Everyone comes to Cannes searching for amazing things—cinematic masterpieces, unexpected encounters with glamorous stars, or maybe some eye-popping bit of promotion, like the year a truck filled with topless porn actresses drove down the Croisette as if they were in some R-rated Rose Parade. But 2017 will surely be remembered as the year the festival celebrated its 70th anniversary with a cavalcade of lackluster films. I’ve not seen a single film I’d call great, let alone astounding, although I must admit to being startled by the beginning salvo of last night’s amusingly ludicrous L’Amant Double, in which director François Ozon cuts from a shot of woman’s vagina viewed through a speculum to a perfectly matching shot of her eye. Salut, Lena Dunham!
Finally, this morning, I did see something that had my eyes popping: Carne y Arena, a VR installation by the Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu. To see it, you were driven to an airport hangar about 20 minutes from the festival Palais. There, after signing a form basically saying you won’t sue if you get a heart attack, your valuables are stored, you’re led to a waiting room to remove your shoes and socks, and then you’re finally buzzed into a huge, darkened room where two guys await you. As your toes wiggle in powdery sand, they strap a backpack over your shoulders and then slip on VR goggles and earphones.
For the next 6 and a half minutes you’re surrounded by a convincing 360-degree virtual desert—no matter where you turn, you see horizon and scrub and sand. You wander a bit before you hear sounds and gradually realize that men, women, and children are running toward you—refugees led by their coyote. Yet just as you grasp this, you’re overwhelmed by the wokka-wokka-wokka roar of a helicopter, and because you’re completely trapped in this reality, you find yourself ducking as the chopper comes roaring down at you, blinding you with its floodlights. And as this ICE raid continues, you can watch, explore the surroundings, or if you’re empathetic, join the immigrants on the ground. It’s all up to you.
Even as the political point of this show is to plunge you into the reality encountered by Central American immigrants trying to sneak into the U.S.—you really do feel shock and awe as the chopper barrels toward you—Carne y Arenapoints to the future of popular art: immersion. You don’t just watch characters, you feel yourself among them.
And the fascinating thing is that, although the experience does involve images projected onto your goggles—terrific ones by the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—this VR installation doesn’t feel like a movie but something new. It seems more like a profoundly more realistic and high-tech version of the style of immersive theater groups like Britain’s Punchdrunk, in which the audience wanders from room to room, floor to floor, watching actions unfold and trying to put them together. Still, no matter how you classify this VR project—movie, drama, or video game—the result is an extraordinary experience. It plunges you into the horrifying reality of the present through a technology that is going to be a beautiful art form of the future.
With its whiff of things to come, Carne y Arena was all the more striking because Cannes 2017 has been a festival that often felt caught in the past (my, how it adores all its aging auteurs) and struggling to join the present. The most passionate debates here were, in one way or another, about whether the movies as we know them—you known, seen in theaters on big screens—have had their day. There were passionate arguments about the presence of Netflix titles: Should Cannes put their films in competition even though they go straight to streaming and never play on the big screen? Jury president Pedro Almodóvar said no, jury member Will Smith said yes. Of course, the fact is, we’re already deep into the age of streaming and no discussion will change that.
Nor will it change the fact that, where movies were once at the center of culture, that role is now played by TV. That’s one reason why throngs lined up for the screenings of two hot shows by two Cannes favorites: the opening episodes of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and the entirety of Jane Campion’s great crime series,Top of the Lake. All of which is fine, except. . . Cannes is an international film festival. You hand to wonder: By showing a TV series is Cannes betraying its very nature, or is it doing the smart thing by keeping up with the times?
Of course, I understand the temptation to put these shows in, especially given that this was the weakest movie slate I’ve seen during my many years coming here. Not that there weren’t any good films here, of course. Heck, I saw three enjoyable ones from South Korea alone: Bong Joon Ho’s political action adventure Okja, Sang-soo Hong’s slyly talky tale of adultery, The Day After—boy, is the main hero a jerk—and The Merciless, a hugely enjoyable gangster picture by Sung-hyun Byun, which reminds us that these days the Koreans are far better than the Americans at doing the kind of well-made, engrossing genre picture that used to be our national pride.
To be fair, some of our younger filmmakers have chops of their own. When Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time premiered yesterday, the Palais got a bolt of pure brio from this ’70s-style heist-gone-wrong picture centering on a dim robber played by Robert Pattinson in the best performance of his career. Every moment hurtles through the New York streets with an energy that made most of the other films here feel like they were walking through mud.
Indeed, much of the competition has felt tired and formulaic—lacking urgency. Both Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled are well-made, but you can’t really see why they made them, beyond the need to do something that may be commercially viable. Their aestheticism detachment is miles away from heartfelt passion that the French director Robin Campillo brings to his moving story of French AIDS activists in 128 Beats a Minute. He was there in the ’90s for the history he captures, and this feels like a movie he felt destined to make; it even runs too long, like so many labors of love.
Not that urgency is always a good thing. You can hardly get more urgent than Andrey Zvyagintsev’s relentlessly dire Loveless, a film that smolders in the memory, and Sergei Loznitsa’s even relentlessly direr A Gentle Creature (which builds to a long rape), which are both passionate statements about the infernal nature of present-day Russia. Yet even though these films have moments of power and genuine filmmaking virtuosity, they assail the country with such monomaniacal intensity that they feel exhaustingly unmodulated. Their hatred of Putin is so profound it makes the coverage of Donald Trump in Teen Vogue look like Fox News.
In normal years, the festival’s final Friday is a day when everybody is busy arguing about what deserves to nab the Palme d’Or. Indeed, my British critic friend Derek Malcolm used to make book on what was going to win. It speaks eloquently of Cannes 2017 that I haven’t heard any discussions of this at all, except for people saying, “What can they possibly give it to?”
I’ve been asking that myself. Which means asking which film do I think Almodóvar would like best? And the answer I keep coming up with is eitherWonderstruck or 128 Beats Per Minute or The Beguiled (as the compromise choice everyone can sign off on) or Ruben Östlund’s The Square (because I think the Great Pedro will have found it funny). But either-oring is for cowards, so here’s my final answer:
The 2017 Palme d’Or will go to 128 Beats Per Minute. If I’m wrong, just remember that when I wrote this my head was still in virtual reality.