As a society we are used to famous people wearing extravagant dresses and tuxes and parading around for interviewers and photographers; we have movie premieres, award shows, and charity events for that. Yet there is something about film festivals, such as the current Cannes Film Festival, that distances a typical movie audience while utilizing the same techniques as these other events. The films that are screened at festivals such as this one are often difficult to see, either because of their edgy content or their actual lack of presence in movie theaters.
Film festival movies seem to be designed to appeal to only a small niche of an audience. There is a modern-day film entirely in black and white and another about cannibals. There is even a documentary premiering at Cannes about trying to get financial backing for a film at Cannes. This year’s top prize of the festival, the Palme d’Or, was awarded to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color. This movie contains a laundry list of reasons that it will not have mass appeal: it’s almost three hours long, it includes several explicit lesbian sex scenes, and it is based on a comic book. The Cannes jury awards were given to non-stars with foreign names like Amat Escalante (Best Director), Hirokazu Koreeda (Jury Prize) and Zhangke Jia (Best Screenplay) that only heighten their films’ feeling of exclusivity from everyday American film audiences. We feel comfortable with topics and people we know, and most film festival movies defy the status quo in these areas.
To see these movies, you have to actively pursue them. Because indie films lack the seven-commercials-per-hour advertising of summer blockbusters, you have to actually put work into finding the film’s release date. Then you likely have to either drive a few hours to locate a theater that is actually showing the movie or sit in some creepy small theater with lumpy seats and a small screen. To make matters worse, most of these films do not have long releases, so put off your trip for a week or two and you may find yourself waiting for the DVD to show up on Netflix. The social activities at Cannes also have a mythical aura that both intrigues and mystifies. There are yacht parties and $40,000 hookers. Plus it’s in an exotic location: France! Everything just seems more heightened, more dangerous, more excessive than it is back in the States. The physical distance from our country increases our distanced feelings of the festival.
The Cannes Film Festival does contain films with more mass appeal, like this year’s The Great Gatsby and The Bling Ring. But there is still the distinct sense that film festivals are closed off to the public, both literally and figuratively. Dozens of intrepid journalists and film reviewers see a bunch of esoteric movies and report back to the masses. They make lists boldly claiming which films are worth seeing and which aren’t, and we have to take their opinions as law. Most of the films shown are not meant for entertaining but for meditating on a provocative or new subject; there are no Iron Man 3 or The Hangover III’s here. Your typical Hollywood movie — comedic or dramatic — hinges on a sense of escapism or catharsis, while the thought-provoking films of film festivals are often meant to do just that: incite reflection and conversation about concepts we believe to be stable and true. That does not sound like a carefree separation from the everyday trials of our lives, something the public counts on movies to do.
Is it possible to see and enjoy a film festival movie? Of course. Pulp Fiction, Apocalypse Now, and Amour are among the past winners of the Palme d’Or that went on to both popular success and Academy Award Best Picture nominations. Film festivals do not produce bad films; rather, they keep general audiences pining to see the good ones.