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20 Shocks and Surprises From the 2019 Cannes Lineup, From Werner Herzog to Xavier Dolan

This year's lineup includes a stronger presence for American films than recent years, but plenty of international surprises as well.

Director Xavier DolanXavier Dolan red carpet, Rome Film Festival, Italy - 27 Oct 2017

Xavier Dolan

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The 2019 Cannes Film Festival lineup has arrived, and with it, the most exciting crop of cinema unveiled so far this year. For over seven decades, Cannes has been the most anticipated film event on the calendar for a reason: No other gathering of cinephiles puts the art form on such a dazzling pedestal, with thousands of discerning members of the media and industry scrutinizing the contents of its program from every possible angle. The latest edition is no exception.

While film festivals have proliferated around the globe, Cannes has maintained its status as the most discerning of highbrow movie havens. Over the years, the festival’s stature has been threatened by a number of complications, as American studios have grown wary of the risk involved in subjecting a movie to Cannes hype, and Oscar hopefuls tend to hold out for fall slots at Venice and Telluride. Cannes has also contended with the changing entertainment landscape, only acknowledging a handful of television shows in recent years, and scaring off Netflix with a rule that makes its titles ineligible for competition without a theatrical release in France.

Setting aside all of those hurdles, however, the 2019 Cannes lineup shows a lot of promise. After a lower-profile 2018, the latest edition features a return for many of the festival’s most reliable auteurs alongside a handful of up-and-comers overdue for a slot in the festival’s venerated Competition. From elder statesman Ken Loach with the British “Sorry We Missed You” to Brazilian critic-turned-director Kleber Mendoza Filho’s “Aquarius” followup “Nighthawk,” many of the names in the Competition will be familiar to Cannes audiences.

That section’s jury president, Alejandro G. Iñarritu, will have plenty of compelling options when wading through the Palme d’Or contenders. But the Cannes Official Selection also includes its Un Certain Regard sidebar and other slots where major discoveries can break out. Every movie in the Cannes lineup is there for a reason, and the very presence of a movie at Cannes has the potential to have major impact. However, the absence of an anticipated title at Cannes is also worthy of scrutiny. The constant speculation and analysis puts the pressure on Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux, who looked rattled and exhausted as he took the stage to announce an incomplete lineup on Thursday morning, even as he sped through a dense program filled with many open questions.

Thierry FremauxAnniversary Soiree, 70th Cannes Film Festival, France - 23 May 2017General Delegate of the Cannes Film Festival Thierry Fremaux attends the ceremony of the 70th Anniversary of the festival at the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, 23 May 2017. The festival runs from 17 to 28 May.

Thierry Frémaux

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Here are some of the more notable takeaways from today’s announcement, including some notable snubs — but bear in mind that the festival plans to add more titles in the days ahead (some 90 percent of the Official Selection has been announced so far). Check out the full lineup here.

American Films Step Up

“A Hidden Life” is a potential comeback story: Yes, the elusive Terrence Malick has finally returned to Cannes competition for the first time since “The Tree of Life” premiered there eight years ago, but he’s hardly the only American filmmaker with a prime spot on the Croisette this year. The 2018 lineup had only two U.S. directors competing for the Palme d’Or, with Spike Lee’s eventual Grand Prix winner “BlacKkKlansman” facing off against David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silver Lake.” The 2019 competition ups that figure to three, and at least on the surface, they couldn’t be more different. Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy “The Dead Don’t Die” was already announced as the opening night selection, as well as a part of the competition, which bodes well for the festival’s confidence in Jarmusch’s ability to deliver a crowdpleaser that critics will appreciate as well.

They’re joined by Ira Sachs, the acclaimed New York filmmaker behind “Love is Strange” and “Keep the Lights On,” who somehow has never screened a movie at Cannes in his two-decade career. Sachs’ film “Frankie” is the sort of international production ideal for Cannes, and also fills the obligatory Isabelle Huppert slot, with a Portugal-set production about several generations of a family gathering in an old town. Sachs has been a critical darling for years, but “Frankie” could be just the ticket to broaden the scope of his audience.

Jim Jarmusch'Paterson' film premiere, Arrivals, Landmark Sunshine Cinemas, New York, USA - 15 Dec 2016

Jim Jarmusch

Clint Spaulding/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

And while a Competition slot at Cannes carries plenty of prestige, the Un Certain Regard sidebar has plenty of potential to break out younger talent. That’s where two films hold a lot of potential. “The Climb” adapts a Sundance short film from director Michael Covino about two longtime friends whose relationship is complicated over the course of many years (and comes to a head with a biking competition). Sources who got an early peek at the feature (co-directed by Kyle Marvin) have described it as blending the awkward, improvised comedy style of the Duplass brothers with the eerie suburban unrest of “Funny Games.” That movie is joined by Danielle Lessovitz’s intriguing debut “Port Authority,” a naturalistic New York-set drama produced by Martin Scorsese about a midwesterner who develops a relationship with a trans woman he meets in the city. Lessovitz’s small-scale drama is likely to be among the breakouts of the Official Selection.

Still, one anticipated U.S. film was not part of the initial announcement…

Where’s Robert Eggers?

“The Witch.”

Eggers’ 2015 debut “The Witch” was a horror sensation at Sundance that won the festival’s Best Director award; A24 later turned it into a commercial hit. Eggers’ ability to deliver mesmerizing imagery and an absorbing atmosphere made it clear that his ambitions extended beyond pure shock and awe, which seems to have continued with his sophomore effort “The Lighthouse,” a black-and-white thriller set in 20th century Maine starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. The A24-produced film was shot under tough conditions in Nova Scotia, and reportedly channels the language of silent cinema for a haunting and mysterious narrative that plays to both actors strengths’. But it wasn’t part of the Cannes lineup.

Women Directors Are in Short Supply…

Cannes has struggled to address complaints about gender imbalance in its lineup, and last year signed a pledge to make efforts toward greater inclusivity in its lineup. Fremaux seemed to get ahead of that challenge this year by opening the press conference by announcing that there would be 13 women directors in the Official Selection. Nevertheless, there were only four female-directed films announced in Competition out of 18 total, up from three in 2018. That paltry figure is bound to invite plenty of questions about which films were available and could have upped the volume of female representation. And while American directors in other sections include female directors Pippa Bianco (with her Sundance premiere “Share” in an out-of-competition slot), Annie Silverstein (with her feature debut “Bull”), as well as the aforementioned Lessovitz, there are none in Competition. Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” had been discussed as one possibility, but sources say the film wasn’t ready and A24 didn’t even submit it.

…But the Competition Figure Is Up

Pippa Bianco, Minhal Baig,

Pippa Bianco, Minhal Baig

Anna Pocaro for IndieWire

Several of the promising female-directed entries in Un Certain Regard will invite questions about whether any of them could have taken competition slots instead. Nevertheless, the films from women directors who did make the cut at Cannes are far-reaching and filled with potential. (Read more about the presence of woman directors at Cannes this year, and in previous years, here.) To date, Jane Campion remains the only woman to win the Palme d’Or with “The Piano,” and this year’s jury has the chance to change that. Two acclaimed filmmakers with Cannes histories are making their debuts in Competition: Céline Sciamma with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and Jessica Hausner with “Little Joe.” French director Justine Triet presented her 2013 feature “Age of Panic” in the unofficial Cannes sidebar ACID, but jumps into competition with “Sibyl.” And then there’s Mati Diop, whose “Atlantique” is one of the most anticipated movies heading to Cannes this year, full-stop.

A Newcomer Makes History

Unless there’s someone hiding in the history books — and someone should please correct this writer if so — it’s safe to say that 35-year-old French director Diop is the first black woman to screen in Cannes Competition, and the first woman to have a debut in that section since Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” in 2011. But Diop is hardly a newcomer: As an actress, Diop had prominent roles in both Claire Denis’ “35 Shots of Rum” (which played Cannes) and Antonio Campos’ “Simon Killer,” opposite Brady Corbet. Meanwhile, her far-reaching short films have generated plenty of acclaim on the festival circuit, including 2009’s “Atlantiques,” the inspiration for her Cannes-bound first feature. A timely story of African migration to Europe (and the impact of one woman left behind), this drama is said to be profound and expressionistic in ways that are likely to cement Diop’s standing as a major filmmaker on the rise.

Celine Sciamma Finally Gets a Major Slot

While Diop is jumping right into Competition with her debut, Sciamma is overdue for that slot. The Parisian director, whose films magnify the experiences of alienated young women, played Un Certain Regard with her 2007 debut “Water Lilies,” and opened the Directors’ Fortnight section with the beloved girl-gang drama “Girlhood” in 2014. She has evolved into one of France’s most prominent filmmaking voices, overseeing the board of Directors’ Fortnight, but only now has cracked Competition with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”

The film, an 18th century period piece about a female painter commissioned to create a wedding portrait of a countess (Valeria Golino), represents a step up in scale for Sciamma — and could finally expand her profile after remaining a critical darling each time out.

Herzog Goes to Japan

Werner Herzog, by Daniel Bergeron

Werner Herzog

Daniel Bergeron

Most of the major directors coming to Cannes this year were expected there, but somehow Werner Herzog snuck into a special slot. The Bavarian auteur’s narrative work has struggled to impress audiences and critics in recent years, while his prolific documentary output has provided a window into his globe-trotting journeys. But Herzog’s “Family Romance, LLC” is a curious shift for the filmmaker: As he first explained to IndieWire in an interview last year, Herzog shot the movie in Japan last summer, working only with non-professional actors speaking Japanese (which he doesn’t speak). That’s a remarkable challenge for any filmmaker, but evidence of Herzog’s ongoing cinematic ambition, and the Cannes decision to screen the film (even out of competition) suggests that results are at least distinctive enough to bring Herzog back to the Croisette for the first time in many years. And he’s not the only surprise auteur returning to the festival.

Abel Ferrara Gets Personal

Gritty New York filmmaker Ferrara hasn’t screened a movie in the Official Selection since “Go Go Tales” in 2007 (his Dominique Strauss-Kahn opus “Welcome to New York” was rejected, and played elsewhere on the Croisette as an act of defiance). Ferrara has burned plenty of bridges over the years, but has also sobered up and found renewed balance in his life by fleeing New York for Rome. That experience has yielded a secret narrative film, “Tommaso,” which stars Ferrara’s neighbor, regular collaborator, and best pal Willem Dafoe in a role loosely based on Ferrara himself. The film is said to be an intimate look on Ferrara’s ability to find happiness in a new relationship and fatherhood; produced in complete secrecy, it may be the ultimate opportunity for the director to explain his rocky journey in the language he knows best.

Wither Quentin?

Quentin Tarantino has lived for Cannes ever since “Pulp Fiction” won the Palme d’Or in 1994, and treats the opportunity to screen his films in the Palais des Festival as a personal ritual. Nevertheless, his 1969-set “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was not a part of the lineup — in Competition or elsewhere — as the festival claims it’s not ready. Some reports suggested that distributor Sony was offering Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” adaptation as a “replacement,” though that film’s late December release date would make the Cannes premiere premature. It’s likely that Tarantino remains set on premiering the film at Cannes, and Sony is wary of presenting it in a rushed format in front of critics that might savage it. (“What I’ve seen of it is fantastic,” Frémaux said in the press conference, a vague statement that for now has an ominous tinge to it.) Expect the debate over the fate of Tarantino’s movie to continue to evolve in the days ahead, whether or not it lands at Cannes.

Where’s Pablo?

Chilean director Pablo Larrain has become one of the most treasured Latin American filmmakers in recent years, and even as he made a successful foray into American cinema with “Jackie,” he hasn’t abandoned his roots. The director completed his Gael Garcia Bernal drama “Ema” earlier this year and the film was submitted to the festival, where both “Tony Manero” and the Oscar-nominated “No” have screened at Directors’ Fortnight. That section has reportedly invited Larraín’s film, but the director and his team are ready to upgrade to Competition. Nevertheless, “Ema” was not among the films announced on Thursday morning, and it remains unclear if the festival simply passed on it or was waiting to see how some of the other last-minute contenders shake down. Either way, it should make its way to audiences somewhere in Cannes next month.

Red Carpet Glitz Goes Global

Cannes’ red carpet welcomes a range of filmmakers from around the world, but it needs stars to keep the media happy. Sometimes the jury helps (last year’s president, Cate Blanchett, made her way up the Palais steps every night), as does the opening night choice (Jarmusch’s film will bring Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton and many others out at what looks to be a big scene). This time, however, international stardom is sprinkled throughout the Competition. Cannes regular Pedro Almodóvar is back to the festival after a muted response to 2016’s “Julieta,” and he’s brought some of his most dependable collaborators in tow. “Pain & Glory,” an apparently deeply personal story of a filmmaker wrestling with a lifetime of hard choices, stars Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, neither of whom have let Almodóvar down in the past.

But for North American audiences, a Spanish-language Almodóvar film is still an arthouse movie, and Cannes has to deliver something even splashier than that to generate much media attention from that side of the world. Enter Elton John, who will attend the festival to support Dexter Fletcher’s musical biopic alongside stars Taron Egerton and Bryce Dallas Howard. It’s safe to say that “Rocketman” will be the snazziest Cannes premiere at the festival, and the decision to screen it out of competition suggests that Paramount feels confident the movie can deliver in a category of its own. Fremaux gave a shoutout to Paramount executive Jim Gianopolous, who brought “Moulin Rouge” to the festival  nearly 20 years ago. “Rocketman” marks the return of a major studio premiering one of its most anticipated titles at the festival, and Cannes needs that just as much as its venerated auteurs to maintain its industry relevance.

A Solid Showing For Asia

One year after Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” won the Palme, Cannes continues to provide a platform for a handful of Asian directors. Korean Bong Joon-ho last came to Cannes with “Okja,” when its premiere was overshadowed by the Netflix logo in its credits (the backlash from exhibitors led to Netflix’s absence at the festival the next year). With “Parasite” (set for a U.S. release by NEON), the reliable genre director has delivered a peculiar story bathed in mystery (though it reportedly involves “one family obsessed with another family,” whatever that means). Bong is joined in competition by Chinese director Diao Yi’nan’s “The Wild Goose Lake.” Yi’nan won Berlin’s Golden Bear with 2014’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” and jumps into Competition with this promising detective noir. That genre seems to be a fad in China, as Zu Feng’s potboiler “Summer of Changsha” will receive an Un Certain Regard slot.

Still, there were several omissions from the Asian continent that should raise some eyebrows. Chinese censorship complicated the premieres for several films in Berlin in February, and may very well have played a role in the Cannes announcement. It’s unclear whether Lou Ye’s “Saturday Fiction” was deemed acceptable since many expected it would make the cut at Cannes, where the filmmaker’s “Spring Fever” screened a decade ago. No such luck. Even more surprising: A year after his Palme win, Kore-eda tackled his first English-language production with “The Truth,” starring Ethan Hawke, Juliette Binoche, and Catherine Deneuve. There were rumors for months that the film was a contender for an opening night slot, but Fremaux said at the press conference that the film wasn’t ready and should be expected to premiere on the fall circuit. “It was a pity for us,” he said.

Malick Could Make a Comeback

Malick’s “The Tree of Life” divided audiences in 2011, only to charge ahead and win the Palme d’Or anyway. Since then, the reclusive filmmaker has entered the most prolific stage of his career, but also one of the spottiest: “To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” the IMAX documentary “Voyage of Time,” and “Song to Song” all received mixed-to-negative responses at other festivals. But the decision to bring Malick back to Cannes competition suggests that “A Hidden Life” (previously called “Radegund”), which stars August Diel and Cannes regular (and red carpet eye candy) Matthias Schoenaerts in a story about German conscientious objectors in WWII, implies that the filmmaker has upped his game again. Early reports suggest that this one at least offers a more substantial plot than Malick’s last few efforts, though the notorious tinkerer often changes his movies at the last minute, so this one will be a real curiosity right up until its premiere.

And Xavier Dolan, Too

Canadian filmmaker Dolan was a child prodigy whose filmmaking career exploded at Cannes with his Directors Fortnight premiere “I Killed My Mother,” which he directed at the age of 19. Since then, he has faced a mixed response throughout the Official Selection, where the exuberant “Heartbeats” and “Laurence Anyways” played in Un Certain Regard before he upgraded to Competition with “Mommy.” That movie scored him a best director prize, and it was followed up by “It’s Only the End of the World” in 2016. But even though the jury awarded Dolan with a Grand Prix that year, the movie was eviscerated by critics and led Dolan to publicly express his frustrations with premiering at Cannes. He seems to have gotten over it with “Mattias & Maxime,” which stars Dolan and a cast of mostly unknown actors in another ensemble piece about energetic young people. Dolan, prolific but still a vibrant and youthful filmmaker, excels at capturing the uncertainties of twentysomethings in the midst of major life transitions. The plot remains unclear, but if Dolan delivers, this one will be seen as a return to form.

Dardennes Eye Palme #3

Belgian duo Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne are among the only filmmakers to win the Palme d’Or for two films in a row (they’re joined only by Michael Haneke). However, these revered social-realists stumbled at Cannes during their last outing there with “The Unknown Girl,” which struck many critics as a lesser example of the filmmakers’ strengths. Now they’re back with the provocative “The Young Ahmed,” the story of a Belgian teen whose extremist interpretation of the Quran leads him to a plan to kill his teacher. This blend of suspenseful storytelling with unnerving real-life ingredients is the Dardennes’ talent in a nutshell, and one of the few entries where the combination of filmmakers and premise alone make it a must-see. No filmmaker has ever won three Palme d’Ors, so the Dardennes have another chance to make history at this year’s festival.

Desplechin Comes Home Again

French director Arnaud Desplechin has been a critical darling for years, as his textured character studies have a grand literary sweep. But he hasn’t visited Cannes competition since 2013’s English-language “Jimmy P,” which received a mixed response. The festival banished him to Directors Fortnight with “My Golden Days,” where critics celebrated the opening night selection. Desplechin got Official Selection’s opening night slot last year with the time-spanning love triangle “Ismael’s Ghosts,” but critics tore it apart, and it was screened out of competition. But Desplechin has the chance to regain his status as a Cannes-competing auteur this year with “Roubaix, a Light,” which stars Lea Seydoux (another red carpet favorite) at the center of a murder mystery in northern France. The genre element may help broaden interest in Desplechin’s work, and remind critics why he continues to have a presence at the festival no matter which section he’s in.

As Does Elia Suleiman

Palestinian director Elia Suleiman is one of the most remarkable filmmakers to emerge from the Middle East, as his filmmaking combines silent slapstick comedy with melancholic representations of the Palestinian experience. But it’s no easy feat to tell those sort of stories, and it’s been 10 years since his remarkable “The Time That Remains” premiered in Cannes Competition. He’s back with the international co-production “It Must Be Heaven,” a promising fresh dose of the filmmaker’s vision that finds Suleiman once again in front of the camera and traveling the globe to represent the experiences of a Palestinian abroad. However, as France has yet to recognize the State of Palestine, conversations surrounding the movie at Cannes are likely to stir up debate. But that may be part of the movie’s point.

Sorry, Scandinavia

The region of the world that gave us Ingmar Bergman has no presence in competition this year. That’s especially a shame for fans of Swedish director Roy Andersson, whose whimsical visions “You, the Living” and “Songs From the Second Floor” were both big hits at Cannes. But Andersson’s exciting followup to “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” entitled “About Endlessness,” is apparently still in the editing room and wasn’t submitted.

Honoré Hides in UCR

Meanwhile, another French regular has a lower-profile presence at Cannes. Christoph Honoré has pleased critics for years at the festival, where 2007’s musical “Love Songs” was a sensation, and last year’s delicate AIDS drama “Sorry Angel” received solid reviews. But “Chamber 212” has been relegated to Un Certain Regard, and shows him operating on a smaller scale, with regular collaborator Chiara Mastroianni and Vincent Lacoste in the story of an aging couple whose marriage is complicated by an affair. Fremaux compared the movie to the work of Sacha Guitry, and called it “very Parisian.” It may not be the biggest Cannes sensation, but this is one case where a major auteur may actually be helped by a sidebar that will help audiences manage their expectations.

What Will Close the Festival?

Few filmmakers actually desire the closing night slot at Cannes, since much of the press and industry has already left by the end of the festival. In recent years, that has led Cannes to experiment. Sometimes, the festival simply keeps the slot open for an additional screening of the Palme d’Or winner; at other times, it has been an opportunity for a glitzy retrospective screening, as when Quentin Tarantino presented “A Fistful of Dollars” in 2018. This year, the closer remains an open question. Per Fremaux at the press conference: “There will be closing film. Or the Palme. We’ll see!” He added that Justine Triet’s competition entry “Sibyl” screens at the end of the festival, the same day it opens in France, which may give Cannes a de facto closing night film anyway. But whatever caps this year’s Cannes, it’s safe to say that the press and industry will have many other movies to debate by then.

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