Here, too, soldiers roam the Croisette with assault rifles, police with pistols and dogs, and every time you enter the theater, you pass through a high-tech security gate that scans your body for bombs. (How did Baz Luhrmann get through! Ha ha.) Worse still, to celebrate the single ideological premise of Top Gun: Maverick—“military”—fighter jets scarred the sky with red, white, and blue. The disconcerting presence of all these morbid details at Cannes, both onscreen and off, seemed to imply that the world was sick all over, that the cancers of a long-dead empire were malignant still.

Ukraine was represented by three films at Cannes, and in several other ways as well. There were minor touches, like blue-and-yellow lanyards, pins, stickers, and flags; and then more overt ones, like the topless woman who stormed the red carpet in protest of Putin’s invasion. (Her chest read: Stop raping us.) Volodymyr Zelensky opened the festival with a surprise address by satellite, speaking of cinema’s power to change the world and quoting Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. He also vaguely implicated Cannes as a future site of conquest, noting that, should the Ukrainian front not hold, Russia will only push farther west. (This was not a festival that called to demilitarize the screen.) Perhaps Zelensky was referencing the power of his own filmmaking, his address being one of many meta-filmic events that seeped out from the festival and solidified themselves as world news. With all this going on, the Ukrainian films—Maksym Nakonechnyi’s Butterfly Vision, Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s Pamfir, and Sergei Loznitsa’s The Natural History of Destruction—seemed to matter least of all.

I recognize the irony that I, too, have neglected the films in favor of more salacious details. Let me therefore end on a high note, as the festival did for me, with Kelly Reichardt.

Showing Up was the best film I saw at Cannes. There were plenty of good ones despite grumblings of a “bad festival,” but as the final screenings drew close, I worried that I hadn’t yet seen anything profound, nothing that truly moved me. David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, my second favorite, is a perfect fetish object, full of fun details to obsess over, strange characters, and devices with even stranger names. But Showing Up is a perfect film. It reflects on Reichardt’s career as an under-loved art-maker, with her perennial double, Michelle Williams, playing Lizzy, a sculptor who shuffles about in worn clogs and baggy clothes, talks to her ginger cat, crafts little women from clay. “My girls,” she calls them. (The film uses sketches and statuettes by Cynthia Lahti.)

Lizzy exists quietly, mostly unseen; people will call Williams’s performance “muted,” and they will be wrong. By way of a few penetrating close-ups, you glimpse her horrifying intensity, such as when one of her statues is removed from the kiln and found to be burnt. It is as if she has seen a corpse. This misery is ever-present in Lizzy, and she carries it in her body like bile. It makes her caustic and hard to care for, and Williams grapples with this pathos—one of solitude and obsession—with a gracelessness that is truer to life than most other actors can muster. If performances like this—if films like this—were the kind that people really saw, then both Reichardt and Williams would have shared gold.

The Cannes prizes, however, shouldn’t be given too much credit. Like the Oscars or Globes or that rotten Tomatometer, they are just another marketing tool, rarely awarded on merit. (The last time an actress and director shared the Palme was Blue is the Warmest Color.) Though Reichardt and her muse went away emptyhanded this year, their reception at the Lumière on Friday afternoon—the early premiere, no black-ties—was almost as moving as the film itself.

Cannes is perhaps the only place in the world where an artist like Reichardt can receive due praise.

One sad fact of standing ovations is that they often interrupt the closing credits. The film is cut short to allow for a live-feed close-up of the director to be shown onscreen; they wave, and the applause keeps rolling. It’s a telling snapshot of auteurism, with all the names whose labor made the film possible eclipsed behind a single artist. For Showing Up, however, this was not the case. The credits ran all the way through. By the time they ended and the lights came up, much of the theater had reassembled itself, gathering at the edges of the balcony and in orchestra aisles, along the walls and in doorways, squashed into the front few rows, all for a glimpse of this small woman who has too often been overlooked for the perceived stature of her films. Williams recently spoke out about Reichardt’s precarity as a filmmaker, noting that she teaches and sometimes stays with friends to make ends meet: “Because she makes films infrequently, she doesn’t have health insurance through the DGA. So, she has a theater named after her at the Sorbonne, but she has to teach to get health insurance.” It was with this image in mind that I found myself growing emotional during her standing ovation, realizing full well that I had become like everyone else: just slapping my hands together, hoping for a wave. (I got one.)

I fear the Palais will too often function as kingmaker for fools like Östlund, whose films purport to be satires of the rich and powerful but have functioned more to help him join them. (If you bite without teeth, aren’t you just sucking?) And yet, for all its contradictory politics, cash-flashing, celebrity worship, and artistic neglect, that pearl-white palace still offers moments of possibility. It is perhaps the only place in the world where an artist like Reichardt can receive due praise, can be showered with such owing affection. I hope she returns one day to claim the Palme, even if it does implicate her in the meaningless mythology of this gilded wasteland. If ever she comes back to Cannes, I will too, intent to drag out her ovation for as long as possible. I might even wear a tux.


[*] A previous version of this piece claimed that the Palais currently used for Cannes was built in 1949. The error has been corrected.