Wide angle

Fremaux's selection broadens Cannes' cinema scope

Official Selection
Feature films: 56
World premieres: 46
First films: 9
Total films submitted: 3,562 (+43%)
Features submitted: 1,325 (+46%) from 85 countries

NEW YORK — String a list of key Cannes titles together this year — “Troy,” “Shrek 2,” “The Ladykillers,” “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” “De-Lovely,” “Bad Santa” and “Dawn of the Dead” — and it reads like the marquee of your average cityplex.

Throw in Zhang Yimou’s martial arts actioner “House of Flying Daggers”; Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar’s latest, “Bad Education”; Walter Salles’ young Che Guevara pic “The Motorcycle Diaries”; and Michael Moore’s sure-to-be-controversial “Fahrenheit 911,” and you’re still at the more commercial end of the specialty spectrum.

If the 2004 Cannes Film Festival has a distinguishing characteristic, it’s the event’s sudden acquisition of a mainstream bent, with comedies, cult movies and genre titles elbowing aside many of the old-school arthouse denizens that have long called the Croisette home.

Goodbye, Manoel de Oliveira, hello, Zack Snyder!

Names like Theo Angelopoulos, Ken Loach and Im Kwon-taek once were among Cannes’ guests. But this year’s returning Croisette habitues — Emir Kusturica, Olivier Assayas, Wong Kar-wai and the Coen brothers — represent a generation of filmmakers younger by 20 years or more and considerably edgier.

With Snyder’s zombie pic and Zhang’s Eastern swordplay saga, not to mention two Japanese anime pics — one in Competition, the other opening the Directors Fortnight — the fest this year appears to tap into the cinematic sensibility of jury president Quentin Tarantino.

“That has nothing to do with it,” insists Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux. “Quentin himself actually asked me not to take his tastes into consideration. He has such wide-ranging tastes it would be impossible to follow him anyway.

“Besides, you can’t prejudge anyone’s film preferences. David Lynch was a great jury president and he gave the Palme d’Or to Roman Polanski’s ‘The Pianist,’ which was nothing like his own films.

“As for the appearance of genre movies, that’s a necessary development,” he adds. “It reflects current international film tastes and allows us to expand the field of films that can compete.”

While it’s not quite a radical reinvention and the Cannes selection still promises a balance of fresh discoveries and established auteurs, there’s no doubt that Fremaux is out to shake the dust from the Riviera rendezvous.

Warring voices

That push comes on the heels of 2003’s poorly received edition, where praise for selections like “Mystic River,” “The Barbarian Invasions” and “The Triplets of Belleville” was drowned by warring critical voices on “Dogville” and “Elephant,” and even more deafeningly by the scathing dismissal of entries like “Brown Bunny” and “Les Cotelettes.”

“Critics can be harsh and they were a little too much so last year,” offers Fremaux. “In the months that followed the festival, the films went on to much better receptions. We do listen to and analyze criticism. But not all of it because some is excessive and not born of a love of film or a love of Cannes.”

On top of assembling a lineup to erase the memory of last year’s critical bashing, Fremaux faces the challenge of flying solo for the first time. The artistic director was flanked in his first three years in the job by long-term predecessor Gilles Jacob. But Jacob this year has taken a hands-off attitude to the selection and will maintain a purely presidential role.

“It’s true that Gilles Jacob wanted to devote himself this year to the important role of president,” explains Fremaux, “so he saw no films. But that does not put additional pressure on me. It shouldn’t be a question of judging organizers at Cannes or elsewhere but of taking the temperature of the state of cinema.”

Pushing change

Since his arrival, Fremaux has been doing his part to reinvigorate Cannes by breathing new life and flexibility into the revered French institution. The new programming chief has pushed features that didn’t fit the traditional Jacobian model into the official mix, including the first “Shrek,” “About Schmidt,” “City of God” and “Bowling for Columbine.”

“Gilles Jacob totally supports this direction,” says Fremaux. “He was the first to ask me to be audacious in my selections. My taste in films is not the same as his. In fact, I think that’s what inspired him to ask me to come onboard.”

While no new chief could hope to change a behemoth like Cannes overnight, Fremaux’s transformation of the fest appears well under way.

Some pundits have complained that the new artistic director lacks a clear programming philosophy. But Fremaux’s ultimate aim appears to be an all-inclusive showcase with wider commercial reverberations, reflecting the expansive programming policy he implemented for years at the Institut Lumiere.

“The 1990s were the years in which important new auteurs emerged,” suggests Fremaux. “Many of them came to Cannes. Today, it’s time to put new filmmakers on the map, to make discovery and innovation our priority. Ultimately, I think I’ll be given credit for championing discoveries.”

“It’s clear that Thierry Fremaux has cast a wider net in this year’s selection and has made some bold and difficult decisions,” says HBO Films president Colin Callender. “I’m impressed with the breadth and diversity of his selection. This is after all what you want from a great programmer and festival curator.”

Triumphant return

Returning after winning last year’s Palme d’Or with “Elephant” as well as plaudits in Un Certain Regard for “American Splendor,” HBO has two films in competition: Stephen Hopkins’ bio pic “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” with Geoffrey Rush in the title role, and Argentinian helmer Lucrecia Martel’s “La Nina Santa.”

“Our experience in Cannes last year was extraordinary — our first time with a film in Competition,” continues Callender. “The Palme d’Or was an affirmation of our commitment to support iconoclastic and independently minded filmmakers who take risks and push the envelope in terms of form and content.”

The 2004 Cannes lineup underscores a far warmer embrace of Hollywood and U.S. indies than last year’s. In addition to aforementioned studio pics, both Hopkins’ and Salles’ entries are Yank-British co-productions.

Regard this

Outside the Competition, Un Certain Regard sidebar will unveil debuting director Niels Mueller’s “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” with Sean Penn, Don Cheadle and Naomi Watts. Two U.S. docs will premiere in out-of-competish slots: Jonathan Nossiter’s oenology study “MondoVino” and Xan Cassavetes’ “Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession” from IFC, which looks at the groundbreaking Los Angeles cable net that became a bastion of independent film culture.

“American film has always had an important place at Cannes,” notes Fremaux.

In addition to providing visibility for indie features and docs, the squadron of studio pics hitting the Croisette this year indicates Hollywood recognition that Cannes can provide a strategic international launch platform for major releases.

“We’re coming out in the summer as counterprogamming with an adult film against all these big ‘Troys’ and ‘Van Helsings,’ ” says Irwin Winkler, who directed MGM’s Cole Porter bio pic “De-Lovely.” “So the Cannes Film Festival, especially the closing night, hopefully, will give us the media attention we need. It will help us worldwide.”

The surge of stars and stripes at the fest follows a 2003 edition in which the war in Iraq and anti-American sentiment contributed to deplete the U.S. presence. “I think it’s wonderful that the Cannes people and the U.S. studios both decided Cannes would be a great place to showcase films,” continues Winkler. “I don’t know if they didn’t want us last year or we didn’t want them, but this year it looks like everybody wants each other.”

Cannes’ welcome for U.S. productions has spilled over to the independently programmed Directors Fortnight. New chief Olivier Pere plucked Sundance hits “Tarnation,” “Mean Creek” and “The Woodsman,” as well as Italian multihyphenate Asia Argento’s American ensemble drama “The Heart Is Deceitful … Above All Things.”

The expanded U.S. profile at Cannes, plus a diminished number of purely French selections — Assayas’ “Clean,” Tony Gatlif’s “Exiles” and Agnes Jaoui’s “Comme une image” made the Competition cut compared with four to five titles in past years — represent a bold move for Fremaux that may create hostility in the fiercely nationalistic local industry.

Already, Fremaux has earned the ire of Paris-based Portuguese producer Paulo Branco — a Cannes regular with the films of de Oliveira and Raul Ruiz, among others — after he turned down Christophe Honore’s erotic drama “Ma Mere,” starring French film royalty Isabelle Huppert. Branco reported to a Gallic wire service that he was told the selection had too many French films, a claim he called absurd given the presence of eight U.S. titles.

“Cannes is an international festival and we must take care that French film is not over-represented,” offers Fremaux. “Everyone in France understands this. It makes the selection more difficult. But we are determined that foreigners should feel totally at home in Cannes, as if it’s a country apart: an invented, protected country of cinema, for peaceful reflection.”

Shaken and stirred

Peaceful or not, ruffled feathers may be an inevitable byproduct of the artistic director’s mandate to shake things up. Despite a Cannes tradition of honoring past fest regulars with sight-unseen selection, Fremaux took the bold step of rejecting the latest films from Hou Hsiao-hsien and Mike Leigh, whose “Vera Drake” now looks bound for Venice.

Such gestures perhaps more than anything indicate that the new Cannes will be anything but static. “It’s true that this year we wanted to emphasize discoveries, with 12 filmmakers coming to Competition for the first time,” says Fremaux. “We had to make choices. But by no means — and I insist on this — was it a question of excluding films by established filmmakers. Naturally, they will return to Cannes.”

The increasing spotlight on East Asian cinema at plum international fests in recent years makes Cannes’ rich buffet of titles from that region no surprise. But even in that respect, Fremaux has played against expectations.

Only one fully consecrated name appears in competition — Wong with “2046” — alongside a string of emerging directors: Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda, South Korea’s Park Chan-wook and Hong Sang-soo, and Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Even anime has graduated from the fringes of cultdom to Competition pedigree, with Mamori Oshii’s “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence,” a sequel to the seminal 1995 cyborg toon, which is being released by DreamWorks’ specialty division Go Fish Pictures later this year.

“It’s a recognition of the popularity and the maturity of the genre,” says Michael Vollman, who oversees marketing for Go Fish. “Going to Cannes with this film is going to be amazing for when we take it out domestically in the fall because of the level of attention it’s going to get and the importance that’s placed upon it being one of only 18 films selected for Competition.”