As you read these words, somewhere in the world, there's a film festival in full swing. It may be in San Francisco or Buenos Aires, but if it's mid-May, it can only be Cannes, the supernova at the centre of the festival galaxy. If the reckless proliferation and cultural ascendancy of the film festival in the 1990s owed much to the emergence of Sundance and the cult of the 'independent' film, the true beneficiary has been Cannes, whose prestige and power has grown in direct proportion to the increasing number of festivals; the diluting effect of the film-festival-on-every-block principle has simply made Cannes' impossibly rich mix of arty and populist, smart and impenetrable, hip and old-guard, seem even more potent; every other festival, even Venice, Sundance and Berlin, seems at best second rate, at worst redundant.
If there was a pivotal moment for Cannes, it was Pulp Fiction (1994) winning the Palme d'Or in 1994. It had always been an important festival, but Cannes somehow grasped that Quentin Tarantino's film announced a rupture in the continuity of contemporary film, the end of a certain kind of cinema and the launch of another. It not only instinctively assimilated the disruption that it represented, but also broadcast it. The festival validated Tarantino as a world-class filmmaker and the critics' darling. Pulp Fiction's subsequent international box office success retroactively validated Cannes as the one festival capable of enabling important, unconventional films to cross over. A partial list of subsequent instances is hard to top: Breaking the Waves (1996), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Dancer in the Dark (2000), In the Mood for Love (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001).
Offering unique access to the world's taste-making film intelligentsia and the entertainment media in general, Cannes is where only the most intently ambitious or reckless of the post-Pulp Fiction generation of filmmakers unveil their work. And it's not just to advance or consolidate their reputations. The Spike Jonzes, Wes Andersons and Harmony Korines, with their carefully honed personas, look past the kind of career and satisfactions the movie industry can offer, past the idea of rapprochement with the cinephile intelligentsia, to something more elusive: they yearn for a tangible sense of cultural and artistic agency possessed only by an untouchable - and impossibly cool - cinematic elite. Wong Kar-Wai has it, and so do David Lynch and Lars von Trier. Leos Carax and Jim Jarmusch are charter members. Filmmakers like Jonze and P. T. Anderson will bring their films to the Côte d'Azur because they have grasped that Cannes is no longer a market or even a film festival: it's a threshold that, once negotiated in the correct manner, gains access to a realm of possibility that the popular imagination attributes to movie stardom.