One of the most viral moments from the 75th Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped over the weekend with the presentation of the Palme d'Or to Ruben Ostlund's "Triangle of Sadness," wasn't a slip on the red carpet or those fighter jets that flew over Tom Cruise's head. It was the director James Gray making a thoughtful argument for how mainstream moviemaking can be more than superheroes.
Gray, who premiered his autobiographical '80s coming-of-age film "Armageddon Time" at Cannes, drew widespread applause for comments suggesting that Hollywood studios should be willing to lose money on less franchise-based modes of moviemaking to help expand, not narrow, the moviegoing audience.
"Somebody has to speak to the other side," Gray told me the morning after "Armageddon Time" premiered. "It's how you keep the broad-based interest in the medium. If you only focus on one sliver and do it over and over and over again, you're in big trouble. Then people stop thinking about cinema as a broad art form with many different iterations with many windows unto the world."
Cannes' windows unto the world aren't without their own obstructions. The festival can sometimes feel too codified in a male auteur version of arthouse. But it remains one of the most globe-spanning, thrillingly elastic displays of cinema's possibilities.
Because of its scope and unique position as a self-styled temple of cinema, Cannes often serves as a referendum on the movies and a French Riviera barricade against the tides of change. That was especially true this year. For the 75th anniversary, Cannes assembled a cast of filmmakers to debate the medium's future. Guillermo del Toro, who spearheaded the effort, pronounced today's movie structures "not sustainable."
"We are finding that it is more than the delivery system that is changing. It's the relationship to the audience that is shifting," said Del Toro. "Do we hold it, or do we seek and be adventurous?"
The questions posed by Del Toro and others were no doubt salient ones for anyone making or watching film today to consider. But often, the best answers were found on screen, where the spectrum of cinema exhibited was intoxicatingly vast. Yes, there were big-budget spectacles (Joseph Kosinski's "Top Gun: Maverick," Baz Luhrmann's "Elvis") that made plenty of noise. But, unlike at the multiplex, they weren't the only show in town. The big movies existed alongside a seemingly limitless marquee, full of discoveries.
There was the imaginative thrill of South Korean director Park Chan-wook's twisty noir, "Decision to Leave," a love story wrapped in a police procedural. There was the sober examinations of Cristian Mungiu's "R.M.N.," a Romanian microcosm of xenophobia that builds to a powerhouse town hall scene and a devastatingly lyrical final shot. There was the aching melancholy of Mia Hansen-Løve's "One Fine Morning," an intimate Paris drama about a single mother ( a magnificent Lea Seydoux ) with a dying father that manages to hold life and death, love and solitude in the tender palm of its hand.
Those filmmakers have all been in Cannes before, and will likely be so again. But one of the most exciting jolts of this year's festival came from the debut, in Cannes' Critics Week section, of Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells. Her "Aftersun," starring Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio, is a father-daughter tale told with such deftness that it eludes all the usual cliches of that relationship. If there was ever a good reason to hope that the movies have a stable future, it's the emergence of filmmakers like Wells.
That highlights like "Aftersun" and "One Fine Morning" came from sidebar sections in Cannes, rather than its main 21-film competition lineup, was itself a reminder that finding the best stuff today can require looking beyond the movies' main stages.
That's only truer back home, away from Cannes' Cote d'Azur fantasyland. The movies have been clawing their way back in theaters after two years of pandemic and, with the outlook for streaming services not quite as rosy as they once were, big-screen moviegoing has some momentum. Still, the usual offerings on a Saturday night at the box office speak more to market saturation than variety. Over Memorial Day weekend, "Top Gun: Maverick" opened on a record 4,735 screens in North America.
In such an environment, what's the post-Cannes afterlife for films that stood out in France? Companies like A24, which picked up the Barry Jenkins-produced "Aftersun" as well as Lukas Dhont's boyhood drama "Close," have found novel ways of reaching large audiences. The boutique studio recently notched its biggest hit with the gleefully original "Everything Everywhere All at Once."
Sony Pictures Classics, which is banking on adult audiences continuing to return to theaters, acquired "One Fine Morning." Neon, which took the 2019 Palme d'Or winner "Parasite" all the way to best picture at the Academy Awards, bought its third Palme-winner in a row in Ostlund's "Triangle of Sadness," a riotous eat-the-rich satire co-starring Woody Harrelson. Ostlund described his film as the melding of arthouse and Hollywood sensibilities.
Those distributors will hope there is an appetite for something different than what's usually served up in theaters.
"Man cannot live by Batman alone," Luhrmann said, while praising Matt Reeves' "The Batman."
Tom Hanks, taking the same example from his "Elvis" director, told me he, too, thought "The Batman" was great. But it left him pondering.
"I did also have to think: Are we supposed to forget all those other Batman movies that came out?" asked Hanks, who has usually steered clear of sequels and reboots. "Are they really saying, 'Who's that guy?' when Batman walks in the room? I know who Batman is. Don't these people know who Batman is?
"There is something magnificent and always will be about the movie that stands on its own," added Hanks.
There were plenty other films at Cannes that stood resolutely on their own. One was Kelly Reichardt's wry "Showing Up," Reichardt's fourth film with Michelle Williams and a particularly definitive movie for the 58-year-old indie filmmaker of low-key, minimalistic indies. Williams plays a Portland-based artist named Lizzy that, not unlike Reichardt, sculpts modestly scaled portraits of women, only her medium is ceramics. Preparing for a small gallery show, Lizzy juggles various nuisances and distractions but, like Reichardt, in the end makes something genuinely personal, and worth showing up for.