By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 17, 2014 at 9:3AM
The announcement of the lineup for the Cannes Film Festival always arrives with a tidal wave of excitement around the world. Its competition, an international survey of new work from directors around the world, invites plenty of scrutiny about what did and didn't make the cut — the dominance of some countries over others, the prevalence of "the Cannes family" of auteur directors in relation to the lesser known quantities, and so on. You can spin the numbers in countless ways, but ultimately the quality of the selection as a whole remains intangible to even the savviest viewers until the festival takes place next month. Until then, here are a few brief observations that immediately stood out to this writer upon joining thousands of cinephiles this morning to peruse the list. Let us know what you're looking forward to reading more about and check out the full list of titles here.
The Weirdest Star Vehicles
While Cannes tends to focus on its self-defined class of "significant" auteur directors, the byproduct is often that a few of these titles include name actors eager to work with new talent or filmmakers operating outside of the traditional vehicles their casts are typically stuck in. This year, prolific Cannes regular Olivier Assayas makes a dramatic advance into his first English language feature in several years with "Clouds of Sils Maria," about a reclusive aging actress (Juliette Binoche) who grows frustrated when her star power is eclipsed by a young new talent (Chloe Grace Moretz). Binoche's assistant is played by Kristen Stewart, who's making a steady advancement back to the indie realm post-"Twilight" (she also starred in "Camp X-Ray" at Sundance this year). For Assayas, who has been a globally acclaimed filmmaker for decades, this personal project suggests the possibility of bringing his delicate touch to more English language audiences.
While Belgian sibling filmmakers the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have yet to go that far in terms of broadening the appeal of their work, their latest feature, the competition entry "Two Days, One Night" is likely to broaden their exposure due to a leading role for Marion Cotillard as a woman struggling to hold down her job. It sounds like a typically look at lower class struggles for these masters of subtle emotion and social alienation, but Cotillard unquestionably ranks as the highest profile star in their roster to date. Then there's David Cronenberg, with the satiric "Maps to the Stars," which marks his second oddball team-up with Robert Pattinson.
Even so, the most curious appearance of a famous face in the recent Cannes announcement might be Viggo Mortensen in Lisandro Alonso's "Jauja," a selection in the Un Certain Regard section. The Argentinian director garnered plenty of acclaim for his last feature, the quietly perceptive "Liverpool," a virtually wordless account of a young man journeying to see his mother—but few audiences saw it outside of the festival circuit. "Jauja" stands a better chance at gaining wider exposure no matter how much it challenges viewers, as it stars Viggo Mortensen starring as a Danish man who journeys from Europe to an isolated desert in South America. It might not be outwardly commercial, but it still has a shot at generating plenty more attention for the director than his previous arthouse entries. Here's hoping.
Canadian director Xavier Dolan has been an acclaimed Cannes filmmaker ever since his 2009 debut as writer-director-star, "I Killed My Mother," surfaced at Directors Fortnight when he was 19 years old. Since then, he has cranked out three more poignant features —"Heartbeats," "Laurence Anyways," and "Tom at the Farm," all of which have shown signs of increasing versatility (as well as the ability to work fast). "Mommy" marks the director's first time in competition, but considering that he's only 25, that's not a bad moment to arrive. Like his debut, the new project revolves around the relationship between a single mother and son, but in this case it also involves the arrival of an intrusive neighbor in their lives.
Dolan's age stands in stark juxtaposition to the oldest director in Cannes competition, no less than 83-year-old French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, with "Goodbye to Language." The director's first feature in competition since 2001's "In Praise of Love" is also one that he has long been calling his last — the cryptic tale of a couple that eventually transforms into a meditation on "the demise of the dollar…and the death of a robin," according to the director's official description, which takes verse form. Oh, and it's shot in 3D.
Viewed together, these works should yield some insight into the contrast between filmmakers at wildly different stages of their careers.
Americans On the Croisette
While there are no "major" American directors from the Cannes family in this year's lineup (no Tarantino, no Coen brothers, no Terrence Malick), the country itself is sufficiently represented in by three notable selections, two of which involve actors stepping behind the camera: Ryan Gosling skipped the Cannes premiere of "Only God Forgives" last year because of his shooting schedule for his directorial debut, "Lost River," now in Un Certain Regard, which revolves around the magical realist events of a mother and her teen son, who discovers an underwater town. Then there's Tommy Lee Jones, whose "The Homesman" marks his second shot at directing a western—in this case, with Hilary Swank—since the well-received "The Three Burials of Melquiadas Estrada." While Jones will bring this prototypical American genre to competition, a more modern perspective arrives courtesy of Bennett Miller, whose Channing Tatum vehicle "Foxcatcher" revolves around the story of Olympic wrestling champion Mark Schultz in the aftermath of his brother's murder at the hands of a paranoid schizophrenic in the mid-1990s.
The Elephant in the Room
Cannes has often struggled to capably showcase films directed by women and filmmakers of color. But this year, it should provide a nice boost for Alice Rohrwater, one of two women filmmakers in competition, whose "Corpo Celeste," a character study about a young woman grappling with the restrictions of the Catholic church, was a sleeper hit on the festival circuit in 2011. "La Meraviglie" also revolves around the experiences of a young woman, in this case "a 14-year-old girl in the Italian countryside whose insular world is impacted by the arrival of a German man with a shady past. Another intriguing selection from a woman director, "Bird People" marks the first feature from Pascale Ferran since 2006's "Lady Chatterly." The new movie, about an American in Paris who attempts to cut off ties with his old life, has been generating some early buzz for its lead performances by Josh Charles and Radha Mitchell as well as its gently affecting plot.
Additionally, there are two notable African films in the selection this year: Director Philip Lacote's Un Certain Regard entry "Run" focuses on a runaway in the aftermath of his decision to assassinate his country's Prime Minister, and suggests a gripping personal tale with greater political ramifications. In competition, "Timbuktu" marks the latest feature from Abderrahmane Sissako since 2006's "Bamako." Sissako once again assaults an oppressive society with this account of a young Malian couple stoned to death for their perceived lack of piousness.
The Sundance Touch (Or Lack Thereof)
In the past two years, the top prize-winning narrative features at Sundance have landed spots at Cannes — "Fruitvale Station" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild"—but so far (the festival may add more films as it goes along), the Park City gathering shows no impact on the current Cannes lineup. U.S. competition winner "Whiplash" didn't make the cut, nor did the festival's biggest discovery, the black-and-white Iranian vampire movie "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night." But the festival can take some credit for helping to put Australian director David Michod on the map after it debuted his first feature, the tense crime drama "Animal Kingdom," in 2010. Michod comes to Cannes' slim midnight section this year with "The Rover," a wild-looking neo-western co-written by fellow Aussie filmmaker Joel Edgerton and starring Guy Pearce—alongside Robert Pattison, who might just become something of a Cannes regular if he keeps this up. No matter how much it adheres to tradition, Cannes is always full of surprises.