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Cannes 2019: Preview of the 72nd Festival

The 72nd Cannes International Film Festival opens on May 14, with Jim Jarmusch’s ghoulish satire “The Dead Don’t Die,” meaning that zombies and zombie-hunters will roam the red carpet. For a festival known for taking its glamour and star power seriously, and its burnished veneer of high art even more seriously, this opening choice just might represent a refreshing resurrection of the seldom-seen lighter side of Cannes. 

With a star-studded lineup including Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloe Sevigny, Iggy Pop, Selena Gomez, and Tom Waits, “The Dead Don’t Die” features “the greatest zombie cast ever dissembled,” or so the trailer claims. Jarmusch’s film will also be eligible for the Palme d’Or, as one of four American films in competition. 

While the walking dead kick off this annual film bacchanal, the festival's issues concerning the place of women directors in the festival refuse to remain dead and buried. The revered French New Wave pioneer director Agnes Varda (“Faces Places”), who died in March at the age of 91, graces this year’s festival poster. In a long-ago photo, she’s seen high atop a scaffold with her camera, to catch a shot while standing on the back of a crouching technician. If this Cannes competition is like any other in its proclivity to give female directors scarcely a look in the door, Agnes may be the only woman who remains high atop anything by festival end.

Last year, Cannes appeared to acknowledge its record of gender inequality and seeming male bias by opening a dialogue. That only three female directors, an all-time high, were selected to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or was the subject of raging debate as never before. This year, four female directors, a feeble new record for the largest number, are welcomed to the selection. Films by Austrian Jessica Hausner, French women Mati Diop, Céline Sciamma, and Justine Triet, all first-timers in the official competition, will be judged among a field of twenty-one contenders dominated by past prizewinners.  

Diop, competing with the socially relevant fantasy “Atlantique,” is the first-ever black female director selected to compete for the Palme. Sciamma brings “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” an historical drama with lesbian overtones. Triet’s “Sibyl” stars Adele Exarchopoulos, the actress of “Blue Is the Warmest Color” fame. Hausner moves in a fantasy-horror direction with “Little Joe,” about a genetically engineered plant.

The Cannes festival has many official sections, but the competition for the Palme d’Or, the grandest and most internationally significant of all the film world’s festival prizes, represents a sought-after and exclusive club. In this virtual clubhouse, a small number of the biggest names in cinema have a permanent place at the bar, so to speak, while each year a few newcomers get a membership tryout. It’s mostly a boys’ club, to be sure. Let’s take a peek inside and see who’s been hogging the trophy case, and what it might mean for this year’s winning prospects.

British director Ken Loach holds the record hand’s down. At 83, he’s the grand old man of socially-conscious British cinema, and is capable of getting audiences rooting for his disenfranchised working class characters, as he did with his most recent Palme d’Or winner “I, Daniel Blake” in 2016. He brings “Sorry We Missed You” to the competition, the story of a struggling delivery driver and his wife. Loach has competed for the Palme 13 times in his long career, and won it twice, the first time with “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” in 2006. He remains a formidable contender; his realist films grab the heart.

No slouches in the social realist heart-tugging category are the Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Also two-time Palme winners, for “Rosetta” in 1999, and "The Child" in 2005, they’ve hauled away three additional major prizes over the years. Their new film “Young Ahmed,” about a Muslim teen plotting to kill his teacher, is very likely to provoke much attention and buzz.

Cannes loves to honor its own, again and again. After weeks of public speculation, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, and Brad Pitt, became a late addition to the competition. With that kind of star power on tap, there seems little doubt that the two-time Oscar winner and 1994 Palme winner for “Pulp Fiction,” would be walking the Cannes red carpet with his cast one way or another. Making the announcement, Thierry Frémaux, festival artistic director, enthused that Tarantino is “a real loyal and punctual child of Cannes.” 

Despite the fact that his new film “Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo” is not yet ready, French Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, who won the Palme in 2013 for his sexually explicit “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” has also been added late to the competition. When finished in time for the end of the festival, the director promises that his sexy tale of teen love will be four hours long.

American director Terrence Malick, an international cult favorite who won the Palme for “The Tree of Life” in 2011, will be back with “A Hidden Life,” starring hunky Dutch actor Matthias Schoenaerts. It’s a screen biography of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter, currently in line for Catholic sainthood, and sounds very much in line with Malick’s increasing tendency to treat moral and philosophical themes.

The Palme-hopeful clubhouse is additionally packed with famous and talented also-rans from past editions of the festival. This could be the year when one of them breaks through to finally win the Palme d’Or and become a Cannes immortal. Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, who turns 70 this year, competes with his 22nd feature, “Pain and Glory,” starring Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz. He has a long history of working with both stars, and so it’s telling that the film is about a director looking back on his life. 

French director Arnaud Desplechin and Italian Marco Bellocchio have each reached for the Palme six times with no luck. Desplechin’s new murder mystery “Oh Mercy!” stars popular French ingénue Lea Seydoux; Bellocchio’s “The Traitor,” is based on the life of a Mafia informant.  

Other Cannes veterans with a shorter track record but major international reputations include Palestinian director/actor Elia Suleiman. Like his breakout hit and first Cannes entry “Divine Intervention” in 2002, this year’s “It Must Be Heaven,” stars Suleiman himself, in what will likely be another trademark tragi-comic role. Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu competes for the Palme for the first time with the police thriller “The Whistlers.” In 2006, he won the Camera d’Or, the festival’s prize for best first or second film, for “12:08 East of Bucharest,” traditionally an omen of a long future at Cannes.

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is famed for his international hits “The Host” and “Snowpiercer,” but was first invited into the competition in 2017 with “Okja.” Judging by the trailer, his family tragicomedy “Parasite” gives every indication of showing off his black humorous fantastical bent.  

Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan first came to the festival a decade ago at the age of 20, with “I Killed My Mother.” He’s been a Cannes favorite, competing for the Palme twice, serving on the international jury in 2015, and scoring the Grand Jury Prize for his all-star controversially experimental “It’s Only the End of the World” in 2016. He’s back this year with “Matthias and Maxime,” in which he stars.

All portents and opinions aside, the only opinion that is going to matter is that of this year’s jury, and juries can be remarkably capricious and willful at Cannes. Their choices can defy every prediction, fly in the face of popular opinion, and touch off a chorus of boos and catcalls by the international press when announced on closing night.  

Mexico’s year in the film world’s spotlight continues with the naming of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, director of Oscar-winning films including “The Revenant” and “Birdman,” as the Cannes jury president. For two weeks on the French Riviera, he will be king of all he surveys, with judgment on 21 filmmakers hanging in the balance. 

Barbara Scharres

Barbara Scharres is the former Director of Programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, a public program of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  

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