CANNES, France — When Jeff Nichols first attended the Cannes Film Festival, he was a 21-year-old college student interning at the event’s American Pavilion. His days his were mostly spent waiting tables, but every so often, Nichols got his hands on a premiere ticket, donned a tuxedo that his mother his had bought him, and took a seat high in the balcony of the Grand Théâtre Lumière. Whenever he landed there, he felt he was at the summit of everything he wanted to do in life.
Since then, Nichols has come back to the festival with two films he directed: “Take Shelter,” starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, and the Matthew McConaughey drama “Mud.” This year, he will serve as one of the jurors deciding the winner of the Palme d’Or. At a jury news conference on Tuesday, the now 43-year-old Nichols declared his invitation his to be a full-circle honor.
“I can guarantee you that I’m going to watch every one of these films with the same enthusiasm as when I was 21,” Nichols said.
The moderator, Didier Allouch, added dryly, “You’ll have a better seat.”
In its 75th year, an invitation to the Cannes Film Festival remains highly coveted, even if the movie industry has changed irrevocably in the two decades since Nichols first attended. Since French theaters lobby the festival to exclude streaming films from competition, Cannes sometimes seems like a throwback: a place where the big screen is so revered that you’d hardly know the outside world consumes art films on much smaller screens, if at all.
The most significant concession Cannes has made to changing viewer habits is the abundance of billboards and banners along the Croisette, the city’s main boulevard, touting the short-form video app TikTok, an official partner for this year’s festival. Does that union suggest that the festival is hedging its cinematic bets, or is it simply a savvy way for Cannes to reach a user base of over a billion young users?
Maybe it’s a reminder that Cannes has more to sell than just art films, even when some of those entries — like the Palme d’Or winner “Parasite,” or last year’s hit “The Worst Person in the World” — go on to strike a cultural chord. Cannes sells glamor, too, in the form of red-carpet pictures that are beamed across the globe. And the picture-perfect backdrop of the Croisette, where that red carpet is set off by an azure summer sky and an even richer blue sea, also offers the perfect launchpad for studio blockbusters: “Top Gun: Maverick” and Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy “Elvis ” will debut at Cannes this year alongside indies like Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up,” starring Michelle Williams as an artist caring for a wounded pigeon.
After the 74th edition of the festival was constrained by the emergence of the Delta variant of the coronavirus, this year’s Cannes is the fest back at its most maximal. The number of journalists here has nearly tripled since last summer, the parties are once against bustling, and the opening night-film, “Final Cut,” was directed by a big-name Cannes alum — the French director Michel Hazanavicius, whose film “ The Artist” debuted here in 2011 before going on to win the best-picture Oscar.
Hazanavicius has experienced all the ups and downs that Cannes has to offer: Three years after his victory with “The Artist,” he returned with the war drama “The Search,” which earned such derisive boos and whistles at its press screening that the film barely escaped the Croisette alive. Still, Hazanavicius couldn’t stay away: Though his zombie comedy “Final Cut” was originally supposed to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film pivoted to Cannes when Sundance went all-virtual.
“I feel like I was born in Cannes for ‘The Artist,’ but I died in Cannes for ‘The Search,’” Hazanavicius told IndieWire this week. “It’s a poker game. You come with your cards but you never know.”
And you come because when Cannes connects, there’s nothing else like it. Perhaps that’s why the opening ceremony for the festival on Tuesday night was able to land a big-name surprise guest: President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who appeared via satellite. In his military fatigues, he spoke to the couture-clad crowd about the power of cinema to reshape what we think of war and the people who wage it. Quoting Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” Zelensky said, “The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.”
As he spoke, I thought back to the jury news conference, where the jurors — who include the actress-director Rebecca Hall and the jury president Vincent Lindon, who starred in last year’s Palme d’Or winner, “Titane” — were asked whether film still retains any cultural primacy in a world dominated by the likes of, well, TikTok. Another jury member, “The Worst Person in the World” director Joachim Trier, leaped in to say that moviemaking is “a very radiant, progressive art form that we all love.” Then he grinned.
“People say that it’s dying,” Trier said. “I don’t believe it for a second.”