The annual unveiling of the Cannes Film Festival’s official selection lineup is always cause for breathless anticipation and excitement — followed, immediately and invariably, by expressions of shock and disappointment, as well as the usual bleats of indignation over which national cinemas haven’t been adequately represented. This morning’s press conference in Paris, led by festival delegate general Thierry Fremaux and festival president Pierre Lescure, proved no exception.
Journalists in attendance were quick to point out the admittedly startling absence of any Italian films in competition, even though Marco Bellocchio’s “Sweet Dreams” had been tipped for a berth for weeks. Others noted the relative dearth of Asian films vying for the Palme d’Or (only two, directed by Park Chan-wook and Brillante Mendoza). And if they haven’t already, those inclined to see the festival as a sort of cinematic pulse-taking of the Middle East will surely devote themselves to parsing the significance of there being two Israeli films in Un Certain Regard (Eran Kolirin’s “Beyond the Mountains and Hills,” Maha Haj’s “Personal Affairs”), but only one Arab film (Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s “Clash”).
Such musings and complaints are nothing new for Fremaux, who responded to such concerns with characteristically wry wit: “We should not list 120 countries of UNESCO to say how many are missing. Yes, many are missing.” After 15 years overseeing the program of the world’s most prestigious and important film festival, he understands better than most the challenges of ensuring a lineup of ethnically (and, no less important, aesthetically) diverse directors without reducing an artistic curation process to a quota system.
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Still, these categorizations and classifications can be illuminating. Stuffed with fresh faces, welcome returners and tantalizing unknowns, this morning’s exceptionally strong-looking lineup strikes me as anything but by-the-numbers — but let’s poke around and see what, if anything, the numbers can tell us. (Note: This is a selective survey, not a comprehensive breakdown.)
Twenty (20) films in competition. A sign of a robust slate (last year there were 19 films in competition, and in 2014 there were 18). And that number could still rise, as Fremaux noted that he and his selection committee still had films to screen, singling out in particular an untitled new project from Asghar Farhadi (“The Past,” “A Separation”). While we can only speculate at this stage, the list of notable omissions includes the latest from another Iranian director, Samira Makhmalbaf (“At Five in the Afternoon”), Pablo Larrain’s “Neruda,” Ben Wheatley’s “Free Fire” and one of two possible new entries from Terrence Malick (“Voyage of Time,” “Weightless”). It’s not out of the question that the festival might still find a home for one or some of these titles in the program — or, of course, something else entirely.
Three (3) female directors in competition. Distaff representation in Cannes is always a point of contention, reliably churning up debate over the festival’s mandate to lead the way for broader representation, but also to reflect the industry’s makeup (not unlike the diversity woes that have engulfed the Academy Awards in recent years). While three female directors out of 20 (or 15%) is still pretty paltry, it’s nonetheless an improvement over last year’s representation (two out of 19), if not as impressive as 2011’s (four out of 20).
At the very least, these three films can be expected to generate significant buzz during the festival, and for reasons that go beyond their directors’ gender. Andrea Arnold, the powerhouse British filmmaker who has already won two jury prizes at Cannes (for 2006’s “Red Road” and 2009’s “Fish Tank”), should make a sizable splash with her first U.S.-produced feature, “American Honey.” The French writer-director-actress Nicole Garcia, who has had two prior features in competition (2006’s “Selon Charlie” and 2002’s “L’adversaire”), looks to deliver one of the more glam European entries with “From the Land of the Moon,” starring Marion Cotillard and Louis Garrel. And the inclusion of Maren Ade, following up her 2009 critical hit, “Everyone Else,” with a father-daughter tale called “Toni Erdmann,” was one of the happiest surprises of the morning — and a significant coup for Germany, which hasn’t had a director compete at Cannes since Wim Wenders’ “Palermo Shooting” (2008).
And by all accounts leading up to this morning’s announcement, two French female directors besides Garcia — Rebecca Zlotowski with “Planetarium,” and Katell Quillevere with “Reparer les vivants” — were strongly favored for competition slots. It will be intriguing to see where, if anywhere, these two films wind up in the festival.
Eight (8) American directors. The U.S. flag will fly high over the Croisette this May, with three competition titles from American directors (Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson,” Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” and Sean Penn’s “The Last Face”), all of whom have been here before but have never won the Palme. Outside the competition, the Yank offerings are no less intriguing: Jodie Foster’s “Money Monster,” Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” and Shane Black’s “Nice Guys” will anchor the festival’s Hollywood presence, while the American indie ranks will be represented in Un Certain Regard by Matt Ross’ recent Sundance entry “Captain Fantastic,” and Michael O’Shea’s world-premiering New York vampire saga, “The Transfiguration.”
Four (4) directors in competition for the first time. Maren Ade, Kleber Mendonca Filho, Alain Guiraudie and Cristi Puiu. And every one of them is cause for excitement — not least because they seem to have earned their place in the competition on the strength of exceptional prior work (and, presumably, exceptional new work). With “Aquarius,” the sole Latin American film in competition, Filho looks to capitalize on the rapturous reviews for his 2012 debut, “Neighboring Sounds.” With his father-son saga “Staying Vertical,” Guiraudie may well capitalize on the promise of his 2013 Un Certain Regard hit, “Stranger by the Lake,” which, as more than one wag rightly noted, should have been programmed in competition. And Puiu, who helped put Romanian cinema on the map in a big way with his 2005 Un Certain Regard entry “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” will face sky-high expectations for his first competition title, “Sierra-Nevada.” Speaking of which …
Three (3) Romanian films. It’s generally a good thing when there are multiple Romanian films in the official selection lineup. And it’s downright exceptional when the two most acclaimed Romanian filmmakers are going mano a mano at last: While Puiu is looking to secure his first Palme, Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) is gunning for his second with his latest picture, “Graduation.” Add in Bogdan Mirica’s “Dogs,” representing in Un Certain Regard, and this Cannes lineup starts looking better and better.
Three (3) South Korean films. My colleagues Patrick Frater and Sonia Kil have written an in-depth piece on why Korean cinema is typically well represented on the Croisette, even if no director from that country has ever won the Palme d’Or. (And not for lack of worthy contenders: Lee Chang-dong should arguably have two of them already.) One Korean filmmaker, Park Chan-wook, at least has a shot this year with “The Handmaiden,” and his strong track record (“Oldboy” won the Grand Prix in 2004, while “Thirst” won a jury prize in 2009) augurs well for his chances. My own interest runs more toward “Goksung,” the latest from Na Hong-jin, a master of the contemporary crime thriller whose earlier films, “The Yellow Sea” and “The Chaser,” remain two of my most memorably grisly Cannes experiences. No less extreme, I imagine, will be the midnight entry “Busan Train,” the first live-action picture from Yeon Sang-ho after a string of feverishly dark animations (“King of Pigs,” “Fake”).
Three (3) — no, four (4) — Palme d’Or winners in competition. Mungiu is back, as noted. The Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have twice won international cinema’s highest honor (for 1999’s “Rosetta” and 2005’s “L’enfant”), which is a testament to the consistency of their output. The same can’t quite be said of the British realist Ken Loach, who won the Palme in 2006 for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” but whose films since — “Looking for Eric,” “Route Irish,” “The Angels’ Share,” “Jimmy’s Hall” — have been received at Cannes with moderate indulgence at best, outright scorn at worst. Needless to say, Mungiu’s “Graduation,” the Dardennes’ “The Unknown Girl” and Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” all deserve to be approached with an open mind. Still, with no shortage of perpetual Palme bridesmaids (Pedro Almodovar, Bruno Dumont, Andrea Arnold, Park Chan-wook, Nicolas Winding Refn) and first-time competitors in the mix, it seems safe to assume that jury president George Miller will be welcoming a newcomer into the winners’ circle come Mary 23.
Two (2) Jim Jarmusch films. Roughly 10 festivals ago, Richard Linklater showed up on the Croisette with both “Fast Food Nation” (competition) and “A Scanner Darkly” (Un Certain Regard). This year, another American indie luminary will pull off a similar hat trick: In addition to his new competition offering, “Paterson,” Jarmusch will present a midnight screening of “Gimme Danger,” a documentary about the Stooges (featuring interviews with frontman Iggy Pop). Given that Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” was one of the criminally underrated gems of the 2013 competition lineup, consider me stoked.