Cannes Remains Film Buffs’ Heaven

A look ahead to this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which starts on Wednesday.

I have been attending the Cannes Film Festival for nearly 20 years. It’s the only non-Israeli film festival I make sure to attend: not only because of its combination of cinema, sea and sun, but because going there means 10 very intense days of penetrating the cinematic zeitgeist, which the main competition – whether it is strong or weak – represents.

Of course, it’s not only the main competition that arouses interest at the festival in southern France. There are also the films screened in other sections (which are sometimes even more interesting than the films in competition), as well as those screened out of competition and the restored films screened as part of Cannes Classics.

I still haven’t lost my curiosity about the festival. The days are long and crowded, but the opportunity to get away for 10 days and devote them solely to film (and to my readers too, of course, I won’t forget them) still fascinates me.

From “The Third Man” to “Pulp Fiction,” and from “MASH” and “Taxi Driver” to “The Pianist” and “Winter Sleep” – the list of films that have won the main prize (which was not always called the Palme d’Or) at the Cannes Film Festival over the years creates a historical narrative of its own. That history is often rich, varied and more relevant than the historical narratives created by other cinema institutions – such as the Academy Awards, for instance (certainly in recent decades).

The 68th edition of Cannes – which is still the world’s most highly regarded film festival – will open tomorrow with the screening of the French film “Standing Tall.” It is being shown out of competition, which is the heart of the festival and its main source of tension. The drama was directed by Emmanuelle Bercot, and tells the story of a juvenile delinquent and stars Catherine Deneuve and Benot Magimel. Even though it sounds ridiculous in this day and age, when the festival organizers announced the opening film, they emphasized the fact that it is the first time in the festival’s history it is launching with a film directed by a woman.

From the French film 'Standing Tall' (La Tete Haute).

Bercot is also an actor, and her involvement at this year’s festival will be twofold: In addition to directing “Standing Tall” – and the choice of the festival’s opening film is always a prestigious affair, often arousing strong critical controversy – Bercot will also be seen in one of the films showing in competition: “Mon roi” is also directed by a woman, the French director who uses only her first name, Mawenn.

There will be 19 films competing for the Palme d’Or this year. I should note that, as opposed to several previous years, this year’s list does not include any Israeli films. Indeed, Israel’s presence on the French Riviera this year is meager – as opposed to last year, when its presence in the different categories was unprecedented. Such is the nature of film.

There are years when the list of directors competing for the top prize includes several of the most glittering names in contemporary cinema (and often these names disappoint). Although this year’s list includes movies by several fine and important directors – two of whom, Italian Nanni Moretti and American Gus Van Sant have already won the Palme d’Or – it seems less glittering than in previous years. Of course, that doesn’t mean it won’t end up including some great movies.

The mixture that characterizes the 19 films participating in the main competition is very predictable. I have claimed in the past, and will say so again now, that the main competition at Cannes appears to have become a kind of members’ club, where the same directors are invited again and again. Two of the directors competing this year have previously won the Palme d’Or, and some of their other films vied for the top prize. The list includes also quite a number of directors who have already competed for the Palme d’Or and, even if they didn’t win it, they claimed one of the other prizes. This list includes French directors Mawenn and Jacques Audiard; Italian directors Matteo Garrone and Paolo Sorrentino (who, together with Moretti, constitute an impressive Italian representation at this year’s competition); Taiwanese director Hsiao-Hsien Hou; and Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. But the list also includes a number of directors who are participating for the first time in the main competition – and that actually contributes to the greater interest this year.

Sometimes, one hears a complaint about the small number of French films participating in the main competition at a festival taking place in France. But this year, the French will have nothing to complain about, given the prominent French presence. In addition to the opening film and the works of Audiard and Mawenn, films by Stéphane Brizé, Valérie Donzelli and Guillaume Nicloux will also be competing. Donzelli’s film, incidentally, “Marguerite & Julien,” is of particular interest to me, because it is based on a script that was written in 1971 for French director François Truffaut that never panned out.

From 'Son of Saul'.

In addition to the strong French and Italian presence – which may signify establishment support for these two film industries, which have not done so well since their glory days in the 1960s and ’70s – there is broad international representation this year. The competition will include films by French Canadian Denis Villeneuve, Mexican Michel Franco, Norwegian Joachim Trier, Australian Justin Kurzel (a version of “Macbeth” starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard), Greek Yorgos Lanthimos (and, since the death of the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, I don’t recall seeing a Greek film in competition) and Hungarian Laszlo Nemes. Nemes’ film, “Son of Saul,” is the only debut feature participating in the competition, and brings in an Israeli note since the script was developed in the second international incubator held by the Sam Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem.

The organizers at Cannes always aspire to a prominent U.S. presence in the main competition, because that’s the primary red carpet attraction for the media; this desire has been doubly realized at this year’s event. In addition to Gus Van Sant’s “The Sea of Trees,” starring Matthew McConaughey, there’s also a film in competition that interests me more than all others: “Carol,” by director Todd Haynes, whose “Far From Heaven” (2002) remains one of the finest films produced this century. His new thriller, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, is based on a book by Patricia Highsmith (“Strangers on a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), which piques my curiosity further.

What will increase the presence of stars on the Promenade de la Croisette – the promenade along the Mediterranean where the festival takes place – is the somewhat surprising fact that even some of the non-American films participating this year are in English, and therefore feature attention-grabbing stars. For example, Michael Caine stars in Sorrentino’s English-language film “Youth”; Gabriel Byrne, Jesse Eisenberg and Amy Ryan (in addition to Isabelle Huppert) star in Trier’s “Louder than Bombs”; and Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin star in Denis Villeneuve’s film, “Sicario.”

It’s still too early to note trends that will be revealed during the festival, or to determine what the 68th Cannes Film Festival says about the state of contemporary cinema. That will all be reserved for my report at the end of the festival on May 24.

A question that also arises at every festival is how the head of the jury influences the choice of the winning film, and this time there are two panel heads, Joel and Ethan Coen. Many of the brothers’ films have graced the festival in previous years, and they won the Palme d’Or back in 1991 for “Barton Fink.”