Critic's Notebook: Is Elitist Cannes Becoming More Democratic?

The films competing for the top prize this year, as well as those that were snubbed, suggest that a change may be afoot for a festival that has long been blindly loyal to the same set of directors.

No other film festival in the world stirs up quite as much speculation, anticipation, second-guessing and would-be in-the-know gossip as Cannes. The cycle has its before, during and after stages, and now that most of the titles for the official selection have been announced for the festival, which runs May 13-24, it's the moment to begin sorting out personal priorities as well as to try to read the tea leaves about what's in, what's out and, perhaps, why.

Without a genuine heavyweight American contingent this year (the Coen brothers are heading the jury rather than the lineup), festival director Thierry Fremaux and his cohorts are putting their chips on filmmakers from a traditional core of sources — home-grown French auteurs (of the younger and middle generations) and celebrated Italian and Asian masters. So numerous were plausible French candidates this year that Fremaux said he could have included as many as seven local productions in the competition (some of the rejects will likely land in other sections).

That Fremaux and the selection committee are sensitive or at least responsive to criticism can be seen in the prominent, if still not hugely numerous, presence of female directors at Cannes 2015, beginning with the opening night film, Emmanuelle Bercot's Standing Tall (La Tete Haute). However, a tricky, less obvious aspect of the selection process has to do with what I call the “usual suspects,” directors who, once anointed by the festival and French critics, keep being invited back to Cannes whenever they have a new film ready, whether it's good or not.

This syndrome has its roots in one of the more problematic aspects of the French-spawned "politique des auteurs" approach to film criticism, which, at its most simplistic and reductive, posits that a good director will virtually always make a good film and that a mediocre one almost never will. France, still more than anywhere, has various critical camps that stake claims on certain filmmakers, and Cannes, which was for so long run by former film critic Gilles Jacob, has tended to follow this line of thinking more than any other international film festival.

To be sure, there will be plenty of Cannes “luvvies” — Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Nanni Moretti, Gus Van Sant, Jia Zhangke, Woody Allen, Hirokazu Koreeda, Paolo Sorrentino and others — to be found on the Croisette this year. But just as interesting is the list of those who — for the moment, at least — have not found their way in the official selection. (Fremaux has left room in the competition for as many as three or four more titles to be announced later).

Among the significant directors with new films that did not make the cut are Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Marco Bellocchio, Arnaud Desplechin, Naomi Kawase, Gaspar Noe, Stephen Frears, Alexander Sokurov, Jaco Van Dormael, Terence Davies, Amos Gitai, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Merzak Allouache, Jerzy Skolimowski, Miguel Gomes (granted his film runs six hours), Ben Wheatley, Bruno Podalydes and Andrezej Zulawski.

Here is where the backstage rumors, guess-work and, undeniably, schadenfreude and payback come into play. Exhibit One is Desplechin's new film Les Arcadies (aka Three Souvenirs of My Youth). A director fortunate enough to have had five films in the competition during his career, Desplechin was reportedly so pissed off at not getting in a sixth time that he refused consideration for a slot in the Un Certain Regard sidebar and is offering it to the independent Directors Fortnight section, which always relishes an opportunity to show up the main event.

The Directors Fortnight lives in fear that some of the films it most wants will be snatched away at the last minute by the official selection, which doesn't want to run the risk of being overshadowed. As the Fortnight has another week to firm up its list before its scheduled announcement on April 23, it's possible that it might grab at least two or three of the perceived big show rejects so that viewers can decide for themselves, and shunned directors will have a chance for the last laugh.

Still, there could be a subtle and welcome shift underway where the official selection committee is concerned. A good case in point is the Japanese director Naomi Kawase. Ever since she won the Camera d'Or for best first film for Suzaku in 1997, Kawase has been an anointed one, reliably invited to Cannes no matter that her films have become increasingly esoteric, insubstantial and of interest to only a tiny minority. However, in the wake of her poorly received Still the Water in competition last year, the committee apparently decided this time around to pass on her latest, the stirringly titled Sweet Bean Paste.

Given all the the other prominent filmmakers who, at least as of now, won't be in the official selection this year, it's possible that Fremaux and the committee have decided to become a bit more rigorous when it comes to playing presumed favorites and giving a pass to pre-approved directors for less-than-stellar achievements. It's one thing if you're a smorgasbord festival like Toronto with more than 200 slots to fill. But for a festival as exclusive and minutely scrutinized as Cannes, there shouldn't be a main checkpoint for the majority and a side entrance for royalty. Everyone should earn his or her way in every time.

So what am I most looking forward to this year? I hope that, among the seven French and Italian entries, at least two or three of them are terrific. Advance reports suggest that Denis Villeneuve's Sicario will be quite strong. I'm extremely keen to see Todd Haynes' Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith's captivating second novel, The Price of Salt, in which Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara seem ideally cast. Out of competition, the fact that Woody Allen's Irrational Man is being described as one of his “dark” films in the vein of Match Point has given me hope.

With the high art brigade, the return after a very long layoff of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, with his first martial arts film, The Assassin, will rate as the number one attraction of Cannes 2015. However, I must admit to lingering apprehensions, less because of the film's protracted and difficult production history than because Hou's measured pacing and careful style would seem to be the antithesis of what is normally called for in what is broadly known as action cinema; it's kind of like Terrence Malick undertaking a Michael Bay project. It's very difficult to imagine what this film is going to be like, which is reason alone for genuine curiosity.

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