The 75th Cannes Film Festival kicked off on Tuesday with a zombie-themed tribute to film-making by French director Michel Hazanavicius as the movie world returned to the Riviera hoping to beathe new life into an industry crippled by the pandemic. The curtain-raiser was preceded by a video address from Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky, who called for "a new Chaplin" to confront the world's dictators.
When the Cannes Film Festival last held a full-scale edition in the spring of 2019, the world's premier film showcase opened with a droll but dire warning of impending doom: a man-made apocalypse of zombies stirred from their slumber by polar fracking.
By the end of that year, the apocalypse had duly struck - not in the shape of Jim Jarmusch's amiable zombie hordes, but in the more sinister form of a deadly virus that would soon sweep across the globe, killing an estimated 5 million people (to date), shutting down entire economies, and putting a lid on social and cultural life across the globe.
As the world of cinema returned to Cannes' palm tree-lined Croisette on Tuesday, hoping for a fresh start after a pandemic-induced hibernation, hordes of the undead were once again on the prowl, this time in Michel Hazanivicius's tribute to horror B-movies "Final Cut", starring Romain Duris and Berenice Bejo.
A remake of cult Japanese zombie flick "One Cut of the Dead", Hanavicius's amusing pastiche served up both a making-of movie and a tribute to movie-making, with a refreshing feminist edge. It made for a suitably entertaining curtain-raiser for a festival that has vowed to play its part in resuscitating a moribund industry.
Resurrecting the movie world
In the run-up to the festival, Hazanavicius agreed to rename his film - initially titled "Z" in French - to avoid all association with warmongers from Russia. The war in Ukraine made a more obvious appearance on Tuesday as the country's leader Volodymyr Zelensky was streamed live for the formally attired audience in the Grand Theâtre Lumière.
The Ukrainian president drew a thunderous standing ovation and spoke at length about the connection between cinema and reality. He referenced films like Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator", urging filmmakers to take on modern-day dictators like Chaplin took on Adolf Hitler.
"We need a new Chaplin who will demonstrate that the cinema of our time is not silent," Zelensky implored, moments before the screening of Hazanavicius's curtain-raiser.
After two years of Covid blackout and disruption, and with the pandemic dragging on, Cannes has a lot more to raise than curtains and zombies. From ordinary cinephiles to the industry's buyers and sellers, an entire ecosystem is hoping the festival and its all-important film market can breathe new life into the movie world.
The coronavirus has pressed the pedal on a profound transformation of the movie landscape, hurting film theaters most. In the first three months of the year, ticket sales at French cinemas were down by 40 percent compared to 2019. This in the country that invented the art form and is deeply conscious of its self-ascribed duty to preserve it.
With cinemas shuttered throughout much of the pandemic, the tussle between the Big Screen and streaming platforms has swung heavily in favour of the latter. Now more than ever, Cannes is keen to play up its role as the guardian of the theatrical experience - meaning Netflix is, once again, absent from the party.
Not that it needs the digital upstart this year. The festival has stacked its main competition with alpha auteurs, including David Cronenberg, Kelly Reichardt and the Dardenne brothers. It has also lured plenty of Hollywood starpower, with the old studios MGM, Warner and Paramount back in town.
As always, the festival's famed red carpet will be the focus of attention, not least when Tom Cruise shows up on Wednesday for the premiere of "Top Gun: Maverick" - his first Cannes appearance in three decades. But the fate of the industry will be sealed underground, in the entrails of the Palais des Festivals, where the film market's volume of sales will offer a more accurate prognosis.
Film market springs to life
Following a hybrid event last year that was more virtual than physical, the Marche du Film is now hoping to match figures from 2019, with over 11,000 registered attendees due to be in Cannes in person and more expected to arrive in the coming days. While China is a notable absentee, owing to Covid-related travel restrictions, others have come back in force, eager to present a slew of titles produced during the pandemic.
At the Taiwan pavilion, which is promoting a whopping 91 films, sales manager Chia Hua Yeh said it felt "unreal" to be back in Cannes after a two-year hiatus. "The Marche du Film is still the peak, the place to bring your best production," he said, relishing the chance to promote Taiwanese film and discuss international co-productions at face-to-face meetings.
As the Palais des Festivals morphs into a beehive of card-swapping agents, distributors and producers, it's easy to forget this hallowed temple of world cinema was lined with hospital beds early in the pandemic and then used as a vaccination centre. But Covid was certainly high on people's minds as they opened their market booths on Tuesday, not least among North American attendees who are back in town after skipping last year's scaled-back edition.
"We haven't travelled since the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, just before the pandemic, so we're both thrilled and pretty anxious," said James Fler of Raven Banner Entertainment, a Toronto-based company specialised in genre movies. "Take a look around, hardly anyone is wearking masks," he added. "I want to look personable, and I don't want to be the only guy with a mask on. But I'd hate to catch the virus here and have to quarantine before heading home."
Still, attending in person is crucial for business, Fler added: "When you're online, there isn't the same urgency to close deals. Whereas in Cannes, you know people are here for a reason."
At a nearby booth, festival veteran Steven Istock is hoping the deals begin in earnest after the first year of the pandemic resulted in an 80 percent sales drop for his Los Angeles-based company, California Pictures. "Yes, the industry workers are back in Cannes, but what you see around us is mainly exhibitors," he said. "What we need now is for the buyers to show up too!"