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What a Week of Watching Subtitled Movies Is Like

And some other random thoughts about the Cannes Film Festival

In the buildup to this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which launched its 71st edition last Tuesday, there was a lot of industry talk about the fact that the hallowed, glamorous festival — the biggest on the annual movie calendar — was losing its luster. First, Cannes opted not to include Netflix films as part of the official competition — although the streaming service would have been welcome to screen their movies in out-of-competition slots, which is where Solo: A Star Wars Story is playing — which prompted Netflix to pout, take their ball and go home. Then, after the festival’s slate was announced, many speculated that, with very few American or star-studded movies on the docket, Cannes was going to be a lot less glitzy this year. One U.S. journalist attending Cannes even went so far as to email colleagues privately that this year’s edition “may possibly turn out to be the most underwhelming Cannes festival of all time.”

Put another way, a lot of American critics were about to face a daunting proposition: They’d have to spend their two weeks at Cannes watching a lot of movies with subtitles.

As I’m writing this, I’ve been at the festival for seven days and seen 19 films. Not one of them was in English. Foreign-language movies are a regular part of my diet as a critic, and this is my fifth Cannes, but this has probably been the longest stretch in which I’ve exclusively consumed subtitled films. No big stars, no Hollywood blockbusters — just a lot of words on the bottom of the screen. And I have to say I’ve found the experience to be surprisingly informative. I’m not gonna advocate that normal filmgoers do something similar, but I think it’s given me a new relationship with films — how I see them, and what they mean to me.

The cultural stereotype of foreign films is that they’re dry, pretentious bores that don’t make any sense and drag on forever. Basically, when people think of a foreign film, they’re thinking of this old Bud Dry commercial:

But that musty cliché isn’t accurate to the actual experience of watching foreign-language movies at Cannes. Thus far, I’ve seen movies in Spanish, Ukrainian, Arabic, Russian, French, Polish, Turkish, Mandarin, Korean and Farsi. I’ve seen thrillers, road movies, dark comedies, crime dramas, love stories, spy films and pseudo rock musicals. Not one of them was anything like that arthouse parody of sad clowns and navel-gazing musings.

I’m also, however, not gonna pretend that they don’t require a certain amount of concentration that your typical Hollywood film doesn’t. If anything, being at Cannes this year has been a reminder of just how distracted we can get as moviegoers when we speak the same language as the movie we’re watching. In the States, I can look away from the screen for a second, even a couple minutes, and let my mind drift — I can basically get the gist of what’s happening. Not this year at Cannes: To keep up with what’s going on, I’ve had to maintain a laser focus, not just on the images but on the bottom of the screen, where the dialogue can sometimes go whizzing by.

This is one of the reasons Americans don’t like foreign films: People go to the movies to escape, not to read. For a lot of viewers, foreign films feel like work — and they are, in comparison to what we’re accustomed to. But a concentrated dose of foreign-language films this week has given me a greater appreciation for the effort any movie has to make to connect with an audience. And if you watch too many Hollywood movies, it becomes clear that they expect that you’ll be entirely passive: They come to you, full of explosions, action, loud jokes and really easy-to-follow storylines that usually have happy endings. You don’t have to do anything — it’s the film’s job to do all the heavy lifting to keep you entertained.

Plenty of the films I’ve seen at Cannes have been entertaining, but the division of labor is a little more evenly split. The straightforward drama Yomeddine, about a leper trying to find his family, digs into modern-day Egypt, looking at how religion and poverty affect the nation. (A supporting character is named Obama — “like the guy on TV,” he says.) The espionage thriller The Spy Gone North expects the audience to know a decent amount about the history of North and South Korea over the last several decades. I always do my due diligence before watching a movie, but seeing foreign films, inevitably, puts me in contact with foreign cultures — and those filmmakers may not be necessarily interested in making sure I’m comfortable as much as they want to share their stories about their cultures.

There’s an arrogance that we have in America about how entertainment works. With the rise of digital culture and streaming services, there’s become an assumption that we should be able to have access to everything all the time — essentially, artists work for us and should accommodate our needs and demands. But watch enough subtitled films and you remember that that’s not actually accurate. The initial frustrations we have — “I don’t understand all the cultural context! Wait, I’ve got to read?!?” — are reminders that it sometimes takes effort to empathize with people with whom we don’t share a language or customs. It doesn’t take much to bridge that gap, though — we just need to watch their movies, too.

That’s all I’ve been doing this year at Cannes: taking little journeys into other parts of the globe to see how they operate. And because I’ve had to be focused on the screen at all times, I felt like I was connected more intimately to these movies than I to, say, Solo, which is probably be a little “easier” of a movie to watch. But it’s worth the effort.

Here are a few other takeaways from Cannes.

#1. Time’s Up has come to Cannes, too.

Before the premiere of Girls of the Sun on Saturday, one of the few films in the Competition directed by a woman (Eva Husson), two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett — this year’s high-profile celebrity leading the jury that will pick the winners from the Competition slate — and 81 other women took to the famed red carpet of the Palais, the festival’s main venue, to hold an impromptu women’s march for equality. The number 82 was significant: That’s how many female directors have been part of the Competition since Cannes began in 1946. (By comparison, 1,866 male directors have been in Competition.)

Blanchett was one of the primary speakers, which was easily the most-covered event at this year’s festival. (Around the same time, Christopher Nolan was giving a masterclass that failed to generate much news at all.) Specifically, Blanchett and fellow jury members like Kristen Stewart and A Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay were trying to shine a light on 5050 by 2020, an initiative that encourages gender equality in industry jobs. “Women aren’t a minority in the world, yet the current state of the industry says otherwise,” Blanchett said to the large crowd. “We stand together on these steps today as a symbol of our determination to change and progress.”

If it’s true that the 2018 edition of Cannes hasn’t been very noteworthy, at least the festival’s biggest name decided to use her platform for a worthy cause.

#2. Gaspar Noe made the festival’s craziest movie.

Argentine writer-director Noe has made a career out of crafting extreme films that freak a lot of people out. His 2002 drama Irreversible featured a 10-minute rape scene. In 2009, he released the hallucinatory Enter the Void, which included a POV shot from the main character’s perspective as he comes out of his mom’s birth canal. And 2015’s Love was in 3D and featured multiple extended graphic sex scenes. For Noe, anything doing is worth overdoing.

Noe is back with his first film since 2015, and it premiered in Cannes a couple of days ago. It’s called Climax, and it takes place over one insane night as a dance troupe goes through their routine and then enjoy one crazy blowout party. The high-energy opening dance sequence, which is done all in one take, is at least 10 minutes long. From there, the movie rarely slows down, especially when the troupe discovers that someone has laced their sangria with LSD, causing them to turn on one another, have passionate sex, get increasingly violent and generally lose their mind. One character starts cutting her face and arm with a knife. Another, who swears she’s pregnant, is kicked multiple times in the stomach. Still another character has a prolonged screaming match with herself as she throws herself around an empty hallway. And then there are the shots when the camera is upside down, turning the whole scene into a waking neon nightmare.

The producers just released the first trailer for Climax. But trust me, this barely scratches the surface of what a feverish head-trip this movie is.

#3. I won’t believe that Terry Gilliam’s long-awaited Don Quixote movie is premiering at Cannes until I see it for myself.

For decades, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Gilliam has wanted to make a Don Quixote movie. His obsession is so well-known — along with his frustration at not getting the project off the ground — that a documentary came out about it called Lost in La Mancha, which chronicled how snake-bit the production was, including bad weather, insufficient funding and injured actors.

The crazy thing? That documentary came out in 2002. Sixteen years later, the Brazil director is still bound and determined to make the movie. And it finally looked like it would happen, with Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce in the leads. The movie, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, has been selected to be Cannes’ closing film, premiering on May 19.

Happy ending, right?

Well, not so fast. These are all the things that have happened in the last few weeks:

  • One of the producers sued the festival, claiming that he owned the rights and, therefore, could block Cannes from showing it.
  • Amazon, which was to release the film in the U.S., announced that it would no longer be distributing the movie.
  • Gilliam was suddenly rumored to be hospitalized because of a stroke, although another producer on the film clarified that it wasn’t a stroke but, rather, a combination of stress and illness.

On May 9, a French court ruled that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote can, indeed, screen at Cannes, so the premiere is now back on track.

Until the next disaster, of course.

#4. Who had the best tweet from Cannes? Oh, only me.

On the day that Cannes gets underway, it’s customary for the jury to do a photo shoot and press conference, where they answer questions from journalists and talk about what an honor it is, etc. During the photo call, somebody managed to capture a quick moment of Kristen Stewart seemingly looking adoringly at Blanchett. I noticed it when the picture went online, and as a joke, I sent out this tweet:

Within minutes, the tweet went viral, attracting the attention of other journalists, including Irish Times critic Donald Clarke, who featured the tweet as the lead of one of his dispatches from here at the festival. Needless to say, I’m flattered to have been part of a lot of people’s Cannes social-media experience this year. Though, I guess it’s a bit of a dubious honor—being one of the most interesting things at what’s purported to be one of the most boring Cannes of all time.

But hey, I’ll take what I can get.