Film Quarterly’s editor-in-chief B. Ruby Rich offers her take on the 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. After two years of pandemic-related disruption, the storied festival was in a celebratory mood despite the proximity of the war in Ukraine, which lent a sense of significance to proceedings that resonated with its anti-fascist origins. The official competition, however, emphasized traditional (male) auteurs over selections that broke new ground aesthetically. Instead, it was in the festival’s other sections —the parallel Un Certain Regard, the once-oppositional Directors’ Fortnight, and the Semaine de la Critique—that Rich discovered works that renewed her sense of cinema as both consequential and urgently necessary.

“Oh, you are going to Cannes!” said the hair stylist, giving me the best haircut I’d ever had. “Oh, you’re off to Cannes!” said the pharmacist, agreeing to a booster shot a few weeks ahead of schedule. “Bien sûr, you must have one.” Going to the Cannes Film Festival while living in Paris is an entirely different experience than heading there from San Francisco or New York. And I don’t mean the lack of jet lag, though that’s a nice perk. No, the mere fact of being a Cannes attendee in Paris carries a remarkable enhancement of social status. Even on the airplane flying home from Paris to San Francisco a week later, the Cannes face mask elicited murmurs of appreciation. “Ah, Cannes, that’s why you speak such good French!” said the flight attendant—to my partner, to be honest, to whom I’d lent the mask. It turns out that, in France, saying “Cannes” in the springtime is a kind of “Abracadabra!” Even the assistants in the fictional agency of Dix pour cent (Call My Agent) lost their heads when given the chance to go to the festival with guest star Juliette Binoche. The mood was contagious: this was my first Cannes in eighteen years. No matter how demoted in status I was, with a lousy press pass, why not be excited?

The seventy-fifth anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival marked a happy return to the month of May, its customary time slot, after two years of disruption. And what a celebration it was. The Côte d’Azur weather cooperated, and the throngs of journalists and publicists, directors, and stars all did their part, turning up on the Riviera, thrilled to be together and back in business again. Some were really, really thrilled: Tom Cruise arrived at the festival’s jewel-box Palais as military jets spewed trails of blue, white, and red overhead, all for the glory of Cannes and cinema—or at least for the glory of his new movie, Top Gun: Maverick, which would go on to reach $1 billion in global box-office receipts, setting a record for a Tom Cruise film.

A Mediterranean morning at the Cannes Film Festival. Photo courtesy of B. Ruby Rich.

A Mediterranean morning at the Cannes Film Festival. Photo courtesy of B. Ruby Rich.

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It was impossible not to think of the ongoing war in Ukraine as jet engines roared and Tom cruised the crowd: the atmosphere was so electric, I half expected Mr. Cruise to volunteer on the spot to fly missions over Kyiv. He didn’t. Macron was head of the European Union back in May, had just won reelection as the president of France, and his conversations with Putin and Zelensky were newspaper fodder all spring. France was committed to the defense of Ukraine, and Russian directors and journalists had been expressly disinvited from the film festival. Zelensky himself even addressed the opening-night crowd through a feed displayed on-screen for the black-tie audience. The occasion felt momentous.

Back in 1938, the new Venice Film Festival was under fascist pressure at awards time and gave its “Mussolini Cup” for best foreign film to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia—not to Marcel Carné’s Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), nor even to René Clair’s Break the News. Angry at the fascist manipulation of cinematic judgment, the French delegation returned home vowing to start their own festival. And so they did. In September 1939, the triumphal first edition of Cannes took place—and then promptly shut down when Hitler invaded Poland and a new global war began. Not until 1946 did the festival resume, only to shut down one other time: when the May ’68 rabble-rousers hung onto its curtains.

On the train to Cannes, I scanned the map. It’s some fifteen hundred miles from Kyiv to Cannes. The war felt close, the history lesson ominous. World War II started just as the film festival in Cannes got under way all those years ago, and now the festival was launching at an ominous moment once again. Never did cinema appear so proximate, so consequential, so urgently necessary. Or rather, it would have—if the selections had supported such an interpretation. True, at the last minute, the official selection added the documentary Mariupolis 2, by Lithuanian filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravicˇ ius, which his fiancée, Hanna Bilobrova, and his editor completed after he was “captured and murdered by the Russian army in Mariupol in early April,” as the Cannes release announced; it would go on to garner a Special Jury Prize.

Otherwise, the official competition reinscribed its traditional auteurs—and celebrated the continuity of le cinéma after the pandemic hiatus of both festival and film theaters—rather than breaking new ground aesthetically. But the ground had shifted below everyone’s feet, and perhaps even films weren’t quite the same. Despite last year’s gender-historic Palme d’Or award to Julia Ducournau (Titane, 2021), this year’s edition was also stacked again with male favorites. Custom can be hard to shake.

I saw four of the Official Competition’s auteurist selections but inadvertently missed a fifth (Park Chan-wook’s Heojil kyolshim [Decision to Leave]) due to protocol amnesia: I arrived at the steps that lead to the theater doors just three minutes tardy; but there’s no late entry, no exceptions, at Cannes, and I was turned away. The four that I did manage to see were by David Cronenberg, George Miller, Marco Bellocchio, and grand-master-in-waiting James Gray.

I was particularly interested in Bellocchio’s Esterno Notte [Night Exterior] for its attention to the notorious kidnapping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the legendary Red Brigades in Italy in 1978. I am a longtime fan of Bellocchio, and I wasn’t disappointed: it’s a fine-grained political fable in his trademark style. Having long been fascinated by the Red Brigades’ tactics, I was especially taken with the film’s portrayal of the erotics of radical political action. And pleased with the attention paid in particular to Moro’s wife, Eleonora, who battles his disloyal government “colleagues” throughout the fifty-five days of his captivity.

This is the kind of well-wrought, exceptionally sensitive portrait of a key period that Bellocchio does so well, except for one detail: this is a five-and-a-half-hour series for Italian television. At Cannes? The festival with no Netflix allowed? Festival majordomo Thierry Frémaux leapt onstage, introducing “Maestro Marco Bellocchio” with a flourish. “This is a film,” he adamantly insisted to the audience, “made for television.” Bellocchio murmured politely, “It’s a series.” I loved it, at least for the first three hours. It will work really well when seen in episodes.

George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing proved to be a cast in search of a film. A folly from the heart of the king of Mad Max, it conjures an alternate universe. There, Tilda Swinton is an academic specializing in narratology—a fair description of what this whole film business is about—and she is terrific in the role, serious and unassuming, as captivating as ever. Touring the shops of Istanbul between conference panels, she spots a souvenir: a small pitcher, intriguing enough to buy and bring back to her hotel room. Cleaning it triggers a surprise explosion, smoke and mirrors, and the emergence of a huge being whose bulk fills the room, a “djinn” who shrinks down (somewhat) to the size and shape of Idris Elba, who has been held captive in the vessel for hundreds of years.

A sight for sore eyes with a velvety voice, delighted to be out and about and with someone to talk to, Elba/djinn begins to tell the professor his life stories. The tales spun by this newfangled Scheherazade are depicted by Miller in successions of CGI-etched Orientalist fantasies. A narratologist might note that they are not unlike the stories an escaped slave might tell to a Nice White Lady who comes along to save him. Along they roll, somewhere between past and present, Istanbul and the United Kingdom. By the end, there was a frenzied standing ovation.

David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future continued the trend of auteurist fantasy. But this was not a departure from his past—rather, a deliberate return to the “body horror” genre that he pioneered. There was a fever among the critics gathered at that screening, a palpable anticipation of genius. You see what you want to see: they clapped, I cringed. Cronenberg said that he wrote the script twenty years ago, but it looked to me as though he’d filmed it twenty years ago too. Instantly, the audience is back in the dank, ominous world of Cronenberg’s techno-dystopia where bodies and machines mingle in situ, water drips, darkness metastasizes, and matter evolves into a hybrid form of erotic possibility amid artistic license. Surgery is the new sex (I am quoting), and both Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart look ravishing alongside a tortured Viggo Mortensen, who becomes bizarrely more desirable (in the film’s invented future) the more he is cut into, implanted with organs, and reconfigured in a new version of performance art.

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba deep in narratology, in Three Thousand Years of Longing.

Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba deep in narratology, in Three Thousand Years of Longing.

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At its best moments, Crimes reminded me of Crash, the Cronenberg film that showed in 1996, when it earned a notorious footnote in Cannes annals for the walkouts and boos at its press screening. It was scandalous back then, but seeing it my very first Cannes, I loved it for its erotic transgressions. Now, only the opening act (a mother, Viggo’s wife, murders their son) evokes Cronenberg at his best.

James Gray’s new film, Armageddon Time, was a surprise within the official lineup of Masters. It’s sincere in that distinctly US indie way, founded in personal memory but peopled with stars to bring it vigor. To Gray’s credit, this is not a self-heroizing film in the mold of last year’s Kenneth Branagh confection, Belfast. Instead, Gray revisits the racial politics of 1980s New York—specifically, his experience of growing up Jewish in Queens at a time when Ronald Reagan was president and racial divisions were blowing up New York’s boroughs. Anthony Hopkins improbably plays the grandfather—with a line about fleeing Germany via Liverpool to explain away his accent—doting on the young boy (Gray, presumably) who is navigating pathways of race and class, along the way betraying his best friend, who is Black and endangered. Per his annoying father’s dictum, the kid ruthlessly advances into life, propelled by guilt and privilege. It was a rather straightforward film for Cannes, but so lovingly directed that it won my affection.

Then came the gut punch of that auteur genius who ended up walking away with the Palme d’Or (for the second time in five years) and is sure to be talked up as Oscar bait: Swedish bad-boy filmmaker Ruben Östlund, with Triangle of Sadness, the final film in his trilogy and his first English-language production. It seems that Östlund has now officially taken the crown away from Lars von Trier as the most misanthropic Nordic filmmaker. He’s sadistic to his audiences and rewarded for a cleverness that was not always visible to my jaundiced eye. Östlund strikes me as an aristocrat who wants to be a revolutionary, a bad boy with a mean streak, eager to make big statements at the expense of many of his characters.

Following the class-reversal plot of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019), Östlund’s more scabrous version has a “ship of fools” framework: a couple of gorgeous models working their Instagram fame join a cruise ship of the ultrarich, piloted by Woody Harrelson, a long-winded old-school Marxist who spends most of the voyage debating politics with one of his wealthy passengers: the Russian “shit king,” played by Zlatko Buric. The lengthy shipboard shenanigans prove tedious—as does the vaunted centerpiece of shit and vomit pouring out of toilets and orifices all over the cruise ship.

A shipwreck conveniently gets rid of the less entertaining passengers and strands the rest on an island seemingly devoid of human life. Stripped of money, they find their social status reassigned. Abigail, the ship’s Filipina cleaning woman, played with perfection by Dolly de Leon, becomes the new king of the hill. Capitalizing on her practical know-how in this capsized society, she becomes queen of the makeshift tribe and, for a while, injects some real feeling into the overstuffed epic. Abigail is a terrific character, and de Leon’s powerful performance almost made me forgive everything that came before. Almost. Östlund can’t resist a setup, and eventually he will double-cross most of his characters. The audience, too, is his plaything, so be prepared: he likes to have the last laugh.

With that, I made my exit from the Official Selection and sequestered myself entirely in the festival’s other sections for the duration: the parallel Un Certain Regard; the once-oppositional Directors’ Fortnight; even a dip into the Semaine de la Critique, the Critics Week. If the films there weren’t necessarily concerned directly with the world’s geopolitics, well, they certainly offered new visions of the potent individualism—incisive, revelatory, idiotic, or annoying—that is inscribed in so much of cinema today. And by staying in those theaters, I managed to see more thrilling films, including many by women directors, than anywhere else.

Several films stood out in Un Certain Regard for their portrayals of transgression in less than progressive societies, with different aesthetic strengths on display. In Un Certain Regard, Maryam Touzani’s Le bleu du caftan (The Blue Caftan), from Morocco, and Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, from Pakistan, both brought transgression into international art-house moviemaking. Touzani brings her characteristic tenderness to a muted gay love story that is framed by a companionate marriage with an understanding wife who is happy for her husband when a handsome young apprentice shows up. Sadiq adapts a soap-operatic redemption narrative to tell the tale of an unemployed son who, pushed to earn a living, falls for the trans performer who hires him as a background dancer. Both films, if mainstream in style, are daring in subject matter, accomplished in narrative strategy (especially the virtues of humor), and significant for their interventions into the politics of representation in Morocco and Pakistan. They succeeded in wowing the Cannes audience.

Transgression took a different tack in Rodeo, Lola Quivoron’s tour de force starring a magnetic Julie Ledru as Julia, a motorcycle-racing thief who yearns to be part of a gang of hard-core young men: some welcome her, one embraces her, one plots against her. Mediated through text messages and elaborate cons (she’s a pro at stealing bikes out from under the nose of men who underestimate her), this is a highly adrenalized film set inside a little-known subculture and mixing gender into the scene. There are great moments and matter-of-fact glimpses of life on the far side of French society; it may not end well (spoiler alert), but oh my, what a ride.

A muted gay love story framed by a companionate marriage in The Blue Caftan.

A muted gay love story framed by a companionate marriage in The Blue Caftan.

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Sometimes cinematic gambles don’t pay off. I was so excited to see The Silent Twins, a film based on a true story I’d heard of for years about Black twins who grew up in isolation in a white Welsh town. As directed by Agnieszka Smoczynska with script by Andrea Seigel, this version of the life of the identical twins (played by Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance) who stop talking to anyone but each other never manages to convey any insight into their subjectivities. The audience is consequently left out in the cold as the sisters start to veer disastrously off course.

Un Certain Regard screened what was absolutely one of the best films I saw at Cannes—or anywhere, for that matter: Corsage, written and directed by Marie Kreutzer and starring an utterly riveting Vicky Krieps as “Sisi,” the Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Kreutzer and Krieps make magic: they deliver the fully passionate energy that I wanted but didn’t get from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) or even Pablo Larraín’s Spencer (2021). Here the straitlaced period costumes of the 1877 Austrian court merge ever so successfully with a soundtrack of contemporary hip music and an eternal time-traveling state of female dissatisfaction into a fully engaged and euphoric breakaway. From a tightly corseted (literally) existence, Krieps bursts into full corporeal freedom, albeit at a cost. Kreutzer reminds her audience that film still can be transporting as well as transformative. And surely cinematographer Judith Kaufmann is someone to watch.

I found another favorite, also by a woman filmmaker, in the Critics Week section, which discovers new talent. Aftersun, the debut film by Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells, is the exact opposite of Corsage, matching its exuberance with interiority, its boisterousness with quietude, its clarity with opacity. And it’s equally powerful.

Wells traces a woman’s memories of a long-ago holiday at a Turkish seaside resort with her father; eleven-year-old Sophie is portrayed with exquisite depth by newcomer Frankie Corio, and her father, thirty-year-old Calum, is magnetically embodied by Paul Mescal. I was mesmerized. This is a film that makes memory palpable, playing with the missing synapses of recollection by alternating the intensity of past moments with the opacity of cause or effect, the sequences swimming to the surface with all the power of that watery past—and the imperfect record of long-ago DV footage, represented as recorded by Sophie, that plays throughout the film.

As the end credits rolled, I was reluctant to leave the magical aura behind. But then I got to witness a most unusual festival scene: out on the sidewalk, clusters of young people earnestly discussing the film, talking about their own early experiences with a parent, sharing these reminiscences with great emotion. If I needed any confirmation of this film’s success in close-to-the-bone impact, there it was. Charlotte “Charlie” Wells is definitively someone to watch.

Sophie (Frankie Corio) and Calum (Paul Mescal) on holiday in Turkey in Aftersun.

Sophie (Frankie Corio) and Calum (Paul Mescal) on holiday in Turkey in Aftersun.

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Directors’ Fortnight, the vibrant section originally created in the aftermath of the festival’s May ’68 disruption, brought more wonderful films, including a great many by women, and few that disappointed. Selections with the most to offer in terms of challenging style and emotion could be found consistently in the Directors’ Fortnight. (It’s a shame that the head of the section, Paolo Moretti, was dismissed by its governing body, the SRF, or Société des réalisateurs de films, which is notorious for booting out its curators every few years whenever selections or exclusions bruise egos; hopefully Moretti will pop up somewhere more welcoming soon.)

I found an immediately convenient if opposite match to Aftersun with a new documentary, Les années Super-8 (The Super 8 Years). Constructed, as its name promises, by assembling Super 8 and early video footage originally shot during 1972–81 by then husband/father Phillipe Ernaux, it has a voice-over by Annie Ernaux and editing by her son David Ernaux-Briot. Annie Ernaux, of course, is the famous French writer whose autobiographically tinged novel was the source material for the moving and delicate abortion-rights drama Happening (Audrey Diwan, 2021); her books are widely read in France.

The Super 8 Years presents a record of family life as told through the consumer technologies of the time. Because it is Ernaux, there is a built-in fascination. But because she and her husband were a young progressive couple living at a pivotal time, it’s also a record of political hopes (they take a holiday in Moscow) and dashed expectations. In the end, the mother-and-son creation is a sort of filmic novel of its time, a curiosity as much as a documentary.

Films of real events in past eras aren’t easy to finesse. I had high hopes for Philippe Faucon’s Les Harkis, a fictional tale set in 1959–62, toward the end of the French fighting in Algeria, just prior to independence. Because of Faucon’s focus on the Algerians who joined the French in fighting against their countrymen, I hoped for a nuanced exploration of colonial ideologies, but that was not to be: the genre conventions of the war movie seem to have proved too hard to resist. By the end, what’s left is just a sense of a void that still needed to be filled.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Les Amandiers (Forever Young) is named after the school for young actors that Patrice Chéreau, played by an intense Louis Garrel, ran in the eighties. There’s lots of storming around as twelve students live through their time at school, even a young-love-with-heroin plot reminiscent of The Souvenir. Evidently Bruni Tedeschi was a student there, but for those who were not—or may not share a reverence for Chéreau—it can be tough going. I have such an aversion to actors emoting in classes and parties that my attention wilted. With the tenth anniversary of Chéreau’s death coming up, though, I suspect the film will find a much kinder reception on home turf.

Alice Winocour fares far better with her gripping contemporary drama Revoir Paris (Paris Memories), which seeks to explore the traumas left by the infamous terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, that targeted both the Bataclan concert hall and a number of restaurants and cafes where people were out enjoying a weekend evening. The date 11/13 is to Paris what 9/11 was to New York City, and Winocour does so much better than any US filmmaker in showing the personal impact of a national tragedy by viscerally tracking its individual toll. This is no horror movie, no genre exercise, no pseudopatriotic memorial. No, it’s a psychological profile of how to survive the unimaginable.

Winocour’s own brother emerged alive from the Bataclan attack after texting her from his mobile phone in the midst of it. But she sets this story instead in the more intimate space of one of the many cafes attacked that night, sprayed with semiautomatic gunfire that massacred people, mid–sip of wine, midconversation. Mia (Virginie Efira) arrives at the bistro randomly and is caught in a massacre, shown briefly but terrifyingly.

That’s the backstory that shows up in brief replays keyed to Mia’s memory recovery, months later, when survivors like herself begin to connect with one another to piece together the record of that night, to find kindred spirits—the only ones who understand their trauma. It’s a contained cast of characters with whom she interacts: the man (Benoît Magimel) who will eventually replace her callous lover (Grégoire Colin)—yes, there has to be a romance—as well as the people she meets, from a woman who attacks her in a fury for something she did not do that night to the teenage girl (Nastya Golubeva Carax) fighting to reclaim the details of the last moments of her parents, who died there. Eventually Mia tracks down the kitchen worker who helped her, played by Senegalese actor Amadou Mbow, star of Mati Diop’s Atlantique (2019).

Another wonderful Directors’ Fortnight film—again, ahem, by a talented woman director—was the Léa Mysius feature Les cinq diables (The Five Devils), only her second film and already wildly adventurous. Mysius is a screenwriter, too, who has worked with some of the most prominent names in French cinema: Arnaud Desplechin, Jacques Audiard, and Claire Denis. But she’s fully in her own terrain in this tale of thwarted love and supernatural interference. Adèle Exarchopoulos is playing a cold-water swimmer, an ex-lesbian now married to a Black fireman, and living happily with their mixed-race daughter. Then her ex abruptly arrives back in town, revealed as her husband’s sister, and sets off the girl’s animosity.

The daughter has supernatural gifts that soon land her and most everyone else in trouble. Misunderstandings abound. And a fire almost consumes it all. The Five Devils is an ambitious and highly stylized work that demands of its audience both intermittent suspensions of disbelief and a willingness to fly with its high-wire acts of narrative extremism. I found it so engaging that I was more than willing to overlook the few rough spots. Mysius is a true original with fearless creative energies, and I can hardly wait to see what she does next.

Finally, there are two works by US-based filmmakers that deserve mention—but for opposite reasons. De Humani Corporis Fabrica, a documentary by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, eschews the deep seas of their Leviathan (2012) for a deep dive into the human body via medical technologies in the operating rooms of Paris hospitals. Half the film feels like Frederick Wiseman made it: all impassive observation of an institution under stress; the other half is like vintage George Lucas: gadgets and whizbang adventure, all boys with toys.

De Humani whisks the viewer through arteries and tumors, the bodies of patients anaesthetized on tables, while surgeons and hospital personnel casually chat about mundane matters. Why French hospitals? Perhaps they have less restrictions on filming than any US health facilities. Why was Castaing-Taylor wearing a kilt onstage for the Q&A after the film? I have no clue. Released in a time of pandemic catastrophe (though seemingly made earlier, it’s determinedly lacking in context), this is a film too frivolous to take seriously.

Léa Mysius’ highly stylized The Five Devils, with Adèle Exarchopoulos (center).

Léa Mysius’ highly stylized The Five Devils, with Adèle Exarchopoulos (center).

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On the other hand, Elisabeth Subrin’s Maria Schneider, 1983 is a film that arrives very much at the right moment, in sync with the mood spawned by France’s #BalanceTonPorc (#MeToo) movement. Maria Schneider, of course, is the actress famously cast as an ingenue (she was a teenager) in Bernardo Bertolucci’s scandalous Last Tango in Paris (1972), for which she paid with her reputation: no matter what she did after that, she was always identified with that film. It was a trap from which she never really escaped, saying many years later that it had ruined her life. Only after her death did Bertolucci admit that the film’s rape scene at the climax of the film was sprung on Schneider by him and costar Marlon Brando.

Subrin’s Maria Schneider, 1983 is a compact conceptual piece that is rigorous in its framing: a line-for-line restaging of an actual Maria Schneider interview conducted in a café for French TV in 1983. Running less than half an hour, it manages to restage the interview clip three times with three different actresses: astonishingly, they are Manal Issa, Aïssa Maïga, and Isabel Sandoval. What an amazing cast for what is essentially an experimental work. Each channels Schneider in her own way, in her own race, in her own time, bringing this maligned actress into the present, conjuring her into power, throwing their own bodies on the line to salvage hers.

There is something so riveting about seeing these three actresses embody Schneider, who died of breast cancer at the age of fifty-eight. Subrin’s film transports them back in time, while allowing their readings of Schneider’s interview comments to be inflected by all that has passed in the intervening four decades. Subrin is known for her restagings of films and figures that switch out the background for the foreground, illuminating the ideologies of different eras and bringing the past fully into the present that it haunts. With Maria Schneider, 1983, she is also setting the record straight, paying homage to a great woman and clearing the field for further investigations.

I left Cannes early and returned to Paris by train. I didn’t catch COVID-19/Omicron at Cannes, but a week later I began to feel sick and that was that. After every festival on every continent, I’ve heard sotto voce reports of how many people came away infected. Yet the joyful delirium of being together at the movies, sharing delights and disappointments, connected by cinema and reconnecting in its spell, will be hard to give up. This is a new era of contagion, and it is beginning to look as though in-person film screenings will be fighting for their existence for some time to come.