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Cannes Answers Lockdown Year With Jackpot of Titles

After skipping a year for health safety, the festival's overstuffed (and rescheduled) 2021 edition serves as a 're-starter pistol' for the global film industry.

Dylan Penn stars as Jennifer Vogel
Allen Fraser

This year’s Cannes promises to be an edition unlike any other. More movies, fewer guests, plus a slew of logistical hurdles (including a two-month date shift to early July, drawing cinephiles to the Riviera at the height of tourist season) all add up to an epic case of FOMO — fear of missing out — for those too cautious to attend.

For those who do make the trek, however, Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux and his cohortsdown the Croisette seem determined to make it worth their while.

They’ve served up a slate that, sight unseen, has cinephiles salivating: The festival will kick off with “Annette,” a musical from “Holy Motors” director Leos Carax; and includes Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” (a film we could scarcely imagine premiering anywhere else); Paul Verhoeven’s portrait of a nun on fire, “Benedetta”; three films featuring auteur darling Tilda Swinton; four starring Léa Seydoux; plus a bounty of anti­cipated titles from leading international directors.

It’s a sampling that would get audiences excited in any year, and doubly impressive that it was possible to muster such work when little new production was happening and many companies remain reluctant to play guinea pigs in the great experiment of reopening in-theater distribution. And yet, that’s precisely what Cannes signifies this year: Think of it as a kind of “re-starter pistol” for the global film industry, with many of the big titles (such as “Annette”) releasing in French cinemas on the same day they premiere in Cannes.

When last year’s festival was canceled amid COVID-19 concerns, Frémaux offered filmmakers three options: First, they could accept the Cannes 2020 label, letting the world know they’d been selected, thereby adding an aura of prestige as their films went on to screen at other festivals (“Another Round” and “Flee” went that route). Alternately, they could pass and premiere elsewhere, such as Venice, which successfully managed to host an in-person event while the coronavirus was still raging (as Maïwenn’s “DNA” did). And finally, they could take their chances and hold off an entire year in hopes of premiering at Cannes 2021.

It’s a testament to the French festival’s significance to filmmakers and the industry alike that so many key titles went with the third option: They waited — although there are questions as to whether some of these titles would have really been ready in time last year.

Technically, a number of the movies that accepted the Cannes 2020 label (including Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” and Ninja Thyberg’s “Pleasure”) hadn’t locked editing last summer, raising doubts as to whether they could’ve played had the fest actually happened. Frémaux wanted to support them, of course, but he also wanted to put his stamp on those movies, claiming them for Cannes before Venice scooped them up and took credit.

For decades, Cannes has been the world’s leading festival, but in recent years, it has been losing certain high-profile titles to Venice and the other early fall rivals. A French industry rule forbidding Cannes from featuring Netflix movies in competition sent those titles (including “Roma” and “Marriage Story”) elsewhere. Meanwhile, the trio of Venice, Telluride and Toronto has been the beneficiary of a strategy shift among American publicists looking to launch their Oscar campaigns toward the end of summer.

Under normal circumstances, Cannes could’ve served up a strong 2020 edition (among its selections, “Beginning” went on to win San Sebastián, while “Another Round” took the international film Oscar). But after being forced to take a gap year, Frémaux is obliged to put his best foot forward this time around — which might explain the creation of a non-competitive section, called Cannes Premiere, in which new (and potentially unconventional) work by noted directors will screen in the Debussy theater, typically used for Un Certain Regard.

Of course, Frémaux and company are faced with countless different agendas every year. (Just listen to the journalists at the press conference, asking valid questions about why there aren’t more films directed by women, or selected from this region or that country.) So it’s easy to understand why the festival might want to make room to accommodate the likes of Andrea Arnold (“Cow”), Arnaud Desplechin (“Deception”), Gaspar Noé (“Vortex”) and Oliver Stone (“JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass”) without clogging up the competition.

Then again, attendees are hard-pressed to sample everything in a normal year, and no one wants to see Cannes become Berlin, with its sprawling program of hundreds of new movies. That said, the creation of Cannes Premiere allows Frémaux to entice marquee directors away from other festivals, and that may be a greater motivation than sharing this work with the world: to demonstrate that Cannes remains the first choice of serious filmmakers to unveil their latest offerings.

Even with these movies taken off the table, Venice should have no trouble assembling a high-profile lineup. The Italian festival has already confirmed Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune,” and is expected to bow upcoming Netflix titles from several Cannes regulars: Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” and Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde.”

Given the exceptional nature of this year, it’s hard to predict how much of Cannes’ expansion will stick in 2022. In April, France’s Syndicate of Independent Dis­tributors announced that COVID-related lockdowns created a 400-film backlog in the country — that is, movies seeking theatrical release, rather than shifting to streaming options as so many distributors did in the States — and of course, Cannes programmers had two years’ worth of work to choose from.

Earlier this year, as Sundance, Berlin and SXSW went virtual, those festivals scaled back the number of films they were screening. Not Cannes. Spreading the announcements out over several weeks (and reportedly continuing to screen films even after the lineup had been made public), Frémaux will preside over an official selection with 24 more titles than the 2019 edition — that’s an increase of nearly 40%. The parallel programs have followed suit: Both Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week expanded the number of features this year as well.

The program may not be as studio-heavy as past editions (though Universal is bringing “F9: The Furious Saga” a few weeks after its U.S. opening), but that’s offset by some promising independent offerings. Among them is new work from the two Seans: “The Florida Project” director Sean Baker steps up to competition with his Texas-set “Red Rocket,” starring Simon Rex as a guy who returns home after a career in porn, while Sean Penn comes back to Cannes (where his previous feature, “The Last Face,” faceplanted something awful) with “Flag Day,” in which he plays true-life grifter John Vogel, as seen through the eyes of his daughter (played by Dylan Penn).

Focus plans to premiere Tom McCarthy’s “Stillwater,” starring Matt Damon and written by frequent Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain and protégé Noé Debré, out of competition. (As a reminder, McCarthy’s “Spotlight” launched its Oscar run at Venice.) Palme d’Or winner Audiard himself will be back in competition with “Paris, 13th District,” adapted from a handful of stories by American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine.

Three American documentaries will screen in official selection: Todd Haynes’ “The Velvet Underground” — about exactly what it sounds like — and Val Kilmer portrait “Val,” plus Stone’s aforementioned JFK doc.

The strength of Cannes should­n’t be judged by its American projects, although they’re certainly worth considering, since these films tend to drive a disproportionate share of the media attention around the event (a contest Cannes has been losing to Venice in recent years). But the Palme d’Or winner of the 2019 edition, Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” did huge business in the U.S., and made history by winning the best picture Oscar.

Cannes is of course an international festival — one with a strong Gallic bent, seeing as how it’s underwritten by the French film industry — and has had for years first dibs at leading directors’ latest. That’s why it’s not unusual to see a filmmaker win the Berlinale’s top prize, then graduate to competition at Cannes with their next film. This year, that’s happening with Hungarian Oscar nominee Ildikó Enyedi (“The Story of My Wife”) and “Synonymes” director Nadav Lapid (“Ahed’s Knee”). When the opposite happens — say, a director associated with Cannes shows up in Venice — it’s usually a red flag that the French must have passed on the movie.

This year’s competition, full to bursting with two dozen contenders, boasts returning Palme d’Or winners Apichatpong Weerasethakul, making his English-language debut with Tilda Swinton starrer “Memoria,” and Italian melodramatist Nanni Moretti, whose “Three Floors” seems to excite exactly no one. World-renowned Iranian director Asghar Farhadi will also be back in competition with “A Hero.”

Cannes always books a disproportionately high number of French movies (which is one way it manages to check the female-filmmaker box, while inviting so few from other countries). The 2021 crop includes Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Bergman Island,” starring Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth; “Raw” director Julia Ducournau’s sure-to-be-incendiary “Titane”; and new films from François Ozon (“Everything Went Fine”); Bruno Dumont (“France”); and Catherine Corsini (“La Fracture”).

It’s easy to look through a lineup and identify the familiar names, but Frémaux seems committed to taking a chance on more not-yet-established talents, which is, of course, one of the programmers’ key responsibilities. It’s exciting to see the latest work from known auteurs, but the global film community counts on Cannes to scour the world and uncover the work of exciting new artists as well, many of whom are spotlighted in Un Certain Regard — or else down the Croisette, in Directors’ Fortnight or Critics’ Week.

In addition to worrying about Venice and others, Frémaux also has to compete with the parallel programs screening in Cannes. Directors’ Fortnight has upstaged the official selection by offering desirable slots to films that Frémaux might have passed on (producers and sales agents pit the two selection committees against one another). This year, Directors’ Fortnight will screen a few high-profile films from women, including Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir Part II” and Clio Barnard’s “Ali & Ava,” before wrapping with Rachel Lang’s “Our Men.”

Cannes has fallen far short of its #5050X2020 gender parity pledge, and though the festival is clearly pushing to support the industry’s reopening agenda, organizers essentially used that shift in focus as an excuse to backslide on that commitment. Sure, the coronavirus has posed an existential threat to cinema as we know it. Going in, this year’s festival feels like an attempt to restore things to “normal” — and yet, these are precisely the moments when evolution is called for.