Critic's Notebook: Cannes Lineup Has No Clear Competition Frontrunner

MONEY MONSTER still - George Clooney - H 2016
Courtesy of TriStar Pictures

There'll be red-carpet candy aplenty with 'Money Monster,' 'Nice Guys' and 'The BFG,' but look to Jeff Nichols' 'Loving' or Jim Jarmusch's 'Paterson' for Palme d'Or promise.

Judging the annual Cannes lineup before seeing the movies is a bit like handicapping the Kentucky Derby before the race begins. Everyone knows the horses, jockeys and trainers, and how they’ve performed in the past. But until they’re off and running at Churchill Downs, it’s impossible to say who will finish first, who will place or show, and who will break a leg and have to be taken outside and shot.

Every Cannes competition has its share of major surprises and first-class stinkers (for last year, that would be Son of Saul and Marguerite & Julien, respectively), with a few confirmed auteurs bringing their A-game (Todd Haynes and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in 2015), and others not quite hitting the stride of previous entries (Gus Van Sant and perhaps Jacques Audiard, though the latter walked away with last year’s Palme d’Or).

So with Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta being the only 2016 competition title to screen thus far — receiving reviews that range from very mixed to highly ecstatic — here are a few first impressions of the lineup announced by Cannes topper Thierry Fremaux in Paris on Thursday morning, and how it reflects upon the festival as it enters its 69th edition.

Les Americains

While 2013 saw a whopping five American filmmakers (actually six, if you count the Coen Bros. as two people) appearing in competition, this year’s edition is similar to the trend over the last decade or so, with three directors — Jeff Nichols (Loving), Jim Jarmusch (Paterson) and Sean Penn (The Last Face) — competing this time on the Croisette (Nichols already did so in 2012 with Mud and Jarmusch in 2013 with Only Lovers Left Alive, while Penn headed up the jury in 2008).

Alongside the trio of Americans in the main competition will be plenty of star wattage on the side, because as Cannes grows bigger and finds itself raking in more corporate sponsors (the most recent being the French luxury brand behemoth, Kering, which owns Gucci, Balenciega and Alexander McQueen), the festival needs to give insiders and paparazzi plenty of opportunities for red-carpet photo ops (though, alas, no more celebrity selfies).

Alongside those three titles, which respectively star Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver and the duo of Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem, Woody Allen’s previously announced opener Cafe Society will bring Jesse Eisenberg, Blake Lively, Steve Carrell and Kristen Stewart to the fest, with Stewart also headlining Olivier Assayas’ competition entry Personal Shopper.

Steven Spielberg, who headed up the jury in 2013, will return out of competition with The BFG, starring Mark Rylance, Bill Hader and Rebecca Hall, while Jodie Foster will appear in the same category with the George Clooney-Julia Roberts-Jack O’Connell starrer Money Monster. Shane Black also will play outside comp with The Nice Guys, starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, while artsploitation auteur Nicolas Winding Refn will bring Keanu Reeves and Elle Fanning to Cannes for Los Angeles-set competition entry The Neon Demon, alongside British director Andrea Arnold with her Shia LaBeouf U.S. road movie American Honey. (One can only speculate on what sort of performance piece LaBeouf and his team of contemporary art gurus may bring to the Croisette this year.)

All in all, it’s a typical Hollywood-heavy selection that will dish out one star-studded main event on at least every night during the first week, though it’s surely the less flashier competition films by Jarmusch and Nichols that are the ones to look out for.

The Frenchies

Cannes is to French cinema what the Oscars are to Hollywood, and each year the biggest, brightest and snobbiest of Gallic directors and actors descend on the Croisette for an annual round of critical stroking (usually from their fellow countrymen) or hounding (usually from the British), with plenty of rosé to wash it all down.

Add to that the various sales companies — Wild Bunch, Le Pacte, MK2, Pathé International — behind many of the homegrown and foreign films in competition, and you can see why the term “mafia” is sometimes thrown around to describe the collusion between the Cannes festival and the major players of the local film industry.

That said, the 2016 lineup of French titles offers up what feels like a more promising batch than last year (which gave us the aforementioned Marguerite & Julien and Maiwenn’s emo-fest, Mon Roi), with Bruno Dumont’s highly anticipated period comedy — yes, that’s a Bruno Dumont comedy — entitled Slack Bay and Alain Guiraudie’s Staying Vertical at the top of the ladder.

The former hasn’t played competition since winning the Grand Prize a decade ago with Flandres, and Fremaux and his committee definitely missed out on a major title in 2014 by allowing the Directors’ Fortnight to scoop up Dumont’s now cult TV miniseries, Lil’ Quinquin. Guiraudie is also receiving a promotion after his extremely well-received Un Certain Regard entry Stranger by the Lake won the sidebar’s top prize back in 2013.

The other French — or at least French-language — competition pic surely to be on everyone’s list this year is Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, starring Isabelle Huppert as a rape victim who transforms into a Parisian street vigilante. Verhoeven hasn’t directed a feature since making the WWII epic Black Book in his home country of the Netherlands a decade ago, and hasn’t made a film in Hollywood since the Kevin Bacon-starrer Hollow Man in 2000. Known for the raucous sexuality, violence and dark humor of '90s classics like Basic Instinct and Total Recall — not to mention the criminally under-appreciated Showgirls and Starship Troopers — it will be thrilling to see the Dutch auteur finally premiering his latest on the Croisette, and for the first time en français.

Dropouts and Freshmen

Each year there are at least a dozen titles that were speculated upon for the months leading up to the Cannes lineup announcement, only to fade away in the weeks beforehand or mysteriously drop out at the last minute.

Many were hoping that Martin Scorsese’s Silence would premiere, until rumors surfaced that the film wasn’t finished yet. Meanwhile, fellow Palme d’Or alumnus Terence Malick was tipped to appear — well, not him, his movie — with the long, long, long-in-the-works music drama Weightless, which could now pop up in Venice or some other fest in the next century. Another absentee is two-time Palme winner Emir Kusturica, whose feature On the Milky Road — his first in nearly a decade — will likely screen in one of the major fall festivals.

While there are some notable missing faces and the usual crop of returning competitors (the Dardennes with The Unknown Girl, Xavier Dolan with It’s Only the End of the World, Park Chan-wook with The Handmaiden and Cristian Mungiu with Graduation), Fremaux and his selection committee are always careful to leave a few slots open for newcomers, with last year’s Oscar winner Son of Saul being the best recent example.

This year, distaff German director Maren Ade (Everyone Else) will play Cannes for the first time with her second feature, Toni Erdmann, while Romanian auteur Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) will play in competition for the first time with the family drama Sierra-Nevada. Both filmmakers have earned critical clout but have yet to find themselves in the spotlight, and if the Cannes festival is really good for anything — anything beyond the Eurotrash parties, impenetrable crowds and $20 tuna sandwiches — it’s in giving such directors the chance to have their day alongside all the stars and hoopla, while giving the rest of us a good reason to come to Cannes in the first place: to discover something new.