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At Cannes, Inspiration From Ancient Romans and Modern Women

It must say something about the anxious state of the movie world that two of the hottest tickets at this year’s Cannes Film Festival draw inspiration from ancient Rome. In George Miller’s “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga,” Chris Hemsworth zips around a wasteland like a heavy-metal charioteer, while in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis,” Adam Driver plays a guy named Cesar. That each movie offers a vision of a culture in decline seems too on the nose for this festival, where attendees celebrate the art amid nervous chatter about the state of the industry.

This year’s festival opened Tuesday under gray skies, as if nature itself were mirroring all the gloom and doom. Yet while the opening-night movie, the unfunny French comedy “The Second Act,” was a dud, the hourlong ceremony that preceded it was unexpectedly touching. The show’s focus on women that night was instructive, and it suggested that Cannes, a festival that has long promoted the cult of the male auteur, is trying to do a better job of righting a historical gender imbalance. Mind you, the number of female filmmakers who get a chance to strut the red carpet remains low: There are only four in the main competition.

Louis Garrel, left, and Vincent Lindon in “The Second Act,” from Quentin Dupieux.Credit…Chi-Fou-Mi/Arte France Cinéma

Yet things do seem better here, and at least the festival is keen to show its support for women filmmakers. During the ceremony, which was hosted by the French actress Camille Cottin (“Call My Agent”), an emotional Juliette Binoche presented Meryl Streep with an honorary Palme d’Or, and the festival went bonkers over Greta Gerwig. She’s heading this year’s competition jury, which includes two other women filmmakers: the Turkish screenwriter Ebru Ceylan and the Lebanese director Nadine Labaki. When it came time for Gerwig to appear, the festival played a highlight reel of her work and, in giant letters beamed on an even more giant screen, announced that she had “conquered the world in three films.”

It was corny, but, reader, I teared up. Among other things, the love for Streep and Gerwig was a break from the drumbeat of bad news about the American movie business. Heading into 2023, Variety had predicted an “extremely bumpy” year for Hollywood; 12 months later, it changed the diagnosis to “rocky” and a conveniently concise headline explained why. “Strikes, Box-Office Bombs and ‘Huge Leadership Vacuum’: Hollywood Says Goodbye to Worst Year in a Generation.” Even Jerry Seinfeld, in an interview with GQ, said “the movie business is over.” I’d already booked my Cannes hotel and flight, so I went anyway.

That’s because while the American entertainment business is in the midst of another of its recurrent crises, this hasn’t stopped artists around the world from making movies. The festival as well as several other programs outside the official selection are presenting more than 100 new movies this year from celebrated veterans and untested directors alike, some who may soon dazzle us. In other rooms in and around the Palais — the hulking center where I spend most of my time here sitting in the dark — an estimated 14,000 industry representatives, including buyers and sellers, have some 4,000 finished movies and projects on the table in what is the world’s biggest international film market.

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