The Cannes Film Festival is always down to the wire, but this year’s edition has been especially nerve-wracking for anyone eager to make the cut. As the industry scrambles for some semblance of normalcy, the cinephile destination was inundated with last-minute submissions, as indicated by this week’s announcement of 47 films from around the world with the promise of more to come.
More than any other festival on the planet, Cannes aims to project an air of exclusivity to its selection, the sense that it truly has assembled the best of the best. That goal is often informed by an array of other practical factors, including the choices made by various distributors and sales agents to make certain films available, the seniority of filmmakers deemed “worthy” of a venerated competition section, and the festival’s predilection for certain regions of the world over others.
Despite the impression of last-minute decision-making this year, Cannes projected its usual confidence with the lineup announcement for its 75th edition. “We are right on time,” outgoing festival director Pierre Lescure said at the start of the press conference, noting that the announcement had been sandwiched in between France’s presidential election last week and the upcoming run-off next week. That meant that the announcement was a week earlier than usual, and led to invites going out from the programmers mere hours before the selection was unveiled. The result was a very unfinished lineup.
Nevertheless, some aspects of the Cannes lineup have been known for a while, and you don’t have to be a diehard festival obsessive to know about them. The festival has been holding the red carpet slot for “Top Gun: Maverick” for two years, going back to its canceled 2020 edition, and Tom Cruise will finally make his way to the Croisette this year. Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis” was still undergoing production back then, when Tom Hanks, who plays The King’s longtime manager Col. Tom Parker, became one of the first high-profile people to contract COVID. But the Baz Luhrmann biopic finally reached the finish line in time for its own out-of-competition premiere. And Cannes regular George Miller will return to Cannes, where “Mad Max: Fury Road” screened in 2015 and he chaired the jury a year later. His long-awaited follow-up, the fantasy-drama “Three Thousand Years of Solitude,” will come to Cannes with stars Idris Elba and Tilda Swinton in tow.
But the real appeal of Cannes comes from the films that live or die by its buzz, work from filmmakers who have built their global reputations on returning to the festival year after year, as well as newcomers who seem likely to join the fray. As the international business and culture of moviegoing continues to reboot itself in the midst of the pandemic, it can be harder for cinema to stand out in the noise, and Cannes is not immune. With the rush to announce this year’s films, the lineup can look like a pileup of movies unleashed on the industry with minimal context. Here are some of the key takeaways for anyone feeling overwhelmed.
An Opening Night Surprise and the Jury That Wasn’t
In most years, Cannes unveils its opening night film weeks, if not months, in advance. (Last year, opening night selection “Annette” was announced in mid-April.) This year, the scrambled nature of our times has disrupted this tradition as well. Despite the announcement of films in all of the main sections, the opening night was a question mark until the moment the selection was unveiled. There was speculation that the Italian 1970s drama “L’immensita” might take that spot with its star, Penélope Cruz, heading the jury. That rumor was combatted by the possibility that “L’immensita” might wind up in competition and make Cruz ineligible for the jury slot.
So far, “L’immensita” is nowhere to be found in the Official Selection, and the identity of the jury remains a total question mark. Speculation remains about Cruz taking that spot, or possibly Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, though recent plagiarism charges against him from a former student may be delaying that process. However, the festival did unveil a rather surprising opening night selection with “Z,” a zombie comedy from Cannes regular Michel Hazanavicius, whose “The Artist” was a hit at the festival in 2011. The movie didn’t come out of nowhere: “Z” was originally slated to premiere in the midnight section at January’s Sundance Film Festival (where it was titled “Final Cut”), but when the Park City gathering went virtual, the film’s reps decided to hold onto it for a better in-person slot. That gamble appears to have paid off, and marks the second time in recent years that a playful story of the undead will open the festival after Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” took that spot in 2019. “Z” stars Romain Duris and Bérénice Bejo.
Graduating to the Comp
The most gratifying narrative that Cannes has offered over the years is the potential for filmmakers to make their way through the various sections of the festival until they “graduate” to competition. Last year’s zany Palme d’Or winner “Titane,” for instance, found Julia Ducournau making her way to the big leagues after her debut “Raw” launched her career out of the unofficial Critics’ Week sidebar. This year, several filmmakers who have previously made a mark at the festival are finally in the running for the Palme, and some of them are long overdue.
In 2018, Iranian-born Swedish director Ali Abbasi’s haunting fantasy-drama “Border” was a breakout in the Un Certain Regard sidebar that went on to secure U.S. distribution with NEON and an Oscar nomination for its makeup. Now, Abbasi is entering competition with “Holy Spider,” the bleak story of a religious man whose violent quest to cleanse the holy city of Mashhad of corruption sends him on a murderous spree. Expect the unexpected with Abbasi, whose profile will only continue to grow this year, as he also has an adaptation of “Hamlet” starring Noomi Rapace in the pipeline.
Another sophomore effort entering the Palme race this year is 30-year-old Belgian director Lukas Dhont, whose debut “Girl” joined “Border” in 2018 as one of the breakouts of the Un Certain Regard section. “Girl” won the Camera d’Or for first-time filmmakers and secured an awards campaign from Netflix, though it faced some backlash for its portrayal of its trans lead. Nevertheless, Dhont gets a second chance with “Close,” the story of a pair of 13-year-old boys who attempt to understand the dissolution of their friendship. The competition slot for the movie suggests that Cannes sees real potential for Dhont — he becomes one of the youngest filmmakers to obtain a Cannes competition slot in history.
However, the most exciting filmmakers to make it into competition for the first time should have cracked that section years ago (they’re also only two of the three women directors announced so far as part of the competition, a recurring shortcoming the festival has yet to overcome).
At 75, French auteur Claire Denis has been a revered master of the cinematic arts for almost 35 years. While films like Un Certain Regard premiere “35 Shots of Rum” and Directors’ Fortnight opener “Let the Sunshine In” were revered at the festival, she hasn’t been in competition since “Chocolat” some 22 years ago, despite a formidable output — until now, with a movie that wasn’t even shot in France. The A24-produced “The Stars at Noon” features Margaret Qualley, Joe Alwyn, and Danny Ramirez in the story of a romance between two characters during the Nicaraguan Revolution. Shot in Panama last year, “The Stars at Noon” was barely finished in time for Cannes consideration, a fate that previously befell her space opera “High Life” before it premiered in the fall. Fortunately, “The Stars at Noon” made it just under the wire, and will mark Denis’ second festival premiere this year following her lower-budget romance “Both Sides of the Blade,” which premiered at Berlin.
And then there’s Kelly Reichardt. The master of American minimalism first made her way to the festival with 2008’s seminal Michelle Williams vehicle “Wendy and Lucy,” and she joined the jury in 2019. Over the years, Reichardt’s filmmaking scope has evolved in ambitious and satisfying ways, from the anthology piece “Certain Women” to the pioneer-era buddy drama “First Cow.” Now, she’s returning to the present day with another Williams showcase and it’s also produced by A24: “Showing Up,” the comedic story of a New York artist. Reichardt’s understated approach may not call attention to itself the way some of the more radical Cannes entries tend to do, but it’s worthy of just as much anticipation as the latest effort from one of the best U.S. directors working today. She’s not the only American in this very international section, however…
An American Regular
While James Gray may not be the most revered filmmaker in the U.S., Cannes has held him in high regard for years: His police drama “We Own the Night,” the Joaquin Phoenix romance “Two Lovers,” and Elia Kazan-inspired “The Immigrant” were all hits in competition. Though his own space opera “Ad Astra” went to Venice in 2019, Gray is making a rather surprising return to competition even as some prognosticators assumed he wouldn’t be ready until the fall. The Focus Features-produced “Armageddon Time” stars Anne Hathaway, Anthony Hopkins, and “Succession” breakout Jeremy Strong in a personal coming-of-age story set in Queens. For this obsessive New York director, it suggests something of a return to form after the ambitious futurism of his last undertaking, and it’s easy to see why he would have pushed to make the Cannes deadline: They’ll be happy to have him back.
But what about that other American director that everyone did expect to make the cut?
Who Needs Lynch?
In the weeks leading up to the festival, a bizarre rumor surfaced that suggested David Lynch would be returning to the festival for the first time since “Twin Peaks: The Return” with a secret new project. That turned out to be nonsense that Lynch himself had to dispel, but another major filmmaker with a Cannes history is bringing his own TV effort to the festival. That’s Olivier Assayas, the French auteur who has screened everything from “Clouds of Sils Maria” to “Personal Shopper” in competition. His television miniseries “Carlos” premiered as a special screening in 2010, and now he’s bringing the HBO limited series “Irma Vep” to the Cannes Premiere section. An adaptation of Assayas’ own 1996 Maggie Cheung drama (which screened in Un Certain Regard), this new version of “Irma Vep” features Alicia Vikander, Carrie Brownstein, and Jerrod Carmichael among its cast. The miniseries (which Assayas first discussed in a panel discussion hosted by IndieWire in 2020) was co-produced by A24, and if you’re sensing a pattern about behind-the-scenes American stakeholders in this year’s lineup, it’s just getting started…
Invasion of A24
On the heels of a successful launch for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” a new round of financing, and a $2.5 billion valuation, A24 is wasting no time sticking to the frontlines of film culture. The distributor’s Denis and Reichardt projects in competition and the Assayas TV show are just a part of its prominence across the festival this year. The studio also produced Ethan Coen’s Jerry Lee Lewis documentary “Trouble in Mind,” a few months after his brother Joel’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” showing an investment in the Coen brothers business even when they aren’t working together. Considering how few documentaries screen at Cannes, expect “Trouble in Mind” to benefit from an elevated presence at the festival, which holds the Coens’ in high regard.
Meanwhile, Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut, the A24-produced Sundance opener “When You Finish Saving the World,” is expected to be part of Critics’ Week when that section makes its program announcement next week. That’s when we’ll also learn about Directors’ Fortnight, where A24 is expected to premiere a few of its edgier titles. So stay tuned on that front.
Return of the Winners
Despite the setbacks that the film industry has faced in the past two years, the Palme d’Or remains one of the most coveted prizes in the business, and often helps catapult filmmakers onto the global stage, and many of them have gone on to Oscar glory. The 2019 win for “Parasite” set the stage for its historic Best Picture trophy, while last year’s “Titane” became France’s Oscar submission, even though it wasn’t shortlisted. And simply contending for the Palme helps elevate a movie’s profile, as it did last year for “Drive My Car,” which built steady word of mouth before securing Japan’s first Best Picture nomination. That’s why filmmakers fight for competition slots, even if they’ve won the section before.
This year, there are four recent Palme winners in contention. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won Cannes back in 2007 with his naturalistic abortion thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” and he’s been back over the years with similarly spare and gripping looks at class struggles and oppressive forces. Now he’ll premiere “RMN,” five years after his acclaimed “Graduation.” The new effort is about a man who returns to his small village for Christmas and finds that his community is plagued by anti-immigrant bias. Expect another tough and timely look at a global problem.
Another Palme alumnus, Ruben Ostlund, returns to the festival after his art-world satire “The Square” won the top prize in 2017. Buzz is strong for his first English-language undertaking, “Triangle of Sadness,” which stars Woody Harrelson as the Marxist captain of a luxury yacht that finds him marooned with a wealthy young couple (Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson) on a remote island. Ostlund’s work is always a savage look at societal dysfunction and it seems unlikely that this one will go any other way.
Meanwhile, Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Palme for 2018’s eventual Oscar nominee “Shoplifters” before making his own international effort “The Truth” with American and French stars. Now he’s back with “Broker,” the story of “baby boxes” that allow parents to anonymously abandon their infants. That premise suggests a return to the broken family territory of “Shoplifters” and “Like Father, Like Son.” Those and other Kore-eda movies have done well for him at Cannes over the years.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Cannes lineup without the latest neorealist drama from Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, among the few directors to win the Palme for two films (“Rosetta” and “L’Enfant”). With “Tori and Lokita,” the Belgian directors turn to the immigration crisis with the story of young refugees finding an uneasy footing in the European country. The Dardennes don’t always dominate Cannes buzz, but the festival welcomes their intimate and topical filmmaking each time out, so it’s hard to imagine this one going any other way.
Homecoming For a Provocateur
But no Cannes regular is likely to receive a more boisterous homecoming celebration than David Cronenberg, who will premiere his first feature in eight years, “Crimes of the Future,” in competition. Produced by NEON, the movie borrows the title of Cronenberg’s 1970 feature but isn’t a remake of the same material. Instead, this one finds him re-teaming with regular collaborator Viggo Mortensen alongside Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart in a futuristic setting that involves organ metamorphosis, experimental art, and a conspiratorial group poised to impact the future of humanity. If that sounds like a lot to take in, well, welcome back, Mr. Cronenberg.
The body-horror maestro returns with another story about the intersection of technology and physicality sure to make a lot of noise on the Croisette, and not only because of that exciting cast. Early word on the movie suggests some seriously shocking — and even controversial — developments in the final act of the movie that could generate all kinds of unpredictable reactions. With Cronenberg, one should expect nothing less.
The movie also means that Stewart gets the ultimate breather after her Oscar campaign for “Spencer.” The recently nominated actress is a Cannes regular who has previously been at the center of Assayas films there in addition to sitting on the jury. A cinephile on the brink of making her directorial debut, Stewart is likely excited to attend for reasons beyond her role in a new film there.
…And Of Course, the French
Above all, Cannes is a launchpad for the French film industry, which mandates the presence of several movies in its competition. This year, the festival was sending out invites to French directors mere hours before the press conference, and it’s still possible that more could be added. In addition to Denis, French contenders include regular Arnaud Desplechin, re-teaming with Marion Cotillard for the story of estranged siblings brought together by their parents’ death. Meanwhile, actress-turned-director Valerie Bruni Tedeschi returns to the competition for the first time since her “A Castle in Italy” played there in 2013, with “Forever Young.” Starring Louis Garrel and Nadia Tereszkiewicz, the movie takes place in 1980s Paris and follows a comedy troupe admitted to a famed theater school.
It’s always hard to assess the quality of French films at Cannes given the mandate to include them, but these filmmakers have solid track records. It remains to be seen whether Cannes might add some younger French talent to the lineup in the coming days, such as Lea Mysius and Alice Diop, both of whom have buzzy new films in the pipeline. Meanwhile, French genre-based storytelling isn’t limited to the opening night selection, as the ever-entertaining Quentin Dupieux (“Rubber”) has a new film in the midnight section with a title that suggests his usual prankish energy at work: “Smoking Makes You Cough.”
Russia and Ukraine Won’t Be Forgotten
When the Russia-Ukraine war began earlier this year, Cannes was among the first festivals to issue a response by saying that it would not welcome any delegates associated with the Russian government at its events. That declaration left the door open for Russian films at the festival, and now we know why: Cannes competition regular Kirill Serebrennikov returns to the festival this year, one year after his head-spinning superhero/social satire “Petrov’s Flu” premiered there. At the time, Serebrennikov was unable to leave the country due to trumped-up embezzlement charges by the country’s government after he spoke out against it. Now the ban has been lifted and Serebrennikov has resettled in Berlin, so he’s likely to finally return to Cannes for the premiere of “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” which looks at the legendary composer and his relationship with his wife Antonina Miliukova.
Meanwhile, Ukraine will have its own presence at Cannes this year with two very different filmmakers, both of whom reflect the current crisis in their own ways. Maksim Nakonechnyi’s “Butterfly Vision,” a selection in Un Certain Regard, takes place in the war-torn Donbas region and corruption from pro-Russian forces that the country has struggled with for years prior to recent events. Meanwhile, Cannes regular Sergei Loznitsa frequently premieres his archival documentaries about world history at the festival, and his “The Natural History of Destruction” promises a complex and nuanced look at the impact of the Allied forces’ bombing of Germany during WWII. Loznitsa has emerged as something of a controversial figure in recent weeks, when the Ukrainian Film Academy expelled him after he suggested that festivals shouldn’t ban Russian filmmakers. But Cannes, which has a Russian filmmaker in its ranks, will welcome him with open arms.
Spotlight on Asia
Cannes festival director Thierry Fremaux didn’t dwell on the pandemic during the lineup press conference, but he did acknowledge that the latest COVID surge in Asia might have a negative impact on attendance from that part of the world. Nevertheless, Asia has plenty of reasons to track the buzz from this year’s selection. In addition to Kore-eda’s film, the competition welcomes back Park Chan-wook, the genre maestro who took a detour to English language with 2016’s “The Handmaiden” and the Amazon series “The Little Drummer Girl.” Now he’s back to familiar ground with the Korean-set “Decision to Leave,” which follows a detective investigating the wife of a dead man. Park’s formidable international following means that this will be one Cannes title on many people’s hit lists. Meanwhile, Asian films populate other sections of the festival, including another Korean movie, “Hunt,” in midnight, and Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou’s “All the People I’ll Never Be” in Un Certain Regard.
The Middle East and the Muslim World, Revisited
Cannes is often a sturdy platform for Middle Eastern films, and this edition seems poised to elevate the career of Tarik Saleh, who has another movie ready to go mere weeks after the release of his Chris Pine drama “The Contractor.” With “The Boy from Heaven,” Saleh turns to Cairo, where his debut “The Nile Hilton Incident” took place, and unfolds in the aftermath of an imam who dies at a major university as various figures battle to replace him. Saleh is joined in competition by Cannes newcomer Saeed Roustayi, an Iranian director whose “Leila’s Brothers” premieres at the festival.
Perhaps the most significant film from the Muslim world announced so far is actually in Un Certain Regard. That’s “Joyland,” the first Pakistani movie at the festival. Saim Sadiq’s debut is rumored to star a trans character, which is certain to generate controversy in its home country, even as it finds an audience abroad likely to welcome a fresh view of Pakistani life.
More Than One Way to Talk About Elvis
The legacy of Elvis Presley won’t just come down to the Luhrmann biopic this year. Cannes will also welcome the granddaughter of the singer, actress Riley Keough, with her directorial debut. Fresh off acclaim for last year’s “Zola,” Keough steps behind the camera alongside co-director Gina Gammell for this promising look at a trio of Lakota men on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (a backdrop that some Cannes viewers may recall from Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider”). While Un Certain Regard can be an unpredictable sidebar, this entry is poised to generate plenty of intrigue in the weeks leading up to its premiere as the only American movie in the section.
Animation? Docs? Hello?
For all the expansiveness of its international selection, Cannes rarely finds space for two significant cinematic traditions: animation and documentary. Sadly, that remains the case this year. While Pixar’s “Lightyear” was rumored to be in contention, the “Toy Story” spin-off isn’t going to the festival after all. Other possible animated entries, such as the Haruki Murakami adaptation “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” haven’t surfaced either. It remains to be seen whether future announcements could rectify this oversight.
Meanwhile, documentaries fared slightly better. Veteran non-fiction filmmaker Brett Morgen (“Jane”) will make his Cannes debut with the David Bowie-centric “Moonage Daydream,” while the aforementioned Ethan Coen documentary on Jerry Lee Lewis means that music documentaries will have plenty of room to shine, while Loznitsa’s archival work has arrived on schedule. There’s also the rare documentary in Un Certain Regard, the Indian “All That Breathes,” which won Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary competition in January.
But there’s no sign yet of Apple’s anticipated Sidney Poitier documentary or other non-fiction possibilities. For a festival that once handed the Palme d’Or to Michael Moore, this absence remains puzzling, especially as the documentary market continues to grow worldwide.
Waiting for the Fall
While some films may have been rejected by Cannes or could be added later, others opt for premiering in the fall at Venice. The Lido festival screens many films at the same time as Cannes in the hopes of coaxing them with a longer timeline to finish their works. We already knew that Alejandro González Iñarritu’s comedic Mexican story “Bardo,” his first feature since 2017’s “The Revenant,” would hold off for Venice. That may also be the fate of Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Les Enfants des Autres,” given that as a prominent French director, she would probably have been welcome at Cannes. Venice is also a possibility for Italian auteur Pietro Marcello’s “Scarlet” and a rumored new project from Iran’s Jafar Panahi.
Meanwhile, A24’s influence is likely to extend into the fall, as the company looks to premiere Joanna Hogg’s “The Eternal Daughter” one year after the U.K. director’s “The Souvenir: Part II” energized Directors’ Fortnight. Once again teaming with longtime pal Tilda Swinton, “The Eternal Daughter” is a ghost story that should attract many of the filmmaker’s admirers recently exposed to her work. But cinephiles high on the Hogg will have to wait a bit longer.
But Wait! There’s More!
With everything unveiled so far, this year’s Cannes already promises a good balance of celebrity and snapshots of international cinema. Meanwhile, Directors’ Fortnight is scrambling to complete its own selection while at the mercy of what the Official Selection chooses to add in the coming days. The Fortnight lineup is expected to drop on April 19, with the Critics’ Week selection on deck for around that time as well. All of which means that this year’s Cannes journey has only just begun.