Todd McCarthy: Has Cannes Lost Its Luster?

Thierry Fremaux - 71st Cannes Film Festival Presentation 2 - Getty - H 2018
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In the wake of the official selection announced Thursday, there's a creeping sense that — to an unprecedented extent — the best in international cinema may no longer be on display at the Cannes Film Festival, writes THR's chief film critic.

"The only explanation is that the films they saw aren't too good," or so a French film industry insider confided today in the wake of the startling exclusion of numerous new works by prominent directors from the lineup of the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Occasionally to its own detriment, Cannes could nonetheless almost always be counted upon to show the latest works by certain filmmakers the festival selection committee had decided to regularly embrace; once anointed, always welcome was more or less the policy.

In light of this, the announcement of this year's official selection was more startling for its omissions than for its inclusions. We already knew that, because of an agreement to disagree about festival rules regarding required theatrical distribution in France, Cannes would not be showing any of the Netflix films that seemed like prime festival candidates: Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, Paul GreengrassNorway, Jeremy Saulnier's Hold the Dark and, of special interest to cinephiles, Orson Welles' unfinished but now assembled The Other Side of the Wind (Welles' daughter Beatrice is now pleading for an exception to be made in this special case).

But on top of this regrettable standoff comes the startling exclusion of longtime regulars — or what the Brits call festival "luvvies," filmmakers (as often as not French) whose new works almost automatically turn up in the main selection. This year, those expected but nowhere to be found include Olivier Assayas, Mike Leigh, Jacques Audiard, Naomi Kawase (whose new film, Vision, stars Juliette Binoche, no less), Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Terrence Malick, Brian DePalma, Lazslo Nemes, Paolo Sorrentino, Xavier Dolan, Thomas Vinterberg, Carlos Reygadas, Harmony Korine and Luca Guadagnino.

Three other conspicuous absentees from the lineup have extenuating circumstances: Claire Denis' English-language High Life, starring Robert Pattinson and Binoche, is being screened for the committee today; Terry Gilliam's long-awaited The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is tied up in a legal dispute that the producers hope might be settled in time; and The House That Jack Built, a serial-killer drama starring Matt Dillon and directed by longtime festival mainstay-turned-exile Lars von Trier, sparked an in-or-out-of-competiton squabble that should be settled shortly.

Stir into all this the ever-increasing reluctance of American companies to debut prime would-be awards-worthy titles this early in the year and you have a very patchy and confusing landscape — a sense that, to an unprecedented extent, the best in international cinema at this moment may not be on display at the Cannes Film Festival.

In the immediate sense, the situation creates an opportunity for the Directors Fortnight to swoop down and grab two or three prominent rejected titles, a move that could be a coup if the films are good but, if not, would confirm the main festival's selectivity.

Looking down the road, the truckload of perceived major titles not on view for whatever reason in Cannes provides a godsend for the "awards season" cycle of festivals beginning with Venice, Telluride and Toronto. These festivals already have been bulking up in recent years (the only best picture Oscar winners in the past 25 years to have debuted in Cannes were The Artist and No Country for Old Men), and any perceived diminishing of Cannes as the world's premiere film festival will simply fuel companies and filmmakers' rethinking of the French Riviera in May as an essential destination.

That said, what do we on the outside know? We haven't seen the films, and the Cannes festival selection committee has. But in a month we will, even if we won't yet have seen some of the films that were rejected. Maybe the committee was right to reject what they did (it's been quite a few years since I subjected myself to a Naomi Kawase film, and I've heard from other sources that Mike Leigh's historical piece is downright boring).

All the same, perception counts for something, and if there is a developing feeling that Cannes is either too expensive or wrongly positioned in the year or not necessarily serving up the crème de la crème of current filmmaking, other festivals are poised to take advantage. Within the next few days, we shall see what titles Thierry Fremaux and his committee cohorts add to the programs, and in a month we'll see for ourselves what this surprising and, from a distance, rather inscrutable lineup has to offer.