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At the Cannes Film Festival, Discoveries From Andrea Arnold and Rungano Nyoni

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.

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.

Each year, no matter the ratio of good to bad movies I end up seeing at Cannes, I leave the festival feeling exhilarated. It’s early days, but I’ve already watched some very good movies, including two that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. The first, “Bird,” the latest from the British director Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”), is a beautifully shot, delicately moving coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old girl, Bailey (Nykiya Adams), that takes an unexpected detour into magical realism. An exuberant Barry Keoghan, covered in tats, plays her careless if loving father, while the great German actor Franz Rogowski plays the title character. He shows up in a skirt and, scene by scene, breaks your heart.

As in “Bird,” the female protagonist in Rungano Nyoni’s “On Becoming a Guinea Fowl” has a near-mystical connection with the natural world that suggests that women — like all the creatures in these movies — necessarily exist in a realm apart from men and their violence. “Bird” features a veritable menagerie that includes birds but also horses, dogs, a toad and what I swear was a smiling fox. In “Guinea Fowl,” the title animal refers to a grim childhood incident that Shula (a terrific Susan Chardy) revisits during a trip to her family’s home in Zambia. That incident slowly emerges from the shadows during an elaborate funeral for an uncle, a framing that Nyoni uses to explore the devastations of patriarchy as she subtly and artfully joins the personal with the political.

There is something wonderful about being in crowds of excited movie lovers — the applause for both “Bird” and “Fowl” was rightly enthusiastic — who are all grooving on the same wavelength during the festival’s 12 days, sharing tips and chatting about what they’ve loved or loathed. In his interview, Seinfeld said, “Film doesn’t occupy the pinnacle in the social, cultural hierarchy that it did for most of our lives.” I assume he never made it to Cannes.

This isn’t to dismiss the profound changes that have affected the industry, not at all. It’s tough out there, and nobody knows anything (still!) about what will work or why. The only certainty is that it’s hard to produce, distribute and exhibit movies, perhaps especially now given that people can just pull out their phones and watch something as reliably delightful as baby elephants being bottle fed. Yet the truth is, film hasn’t occupied the pinnacle Seinfeld mentioned in a long time. It’s often estimated that in the mid-1940s, some 90 million Americans went to the movies each week; by 1970, that number had dropped to 20 million.

The 1970s are justly remembered as an extraordinary decade in American cinema, a time of towering artistic success and business adventurousness. Three of the most celebrated filmmakers of that era are on the Cannes docket this year. Coppola is in the main competition with his audacious “Megalopolis,” his first movie in a dozen years. His old friend and collaborator George Lucas is receiving an honorary Palme d’Or on May 25. And their friend Steven Spielberg is here, too, in a fashion: A restored print of his 1974 crime thriller, “The Sugarland Express,” is screening in a section called Cannes Classics.

That all three filmmakers are represented at Cannes may be a coincidence, but this virtual reunion gave me pause. Together with directors like their East Coast friend Martin Scorsese, and their compatriot Paul Schrader — whose latest, “Oh, Canada,” is in the main competition — Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg were main figures in what became known as New Hollywood. It’s more complicated than I can do justice to here, but basically during this artistically fecund period, a group of largely young, male filmmakers thrived in the effective ruins of the old studio system. By 1980 or so, the story often goes, the good times were over; VHS would soon permanently change how people watched movies, just like streaming has.

The changes in viewership mean that the American studios take few risks these days, preferring to bank on the safe and the familiar, which is why they mostly release either blockbusters or cheap genre fare. In Hollywood, as Ben Fritz put it in “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies,” his 2018 book, “Anything that’s not a big budget franchise film or a low-cost, ultralow risk comedy or horror movie is an endangered species.” That’s still true, but while directors like Gerwig, Arnold and Nyoni are working in a very different industry than Coppola and his cohort did back in the day, as Cannes reminds me each year, there are always filmmakers ready to conquer the movie world.

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