Second to the Palm d’Or the greatest achievement a filmmaker can hope for from a trip to Cannes is a good old booing. A very special kind of cacophony is rewarded to a film that succeeds in irritating le bon goût of French cineastes- it’s less of a boo and more like the mooing of an over-excited cow. Pulp Fiction received the full force of Gallic baying as have most of Lars Von Trier’s films. This year the honour falls on Okja, not so much for the film itself as who is distributing it. The row over the presence of Netflix on the croisette had been rumbling ever since Bong Joon-ho’s film was announced in the main competition. As soon as the name of the film’s backer and distributor came on the screen the roars predictably erupted. The case for the primacy of the theatrical experience was not helped, however, by the film being projected in the wrong aspect ratio, something that wouldn’t happen on an iPhone.
Officially Cannes regrets the disruption caused at the screening. Of course they do. Just as they regret to ask scruffy British journalists to stop obstructing Cara Delevingne’s view of the sea. By including Okja in the official selection Cannes knew exactly what the festival was in for. As the world’s premiere film festival Cannes has been dragged kicking and screaming into the worlds of VR, high end TV and new distribution models. Nevertheless its core purpose is to safeguard culture and be suspicious of overt commercialism. Okja is a hostage to the cause.
If the booers think the film’s noisy reception will rattle Netflix they clearly don’t know tech companies. Not only has the spotlight been shone on an oddly titled film by a genre-defying Korean filmmaker (his last film, Snowpiercer, didn’t get any kind of UK release) but it has reminded the world that Netflix is a serious player in the film market. In reality Netflix and Amazon are actually at the conservative end of production. Of the relatively small number of projects they commission there is a tendency to back established names and sure-fire projects rather than nurturing unknown writers or actors. The faux-controversy of Cannes gives Netflix the air of a disruptive maverick backing edgy films. Backed by the enormous resources of seemingly infinite private equity there is no star or lauded auteur that won’t be lured by the prospect of generously funded artistic freedom. Some speculate that this model isn’t viable, that it’s an entertainment bubble waiting to burst. That would finally be something for Cannes to cheer about.