Cannes Film Festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux has deemed 2003 a “transitional year” for the world’s most famous international film gathering. But the question is, to what is this grande dame of cinema showcases transitioning?
To a looser, less tradition-bound program? To a celebration of French-oriented fare above all others? To a fest that emphasizes First rather than Third World film? To an official selection lineup in which what distinguishes the august competition from the more offbeat Un Certain Regard is increasingly blurry?
Given this year’s program, there is evidence to support any of these suppositions and more.
When it became clear a few weeks ago that the 56th edition of the Festival de Cannes would not feature some of the big-name “usual suspects” who were known to have films close to completion — Angelopoulos, Bertolucci, Kusturica, Campion, Coens, Wong, Tarantino — there was the predictable alarm on one hand, but optimism on another.
Beyond the familiar
In the absence of certain auteurs whose work the fest could practically be counted upon to include sight-unseen, perhaps fest topper Gilles Jacob, Fremaux and the selection committee would be forced to look beyond the familiar and, in the process, come up with a fresher-seeming slate.
Indeed, six of the 20 films in competition are by directors new to the official selection, and there is a more youthful feel to the lineup.
On paper, however, the list of competing titles lacks the sort of cohesiveness and weight normally associated with the section, and the sense of transition rather than tradition bubbles up through the cracks between the sorts of pictures on offer.
The combinations of dramatic subject matter and the known natures of the directors give one an idea of the substance one can expect from Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River,” Hector Babenco’s “Carandiru,” Lars von Trier’s “Dogville,” Alexander Sokurov’s “Father and Son,” Samira Makhmalbaf’s “Five in the Afternoon,” Claude Miller’s “La petite Lili” and Andre Techine’s “Strayed.”
It’s also plausible to assume that, given their track records, Raoul Ruiz, Bertrand Blier, Denys Arcand, Peter Greenaway and Francois Ozon have made films worthy of the competition.
But then things get a bit fuzzier.
Not to prejudge the films’ quality, but in another year when more Cannes stand-bys were present, reason suggests that both Gus Van Sant’s HBO-produced “Elephant” and maverick Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” might have ended up in Un Certain Regard rather than the competition.
Indeed, Gallo, whose film is reportedly ultra-explicit sexually, would seem to be filling the scandale slot occupied last year by his buddy Gaspar Noe with “Irreversible.”
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who has “Bright Future,” one of two films he’s made in the past 12 months, in competition, fulfills every definition of a cult director, while those few of us who have seen fellow Japanese auteur Naomi Kawase’s previous films know to expect something ultra-arty and obscure.
These two, and perhaps Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Distant” as well, have the feel of films chosen by and for very select critical constituencies.
Early reviews of Pupi Avati’s “The Heart Is Elsewhere” describe a sentimental tearjerker of moderate quality, although the usual heavy political pressure, not to mention the fact that this year’s fest honors legendary helmer Federico Fellini, demanded the inclusion of at least one film from Italy.
Lou Ye’s “Purple Butterfly” from China is, in format at least, a period genre picture, while Bertrand Bonello’s “Tiresia” from France is a largely unknown quantity.
As always, we can still hope for a surprise or two.
Vintage year for French
Other than the competition lineup having been cut down from 22 to 20 (not necessarily a bad thing, but a telling one nonetheless), its most notable feature is the inclusion of five homegrown French productions (six, really, counting the officially French-Swiss “Ce jour-la” by Chilean transplant Ruiz).
Of these, four are by reliable mainstream directors — Blier, Miller, Techine and Ozon — with solid critical credentials and significant international followings.
It’s easy to believe Fremaux’s claim for 2003 as a vintage year for French cinema when among the rejected directors were Jacques Rivette, Catherine Breillat and Bruno Dumont. If true, no one will blame Cannes for doing an extra bit of flag-waving.
On the other hand, startling this year is the lack of product from many areas of the globe for which Cannes has customarily found a place, notably from — but by no means limited to — the so-called Third World.
In the Competition, France essentially occupies six slots (nine total, if you count three additional co-productions with French involvement), the U.S. three and Japan two.
The only other Asian film is a French coproduction from China. Canada has an entry (a French co-prod), but the only picture made south of the Rio Grande in the Americas is from Brazil. There is a Turkish film and one from Iran, but nothing else from the Middle East, and not a single title from Africa, India or even Australia.
As far as Europe is concerned, Italy, Russia and a couple of Continental co-productions — von Trier’s Danish-French-Swedish-Dutch pic with a mostly Anglo-American cast, and British director Greenaway with a Dutch-Spanish-Hungarian production — made the cut.
But, amazingly, there is nothing — beyond coproductions — from such normally fertile cinematic sources as the U.K., Spain, northern Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. And Jacob’s career-long aversion to German films (unless directed by Wim Wenders or Volker Schloendorff) continues into the present fest.
The customary response to this lack of broader scope is that the films just weren’t there this year, and one can only trust that a festival such as Cannes would have jumped at even a reasonably good African film if one were ready.
But even in Un Certain Regard, there is one film from Morocco but none from further south or east until you get to India, then Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia, all of which have single entries. Otherwise unrepresented Spain, Germany, Austria, Britain and Argentina made it into the festival here.
Seeming to provide something different than in the past are the often overlooked Out of Competition and Special Screenings sections of the Official Selection.
The latter includes mostly docus — about Charlie Chaplin, Robert McNamara, blues music and the Khmer Rouge. For many years, docs were essentially cinema non grata in Cannes, but after the smash reception of “Bowling for Columbine” last year, it’s clear that more room is being made for them.
“The Matrix Reloaded” is coming, but there is none of the usual commercial Hollywood fare Out of Competition this year. Rather, one eagerly awaits the last film by the late Portuguese helmer Joao Cesar Monteiro and the first film in many years by 84-year-old Sri Lankan auteur Lester James Peries, along with works by French filmmakers Gilles Marchand and Sylvain Chormet and the latest collaboration between Michael Haneke and Isabelle Huppert.
Over the fence at the Directors Fortnight, after an erratic stretch under the stewardship of Marie-Pierre Macia in which it sometimes looked like the Competition’s poor cousin scraping up the elder’s rejects, incoming artistic director Francois Da Silva appears to be putting his mark on the sidebar right away.
A former Marseilles arthouse programmer whose tastes are little known in French cinema circles, Da Silva lent considerable credence to his claim of having gone after an entirely different set of films than that pursued by the main fest. He announced his lineup the day after Jacob and Fremaux revealed theirs, rather than the customary several days or a week — no spilt crumbs for him.
Whatever the quality of the films turns out to be, it seems clear that, with 24 world premieres out of 25 entries, Da Silva has made a point of charting his own course and pursuing an aggressive policy of discovery, with the aim of restoring the Fortnight’s reputation of adventurous alternative programming.
Advance word is that some of the films are sexually and politically scabrous, and Da Silva’s reported boundary-pushing and an open-minded programming policy seem intended to re-inspire Cannes audiences to the possibilities for a vigorous sidebar with a strong identity.
So while transition is being advertised for Cannes this year — a gradual one for the slow-to-turn ocean liner represented by the Official Selection, a sudden one for the necessarily more fleet Directors Fortnight — all eyes will be watching to see which steers a more purposeful course.