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Cannes still finding its footing

Commentary: Many countries under-represented at fest

CANNES -- Where's Lars von Trier when you really need him?

The 2010 Festival de Cannes desperately required a von Trier film or better yet von Trier press conference -- the Danish provocateur's true art form -- to enliven this year's slog through mediocrity and failure in the Official Selection. The mutterings down the Croisette from the Director's Fortnight and Critics Week sidebars indicated things didn't improve there either.

True, festival organizers strove mightily to lower the bar following last year's electrifying if controversial lineup of bloody, challenging titles. This was going to be an off vintage, they whispered, much like veteran winemakers surveying bad weather at harvest.

Fingers were pointed at major, highly desirable films not finished in time for Cannes. Or at a dearth of quality films submitted. One of the real problems though, year after year, has been the very small pond in which the festival's programmers choose to fish.

Of course, a critic cannot possibly know what goes on inside screening rooms in Paris but educated guesses can be made. Even a cursory examination of the annual Cannes lineup turns up a substantial number of films with French backing. Besides out-and-out French titles, many foreign selections in Cannes have co-production deals with French entities such as Canal Plus or Wild Bunch. How heavily does that weigh in their favor?
 

The festival's artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, and Vincent Maraval (Wild Bunch) have worked together for years. Canal Plus puts a lot of money into the Festival itself as an official sponsor. So consciously or subconsciously, that influence shouldn't be ignored.

Some Cannes critics have complained about the lack of American product, but films this year from Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, Doug Liman and Ridley Scott (a Brit who makes only studio pictures) certainly wave the Hollywood flag enough to satisfy most attendees. What's conspicuously absent though are American indie films.

Indeed in announcing their sidebar slates, Fortnight and Critics programmers went out of their way to emphasize how they ignored films from Sundance. Which is fine if other equally interesting international indie films are available, but judging from the programs across the board in Cannes that certainly wasn't the case this year. Granted Cannes programmers prefer to host world premieres but at what cost? So you can show French trifles such as Matthieu Amalric's "Tournee" or a bad Italian TV movie such as "Our Life?"

Even more absurdly ignored is the world's single largest film producer, India. True, after six straight years of neglect, one Indian film, "Udaan," did get into the Official Selection this year. But really, one film in seven years? I'm not talking about putting a Bollywood film into the Palais. I'm talking about Cannes programmers' seeming ignorance of vital regional cinemas all across India. There are enough films to program a large Indian festival in Los Angeles every April. Does anyone from Cannes even go to India to scout films?

The lack of representation of German films here has become an inside joke. Remember how "The Lives of Others" got discovered by Sony Pictures Classics at Cannes in 2006 -- in the market? The film that went on to win the Oscar for best foreign language film was rejected by Cannes.

You wonder what would happen if the Berlin International Film Festival ignored French cinema to the same degree. The screams out of Paris would be heard all the way to Berlin.
And so it goes.

If Lars von Trier, Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Wong Kar Wai, Claude Miller, Ang Lee and Terence Malick have big films ready for 2011 Cannes, all this can be safely ignored. A lineup of Old Faithfuls will undoubtedly produce a vintage Cannes. But if organizers run up against another year like 2010, they might get out of those Paris screening rooms and travel to Bombay and Park City. Fishing in a tiny pond next to a vast ocean makes little sense.