Despite the aura of excitement and anticipation surrounding this morning’s announcement of the finalists for the 2015 Cannes Film Festival lineup, there were plenty of familiar ingredients: Yet another Woody Allen movie (“Irrational Man”). Yet another Pixar movie (“Inside Out”). Another high profile actor stepping behind the camera for the first time (Natalie Portman’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness”). Virtually no documentaries whatsoever (only the Amy Winehouse portrait “Amy” landed a slot in the midnight section).
But while many of these titles hold potential and some might even be really good, the best thing about Cannes is that the prominent names appear alongside others that under different circumstances might not receive nearly as much exposure. It’s far too early for anyone to pass judgement on the overall quality of the Cannes lineup, but the festival certainly cast a wide net of possibilities this year. Here are some immediate observations on a few titles that stand out.
Stepping It Up to Competition
For better or worse, a competition slot at Cannes carries the sense of accomplishment and scrutiny not allotted to other films. While certain internationally renowned auteurs come back time and again to competition, others spend their first years premiering films in other sections before effectively “graduating” to the big leagues. There are several filmmakers taking on this role in 2015.
Notable directors making their initial forays into competition include French director Valerie Donzelli, whose delicate family drama “Declaration of War” opened Critics Week several years back and was France’s submission for the foreign language Oscar. Donzelli’s “Marguerite and Julien” takes its cues from a 1971 project that Francois Truffaut once tried to make years ago, an incest drama about two siblings from a royal family who escape society to pursue their affair. Also working with heavy material that has survived the ages, Australian director Justin Kurzel (who left a mark at Cannes with his disturbing first feature “Snowtown,” the portrait of a serial killer) lands in competition with “Macbeth” with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Kurzel is already attached to a big studio project, an adaptation of the video game “Assassin’s Creed,” so “Macbeth” marks a natural moment for his career to shift to a bigger stage.
While he may never direct a studio movie, Yorgos Lanthimos has certainly come a long way since he arrived at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section with the shocking and outlandish family thriller “Dogtooth” in 2008. The director’s followup “Alps” didn’t make the cut at Cannes and received mixed reviews, but now he’s in competition with his biggest project to date, “The Lobster,” which stars Colin Farrell, Lea Seydoux, and Rachel Weisz in another bizarre dystopian story likely to bring Lanthimos more exposure than ever before. The same goes for Norwegian director Joachim Trier, whose somber “Oslo, August 31st” portrayed the day in the life of a heroin junkie and found acclaim in 2011’s Un Certain Regard section. Trier’s latest project, competition entry “Louder Than Bombs,” is a New York-set story about a wealthy family reeling from a recent death and counts Jesse Eisenberg, Amy Ryan, David Strathairn and Isabelle Huppert among its cast — marking another example of an acclaimed director working with more famous names for the first time.
Since established directors who have already cracked competition have an easier time returning to it, Cannes provides a good starting point for rediscovering filmmakers who haven’t been as prolific lately. This year’s competition includes several examples: Gus Van Sant has released a movie since 2012’s ill-received drama “Promised Land,” and makes his way back to competition this year for the first time since 2007’s “Paranoid Park” (his largely forgettable “Restless” opened Un Certain Regard a few years later). His latest work, “The Sea of Trees,” finds Matthew McConaughey opposite Ken Watanabe in a survival story about two men wandering a forest near Mt. Fuji.
The same year that Van Sant played competition with “Paranoid Park,” Taiwanese heavyweight Hou Hsiao-Hsien came to Cannes with “The Flight of the Red Balloon.” Unlike Van Sant, however, Hou hasn’t made a movie since then. That changes this year with “The Assassin,” possibly his biggest project to date — a martial arts movie from a director typically known for much gentler films.
Todd Haynes’ biopic “I’m Not There” didn’t play Cannes in 2007, but that was also the last time the seminal American filmmaker released a narrative feature (not counting his TV series “Mildred Pierce”). Haynes’ lesbian drama “Carol,” which takes cues from a Patricia Highsmith novel and co-stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchette, has been gathering buzz for months now and was a no-brainer in this year’s lineup; it’s a great excuse to welcome Haynes back to the Cannes fold. Finally, French actress-turned-director Maiwenn has completed her first feature since 2011’s “Polisse,” an enjoyable ensemble dramedy about a police force that scored her a screenplay prize. She’s back in competition with “Mon Roi,” which co-stars Vincent Cassel and Louis Garrel alongside the filmmaker in this apparent love story.
Old Faces in New Places
It’s not exactly a fresh idea for filmmakers to work beyond their native borders, and Cannes has showcased that tendency before, with filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Paolo Sorrentino making notable features in languages other than their own. This year, the Italian Sorrentino has made his first English language feature since the poorly-received Sean Penn drama “This Must Be the Place,” and it looks a lot more promising: “Youth,” which was previously titled “The Early Years,” features Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as a couple of retired old friends during a troubled retreat in the Alps. Early word is promising, though Sorrentino’s elaborate style rarely pleases everyone. Another acquired taste is Jia Zhangke, back in competition with “Mountains May Depart,” his first film shot outside China. Zhangke’s last time at Cannes, with the remarkable social critique “A Touch of Sin,” showed his capacity for juggling several stories at once with a sprawling portrait of violence across his country. Even by those standards, “Mountains” sounds ambitious, as it’s said to start in the past and end in the future — with the peculiar tale of an estranged couple who break up in the early nineties, an incident that has reverberations on their son, whose adulthood the movie explores during a closing section set in 2025.
On a lighter note, animation director Mark Osborne returns to Cannes after premiering “Kung Fu Panda” there several years ago with the French co-production “The Little Prince,” a stop-motion effort adapted from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved children’s novel. There are certain countries underrepresented by Cannes and certainly not enough women filmmakers, but nobody can complain that the festival lacks variety among the types of directors returning to the scene this time around.
What About the Discoveries?
Of course, Cannes’ fixation on established names makes the process of discovering new talent — an experience that’s often the highlight of many other festivals — something of a secondary ambition. There’s only one-first time filmmaker in this year’s competition, though at least he made the cut with a compelling project: Hungarian director Lazlo Nemes — a disciple of former Cannes regular Bela Tarr, now retired — enters the lineup with “Son of Saul,” a Holocaust drama about an Auschwitz prisoner who comes up with a scheme to save his adopted son.
But there are plenty of other newcomers vying for attention beyond the competition. These include South Korea’s Hong Won-Chan, who wrote the screenplay for the Cannes-acclaimed “The Yellow Sea,” and makes his directorial debut in the midnight section with the investigative drama “Office.” Then there’s Indian director Neeraj Ghawayan, who worked as an assistant director on the acclaimed Cannes action-drama “Gangs of Wasseypur,” and won a Sundance Institute screenwriting grant for his debut effort “Fly Away Solo,” about a quartet of aimless characters attempting to break away from their small town life. The movie will premiere in Un Certain Regard alongside another promising feature feature, French director Laurent Lariviere’s “I Am a Soldier,” which involves a young woman who moves back in with her mother and inadvertently gets drawn into a dog-trafficking operation.
As usual, Un Certain Regard holds the greatest appeal for diehard cinephiles, with filmmakers whose may rarely hit U.S. shores but regularly makes the festival rounds finding its way to that section. Some of the names that pop out there include Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini, whose narrative-documentary hybrids have brought us poetic looks at provincial American life such as “Stop the Pounding Heart.” He’ll deliver another one with “The Other Side.” Then there’s Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, a Cannes regular whose uber-deadpan “Police, Adjective” was an Un Certain Regard hit years ago. Now he’s back with “The Treasure,” a story about two men searching the titular object. These movies may not draw as much media attention, but anyone serious about cinema will need to keep them on a high priority list just as much as any of the competition titles.
Who Got Snubbed?
Let the speculation begin! Cannes is known to tussle with filmmakers and sales agents over the final cuts of films that the programmers don’t deem worthy of competition. In some cases, movies just get rejected; other times, they’re just not finished, or representatives decide the Cannes pressure isn’t worth the effort. In any case, we’re left wondering what happened to Gaspar Noé’s nearly three-hour pornographic “Love,” his first feature since “Enter the Void,” a 2009 Cannes scandale au festival. Similar questions surround Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation,” a reportedly tense drama starring Idris Elba. Did Cannes balk because “Beasts” is receiving an unorthodox release via Netflix? Theorize away, but different questions surround some of the bigger names not in the lineup.
These include Sean Penn, whose latest directing effort “The Last Face” — in which Charlize Theron and Javier Barden play aid workers in Africa — didn’t even get an out of competition slot, despite his friendliness with the festival. It may have to wait for the fall. The same goes for Jeff Nichols’ first studio project, “Midnight Special,” which is slated to open in November and may wait for the fall circuit depute Nichols’ “Mud” playing in competition a few years ago. (As it turns out, “Special” didn’t even screen for Cannes.) If anything, the absence of these titles in the lineup is a good reminder that — no matter what Cannes may try to suggest — there are many more new movies beyond the ones screening in the south of France this May.
This article has been updated.