CANNES, France — The year 2017 will be remembered for many things at the Cannes Film Festival, among them the international film showcase’s 70th anniversary, a bomb threat midway through the festival that sent audiences out onto the Croisette, and the vociferous booing that greeted movies produced by Netflix, whose tough stance on not opening its films in French theaters got the festival off to a controversial start.
But if Cannes has proved anything so far this year, it’s that purists’ devotion to old-fashioned notions about big-screen depth, scale and scope isn’t being rewarded by the movies themselves. Seven days into the 10-day festival, the mood was noticeably muted, as one mediocre film after another came and went, with precious few sending viewers out of the theater feeling as if they had seen something genuinely transcendent or capable of pushing the medium forward. There have been excellent films — Sofia Coppola’s Civil War gothic horror story “The Beguiled” and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s contemporary drama “Loveless” among them. But Cannes audiences had yet to see a movie that, like “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” “Holy Motors” and “Son of Saul” in past years, sent them out of theaters with the elated feeling that the world had shifted on its axis.
Of course, it’s unfair to ask every film to be great at Cannes — and, at this writing, films by such reliably interesting directors as Josh and Benny Safdie, Fatih Akin, Lynne Ramsay and Roman Polanski had yet to screen. But more than ever Cannes felt captive to an age-old obsession with auteurs — mostly male — whose most middling films this year benefited from red-carpet pomp, glamour and attendant visibility while smaller, better films were relegated to the sidelines.
The competitive program, especially, seemed more dedicated to celebrating a handful of favorite filmmakers for their own sake, rather than on the strength of individual projects. For every instance of a writer-director embracing emerging forms and taking bold risks, there were far too many films that felt not up to par or unfinished, just because they had famous or favorite directors’ names attached.
The opening-night film, Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” could have been a parody of unfocused, semi-coherent directorial self-indulgence. A few days later “Redoubtable,” Michel Hazanavicius’s fun but feather-light portrait of Jean-Luc Godard during his revolutionary phase, made its premiere. The film serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of auteur worship — both in substance, in the way it punctures the Great Man’s legend, and as a minor film better served by a slot out of competition. Meanwhile, such masters as Agnès Varda (“Faces Places”) and Mohammad Rasoulof (“A Man of Integrity”), as well as emerging filmmakers like Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”) and the Zambian director Rungano Nyoni (“I Am Not a Witch”) were inexplicably relegated to sidebars.
While journalists and audience members grumbled about longer security lines before screenings — redoubled after news about the bombing in Manchester — the jittery, uncertain tenor of the times could be felt inside the theater as well, as one film after another sought to grapple with dizzying political, demographic and technological changes. Not surprisingly, the international refugee crisis was the subject of several films from the countries where it’s most visible and palpable: At age 80, the actress Vanessa Redgrave made her directorial debut with the documentary “Sea Sorrow,” reminding viewers of international principles regarding the rights of immigrants and children. In the action thriller “Jupiter’s Moon,” writer-director Kornel Mundruczo portrayed a refugee character as something akin to a holy naif, a patronizing view echoed days later in Michael Haneke’s “Happy End,” about a prosperous Calais family pursuing profit and personal power regardless of whom they hurt.
Haneke’s film was more of the same from the Austrian filmmaker, whose sadistic misanthropy is approaching shtick at this point, with a movie whose cardinal themes are the disconnection, alienation and corrosion of values brought on by modern life. A number of movies dealt with similar ruptures in the social contract, among them Bong Joon Ho’s eco-futuristic chase film “Okja,” Ruben Ostlund’s wicked art-world satire “The Square,” Noah Baumbach’s warm and messy “The Meyerowitz Stories” and Yorgos Lanthimos’s chilly “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”
Many if not most of those films centered on the physical and psychic suffering of children, which began to feel like cheap manipulation by the time it was trotted out yet again. In terms of thematic unity, novelty and genuine artistry, “Loveless,” Zvyagintsev’s superbly controlled portrait of materialism and selfishness in post-Soviet Russia, made an impact far more powerful than mere shock or “aww.”
In “Loveless,” audiences were introduced to a part of Russian society we don’t usually see on film, namely a newly wealthy bourgeoisie as susceptible to the distractions and distortions of their handheld screens as any American suburbanite. The festival’s most potent experience was “Carne y Arena,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki’s powerful, deeply affecting virtual reality installation about the experience of Mexican immigrants crossing a southwestern U.S. border. To access the project, viewers went one by one to an off-site location, where they donned goggles, earphones and backpacks, took off their shoes, and spent six minutes plunged into the world of terrified migrants being rounded up by immigration officers.
New technology was on hand in the form of old technology as well: On Tuesday viewers devoted six hours to binge-watching the newest installment of Jane Campion’s Sundance TV series “Top of the Lake.”
Although some cineastes sniffed that they didn’t come all the way to France to watch television, “Top of the Lake” represented the same kind of depth, scope and rich production values that characterize the finest movies; along with “Carne y Arena,” it was arguably just as immersive as most big-screen features, if not more so.
If the competition films at this year's Cannes pointed up the weaknesses inherent in indiscriminate auteur worship, Inarritu and Campion — who, many observers noted bitterly, is still the only woman to have won a Palme d’Or — exemplified the strengths of film artists eager to embrace new ways of approaching moving images and using them to create emotional connections that go beyond the merely narrative.
Happily, movie love at its purest — beyond uncritical hero worship and mythologizing — could be found in a documentary that made a modest but enthusiastically received debut here: Tony Zierra’s “Filmworker,” a portrait of Leon Vitali, Stanley Kubrick’s longtime assistant who personifies the myriad crew members and artisans who make even the most singular cinematic visions possible. Vitali’s story marked an incursion of the real world into Cannes in the very best sense, as a celebration of its anonymous inhabitants’ role in bringing our collective dreams to life.