Unveiling the Cannes official selection in Paris, festival president Pierre Lescure and artistic director Thierry Fremaux set the stage for an epic clash between the powers of good (including Steven Spielberg’s big friendly giant, “The BFG,” and Shane Black’s “Nice Guys”) and evil (“Money Monster” and “The Neon Demon”) among its English-language fare, which also includes new films from Jeff Nichols (“Loving”), Sean Penn (“The Last Face”) and Jim Jarmusch — the latter bringing both bus-driver drama “Paterson” and Iggy Pop docu “Gimme Danger.”
While paparazzi will have plenty of American stars to distract them on the red carpet — ranging from Shia LaBeouf (who headlines British director Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey”) to a double helping of Kristen Stewart (appearing in both “Personal Shopper” and the previously announced opening night film, Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society”) — the lineup also includes new work from such high-profile directors as Pedro Almodovar (“Julieta”), Park Chan-wook (“The Handmaiden”) and Paul Verhoeven (“Elle”).
The 49 titles unveiled on Thursday represent 28 countries in all, with an especially strong showing for Romania (with two films in competition, past Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” and Cristi Puiu’s “Sierra-Nevada,” and debut “Dogs” in Un Certain Regard), Israel (“Personal Affairs,” “Beyond the Mountains and Hills”) and, of course, France. While French producers and distributors exert intense pressure on Fremaux and his team, the big winner is American newcomer Amazon Studios, with five films in official selection.
As for the global range of the lineup, such diversity is to be expected from the world’s leading showcase for international cinema, though questions from the assembled journalists immediately revealed perceived blind spots in the lineup (“No Italy!?” “Where’s Mexico?”). Fremaux shrugged off such concerns, stressing that the selection represents the best of the record-setting 1,869 features submitted for consideration.
Regarding the complete absence of Italian filmmakers in competition (a mere year after three of the country’s top directors wrestled for the Palme), Fremaux said the country’s rising generation of filmmakers was repped by Stefano Mordini (“Pericles the Black Man”) in Un Certain Regard, quipping, “Italy is close to our heart, as this year’s Cannes poster demonstrates!”
Still, with only two from Latin America (“Acquarius,” from Brazilian critic-turned-helmer Kleber Mendonca Filho, and Argentine-made “The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis”) and two from Africa (NYU-schooled Egyptian director Mohamed Diab’s “Clash” and Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “A Chad Tragedy”), Fremaux should expect further questions in the coming weeks as to the largely Euro- and U.S.-centric lineup.
Although there are only three female directors in competition — Arnold, Nicole Garcia (“From the Land of the Moon” and Maren Ade (“Toni Erdmann”) — roughly one-fifth of the directors in the overall official selection are women. The Un Certain Regard section features the work of five additional female helmers — and showcases a younger crop of talent overall.
Less crowded with “the usual suspects” than recent years, the competition runs the gamut of age and experience, making room for rising young talents — such as Nichols (whose “Loving” focuses on a mixed-race American couple arrested for miscegenation in 1958) and Canadian Xavier Dolan (“It’s Only the End of the World”) — alongside more well-established auteurs. It’s little surprise to find previous Palme d’Or winners Ken Loach (“I, Daniel Blake”) or Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“The Unknown Girl”) in competition, unless you count the fact that Loach had indicated he expected to retire after 2014’s “Jimmy’s Hall.”
The programming committee poached just one film from this year’s Sundance lineup, Matt Ross’ “Captain Fantastic,” which stars Viggo Mortensen as an anti-establishment ex-hippie.
Apart from “Elle” and Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” (which Fremaux called a “cannibal horror movie set in the fashion world”), the competition lineup is light on genre fare, though there are other juicy examples peppered throughout the rest of the official selection — including American director Michael O’Shea’s debut “Transfiguration” (one of “several vampire stories in this year’s lineup,” per Fremaux) and Na Hong-jin’s gritty Korean crime thriller “Goksung”.
While the selection is nearly complete, Fremaux indicated that he might still add one or two titles in the coming weeks, later telling Variety that he’s still waiting to see Asghar Farhadi’s latest. That said, several much-anticipated films that cineastes hoped to discover in Cannes will definitely not be there, including Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “The Woman in the Silver Plate,” neither of which is done, according to Fremaux. “I have seen parts of it, but it’s not ready even though it finished shooting last year,” he said.
Among the other conspicuous omissions was a closing night movie, which Fremaux explained by saying he instead plans to end the festival by re-screening whichever film wins the Palme d’Or. Asked if that change in strategy was a way to solve the eternal dilemma of finding a decent film to wrap the festival, Fremaux pointed out some closing films have been great successes in the history of Cannes, including Spielberg’s “E.T.” and Ridley Scott’s “Thelma & Louise.” But he acknowledged that the main problem with closing night is the fact that most people have already left by the end of the festival, which makes it a tough sell to convince filmmakers who want to provide the best showcase for their movies. By contrast, he hopes that repeating the Palme winner on closing night might bolster the slot’s profile and trigger more interest in it.
Addressing security concerns amid Europe’s current terrorist turmoil, Lescure said the festival will be responsible for ensuring security inside the Palais and its immediate surroundings. “We have staffed up with 599 security staff who are highly experienced,” said Lescure, who added that the festival will be collaborating on a daily basis with local and regional authorities to provide the best possible security measures.
Before the press conference, Lescure and Fremaux gave the floor to French entertainment workers and students who protested against the government’s attempt to toughen labor laws for audiovisual, film and culture industryites.
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 11-22.