Opening on May 17, the Cannes International Film Festival turns an astounding 70 years old with this 2017 birthday edition. The venerable festival bears down on us in its customary shape-shifting guises: the scarred survivor of revolutions, elections and industry evolution; the capricious entertainment kingmaker; the frisky red-carpet party girl; the flirtatious lover who promises much but bestows favors sparingly. 19 films will compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or, and scores more will screen out of competition; or in official categories and events including the more avant-garde A Certain Regard section, the Directors Fortnight, and the Critic’s Week.
A giddy anniversary mindset in which champagne corks are perpetually popping may prove a challenge to sustain in a milieu in which, as ever in recent years, metal-detecting security wands are waving here, there and everywhere like wind-blown palm fronds. It will ultimately be the job of jury president Pedro Almodovar, reputed to be a fun-loving guy, to decide what the awards legacy of this milestone festival will be—celebratory or sobering.
As the world at large screeches into a sharp right turn politically, indications are that the world’s most glamorous film festival has invited films that address a broad menu of global issues. “Sea of Sorrow,“ a documentary by Vanessa Redgrave on the refugee crisis; “Napalm,” a documentary dealing with North Korea by Claude Lanzmann of “Shoah” fame; and “An Inconvenient Sequel,” featuring Al Gore, will all be presented in special screenings. Meanwhile, in the competition selection, both Kornel Mundruczo’s “Jupiter’s Moon,” and Michael Haneke’s “Happy End,” fictionally deal with refugees. Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade” stars Dianne Kruger in a tale of racism and neo-Nazis.
With Cannes 2017 imminent, pitches for films, marketing offers, and assorted festival-related oddities arrive by e-mail. I could rent a five-bedroom luxury villa with swimming pool and sea view for umpteen-thousand Euros: hmm, probably not. How about a swanky apartment overlooking the fabled Croisette, with spacious terrace suitable for cocktail parties? Private jet rental: nope; portable WiFi modem: yes. Her Royal Highness Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi requests the pleasure of my company along with a few hundred of her closest friends, to a trade promotion for Thai films.
A contingent of French stars will walk the red carpet the evening of Wednesday, May 17, when the festival opens with Arnaud Desplechin’s “Ismael’s Ghosts,” sure to involve a tangled love affair, and not likely as spooky as the title sounds. The A-list cast includes Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Louis Garrel and Mathieu Amalric. For much of the festival’s history, the carpet of honor was always a bright, Provence-sunny yellow. I’d personally like to see them buck the worldwide red carpet cliché and make an original statement with their unique yellow, but it’s not going to happen.
The formidable competitor with granddaddy status in terms of a history in competition at Cannes is surely Austrian director Michael Haneke, with his new film "Happy End," a story in which Europe’s refugee crisis impinges on the insularity of a wealthy French family. Winner of the Palme d’Or for “The White Ribbon” in 2009, and in 2012 for “Amour,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize in 2001 for “The Piano Teacher,” and Best Director in 2005 for “Caché,” this is Haneke’s seventh time in competition. A third Palme win would set a festival record.
Sure to be hotly anticipated, both for the director’s awards history and for the project’s film-world subject matter, is “Redoubtable” by Michel Hazanavicius, a comedy/drama biopic of Jean-Luc Godard, with Louis Garrel in the lead. Hazanavicius was a popular favorite with “The Artist” in 2011, but got shut out for the Palme. His vindication came in the form of five Oscars, an additional five nominations, and three Golden Globes. This is his first time back at Cannes since 2014’s “The Search,” a true dud set during the conflict in Chechnya.
Todd Haynes was a popular favorite to win the Palme in 2015 for “Carol,” but the jury had other ideas, awarding only Best Actress to Rooney Mara. “Carol” later scored five Golden Globe nominations and six Oscar nominations. He comes to Cannes with “Wonderstruck,” involving two stories linked across fifty years, and starring Michelle Williams, Julianne Moore, and Amy Hargreaves.
A dysfunctional family is at the center of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” starring Nicole Kidman, Alicia Silverstone and Colin Farrell. Nobody does dysfunction and a thrillingly perverse, twisted world view like this Greek director, who first came to attention with his Oscar-nominated bizarre family drama “Dogtooth,” winner of the 2009 prize of the Certain Regard section at Cannes, and followed by his Oscar-nominated “The Lobster,” winner of the 2015 Cannes Jury Prize.
Two of the competing French directors weigh in with offerings that sound eminently provocative. Jacques Doillan, famed for “Ponette,” plus, known as Jane Birkin’s ex in his private life, will present “Rodin,” a drama of the sculptor’s torturous relationship with artist Camille Claudel, starring Vincent Lindon, the 2016 Cannes Best Actor winner for “The Measure of a Man.” Francois Ozon, known for his 2003 film “Swimming Pool,” and currently for “Frantz,” in U.S. theaters, will present “L’Amant Double,” about a woman who falls in love with her psychoanalyst. It’s hinted to be loaded with sex and nudity.
One tradition Cannes stubbornly adheres to in this anniversary year is maintaining the predominant maleness and ethnic whiteness of the competition. Asia is represented with three films, two Korean and one Japanese, and Africa is nowhere to be seen. Hong Sangsoo (the prolific School of the Art Institute of Chicago alum) competes with “The Day After,” and Bong Joon-ho (known for “Snowpiercer” and “The Host”) competes with “Okja,” a sci-fi drama that features a gentle monster. They join long-time veteran Naomi Kawase, who competes with “Radiance,” in her eighth trip to Cannes, her fifth time in competition.
The 2016 festival featured three female directors in competition, a relatively sorry number, but something of a record. This year, at least the status quo holds with another three: Kawase, plus American Sofia Coppola, and Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. “You Were Never Really Here” by Ramsey stars Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled war veteran, and is set in the U.S. She competed only once previously, with “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” starring Tilda Swinton.
Coppola, staked her claim at Cannes with her debut feature “The Virgin Suicides” in 1999, and, amid great pop-culture hoopla, was first in competition with “Marie Antoinette,” in 2006. “The Bling Ring” won the Certain Regard Award in 2013. This year she’s in competition with “The Beguiled,” a Civil War story that may sound familiar because, like the Clint Eastwood film of the same title, it’s based on Thomas Cullinan’s novel.
A Cannes track record is no guarantee of success at the festival. Some relative newcomers get the chance at a career in this 70th competition, and anything is possible. Press opinion can predict a new winner daily, but only the jury decides. American indie sibling co-directors Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie, are this year’s newest newbies in competition with crime drama “Good Time.” Noah Baumbach is in the Cannes competition for the first time with “The Meyerowitz Stories,” a contentious family drama featuring an intriguing lineup of stars including Adam Sandler, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Candice Bergen.
Over this twelve-day festival I’ll be scrambling to see all 19 competition films, as well as quite a few of the selections in the Certain Regard section, which offers its own selection of 18 features as potentially alluring as they are unknown quantities. And still there’s more! Special out-of-competition screenings include David Lynch’s new “Twin Peaks” series, the series “Top of the Lake: China Girl” co-directed by Jane Campion, and new features by directors including Roman Polanski (“De Apres Une Histoire Vrai”) and Agnes Varda (“Faces, Villages”). There aren’t enough hours in the day.
The tradition of honoring great feline performances continues, and once again I’ll have my eyes trained to cats on the big screen. Cat lovers can be on the lookout for my imaginary Palme de Whiskers award on the final day of the festival.