CANNES — As the Cannes Film Festival celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, the occasion finds the art form it celebrates much changed, and the festival along with it.
The most familiar trappings of Cannes, which got underway Wednesday, are present and accounted for, including warm springtime weather, yachts bobbing in sparkling Mediterranean seas opposite the enormous Palais des Festivals, hordes of invading press and fans, and an onslaught of celebrities here to promote their latest projects: The prize for most ubiquitous this year will surely go to Nicole Kidman, who will appear in three movies, as well as Jane Campion’s TV series “Top of the Lake: China Girl,” two episodes of which will premiere here on May 23.
But the very fact that Cannes, where love of cinema approaches monk-like devotion, is programming television shows has elicited a few sacre bleus among big-screen purists (granted, the festival showed the series “The Jackal” in 2010). Not only is “Top of the Lake” getting a red-carpet rollout on the Croisette, but David Lynch’s reboot of his cult hit series “Twin Peaks” will make its debut three days later.
Even more controversial was Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux’s decision to program two Netflix movies: Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja” and Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories,” which will compete for the coveted Palme d’Or alongside films by Michael Haneke, François Ozon and Yorgos Lanthimos.
The streaming giant Amazon made a splash last year when it brought five highly regarded titles to the festival, but that company has a well-established tradition of opening their films in theaters before making them available on other platforms. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Although Netflix will open “Okja” and “The Meyerowitz Stories” theatrically in some countries, it has no such plans in France, which led to such a fierce outcry from exhibitors that the festival announced a new rule: Beginning next year, they would only play films guaranteed to open in French theaters.
The contretemps even migrated to this year’s jury, when its president, Pedro Almodóvar, announced at a news conference Wednesday that he didn’t think the Palme should be given to a film that can’t be seen on a big screen. Juror Will Smith immediately leapt to Netflix’s defense, insisting that streaming and theatrical need not be mutually exclusive. Noting that his three children use Netflix and see an average of two movies a week, he said, “Netflix has been nothing but an absolute benefit,” allowing them to “watch films they otherwise wouldn’t have seen. It has broadened by children’s global cinematic comprehension.”
As Cannes has sought to keep up, however awkwardly, with dizzyingly changing viewing options and audience expectations, the festival has stayed true to perhaps its most unshakable value: veneration of auteurs. Even when they’re working in television or for streaming companies, Campion, Lynch, Bong and Baumbach all exemplify the kind of visionary, boldly independent creators that the festival has championed in the past, from Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica to Francis Ford Coppola and Quentin Tarantino. This year, Coppola’s daughter Sofia, a Cannes favorite, will be bringing her fourth film to the festival (the Civil War-era drama “The Beguiled”), as will Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”) and competition first-timers Benny and Josh Safdie (“Good Time”).
Notably absent from the proceedings are the premieres of big, splashy Hollywood movies that can be counted on for at least a few moments of amusing ballyhoo (examples from previous years include “Up,” “Inside/Out,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Mad Max: Fury Road”). The focus this year is ostensibly on more serious fare, although that doesn’t mean that the limits of auteur worship aren’t sometimes painfully obvious. The opening night film, Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” about a director torn between two women (Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg) played like a muddled, unfocused parody of great-man wish-fulfillment fantasy and artistic excess.
The self-indulgence of “Ismael’s Ghosts” felt all the more off-key when considering the historical context of Cannes’ birth 70 years ago, when it was founded in part as a response to the conciliatory stance of the Venice Film Festival during the Mussolini era. With Cannes opening just a few days after a right-wing nationalist-populist candidate came closer than ever to winning the French presidency, it remains to be seen how the films in the festival will capture — or fail to capture — the most crucial questions of their times. Shortly after “Ismael’s Ghosts” screened for the press, Vanessa Redgrave presented the debut of her documentary “Sea Sorrow,” a touching, persuasive, if occasionally solipsistic plea on behalf of refugees that calls for a return to the international principles of human rights that were codified after World War II.
The first American film to show here, Haynes’s “Wonderstruck,” about a troubled 12-year-old boy, found the filmmaker in unfamiliar — and often uncomfortably contrived — territory of an unwieldy double-story and plot elements that felt overworked rather than fanciful. (In fairness, the film may not count as a piece of true auteurism, since Haynes directed it from a script adapted by “Wonderstruck” novelist Brian Selznick.) A film with another 12-year-old as its leading character, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” was far more potent, presenting a bleak domestic drama and a damning critique of post-Soviet materialism and selfishness wrapped inside a bleak, finely observed domestic drama. Valeska Grisebach’s “Western,” which showed in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, marked the mesmerizing debut of actor Meinhard Neumann, who played a German laborer testing the limits of masculinity, nationalism and cross-cultural connection while on a job in Bulgaria.
On Thursday, the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu began screening “Carne y Arena,” which addresses the refugee crisis, but also happens to be the first virtual-reality project to be programmed at Cannes, a six-minute immersion that viewers will experience one at a time, after being taken by car to an undisclosed warehouse space in the city. As an example of a filmmaker exploring new visual languages to respond to a world that has both radically changed and stayed distressingly the same over seven decades, “Carne y Arena” may wind up being that rare auteurist statement that gracefully embraces Cannes’ artistic and political past, as well as its technological future. As for the films that will be shown over the next 10 days, as they say in France: On verra. We shall see.