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What Cannes Can Do for Film

Cannes is, without question, the year’s most important showcase for international film, calling attention to masters and emerging voices alike — so it’s no surprise to learn that 13 of the 85 films competing in this year’s Oscar foreign-language race made their world premieres at the festival (one, Colombia’s “Alias Maria,” in 2015).

Of course, the Oscars would like to be a similarly prestigious honor, but there’s a fundamental flaw to the Academy’s method: Instead of going out and doing the work to find the best, it takes each country’s word on it, relying on local selection committees to submit one film for consideration (which explains how Brazil’s “Little Secret” was picked over the more politically controversial, Cannes-proven “Aquarius”).

Still, for all the Oscar category’s flaws, it would be a mistake to dismiss the winner and look to the Palme d’Or as the year’s definitive foreign film award. The latter is a highly political prize, chosen by a jury of nine, and it represents only the festival’s official competition, which is heavily weighted to established auteurs.

If Spain’s Pedro Almodóvar has a new film (as he did this year, with the Oscar-submitted “Julieta”), it will premiere in competition, or not at all. Whereas a discovery such as Egyptian helmer Mohamad Diab’s “Clash,” a claustrophobic drama in which a handful of peaceful demonstrators are thrown into a paddy wagon with violent members of the Muslim Brotherhood, debuted in the festival’s Un Certain Regard section. So did Singapore’s “Apprentice,” a classically styled critique of the country’s death penalty (its unfussy approach suggests late-career Clint Eastwood) from relative newcomer Boo Junfeng.

Such distinctions can be confusing to those who have never attended Cannes. The point is that official competition consists of perhaps 20 movies, mostly from known directors, while the festival as a whole represents the full range of filmmaking experience.

Naturally, the younger directors tend to take greater creative risks. Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan, 27, is a bold and brazen talent still struggling to find his voice, and his latest, “It’s Only the End of the World,” pitches its emotional premise — an HIV-positive man returns home to break the news to his family — at a melodramatic extreme. Dolan took a chance with this borderline-histrionic approach and his courage is to be commended.

Similarly, Chilean director Pablo Larrain (just 40, and already Oscar-nominated for “No”) delivers a dizzyingly sophisticated look at fugitive poet Pablo Neruda, on the run from an oppressive dictatorial regime, in “Neruda.” The fact that he also managed to direct “Jackie” in the same year is a testament to his astonishing energy and artistic range.

Arguably Cannes’ most exciting 2016 discovery, German director Maren Ade defies conventional filmmaking rules in her deliriously funny, piercingly observant human comedy “Toni Erdmann,” about a workaholic young woman whose practical-joker dad threatens to disrupt an important business deal. Composed of a series of long, seemingly shaggy set pieces, the wildly unpredictable film is in fact precisely calibrated to reveal its characters and the pain of their long estrangement.

While it’s exciting to see fledgling directors trying new techniques, that’s not to suggest that the veterans have necessarily become complacent. Granted, during his punk early phase, a young Almodóvar probably would have rolled his eyes at “Julieta’s” politesse, and yet there’s still a radical aspect to the film’s nonlinear narrative and profound identification with its female protagonist.

“Sieranevada,” the lastest from the godfather of the Romanian New Wave, Cristi Puiu, may be consistent with his own naturalistic observational style (as seen in “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”), but it remains defiantly opposed to classical narrative conventions. Likewise, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar for “A Separation”) stripped back his budget to make the perceptive moral drama “The Salesman.” It’s undeniably a Farhadi movie, one that doesn’t even try to hide his background in theater (his main characters are stage actors), and yet, he expects audiences to do the heavy lifting.

Most fascinating among the older auteurs from this year’s festival, “Basic Instinct” director Paul Verhoeven subverts his own master grasp of genre filmmaking with French selection “Elle,” in which Isabelle Huppert plays a rape survivor whose reaction defies cliché.

Though styled to look like a conventional commercial thriller, the tricky film delivers a sharp meta-textual critique of precisely the sort of sexual objectification
of which Verhoeven has been accused by past detractors.

The trouble is, whether their directors are previously known or not, Cannes films tend to be more challenging than much of the pablum submitted by other countries (though there is fine work from other festivals as well, including Danis Tanovic’s Berlin-launched “Death in Sarajevo” and Sundance prize winner “Sand Storm” from Israeli director Elite Zexer). Still, the Academy members who actually have time to screen all the movies eligible for the foreign-language Oscar understandably (if somewhat ignominiously) gravitate toward more mainstream fare, in which the director’s reputation is less a factor than how the movie makes them feel.

It’s a known problem for Academy governor Mark Johnson, chair of the foreign-language branch, whose executive committee selects three films to the shortlist, but bigger issues remain (such as the fact that 2016 was a strong year for Romanian cinema, and Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” isn’t even eligible, or the fact that “Elle” — directed by a Dutch filmmaker — renders several other strong French contenders ineligible).

Johnson and his team try to reevaluate the category every year, but the system remains outdated. “I think we’re on the verge of doing something radical. It’s sort of inevitable,” he hinted recently. In the meantime, it remains a greater honor to be selected by Cannes than submitted by your home country for a foreign-language Oscar.

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