Critic's Notebook: Cannes 2019 Mixes World Cinema Heavyweights With Virtual Unknowns

Daniele Venturelli/WireImage
Cannes Film Festival director Thierry Fremaux

This year's lineup is heavy on the usual suspects — Almodovar, the Dardenne brothers, Jarmusch, Loach and others — but also makes room for names many have never heard.

First off, the status of any film festival, especially one presenting more than 100 titles, shouldn't ride on whether or not one particular film makes it into the lineup.

All the same, much of the focus on the announcement day of the lineup for the 2019 Cannes Film Festival is centering on the uncertainty surrounding the status of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, given that the director, who's been a Cannes regular since the beginning of his career with Reservoir Dogs, hasn't quite finished editing and reportedly will be going down to the wire to get his look at Hollywood in 1969 completed on celluloid. No one wants this film in Cannes more than Tarantino himself, so if it's humanly and technically possible, it'll be there. If not, tant pis.

Otherwise, Thursday's announcement of the main selection titles serves as a reminder that Cannes remains the slowly moving, stately ocean liner of film festivals it's always been, the only one still marked by formal attire at evening screenings and such a pronounced sense of occasion. The Cannes Film Festival embraces change only gradually. Once a director is “in the club,” the festival tends to stick with them. But it also wants to be ahead of the curve when it comes to discovering and celebrating new auteurs and, from what can be gleaned from the lineup revealed Thursday morning by festival director Thierry Fremaux, both tendencies are in effect this year.

Through the years, one has always been able to count upon Cannes for loyalty — that is, fidelity to auteurs anointed early in their careers and embraced by the festival forever through thick and thin. This year, such bonds are visible with the inclusion in the competition of such regulars as Marco Bellocchio, back for the seventh time in competition with The Traitor; Pedro Almodovar with Pain and Glory; the Dardenne brothers with Young Ahmed; the formerly retired and now resurgent Ken Loach with Sorry We Missed You (it's his 13th film in the main event); Jim Jarmusch with his opening-night zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die; and Arnaud Desplechin with Oh Mercy! And even though he just turned 30 last month, Xavier Dolan is already a member of this club as well, and he's back with (and also starring in) Matthias and Maxime.

One could also include Terrence Malick in this category — he is set to return with the faith-centered, Germany-set World War II drama A Hidden Life — if only because Cannes is essentially the only film festival Malick seems willing to accommodate.

Cannes of late has also embraced female directors, if only up to a point. This year there are four women with films in the competition: the Austrian Jessica Hausner with the English-language sci-fi drama Little Joe, about genetic engineering; Celine Sciamma's Portrtait of a Lady on Fire, centering on a woman who leaves a convent and enters into a love affair; Mati Diop, whose Atlantique makes her the first black woman helmer in competitionand the French psychological thriller Sybil from Justine Triet. (Faring worse than women in the competition this year are English-language films, of which there are only three.) In the official selection overall, including the Un Certain Regard sidebar, there are 13 films directed by women this year.

Along with Bellocchio, Loach, the Dardennes and a couple of others in the competition, the old guard is represented in sidebars by Claude Lelouch with The Best Years of Life; Werner Herzog with Family Romance, LLC; Abel Ferrara with Tommaso; and Alain Cavalier with To Be Alive and Know It. That said, the past is being best celebrated by Cannes this year with its droll and heartwarming official poster featuring the late Agnes Varda behind an old camera lining up a shot while crouching on a man's back atop a tall platform.

So what to most eagerly anticipate? Apart from Almodovar's latest, which received a mixed-to-favorable reaction upon its recent opening in Spain, none of the other 42 titles announced have been seen by any outsiders, so there's really no reliable word on anything. From a dramatic point of view, Malick's film, about a German religious dissenter during the Nazi era, seems predictable in its trajectory, but it also promises to offer a welcome departure from the director's recent undramatic, camera-swirling non-stories; in other words, maybe it's a real movie. I've liked Loach's post-retirement work thus far, and am curious about the unlikely collaboration between New York indie auteur Ira Sachs and the ever-unpredictable, always fascinating Isabelle Huppert.

And, yes, I do hope Tarantino will turn up in Cannes, cans of film under his arms and ready to show his ninth film to a panting public. But only if it's really and truly ready.