clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The complicated tension of telling the truth at Cannes

The world’s most glamorous film festival lingers in the tension between celebrating the rich and eating them.

A billboard seen between palm trees.
The Cannes Film Festival 2022 poster paying tribute to The Truman Show is displayed at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes.
John Phillips/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

For its design display every year, the Cannes Film Festival creates an original commemorative poster, which gets splashed across the buildings and billboards of the seaside Cote d’Azur town that lends the festival its streets and name for two weeks every summer. In the recent past, those posters have mostly featured film icons: Agnes Varda, Spike Lee, Ingmar Bergman, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Marilyn Monroe, Anna Karina, Jean-Paul Belmondo.

This year, it’s Jim Carrey climbing a set of stairs overlaid with a blue sky flecked with wispy clouds. It’s an instantly recognizable image: the final moments of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show. Carrey, as Truman Burbank, has unknowingly spent his life since birth living in a vast dome, every aspect of his existence engineered by a set of producers and broadcast live to a devoted audience. But now he’s discovered his faux existence and, climbing the steps, is about to enter the real world outside.

Weir’s film didn’t play at Cannes when it was released nearly 25 years ago, so when the poster was unveiled a month ahead of the festival, some explanation was in order. “Peter Weir and Andrew Niccol’s The Truman Show (1998) is a modern reflection of Plato’s cave and the decisive scene urges viewers to not only experience the border between reality and its representation but to ponder the power of fiction, between manipulation and catharsis,” the festival’s website announced. A reasonable enough sentiment, if a bit broadly applicable to every film festival on earth.

But then things take a left turn: “Just as Truman escapes falsehood as he rises, the Festival, with its famous ascending red carpet, offers viewers the truth of the artists when they enter the theater.” It reads like a challenge, or a promise — one that, late in the festival, having climbed that red carpet dozens of times myself and pondered a truth-suppressing scandal, I’m still wondering if it can meet.

The Cannes Film Festival has fixated on truth-telling from the start, particularly on truth of a political nature. Its 1938 founding was explicitly initiated to counteract the fascist takeovers that were, at the time, evident in the Venice Film Festival, held in nearby Mussolini-controlled Italy. Over the years, it has been postponed for wars and been the site of protests, most notably in 1968 when demonstrations in solidarity with widespread student and labor strikes across the country shut the festival down. Cannes proudly situates itself as an advocate for free artistic expression across the world, playing films in competition from directors who are officially suppressed by their governments, can’t leave their countries, and even have to have their work smuggled out of the country in a birthday cake.

Luxury yachts outside the Cannes Film Festival.
Laurent Emmanuel / AFP via Getty Images

So at this glamorous celebration of a complicated industry, with a bunch of luxury yachts parked nearby, there’s always a bit of discomfort, palpable even to a newbie. My first year in Cannes was 2017, when news of Trump administration corruption collided with bombings at both an Egyptian church and an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England; meanwhile, the films mostly focused on the ongoing immigrant crisis on Europe’s shores, a matter that felt both immensely pressing and one from which many would prefer to turn away. The following year, the Croisette was abuzz with a prominently missing figure — Harvey Weinstein, about whom a bombshell story had broken seven months earlier, sparking the Me Too movement and seemingly changing the film world forever. Following a red-carpet protest led by some of the film industry’s most prominent women, festival leaders signed a landmark pledge for gender equity in the film industry. Hopes and rhetoric ran high.

And in 2019, all the films seemed to be about a world about to explode along class and racial lines. “Each of these films (and undoubtedly more to come before the festival concludes in about a week) posits a world that’s poised to come crashing down,” I wrote, concluding that “only the willfully blind could miss what’s going on.”

After pandemic cancellation in 2020 and a delayed fest in 2021, Cannes is back in full force, and it’s evident that the organizers (and, perhaps more importantly, the filmmakers) knew that there was no point in avoiding the festival’s aspirations to be a place for explosive and at times chaotic statements in art.

So some of the festival’s buzziest titles — the ones that will make their way to theaters this year, some very soon — have been explicitly political, dealing with inequality and authoritarianism and the once-again rising tides of fascism, at times bluntly so.

A young boy and his grandfather sit on a bench together.
Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in Armageddon Time.
Focus Features

The best of the buzz so far is James Gray’s Armageddon Time, a semi-autofictional story of a sixth-grader named Paul (Banks Repeta) growing up in Queens in the 1980s who, after some trouble in his public school, ends up at a private academy at the behest of his grandfather (Anthony Hopkins). A jolt of a cameo with political implications appears midway through — I don’t want to ruin it — but the film’s broader aim is to excavate the layers of privilege that the protagonist, whose ancestors fled the Holocaust, is slowly coming to realize. His family leans leftward, but his parents (Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong) are casually racist and abusive and also loving and worried for their children’s future. They’re all navigating the gluey border between being the target of anti-Semitism and enjoying the opportunities and social standing that their Black neighbors will never have.

Meanwhile, Paul is caught between his politically progressive family and the children at his new school who casually drop racial slurs, or pump fists and chant “Reagan! Reagan!” at the mention of an upcoming election. It’s a truly poignant and troubling film, and in interviews Gray has said the film targets the oligarchies borne out of large-state capitalism. “There is something ossified about a system that keeps the same people at the top,” he told the Guardian.

It’s hard not to lay that film next to the festival’s earliest scandal, which broke just before opening ceremonies: The festival had been requiring journalists to exorcise material from interviews with Cannes director Thierry Frémaux regarding questions about the oft-promised gender parity among the selected directors, as well as racial and socioeconomic representation. There are almost no Black directors in the lineup this year, and while Cannes finally broke its record for women filmmakers among the official selections, that means a grand total of five. When asked, Frémaux more or less shrugged at the figures, saying that “it takes time for cinema to come into its own.” What that means, I don’t know.

The systemic issue of underrepresentation in the industry will be solved at the ground level, rather than by festivals — which by nature come into the process near the end of a film production’s lifecycle — but the fact that Cannes asked that Frémaux’s questions about those matters be excised from interviews signals they’re aware there’s a problem. (In France, unlike the US, it’s common for journalists to agree to subjects having editorial control over the final interview; the story was broken by Deadline, an American publication that initially agreed to the terms in exchange for access.)

And it raises questions about the “escaping falsehood” and the power of stories that the festival’s Truman Show poster touts. If the festival is committed to open expression and free speech, then why request the removal of the director’s own speech about privilege and representation from the media? Similarly, it’s unnerving to simultaneously hear that Cannes is banning Russian delegations in response to Putin’s ongoing war on Ukraine, while seeing sponsorship, widespread advertising, and festive events touting the Saudi film industry and film festival — a country not known for its tolerance of dissidents.

Ironically, this cognitive dissonance is in keeping with some of the stories actually told on screen. A number of films, including Boy From Heaven, Tirailleurs, Hunt, and Holy Spider, explore how extremists prey on religion and politics to suppress the truth, curb freedom, and redefine justice in ways that favor the powerful. Others, like the trio of dazzling stunners Return to Seoul, One Fine Morning, and Aftersun, are more introspective, probing personal experience and memory to see how truth resides within. The devastating R.M.N. portrays a Romanian town gripped by anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment that’s turning violent; it feels like an all-too-familiar story no matter where you’re from.

An older man snaps pictures of a young blonde.
Snapping thirst traps on a luxury yacht as the world burns in Triangle of Sadness.
Cannes Film Festival

And then there’s Triangle of Sadness, a battering ram of a farce from Ruben Östlund about how rich people are the worst, smeared in every manner of bodily fluids. Östlund, who won the festival’s top prize in 2017 for his art-world satire The Square, places most of his action on a luxury yacht cruise piloted by a fantastically drunk socialist Woody Harrelson and populated by kindly British arms dealers, vapid European model-influencers, and, of course, a Reagan-quoting Russian oligarch who has hauled both his wife and his mistress along. It’s not so much on the nose as a series of repeated uppercuts straight to the kisser. (And it’s exhilaratingly, cruelly, uproariously funny.)

But to get the full effect of it, I suspect, you have to see it as Cannes crowds did: sitting in red-carpeted theaters full of tuxedoed and ballgowned guests, a few hundred yards from the whole fleet of luxury yachts that drop anchor near the Mediterranean shore for the festival’s duration. In that room, the laughter becomes multilayered: we are laughing at ourselves, and with ourselves, and uneasily for ourselves, because, well, we are watching ourselves.

I’d like to exclude myself from that narrative. I don’t have a yacht or an expense account, and I’m running around Cannes in sneakers, subsisting on panini and cheap rose. But (almost) anyone lucky enough to be here can identify at least a little with Harrelson’s character, who pontificates at length during a stormy bender about how he can’t ever be a worthy socialist because, well, look at him! He’s the captain of a luxury yacht! “While you’re surviving in abundance, the rest of the world is drowning in misery,” he hollers at the passengers. Except he’s looking right at us.

“Top Gun: Maverick” Red Carpet - The 75th Annual Cannes Film Festival
The cast of Top Gun: Maverick at the top of the red carpet prior to the film’s premiere at Cannes.
Mike Marsland/WireImage

In his thoughtful remarks on the festival’s opening night, jury president Vincent Lindon reflected on these same questions, wondering if it was even appropriate to be celebrating right now. “Should we not rather, from this stage, upon which, for a brief moment, the eyes of the world are focused, decry the torments of a planet that is bleeding and in pain, a planet that is suffocating and burning as the powers that be look on indifferently?” he asked. “Yes, we probably should. But what can we say that hasn’t already been said? That might at least be useful?”

What’s more mind-boggling than what’s happening in the world around us? Lindon concluded that the festival can only “render essential what would otherwise be obscene: projecting glorious images over the top of the abominable ones coming to us from the heroic and martyrized Ukraine, or burying under a melody of joy the silent massacres that rip through Yemen or Darfur.”

Which brings me back to The Truman Show. The point of that movie isn’t that Truman, a victorious escapee from Plato’s cave, ascends to see the truth. It’s that the truth can so easily be manipulated by the powerful, by the metaphorical producer in the sky who tells us what to believe and arranges our lives so that we have no reason to believe anything else.

The role of disinformation worldwide, the once-again rising tide of fascism across the world, the feeling of needing to close our eyes because it’s all too much — it all makes us susceptible to those producers, to just lying down on the yacht deck chair and checking out of reality. One has to know, sitting in the Palais, that the tension can’t ever be solved at a film festival. But we can wonder if the tension is the whole point.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.