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Cannes 2017 Lineup Is High on Auteur Intrigue, Low on Safe Awards Bets

Ask just about any critic heading to next week’s Cannes Film Festival for their thoughts on the lineup and you’ll get much the same verdict: On paper, at least, it’s one of the tastiest in years. Usually we speak of Cannes programmes being “front-loaded” or “back-loaded” in terms of major auteur works; this year, it’s simply loaded.

The first two days of this year’s fest alone see premieres from Todd Haynes (“Wonderstruck”), Andrei Zvyagintsev (“Loveless”), Arnaud Desplechin (“Ismael’s Ghosts”) and Claire Denis (“Black Glasses”). The last two days, by which point the crowds usually thin out, have Lynne Ramsay (“You Were Never Really Here”) and Roman Polanski (“Based on a True Story”), not to mention David Lynch’s feverishly awaited “Twin Peaks” reboot.

In between is an all-you-can-eat cinephile’s buffet boasting new works from Michael Haneke (“Happy End”), Sofia Coppola (“The Beguiled”), Noah Baumbach (“The Meyerowitz Stories”) and Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), among many others.

In short, anyone who decided on a curtailed Cannes trip this year is probably kicking themselves.

Yet from industry pundits who tend to weigh festival selections in terms of future awards-season prospects, the reaction to Cannes’s class of 2017 is a little more muted, more “wait and see” than “gimme gimme gimme.” That’s no slight on the quality of the selections, of course: However much they feed into each other, the festival circuit and the Oscar campaign trail are two very different tracks, with sometimes differing notions of prestige.

Take Ken Loach, for example. Last year, the 80-year-old doyen of social realism took his second Palme d’Or, for “I, Daniel Blake,” and extended his record as the most-selected filmmaker in Cannes Competition history. For all that Croisette love, however, none of his films has ever received a single Oscar nomination. Cannes has never been the prime hunting ground for suspected U.S. awards “bait,” not least because of its early position in the calendar. In recent years, studios have preferred the balmy late-summer climes of Venice to launch such heavyweights as “La La Land,” “Spotlight,” “Gravity” and “Birdman,” heading straight into the autumn red-carpet rush.

Which isn’t to say Cannes can’t mint an Oscar success story. The narratives involved just tend to be more surprising and slow-burning.

Last year, Isabelle Huppert picked up Cannes raves for her performance in “Elle,” but Paul Verhoeven’s nervy rape-revenge thriller was widely assumed to be a non-starter for Academy types. It took months of nurturing by Sony Pictures Classics to prove otherwise. David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water,” meanwhile, bowed in the Un Certain Regard section and was considerably well-received by critics, yet it still wasn’t pitched as a sure-fire Oscar player coming out of the fest. It stood tall as a solid bet when the dust of awards bait also-rans settled later in the season, however.

The year before, it was Todd Haynes’ breathlessly received “Carol” that left Cannes with the strongest headwind of Oscar buzz. George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” meanwhile, enthralled the Croisette but was dismissed out of hand as an awards player. We all know which one landed a best picture nomination in the end.

The last Cannes premiere to ultimately claim the Academy’s top prize was “The Artist,” and while some of us suggested the frothy French silent comedy could be an Oscar sleeper, many more thought we were out of our minds.

Oscar prognosticators, in other words, have every reason to regard an unseen Cannes lineup with caution. This year’s — for all its A-list luster — is more enigmatic than most, heavy on forbiddingly dark subject matter and short on obvious crowd-pleasers. Hollywood, in particular, is a notably reduced presence on the Croisette this year. Cannes selectors usually pick at least one bona fide studio blockbuster — from critical favorites like “Fury Road” and “Up” to purely populist pics like the last “Pirates of the Caribbean” juggernaut — to pull in the punters, but have made no such concessions this year. Megastar wattage and artistic ambition are strictly a package deal this year, as embodied by Nicole Kidman, surely setting some kind of Cannes record with four projects (from high-risk auteurs Lanthimos, Coppola, Jane Campion and John Cameron Mitchell) in the official selection.

In a Competition short on easy sells, Todd Haynes’s “Wonderstruck” is the title currently attracting the most curiosity from Oscar-watchers, particularly after the release of a shimmeringly gorgeous clip earlier this week. But it remains a wild card, and not just because mainstream awards bodies have yet to fully embrace Haynes’ pristine sensibility. Based on a children’s novel by Brian Selznick, the author at the root of Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-gilded “Hugo,” its youthful perspective and bifurcated, era-crossing narrative make it intriguing new territory for its unpredictable maker. Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions clearly feel confident, having scheduled it for an Oscar-friendly October-to-November roll-out in the States.

From there, the crystal ball gets (even) cloudier, however enticing the films in question. The Academy was seduced by Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” in 2003, but hasn’t succumbed to her delicate aesthetic since. Her reinterpretation of Don Siegel’s 1971 classic “The Beguiled,” with its summer release date and rumored feminist twist on gleefully twisted material that voters didn’t warm to the first time around, doesn’t seem like an obvious play to lure them back.

As for Kidman’s other Competition vehicle, Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Killing of a Sacred Deer,” the briefest of clips shown at production company Film4’s London pre-Cannes party this week suggest the Greek provocateur hasn’t lost any of his icy formalism or squid-ink humor. The Academy’s writers’ branch may have given him an against-the-odds nomination for the magical surrealism of “The Lobster” (a 2015 Cannes premiere), but Lanthimos clearly isn’t going to do a David O. Russell anytime soon. A24 is planning a November release; perhaps they know something we don’t, but advance word is that fans of “Dogtooth’s” violent severity won’t be disappointed.

The same Film4 bash offered a glimpse of Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” which looks as alluringly dark and nasty as you’d expect from the combination of star Joaquin Phoenix, Jonathan Ames’ short electric shock of a source novel, and the director of “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” I’m first in line, but obvious Oscar bells aren’t ringing. The same goes for Ruben Östlund’s English-language debut “The Square,” which unites Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West in a thorny-looking media satire, or Joshua and Benny Safdie’s “Good Time,” an apparent blend of hard-boiled genre tropes with the grimy gutter realism of the brothers’ last film “Heaven Knows What.”

Östlund and the Safdies are newcomers to the Cannes Competition circle. The same can’t be said of Michael Haneke, the only previous Palme d’Or champ in the hunt, returning with “Happy End,” his first film since Palme winner and best picture Oscar nominee “Amour.” Haneke’s rep, along with those of stars Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant, makes this topical refugee-crisis drama a prize prospect practically by default. Whether, like “Amour,” it can buck middlebrow resistance to Haneke’s signature austerity remains to be seen.

Noah Baumbach, meanwhile, is the opposite of austere, and the all-star, Randy Newman-scored New York dramedy of “The Meyerowitz Stories” could theoretically earn the Academy’s embrace. The question is whether the Netflix distribution that has ruffled the Cannes bosses’ feathers will prove an awards-season debit. Netflix’s other big coup in the lineup, Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja,” will bring the likes of Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal to the red carpet for a characteristically quirky mix of action-adventure and creature-feature fantasy: again, not an obvious prestige recipe, but who doesn’t want to see it?

And what to make of Michel Hazanavicius? After charming the Croisette and Hollywood alike with “The Artist” in 2011, he suffered one of the all-time most drastic post-Oscar comedowns with 2014’s “The Search” — a dourly serious-minded issue movie that was mauled at Cannes and went widely unreleased afterwards. He’s back in what looks like more playful form with his (no, this is not a misprint) Jean-Luc Godard biopic “Redoubtable,” though the result could be anything from an eccentric surprise to a trainwreck.

That the one former best picture and director winner in Competition is also one of the lineup’s least certain bets says everything about the volatile, exciting unpredictability of this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

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