Each year, the Cannes Film Festival reaffirms its stature as the most prominent film festival in the world — whether or not the movies are better or worse than countless other film programs found at other festivals. Cannes attracts a hectic international crowd and stirs up a fervor for the art and commerce of cinema unlike anything else on the calendar. However, anyone attending the festival time after time can grow weary of the wild routine: Some of the greatest working filmmakers premiere their latest work in competition while other emerging talents surface elsewhere in the lineup, but the context of the festival environment sometimes makes it harder to appreciate each movie on its own terms. The weary movie viewer can’t help but wonder: Is there really any value in watching movies at Cannes, or is it just one long red carpet distraction?
While it’s still unclear whether this year’s Cannes selection qualifies as a “good” or “great” year, there’s a definite reason for optimism about the conversations it will stir up. Early signs indicate a more significant festival than recent editions no matter the overall caliber of the program. Here are a few reasons to anticipate the discussions pouring out of the Croisette when Cannes takes off tomorrow.
The jury has major global influence. No filmmaker working today holds greater clout than Steven Spielberg, this year’s Cannes jury president. But while the buck stops with him when it comes to the Palme d’Or winner, he’s got some pretty successful company. Other jurors include recent Oscar winners Ang Lee and Christoph Waltz, in addition to actresses Nicole Kidman and Bollywood star Vidya Balan. Collectively, these people hold significant representational power with respect to the international film industry — they play key roles in defining its modern state. Whichever movie receives the main award will carry the force of a major endorsement, one with possibly more value than even an Oscar can provide.
Old Hollywood makes a triumphant return. There are no big studios premiering films at the festival (aside from Warner Bros. with the European premiere of “The Great Gatsby,” which opens the festival). That’s a refreshing contrast to recent editions that contained the latest “Pirates of Caribbean” and “Indiana Jones” efforts. Instead, old-fashioned, sophisticated star power is poised to make a comeback. J.C. Chandor’s wordless survival narrative “All is Lost” suggests a return to form for Robert Redford. Jerry Lewis is being honored in the country that first took him seriously while appearing as the lead in the indie dramedy “Max Rose.” Could these roles provide a flashback to the era of the Serious American Actor? Either way, Cannes will also pay tribute to a very different Hollywood tradition: The Cannes classics sidebar will screen a restored version of the lavish 1963 costume drama “Cleopatra,” which famously bankrupted 20th Century Fox, a legacy that overshadows the complexity of the movie’s execution. Compared to today’s standards, a lot of old studio productions look like art films. Rather than shamelessly plugging the Hollywood product of today, Cannes may do better by saluting better times.
The competition isn’t incredibly obvious. Cannes is often assailed for paying tribute to its close-knit “family” of auteurs — from Quentin Tarantino to Woody Allen — whether or not they’ve produced work worthy of the main competition. This year’s program certainly has its heavyweights, with the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” and Roman Polanski’s adaptation “Venus in Fur” both competing for the Palme. But they’re mixed together with a few unknown quantities, such as Mexican director Amat Escalante, whose “Heli” screens at the beginning of the festival. African director Mahamat Saleh-Haroun’s sentimental “Grigris” could help expand his profile much further than his Cannes-acclaimed “A Screaming Man.” Other directors with established careers, like Arnaud Desplechin (“Jimmy P.”) and Jia Zhangke (“A Touch of Sin”), have wildly different sensibilities but seem to be working on bigger scales that could introduce new viewers to their work. At this point, it’s unlikely that one single movie will overshadow everything else. That soothing breeze you feel on the Croisette might be a collective sigh of relief.
Scandals? What scandals? Whether it’s because he’s unwelcome, didn’t want to attend or simply couldn’t meet those pesky deadlines, the neurotic troublemaker Lars Von Trier won’t stir things up at Cannes this year. After his last appearance climaxed with his infamous Nazi remarks at a press conference for “Melancholia,” Von Trier has been deemed persona non grata at Cannes, although the festival has hinted at the possibility of allowing him back. While his latest provocation, “Nymphomaniac,” opens in Denmark at the end of this month, he won’t be taking it to the Riviera. Maybe that’s for the best: Though it was fun to see “Antichrist” both excite and enrage Cannes audiences just a few years back, the clamor truly overwhelmed everything else at the festival that year. Perhaps a scandal-free Cannes is one where more movies get the attention they deserve.
Cannes is looking in the mirror. Unabashedly elitist, the festival rarely expresses a critical perspective on its role in the film world. However, a year shy of longtime festival director Gilles Jacob’s announced retirement, Cannes is starting to tussle more realistically with the industry at its core. By programming James Toback’s playful Cannes-set documentary “Seduced and Abandoned,” the festival has encouraged a conversation about the absurdity of the global marketplace it attracts each year. An official press conference entitled “Think Audience Strategy” will find the Commissioner for Education, Culture Multilingualism and Youth discussing the challenges of bringing a wide range of cinema to audiences around the world under 21st century constraints. Movies like the Directors Fortnight entry “Blue Ruin” owe their existence to successful crowdfunding strategies. Steven Soderbergh’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” will skip theaters entirely and air on HBO before the festival ends.
If Cannes is truly the most important film event of the year, it’s starting to fit into the big picture rather than attempting overpower it with the weight of its glitzy traditions. We’ve got two weeks ago, but early indications show signs of progress.