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Xavier Dolan Says ‘The Death and Life of John F. Donovan’ Was Accepted to Cannes, But They Decided Not to Go — Exclusive

The filmmaker explains why, despite a warm reception by the festival, his team decided Cannes wasn’t the place to premiere.

Xavier Dolan

Xavier Dolan

Joel Ryan/AP/REX/Shutterstock

When the Cannes Film Festival announced its 2018 lineup on Thursday, one movie that seemed like an obvious inclusion wasn’t on the list: Xavier Dolan’s “The Death and Life of John F. Donovan.” The prolific 29-year-old French-Canadian filmmaker’s first English-language feature is his most ambitious to date, the story of an American television star (Kit Harrington) dealing with the aftermath of revelations surrounding a relationship with an 11-year-old boy.

Dolan’s movie went into production in the summer of 2016, and after a delay, Dolan finished shooting in early 2017. It seemed like a safe bet for Cannes, where five out of his six completed features have played. The movie has been beset by post-production delays, including a February 2018 update when Dolan announced that he would be cutting Jessica Chastain’s character, a scheming journalist, from the movie. Nevertheless, Dolan told IndieWire that he did submit a version of the movie to the festival and was invited to play there, but was convinced to decline the offer. “The film is simply still in post-production,” he wrote in an email message. “I wanted to send it to Cannes, and I did. But some last-minute developments prompted us to decide it wasn’t the ideal place for the film to premiere, and I can’t say I disagree.” He declined to specify further.

The former child actor premiered his debut, “I Killed My Mother,” in Cannes sidebar Directors’ Fortnight at the age of 19. Since then, several of his films have found homes in the main selection: “Heartbeats” and “Lawrence, Anyways” played in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, and he graduated to the Official Competition with “Mommy” in 2014, when he shared the Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard. He was back with “It’s Only the End of the World” in 2014, where critics were unkind to the movie but Dolan still won the Grand Jury Prize.

After the critical backlash, Dolan announced on Instagram in 2016 that he would not submit “Donovan” to Cannes in 2018 because of the timing of the shoot, but added that “the culture of trolling, bullying and unwanted hatred shouldn’t be an inextricable part of the cinematic or analytical adventure.” However, he remains a supporter of the festival.

“I was born in Cannes,” he wrote in an email this week. “I love Cannes. In spite of its typical contradictions and occasional toxicity, it is a place where people celebrate art and and storytelling.” He added that his new movie would have been a natural fit for the climate of the festival. “‘Donovan’ being a film that focuses, among other things on fame and admiration and discusses how artists can live their lives with integrity, it seemed so right to premiere in a festival that celebrates artists and the art of film,” he wrote, “but is also renowned for being, historically, so glamorous.”

The film had been rumored as a possibility for the opening night slot, which eventually went to Iranian director Asgar Farhadi’s Spanish-language “Everybody Knows.” Dolan said that “John F. Donovan” would still find its way to audiences this year. (Several films in contention for Cannes are expected to resurface in the fall festival circuit.) 

“We decided the film should premiere elsewhere,” he wrote. “I’m not exactly in a position to discuss where and where, as I don’t know where and when it will premiere. But we’ll do what’s best for the film, evidently.”

Representatives from the Cannes Film Festival and eOne, which holds distribution rights for the film in Canada, did not respond to requests for comment.

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