Musings on the Cannes 2014 competition lineup – and why it's not such a bad thing that the usual suspects are all there.
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23 Apr 2014 - 5:48 PM  UPDATED 23 Apr 2014 - 5:48 PM

Each year, in the hours and days after the Cannes Film Festival's official line-up is announced (the programmers were up until 1 a.m. on April 17th making final choices for a Paris press conference 10 hours later)  two themes get paraphrased an awful lot. One goes like this: "Cannes always shows films by the same directors – David Cronenberg, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach, the Dardenne Bros, etc." Its companion complaint is the ever-popular, "Uh, who are these directors? I've never heard of them!"

Festival director Thierry Fremaux told the gathered press, "Hey, it's you guys who insist on calling them 'Typical Cannes directors.'  We just think of them as filmmakers and if we think they've made good films, why in the world wouldn't we select them?"

He has a point. Let's extrapolate it to so-called real life. You're thinking of going out to eat and somebody suggests a restaurant you've returned to many times where the food is almost always tasty.  And
somebody else retorts: "But we eat there every year! Let's go to this place whose young chef nobody's ever heard of and that just opened, on the chance that it may be good, too."

If both restaurants are in the same city and that happens to be the city where you live, sure – why not? But the Cannes programmers keep in mind that thousands of people travel great distances at great expense to attend Cannes each May (14-25 this year).  As thoughtful hosts to filmfolk, why not try to make sure, as much as possible, that the visual feast will overflow with reliably tasty morsels? (Or at least that participants won't suffer the movie-going equivalent of indigestion or food-poisoning?)

Put another way: If you were on death row and the warden said you could have a last film to go with your final meal, would you ask for something semi-familiar or would you say, "Did any women from the Cape Verde Islands make movies recently? Because that's what I crave."

Only at the end of May will we be able to say "Jeepers – Cronenberg and Leigh have lost their tastebuds!" or "Those Dardennes came up with an even better recipe than usual!"  OR – and this is part of why we trek to festivals or read about their offerings from afar – "I can't wait to try this new director's next film! Yum!"

That said, I have a sneaky suspicion that Cronenberg's take on the movie biz "Maps to the Stars" – which features Robert Pattinson and the ongoing decline of Western civilisation and that Fremaux likened to a variation on Robert Altman's outstanding romp "The Player" – will be both smart and fun. And I have an additional sneaky suspicion that Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner" – a portrait, if you will, of the English painter J.M.W. Turner – will be both smart and fun.  As for the Dardenne brothers, I have no doubt that their latest foray into the downside of harsh modern life, "Two Days, One Night" will be smart. And probably not "fun." Unless, of course, you share my idea of a good time: A story, even a 'depressing' one, well-told.

Marion Cotillard stars as a worker who has the titular timeframe to convince her co-workers to take a pay cut so that she can keep her job.  

David Cronenberg was the president of the jury that in 1999 gave the Dardenne brothers their first Golden Palm for "Rosetta," in which a teenager barely has time to inhale while racing from a rock to a hard place and back again to make ends meet.

They won the top prize again in 2005 for "The Child" – in which a cavalier young father thinks it's a reasonable idea to sell his kid to make some quick cash and spends the rest of the movie trying to get the child back when the mother, understandably, freaks out.

Neither film lent itself to merchandising, but if you've seen their work, you don't need a T-shirt to keep the stories fresh in your memory.

The Dardennes are part of a small club of living directors with two Golden Palms to their names. Fremaux pointed out that they "could" be the first to win a third. Would that make them the greatest directors on earth? Well, Hillary Swank has two Best Actress Oscars –is she the first person you think of when somebody asks "Say, who's the greatest living American actress?" (That would probably be "Meryl Streep" for most people. Guess what? They're both in Tommy Lee Jones' Competition entry, a Western apparently set in the American Midwest in the 1850s.)

Michel Hazanavicius made several films before "The Artist" – three of them irreverent comic showcases for Jean Dujardin that sold gobs of tickets in France.  His Cannes competition entry "The Search," (clocking in at nearly two and half hours) is inspired by Fred Zinnemann's  acclaimed 1948 film of the same name.  In the original, Montgomery Clift plays a U.S. soldier in post-war Berlin who cares for a young Czech concentration camp survivor, a boy who holds out hope that his mother is still alive. The new film is set in Chechyna and stars Berenice Bejo as an international aid worker.

Cannes, to its immense credit, points the spotlight on political injustice and upheaval whenever it can. If events like Cannes don't perform this role, who will?

The Special Screenings category will show the 13-director omnibus, "The Bridges of Sarajevo" which commemorates the start of the First World War and elaborates on the century to follow.

Sergei Loznitsa showed his doc-in-progress, "Maidan," to the selection committee in March and is still adding to it as matters remain frightening in Ukraine.

A dozen cartoonists - some of whom who risk their lives  to draw and publish political cartoons - are the subject of "Caricaturistes-Fantassins de la démocratie." "When we exhibited drawings from [French cartoonist] Plantu's 'Cartooning for Peace' movement we never dreamed a sufficiently high-quality documentary would get made about political cartoonists, but this one is," Fremaux announced with obvious pleasure.

Syrian director Mohammed Ossama’s "Silvered Water" is set in Homs. He's been shooting for three years.

"Timbuktu" by Abderrahmane Sissako, looks at the war in Mali.A nifty fact to keep in mind, underlined by Fremaux: Anybody who has made a new film at least 60 minutes in length can submit it to the Cannes Film Festival "and it will be watched." There are three screening committees. One for French films (France makes a lot of movies and the jockeying for the 3 or 4 slots in Competition is intense). One for foreign films. And a sort of slush-pile-filtering panel of young film enthusiasts who look at every submission and refer anything promising to the other selectors.

The festival received 1800 submissions. "Which means we had to say 'no' 1750 times," Fremaux explains.

Among the 49 titles chosen so far for Competition and the official side-bar called Un Certain Regard, there are 15 films directed by women (two of whom are part of the co-ed trio behind first-film and UCR-opener "Party Girl").  Good – but only if they're worth watching.  Some of my colleagues thought that Claire Denis' UCR title "Bastards" somehow "belonged" in Competition last year. That's what happens when you're not only dropped on your head as a baby but your ear lands on an egg beater that scrambles your brains.

The two female directors with films in Competition are Japan's Naomi Kawase with "Two Windows" and Italy's Alice Rohrwacher with "Le Meraviglie."

If people-with-ovaries-who-direct-movies is a category, so is actors-who-direct-movies. Ryan Gosling's directing debut, "Lost River" has been selected to premiere in Un Certain Regard. Actress Asia Argento also has an UCR slot with "Incompressa," which Fremaux calls "a very personal film."

Multi-hyphenate Mathieu Almaric is both behind and in front of the camera with "La Chambre Bleue." (The Blue Room, based on a novel by Georges Simenon.) "Any excuse to mention the late Claude Chabrol is a
good one," said Fremaux. "When asked what he was reading, Chabrol replied, 'All of Simenon – and when I finish, I'll start over again.'"

Tommy Lee Jones is also behind and before the camera in his second feature as a director, awkwardly titled "The Homesman."  (In fact, general interest reporters covering the press conference at first thought they were hearing about a movie set in the beleagured Syrian hotspot of Homs.)

It's still being reported elsewhere that Olivier Dahan is locked in a transatlantic arm-wrestling match with Harvey Weinstein over final cut on the opening night film "Grace of Monaco" but Fremaux was slyly adamant: "The Festival de Cannes is in France, a country where we only ever show the director's cut. We'll show Olivier Dahan's version on opening night – but that's the only cut that exists. Whatever you've read or heard, there's only one version of the film."

Grains of salt were not made available to the hundreds of scribes in the auditorium.  (Or maybe all those nasty rumours were orchestrated by Weinstein to whip up curiosity about the picture. Nicole Kidman as Princess Grace, Tim Roth as Prince Rainier and Frank Langella as a priest is all I require. Director Olivier Dahan did an excellent job condensing Edith Piaf's life in "La Vie en Rose" but he has made several duds since then, including, in 2010, the unclassifiably odd English-language misfire "My Own Love Song" with Forest Whitaker and Renee Zellweger.)

As of this writing there is no sign of Abel Ferrara's thinly veiled DSK tale "Welcome to New York" starring Gerard Depardieu as the Dominque Straus-Kahn figure. (DSK, who headed the IMF until he was accused of raping a hotel chambermaid in a Manhattan hotel, was widely believed to be the strongest candidate to become president of France in 2012 elections).

Jacqueline Bisset co-stars as the Anne Sinclair figure (prominent newscaster Sinclair, whose personal fortune owes much to the fact that her grandfather was a legendary art dealer with a keen eye for the 20th century's best artists,  now heads the French edition of The Huffington Post).

Whether it turns up elsewhere or not,  "Welcome to New York" will be shown in the Film Market. It would be an error to overlook the market -- registration is up 10% this year. Films are bought and sold in the Market. Which is a bit like saying stocks are bought and sold on the New York Stock Exchange.

And, in a rather stunning strategy for France, "Welcome to New York" will bypass Gallic theatres and be made available only as video-on-demand, it was announced on April 18th.  Uh, ok.  But Depardieu (his talent AND his girth) is a LOT larger than any of the screens in my house.

Some folks wonder why Woody Allen's "Magic in the Moonlight" – shot in the South of France and apparently set between the two world wars – hasn't been mentioned. Hmmmm. As of this writing, the Closing Night
film hasn't been announced yet.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could approach all this the way Fremaux suggested we approach Bennet ("Capote," "Moneyball") Miller's fact-inspired "Foxcatcher?" "Plug your ears and cover your eyes – it will increase your enjoyment to know as little as possible going in."  That's excellent advice unless, say, your throat closes up at the sight of snakes and you unwittingly go to see a movie full of slithering protagonists.

(And if you're NOT allergic to slithering protagonists, feel free to take a spin down the aisles of the schlock-bedecked Film Market. Or, attend some of the parties...)

Part of me wants to make up stuff concerning the films nobody has seen yet except the programmers.  Would I be doing you a favour, dear reader? All I care to know about two of the films is that there's one by Rolf de Heer ("Charlie's Country" with David Gulpilil) and there's one about the end of the world by David "Animal Kingdom " Michod ("The Rover.")  Save me a seat.

True, it's a big planet and not "everybody" is familiar with these two talented gentleman by name alone.

Then there are the names that DO jump out at even the non film- obsessed.  Or, as I heard an under-30 woman exclaim, "Godard? But how can he have a film in Competition? Isn't he dead?"

As of this writing, he is not dead. AFTER the screening of his new (reportedly 3-D) opus "Farewell to Language" some people may wish him so. And some may wish to toss him into the air in triumph. But for now
we can only be, ahem, breathless, in expectation.

Godard, having been born in December 1930, is the oldest director with a film in Competition this year. And Canadian Xavier Dolan, who was born in March of 1989, is the youngest. (While we're highlighting arbitrary fun facts, my army of assistants is looking into who is the tallest and who is the shortest.) Both men speak both French and Cinema.  Dolan, whose 5th feature this is, probably has more films in him at this point than Godard does. Of  Dolan's "Mommy" Fremaux says: "It's baroque and audacious. It'll be adored by some and will exasperate others."

But what if Godard has made a film so perfect that the rest of the world's filmmakers simply give up in deference to his genius? Hey! It could happen!  Because at this point, ANYTHING could happen.

"Jean-Luc has promised to attend," Fremaux announced, waiting a beat before adding, "Not that that means anything." Laughter ensued. What did Godard say at the news that his film had been accepted for this year's Competition? "When I told him, he didn't say anything," Fremaux reported. "Then again, the movie's called 'Farewell to Language.'"

Fremaux points out that today's filmmakers are playing with formats. "As we tip over into all-digital filmmaking, younger directors especially are toying with vintage formats." ("The Grand Budapest Hotel," readers will note, utilises several different formats within the same film.)

And digital filmmaking has modified the way the selection committee works.  "A late submission used to be sent to us in January," says Fremaux. "If we wanted it that meant they could work on it until April. With digital submissions we receive films right down to the wire."

As for surprises, Fremaux intimated that there's a very surprising cast member in Bertrand Bonello's "Saint Laurent," whose known cast is already quite juicy.

This year's poster is a shot of Marcello Mastroianni from "8 1/2."  Fremaux explained, "We wanted to continue to use photography to show the continuity of cinema. Mastroianni was born in 1924 – he would have been 90.  We also wanted to have a man because we've been criticised for a series of posters that supposedly objectified women. So, this is a male object."

When Fremaux took questions, a journalist asked "Is Lars von Trier still persona non grata?"  Fremaux replied, with faux-anger that morphed into evident good-humour, "When I saw the T-shirt he wore in Berlin [Von Trier sported a modified Cannes T-shirt with the words PERSONA NON GRATA added] I wrote to him and said "I want that shirt!"

Lars wrote back: "I'm glad to see you taking it that way."

At this point in the press conference, festival president Gilles Jacob -- who nurtured Von Trier's career from the very start and will step down after this edition -- added, "But he still hasn't sent it to us.