Cannes 2022: I Go to Festivals for the Films, Not for the Celebrities
by Alex Billington
May 30, 2022
Reading some of the Letterboxd reviews of the films at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, I’m noticing that a growing number of people will mention the celebrity or famous person or actor/actress they were in the same room as, giddy at being near them. Yes, that’s how film festivals work – the talented people involved, and tons of other talented people also attending the festival, go see films. If you’re not in the same screening as them, you’ll probably pass them in the street or in the hallway or catch them dining at a restaurant. But I’m worried we’ve entered a new era where some people are more obsessed with celebrities they are with the art or cinema they create. I’m here in Cannes for the films. I used to do some interviews, but now I don’t do many unless I really, really want to talk to someone I admire. All I want to do is kick back and watch as many film as I can during these two weeks – let’s see what these talented filmmakers have been working on.
As much as I may complain about trivial issues (like celebrities), and festival management problems (which really do need to be properly addressed), I still love coming back to the Cannes Film Festival (and any film festival) – because of the films. As someone else said, it’s the annual Woodstock for cinephiles. I always go back to watch, and discover, and enjoy, and criticize, and celebrate the latest and greatest creations in the world of cinema. I go to discuss, and analyze, and process, and think about everything that we’re watching. What did this scene mean, and why did they make that choice? What is this film really trying to say? Is it actually any good at saying that? Why didn’t this film work well? Why was this film so amazing? Why was this so bad? These are the kind of questions that are always going through my mind, often being discussed in conversations with friends and colleagues during the festival. The good news is that most of the critics that fill the press screenings in Cannes are also there for the films, and I’m happy to be sitting with them.
One example of this celebrity obsession trend is the way the news outlets will report the standing ovations at the premieres as if they are some exciting way to measure a films success. They’re not. At Cannes, every film gets a standing ovation at its premiere. Especially when there’s some famous person there, or the filmmaker is already known and loved. Most people just applaud because they’re there and they want to, they can’t help themselves. Trying to measure the length of this applause is futile and useless, and shifts the attention away from the actual film itself. While standing ovations do matter, they should be asking if any standing ovations happened at press screenings. Because that’s much more unlikely. When there’s no celebrity in the cinema, no one is going to actually stand up and applaud unless it’s a melt-our-minds, bonafide masterpiece. If that happens, then it’s newsworthy. The last time I can recall a press screening erupting into rapturous applause was at the end of Parasite in 2019. And, as we all know, that film is a masterpiece… and the rest is history.
I also have major problems with the red carpet at Cannes, because it once again literally takes the focus away from the films and puts it on the celebrities and the glamour and outfits and the wealth that attends. The cameras follow them up and down these famous stairs, even right into the cinema before they take their seat. I do not believe that cinema and red carpets are forever intertwined or inseparable, and I hope one day the festival will realize it’s not that healthy for cinema. The claim that red carpets and celebrities are where the money is, and without them these films wouldn’t get funded, is a totally bogus and entirely absurd justification. Film can be made, and shown, and celebrated, without the need for paparazzi to line up and scream at people. Sundance does this well, downplaying the red carpet and hyping up the premiere and filmmakers more than the celebs. It also helps that they can’t dress up all fancy when there’s a snowstorm.
Writing about this complaint makes me sound like a curmudgeonly bastard complaining about something that most people enjoy. But I also can’t help but say that the experience of being in Cannes is overwhelmed by the amount of people also in town just to gawk at and hopefully spot a celebrity. The fest has numerous iconic celebrity moments linked to it, from topless fountain splashing, to appearances from every famous person in history there to rub elbows with cinema elite. I even posted a photo on Twitter this year of Yoko and John Lennon walking out of a Directors’ Fortnight screening at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Am I a film snob for complaining about the attention celebrities get instead of the films? Probably. But I’m also a passionate film lover, I can’t help it, and sometimes I just want to express my frustration at something that is bothering me. Festivals are supposed to be about the films, but if most of the public conversation is about the clothing, the people, and the red carpet, perhaps we should be trying to address this, not just ignoring it.
Over the 16 years I’ve been covering film festivals so far, I’ve stopped writing as many blogs about being at the festival, and have instead started writing more reviews of the films I’m watching. I’m trying my best to bring attention to these films, while not giving extra attention to the celebrities (unless they truly deserve it because they’re talented and should be getting recognition). It’s my goal to make sure these films and the filmmakers that made them are the real stars of the film festival. Cannes is a celebrity-driven festival, even if Thierry Frémaux loves to talk about how it’s all about the filmmakers (many of whom are his friends). But the experience on the ground is entirely different, and I have noticed even on social media the focus is more often on “OMG look at her in this dress!” than the films. Though I fully admit that part of the problem is – people at home can’t watch these films right now, and won’t have a chance to watch them for months (if not years) from now. I can easily tell you about how great they are, but you also want to go watch them, too.
At the end of all this rambling, the best part of Cannes is that I know thousands of my colleagues are also at the festival covering it entirely focused on the films and filmmakers. I’m lucky to have so many good friends, and it’s exciting to talk with them every single day about their favorite films, and the ones they did or didn’t like, and why they did or didn’t like them. Many of these people write in a different language, and it’s fun to translate their work to see what they’re saying about cinema and how Cannes brings us the best cinema every year. We can celebrate the films and talk about them after the festival, too. That’s the most important. I want every single person reading this to watch all of my favorite films from Cannes, too. Go read any of the reviews I’ve written here. I’ll be talking about them all year. And don’t worry, we’ll be posting trailers for all of these Cannes films, too. And if you loves celebrities, then so be it, just don’t forget to watch their films.