Auteur amour on auto pilot

Can Cannes shake itself up?

For the past 30 years, the Telluride Film Festival has maintained a strict policy of not revealing its program in advance. You pay your money, make your way up to 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains (where Lars von Trier will obviously never go, for fear of ill-treatment), receive your catalogue and work out the puzzle of how to squeeze in the films you most want to see (as in life, it’s never possible to do everything). You blindly but confidently place yourself in the hands of the festival directors and, happily, they never disappoint, which is why regulars keep returning year after year.

Given the sad state of affairs at the Cannes Film Festival this year, perhaps it’s time to shake things up a little. As the grande dame of world film festivals, the only one where black tie is required at evening screenings and the one with by far the highest opinion of itself, Cannes cannot be expected to change much, and certainly not quickly; whatever it eventually does to renew itself will happen with all the speed of a lumbering ocean liner changing direction.

So I have a suggestion. Next year, Cannes should not announce its lineup in advance. And even when it does, when everyone arrives on the Croisette from all around the world, the names of the directors should be kept secret. That way, all the critics and taste-makers and buyers and trend-followers would be forced to confront what’s actually on the screen, without the baggage of hype and p.r. and expectations and auteur myths that usually shape how people watch films here.

Of course, this will never happen. It represents heresy to critics, especially in France, the birthplace of the notion of director as author and legend; hell, it represents heresy to me too, and the way I’ve always prioritized my viewing and the way I look at films. From a practical point of view, it’s clearly impossible. Cannes long ago hitched its start to the coattails of celebrity directors, who, along with semi-naked starlets, represent to the public what the festival is all about.

But more than at any other film festival, the politics, intrigue and insider jockeying involved in the programming, jury selection and critical positioning of films in Cannes is staggering. The fact that French participation in a production is all but a necessity for a film to be programmed in the Official Selection was recently documented in this paper. But less known is the influence of certain critical camps, notably the Le Monde and Liberation contingents, whose known or anticipated opinions of certain pictures, based entirely upon the standing of their directors, holds enormous sway with the selection committee.

Then there is the ritual of the red carpet entrance for the director and stars, who are personally escorted by fest topper Gilles Jacob to their seats, and who then receive seemingly de rigeur standing ovations after the picture, no matter its quality. I only occasionally attend the formal evening screenings, but when I have, even for unexceptional fare this year, the applause has almost always seemed pre-programmed, even automatic. (I would love to have been there to witness the fancy crowd’s reaction to Vincent Gallo’s grungy, minimalist, hardcore and tedious “The Brown Bunny,” however).

The central problem with the die-hard auteur loyalists is that, having previously staked out their positions as if they were members of a political party, they can’t afford to alter their opinions even in the face evidence to the contrary; often, you feel that they could have written their reviews in advance of actually seeing the pictures.

Directors from Gallo, Andre Techine and Lars von Trier to Alexander Sokurov, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Gus Van Sant all have their critical coteries; arriving here every year and sorting out who supports whom is a project in itself. It’s all very involved and incestuous, and inspires lots of breathless gossip and accusations and exasperated hand-wringing over how the committee could ever have selected this, or how some other critics could have liked that.

So it might be terribly refreshing, even for just one time, to sweep all this aside–all the expectations, the presumptions of excellence or mediocrity, everything that stems from mental associations with a brand name–and just watch and see what you like. It would be akin to looking at anonymous pictures at an exhibition, where there is no option but to have a pure, unencumbered reaction to what’s in front of you.

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