Art & Culture

Prizes, Protests, and Pajama Parties: The View From Inside This Year’s Cannes Film Festival

Zombies, fighter jets, political uproar, and a streaker? Yep, the Cannes Film Festival is back.

Two years after the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 edition and following a muted run last summer, the world’s largest celebration of cinema returned to the Côte d’Azur for its 75th anniversary last week, kicking off a 10-day whirlwind of glamour, spectacle, and megawatt stars.

The opening night on Tuesday set the tone. During a celebrity-strewn black-tie gala in the Palais des Festival’s Grand Théâtre Lumière, festival president Pierre Lescure bestowed upon the American actor Forest Whitaker an honorary Palme d’Or, the festival’s most prestigious award. In a moving and poignant acceptance speech, Whitaker—who has appeared in more than 30 films, including Good Morning Vietnam and The Last King of Scotland, for which he won the Oscar for best actor—told the audience that the first time he attended Cannes was in 1988 for Clint Eastwood’s film Bird, in which he played legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Whitaker was “just a kid,” he recalled, and was “blown away for being invited and for the experience.” Presented with the festival’s best-actor award for the performance that year, “I was acknowledged as an artist for the first time internationally,” he said.

Forest Whitaker has been honored at Cannes this year.  Photo: Getty Images

As if that weren’t enough—and at Cannes, enough is never enough—the festival then beamed in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine on the theater’s enormous screen. Cannes always has political undertones—or overtones, given it was famously halted by a filmmakers’ sit-in back in 1968, staged in solidarity with the student riots in Paris. But never before has a foreign head of state been invited to address moviegoers on opening night.

Seated at his desk and dressed in his uniform, Zelenskyy said: “On February 24, Russia began a war of huge proportion against Ukraine with the intention of going further into Europe. Hundreds of people die every day. They are not going to get up after the end. Will cinema stay silent, or will it talk about it? If there is a dictator, if there is a war for freedom, again it all depends on our unity. Can cinema stay out of this unity? We need a new [Charlie] Chaplin who will prove that, in our time, cinema is not silent.”

The film that followed, Final Cut, a French zombie comedy—yes, you read that right—was by Michel Hazanavicius, the director best known for 2011’s Academy Award–winning The ArtistFinal Cut is a remake of the 2017 Japanese film One Cut of the Dead, and if you can’t bear fountains of blood, you will not like this movie.

Support for the Ukrainians is apparent everywhere you turn in Cannes this year. The country’s blue-and-yellow flag hangs from balconies on Rue d’Antibes, and bicolor ribbon pins are ubiquitous on tuxedo lapels. The U.S. film trade site Deadline, luxury magazine Robb Report, and the Golden Globes hosted a fundraiser for Ukrainian filmmakers on Thursday night at the American Pavilion, with a performance by the crystal-voiced Tina Karol, a Ukrainian singer who came in seventh in the 2006 Eurovision competition.

There has been an uproar over the festival’s inclusion of Tchaikovsky’s Wife, a film by Russian dissident director Kirill Serebrennikov and in part financed by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, in the competition. (Abramovich also happens to own one of France’s most beautiful estates, the Chateau de la Croë, just down the coast in Antibes.) During the film’s press conference, Serebrennikov called on France and other countries to lift economic sanctions against Abramovich, stirring the controversy that much more. “He has helped modern art and has for a long time now,” Serebrennikov said of Abramovich, who has a film fund called Kinoprime, which finances Russian art-house films. “These are not propaganda films, quite the contrary.” Despite the polemic, the film has received positive reviews, most notably for Alyona Mikhailova’s performance as the composer’s estranged wife.

Deepika Padukone on the red carpet in Cannes Photo: Getty Images

And on the red carpet ahead of Friday’s screening of George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, with Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, a young woman stripped down to her knickers, revealing her naked bosom painted in Ukraine’s blue and yellow and daubed with the message “stop raping us.” Her legs were splattered with red paint to resemble blood, protesting the Russian army’s alleged sexual assault of Ukrainian women. As she fell to her knees before the bank of photographers, shouting in Ukrainian, security guards rushed over, covered her with a coat, and ushered her away.

The war burbled forth in another unexpected way. At the world premiere of Top Gun: Maverick on Wednesday night, the Patrouille de France, the precision aerobatics demonstration unit of the French Air and Space Force, did a flyby, streaming smoke in the blue, white, and red of the tricolor flag across the sky. “Wow!” exclaimed the movie’s star, Tom Cruise, from the red carpet, appearing genuinely impressed. Ukrainian attendees, however, later said they felt like hitting the ground—that after all they had endured back home, the fighter jets terrified them.

Top Gun: Maverick, meanwhile, felt like a cinematic renaissance: a big movie, with a big movie star. Like Whitaker, Tom Cruise was given an honorary Palme d’Or, and when the festival screened a greatest-hits reel of his career during the ceremony in the Grand Théâtre Lumière, it was like watching a best-of-Hollywood reel over the last 40 years. At 59, Cruise may be Hollywood’s last great movie star—larger than life on the screen, more so than ever in Top Gun: Maverick—and yet still flashing that million-dollar smile. Before hitting the red carpet, Cruise worked the sea of fans held back by barricades, shaking hands, signing autographs (always returning the pen), and posing for selfies for half an hour. He knows that without these people, he is nothing.

Top Gun: Maverick, starring Tom Cruise and Jennifer Connelly, feels like a cinematic renaissance.  Dominique Charriau

But Cannes isn’t only about movie premieres and stars. There is business to be done, production and distribution deals to be made, and this year that sort of wheeling dealing has been as full throttle as
Top Gun’s elite fighter jets.

So have the parties. On Thursday night, Chopard, a festival sponsor, held its annual Trophée Dinner at the Carlton Hotel Beach Club and had brand ambassador Julia Roberts present awards to rising actors Sheila Atim and Jack Lowden. On Sunday night, Kering hosted the eighth edition of its Women in Motion dinner at Place de la Castre in the heights of Cannes. Kering Chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault, Pierre Lescure, and Cannes Film Festival executive director Thierry Frémaux presented the award to actor Viola Davis before a black-tie crowd that included jury president Vincent Lindon, actors Isabelle Huppert and Valeria Golino, and director Paolo Sorrentino. The honor “means an acknowledgment of my legacy, which is what I want to shift the narrative of women of color to,” said Davis, dressed in a vibrant green Alexander McQueen pantsuit, in her acceptance speech. “It’s no longer acceptable for us to be defined by men, defined by any other structure other than ourselves.”

Davis wore McQueen to accept her Women in Motion Award.  Joe Maher

The most sought-after invitation, however, was to British film director Maxim Jago and producer David DeBorde’s annual Cannes Pajama Party at Villa Aloha, an Art Nouveau pile tucked up in the hills outside town. Dress code: “Pajamas or a onesie (non-sexy please!)” There were flutes of Champagne topped with watermelon-flavored cotton candy, crustless mini peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and bite-sized burgers.

“The view was astonishing, and there was a nice easy vibe,” said one guest. “But most importantly, the Champagne didn’t stop. That’s what I expect from a party.” And that’s what we expect from Cannes.

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