Cannes FIlm Festival

#Cannes2019: Previewing the competition at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival

Perched precariously atop a devoted technician’s back, a very youthful Agnes Varda adorns the 72nd Festival de Cannes poster. She’s doing what it takes to get the perfect angle and keep her balance in the Mediterranean sunshine.

This is a feat that Thierry Fremaux needs to accomplish every year when programming the 50 or so films in the Official Selection of Le Festival de Cannes. About 20 are in Competition for the Palme d’Or, almost as many in the more adventurous Un Certain regard and a handful of others in Out of Competition or Special Screening categories with a genre film thrown in for a Midnight Screening.

This year Fremaux seems to have avoided risks in the Competition by including a full house of certified Cannes club-members. Jim Jarmusch opens with a zombie comedy entitled The Dead Don’t Die. It is a film populated by many of his hip friends including Adam Driver, Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton and Iggy Pop and includes appearances by Tom Waits and Steve Buscemi.

In a film that is “not an autobiography”, Pedro Almodovar revisits his life through Antonio Banderas’ eyes in Pain & Glory. Advance word from Spain, where it is already released, suggests a ponderous Pedro lacking his usual level of wit.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne don’t like to talk about their films beforehand, rightly believing that you have to experience them for yourself through the very physical subjectivity of character that is a key feature of their filmmaking. Young Ahmed is about a 13 year old modern Muslim boy in Belgium. No it is not about terrorist grooming at the mosque, insist the Dardennes… probably meaning it’s about a boy’s life in the throes of existential dilemmas.

Officially retired but still manning the barricades in the war on social inequality, Ken Loach returns with Sorry We Missed You a film that explores a North of England family enduring the trials, tribulations and “freedoms” of the gig economy. As usual, the angle is predictable but the aim is surely true, as Loach and Paul Laverty draw a bead on who really pays the price of economic progress.

For many reasons, one of the most anticipated films will be Terence Malick’s A Hidden Life. It is an opus that has been in the making for a good number of years and has been in post-production for at least two, despite Malick’s return to a “well ordered script”. It tells the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, played by August Diehl, an Austrian refusnik during World war 2, subsequently executed by the Third Reich. To further add poignancy to Malick’s spiritual signature, recently deceased actors Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist also appear.

Veteran Marco Bellochio brings the muscular drama of a true mafia story The Traitor to the Cannes Competition. It tells the tale of Mafia repentant Tommaso Buscetta. It will be Bellochio’s 7th appearance on the competition for the Palme d’Or.

After the surprising and darkly droll Divine Intervention in 2002, Elia Suleiman of Nazareth makes a long anticipated return to Cannes. It Must be Heaven again stars the director as himself in a role that recounts the interminable quest for a Palestinian to find somewhere to call home. His need to escape becomes a comedy of errors where everything reminds him of home… only humour can save him, the darker the funnier.

Two Franco-African filmmakers make the Competition cut this year. One is Malian Ladj Ly who is present with Les Miserables, a tale of violent ways among cops and kids in a rough Paris suburb. The other is Mati Diop, the Franco-Senegalese director of Atlantique a film that recounts the fraught boat journey embarked upon by Senegalese migrants, told from the point of view of women that remain behind.

Diop is one of four women directors in Competition. Two other French directors, Celine Sciamma with Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu/Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Justine Triet with ‘Sybil’ and the Austrian Jessica Hausner with ‘Little Joe’ complete the quartet. Sciamma’s Portrait… is the story of an 18th century female painter on a Breton island tasked with making the portrait of a young woman. In keeping with the trials of female artists Triet’s Sybil is about a novelist who has become a psychoanalyst. The convoluted dilemma of a patient, a film actress, incites her to record her sessions and take up her pen again to novelise the twisted tale she is privy to.

Despite criticisms for Cannes’ slowness in implementing parity, it should be noted that the ratio of female directors to men is highest in France.

Hausner, whose Lovely Rita appeared in Un Certain regard in 2001, comes to the Competition with Little Joe, starring Emily Beacham and Ben Wishaw, a futuristic fantasy about genetic engineering.

Still only four women in Competition but about half of the 2019 Un Certain Regard crop are female directors. Just like the male dinosaurs, over time the females of the directorial species will inevitably gravitate to an equal place at the top table.

Un Certain Regard often proves to be an ante-room to the Competition. For better or for worse this is a trend with Cannes: getting selected at the entry levels, shorts and Cinefondation (film school competition) or the parallel selections also favour inclusion at higher levels later on.

A case in point is another woman director, American Pippa Bianco, who took a prize for her short at Cinefondation when studying for an MFA at Yale. That film was Share, a modern story about a viral video and it’s feature version will be in the Special Screenings section in this year’s Cannes, alongside Abel Ferrara and Werner Herzog.

Gender politics is just one of the two tectonic shifts within the film industry and where Cannes provides a high profile forum.

The other one is of course streaming issue and the mutation of the cinema going experience. Here, contrary to many other festivals, the French resistance is staunch though, contrary to many inaccurate reports, Cannes is open to Netflix films, just not in Competition. To be in Competition a film must have a theatre release in France. Just like the requirements to qualify for the Oscars. At the press conference, Pierre Lescure the President of Le Festival de Cannes underlined we are in a transition phase and the rules and practices regarding streaming and cinema releases are yet to be settled.  “There will be an evolution of the windows; what will have changed in three to five years is, generally speaking, we won’t be able to have set windows for each and every movie.”

Add to this the new players entering the high-end streaming game, Apple, Disney+, alongside Netflix and Amazon (which has episodes of Nicolas Winding Refn’s series Too Old to Die Young programmed Out of Competition). Will we reach a time when a dedicated film fan needs to subscribe to all streamers to see the best of contemporary cinema? Or will art find a reasonable compromise with commerce?