Aidan Smith: No Cannes do for Netflix as Tilda loses her head

Tilda Swintons head was mysteriously missing in the Cannes screening of her Netflix opus Okja, when it was screened in the wrong aspect.
Tilda Swintons head was mysteriously missing in the Cannes screening of her Netflix opus Okja, when it was screened in the wrong aspect.
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The Scottish actress and a strange pig are caught up in a row about the future of cinema, writes Aidan Smith

You never forget your first time. And when Pedro Almodovar, chairman of the jury at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, speaks of “the capacity to be hypnotised by the big screen”, I know exactly what he means.

My first time was a picture-house called the Tudor and the movie was the Norman Wisdom caper The Square Peg. The springs had gone in my velveteen seat, the air was thick with a disinfectant sprayed by the usherettes to kill the pong from an audience of kids who in those days only bathed once a week – and worst of all I didn’t have enough money for a Kia-Ora. But none of this really mattered.

I was at the movies and it was tremendous. When Norm drove a tank up the steps of a grand house and straight through the huge ballroom window, the flea-pit went berserk. Duffle-coats and bobble hats flew across the screen in silhouette and the wild cheering seemed to be inviting the tank to crash into the Tudor as well.

Maybe The Square Peg would have been a bit broad and too reliant on Norm’s falling-down gag for Almodovar’s taste, but the Spanish art-house director would surely have been gratified by the sight of a packed auditorium responding so enthusiastically. The “new generation” don’t do this, he laments. They seem ignorant of that hypnotic power. But Almodovar won’t stop championing cinema and cinemas. “For as long as I live I’ll be fighting,” he says.

You can imagine the Cannes cognoscenti cheering at that, just as they’d boo-ed their first glimpse of the Netflix logo. The streaming service is showing films at the festival but this will be a one-off unless it’s prepared to put them into cinemas. Not Netflix’s style, of course, as the movies and drama series go straight to our laptops or tablets. We watch alone with headphones or as one half of a knackered couple in bed, usually only managing seven and a half minutes per night. Me, I’m simply too tired to throw my duffle-coat across the screen.

This is a classic cultural stooshie, a barney of quality flouncing and death-or-glory pronouncing. “Bring me the head of Tilda Swinton!” might have been Netflix’s wail when its first offering Okja was halted after just six minutes because the Scottish actress had been decapitated and, even though this was a flick with a South Korean director about a young girl’s battle to protect a weird, hybrid pig-like beast from the clutches of a multinational corporation, the audience were pretty sure they were meant to be seeing all of Nairn’s greatest thesp (the film was playing in the wrong aspect ratio).

Sabotage? This was the dark thought swirling around Cannes for a while. The French gave us the word, of course, along with “auteur” and “cineaste”, although unless I’ve missed them, they haven’t given us too many fantastic movies for a while. So who are they to say what does and does not constitute a film?

The headless Swinton controversy – she reckoned her film had been “nobbled” – quickly followed the award-less controversy over The Crown, Netflix’s epic royal saga. Starring Claire Foy as the young Queen Elizabeth, it had been nominated for five Baftas but didn’t win one. Yes, it was a bit soapy and cost a queen’s ransom so it was always going to look great but the acting was terrific, the script contained many superbly vicious posho put-downs and I loved the attention to detail, such as when the Queen Mum was sozzled in front of the goggle-box which could have been showing anything but very deliberately, as Elizabeth accused her of not educating her properly, resounded to the determinedly lowbrow music-hall sand-dancing troupe Wilson, Keppel and Betty.

Who are the Bafta judges to say The Crown doesn’t constitute “proper telly”? Those in the arts like to think of themselves as radical, breaking down barriers, and happy to embrace the shock of the new – but it seems that for them Netflix is a bit like that beastie in Swinton’s movie: too weird, too hybrid. Basically, too scary.

But it is not Netflix and the other streaming platforms which have created the modern consumer of film and boxset drama. He was already out there, permanently plugged into his devices, not watching when his neighbour watches but at a time of his choosing, once he’d poured himself wine in a jumbo glass courtesy of those crazy Swedes at Ikea, and in between bouts of impulse online shopping – a dangerously uncategorisable, uncontrollable individual no longer in need of the communality of a store, a pub or a cinema.

When the Netflix logo appears on screens it’s accompanied by a mechanical thud, like a door shutting on a spacecraft and unlikely to be opened again any time soon. Swinton urges her community not to get too dramatic about streaming. “There is room for everybody,” she says. But, as a Tudor veteran I have some sympathy with the incorrigible, defiant, typically French stance. France wants to keep cinemas open, possibly more than we do here, and probably more than Netflix’s chief content officer does. “Ted Sarandos said something like ‘We’re not going to bother with these old Parisian theatres’,” remarked Cannes director Thierry Fremaux, “but we care dearly about them. Theatres are essential.”

Streaming, though, can benefit cinema, bringing films that might otherwise have been small, culty “sleepers” to a wider audience – and if they’re lucky the subscribers won’t sleep through them. I look forward to Swinton’s pig movie coming to an iPad near my bed although obviously it can’t have the impact of The Square Peg.

Or One Million Years BC with Raquel Welch in a fur bikini because you never forget your second time either.