Most years, it’s possible to boil down the conversation preceding Cannes to a single simple question: Who’s going to be here? The world’s most prestigious film festival, unfolding over a dozen days against the sunbaked splendor of the French Riviera, can sometimes feel (or at least look) like a giant, glamorous, two-week-long party. And as with most parties, everyone wants an early peek at the guest list—to know which filmmakers and actors are bringing new work to the fest or just hobnobbing on the suddenly selfie-free red carpet of the Palais. But the lead-up to this year’s Cannes, which began a few short hours ago with the opening night screening of the new movie from A Separation and The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi, was different. It was absence, rather than presence, that dominated so much of the pre-festival chatter: not who was going to be here but who wasn’t.
There is, for one, the conspicuous lack of Netflix. The streaming giant pulled all its titles— including new films from Alfonso Cuarón, Paul Greengrass, and Jeremy Saulnier, plus that final (and belatedly completed) Orson Welles movie, The Other Side Of The Wind—after Cannes barred them from competition, citing a rule that any film jostling for the big prizes must receive an official theatrical run in France. Despite the highly visible, industry-wide pushback against sexism and gender inequality, women remain underrepresented at Cannes; only three female filmmakers are competing for the Palme d’Or—sadly, the highest number for the main slate in seven years. And then there’s the matter of what filmmakers were expected to be here and how many of them aren’t. Claire Denis? Terrence Malick? Luca Guadagnino? None are premiering new work on the Croisette.
Of course, every Cannes lineup announcement inspires bellyaching about omissions. And aren’t there plenty who complain that the festival is too much of a regulars’ club, inviting favorite filmmakers regardless of the quality of their actual movies? On paper and in principle, that’s what makes Cannes 2018 interesting: Going much lighter on heavyweights than usual, the programmers have selected movies by up-and-comers and first-timers, presumably valuing quality over clout. I’ll aim to figure out whether that’s true over the next 10 days, as I check out nearly every title in the main competition, along with selections from the second-tier Un Certain Regard sidebar, the non-competitive category (including a little Ron Howard passion project called Solo), and the two separate but parallel festivals that run in Cannes at the same time as Cannes: Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week. Absence may have defined the conversation before the fest, but something tells me I’ll find plenty to talk (and write) about during it. Besides, it’s not as if there are no known quantities. (Remember Lars von Trier? The ban is over, baby.)
The reactions will be coming just a little later than usual. Tired of watching us ungrateful, stingy critics take the piss out of a movie hours before it makes its splashy premiere, the organizers have rejiggered a screening schedule that’s been in place for decades; this year, the press will see movies concurrently or even after the tuxedoed gala crowd. What that meant for Cannes’ kickoff was a leisurely lead-up to the first and only screening of day one. While cast, crew, industry bigwigs, and celebrity invitees filed into the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the critics nestled into the smaller Théâtre Debussy, where we all patiently sat through a livestream of the opening ceremony happening next door—a miniature Oscar night that included a monologue in untranslated French, introductions to the competition jury (majority female and led by Cate Blanchett—that’s a start, Cannes!), and pointless 30-second previews of the selected films.
Thankfully, an actual movie did follow all this pomp and circumstance—a pretty good one, too. Over the past few weeks, rumors have flown that Farhadi had made his first true misstep: a Spanish-language picture that was closer in quality to Sean Penn’s widely maligned Cannes competitor The Last Face than any of his past, peerless domestic dramas. Had the great Iranian filmmaker succumbed to the curse of opening night, the strange tendency for the fest to begin with a star-studded dud? Not to these eyes. The only thing Everybody Knows (Grade: B) has in common with that infamous comp turkey is a starring performance by Javier Bardem. Quintessentially, and maybe to a fault, this is a Farhadi movie: another of the writer-director’s gripping studies of a family torn asunder by a compounding mess of deception and revelation.
You have to go back to About Elly, made in 2009 but only released in the States three years ago, to find the closest correlative in Farhadi’s own filmography. Like that early triumph, Everybody Knows involves a gathering of friends and family that teeters into disaster. Here, it’s a wedding that draws Laura (Penélope Cruz)—two children in tow, husband (The Secret In Their Eyes’ Ricardo Darín) back in Bueno Aires—to the small village outside of Madrid where she grew up. Among those invited to the nuptials is Paco (Bardem), son of the family maid and a fixture of Laura’s childhood; we know before we know that the two have a history—it’s written all over the faint but unmistakable smolder between these two world-class movie stars. As organically and patiently as always, Farhadi lays out the environment, the relationships, and the situation, dropping hints the viewer will turn over and over in their mind once shit hits fan.
If absence is the unofficial theme of Cannes, they picked the right film to open the festival. It’s crucial to Everybody Knows, which pivots not just around Laura’s long time away from home, but also on a sudden… disappearance, let’s say, that drives the plot straight into mystery/thriller territory, à la About Elly, while also ushering the characters into a melodramatic morass of old resentments, unresolved class conflict, and long-preserved secrets—into Farhadi Land, in other words. No one twists domestics into a web of lies like him, getting us hooked on the tangle. Fittingly opening within a church clocktower, the film makes clockwork drama out of the mechanics of a family crisis, circumstance conspiring to feed these characters into the grinding gears of truths they’ve withheld or denied. As always, Farhadi leans on an expert cast; his three leads, especially, keep the film from landing like schematic soap, like Almodóvar by math.
Again and admittedly, none of this is new territory for Farhadi. Flopping languages and locales, he’s otherwise preserved his complex dramatic approach, which is just now starting to look faintly like a formula. Maybe the real issue with Everybody Knows is that the audience can rather easily get ahead of the characters, surmising the big revelation lurking around the midway mark like a half-wrapped present. Is the predictability intentional? If not, the title is ironic, not on-the-nose. Programming the film at the beginning of Cannes could be its own strategy. I’ve argued before that the opening-night selection might be frequently mediocre or even bad for a reason: It sets the bar low for everything else to come. Maybe a rock-solid, comfortingly familiar auteur work is the perfect way to launch a festival built, more than usual anyway, on the work of fresh talent. The old makes way for the new. We ease out of the past (and The Past) and into the future.
Tomorrow: I’ll try to talk myself into seeing an eight-hour documentary by Chinese director Wang Bing, but will probably chicken out and catch the new one from Ukranian Cannes regular Sergey Loznitsa (My Joy, A Gentle Creature) instead. Either way, I’ll also catch one of the freshman competition titles (Yomeddine, the first feature by Egyptian filmmaker A.B. Shawky), as well as the new one from The Student’s Kirill Serebrennikov.