Cannes Blog Coverage

Cannes 2012: Old Boys’ Network, in Status Quo

Posted by Robert Koehler on 4.23.2012

Thursday’s announcement of the official selection for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival marks status quo in one area (the number of veteran auteurs in the competition) and a shift in another (a decline in the number of women in the lineup).

The lineup of 55 new films that will screen at the festival tends to reinforce the perception that the official selection side of the event—that which takes place in the beach town’s hulking Palais complex and is selected by artistic director Thierry Fremaux—is less the site of discoveries than where the established find reinforcement for their reputations. More open fields for discoveries can be expected, as is the Cannes pattern, over at the parallel, independent sections of Directors Fortnight and Critics Week, which are respectively announcing their rosters this Tuesday and Wednesday.

Over more than a decade, the general pattern holds this year that roughly half of the 22-title competition lineup is given over to directors with long track records and/or with past competition slots and prizes. Four are previous Palme d’Or winners: Michael Haneke (for The White Ribbon) with Amour; Abbas Kiarostami (for Taste of Cherry) with Like Someone in Love; and Ken Loach (for The Wind That Shakes the Barley) with The Angels’ Share. The fourth Palme laureate, Cristian Mungiu (for Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days), returning with Beyond the Hills, is one of four directors in the past decade to win on their first trip to the competition circle, including Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne in 1999 for Rosetta and Laurent Cantet in 2008 for The Class.

To get a sense of how overweight the selection is in favor of Cannes regulars, note that an additional eleven of the Cannes 22 have been here before, some with prizes. Winners of the Grand Prize—second place, in essence--are Jacques (Rust and Bone) Audiard for 1996’s A Self-Made Hero; Matteo (Reality) Garrone for 2008’s Gomorrah; and Alain (You Haven’t Seen Anything Yet) Resnais for 1980’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique. Thomas (The Hunt) Vinterberg’s previous competition film, The Celebration, scored the (third place) Jury Prize in 1998, as did Carlos (Post tenebras lux) Reygadas for Silent Light in 2007, while thrice-nominated David (Cosmopolis) Cronenberg earned a Special Jury Prize (roughly, fourth place) for Crash in 1996. Two winners with notable past prizes outside of the competition include Cannes habituee Hong (In Another Country) Sang-soo with an Un Certain Regard best film award for 2010’s Hahaha, and Jeff (Mud) Nichols winning top film honors in Critics Week last year for his second feature, Take Shelter. Five directors are returning to the Grand Palais with one or two past Palme d’Or bids, but with nothing to show for it: Former l’enfant terrible Leos (Holy Motors) Carax, breaking a long absence since 1999 with his previous film, Pola X; Im (Taste of Money) Sang-soo, previously with The Housemaid in 2010; Sergei (In the Fog) Loznitsa, also a 2010 alum with My Joy; Walter (On the Road) Salles is back for his third time, scoreless with Linha de Passe and The Motorcycle Diaries; and Ulrich (Paradies: Liebe) Seidl, returning after 2007’s Import/Export.

In a curious pattern that either suggests that Fremaux watches a ton of English-language films for his programming or considers them the source of new blood for the competition, all but one of the directors making their first trip to Cannes are either American or Australian. Wes Anderson has earned the rare feat of landing an opening night as well as competition slot with Moonrise Kingdom, while fellow Aussies Andrew Dominik and John Hillcoat arrive, both with crime movies being released in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company, Killing Them Softly and Lawless.

Perhaps the most unexpected new name is Lee Daniels, whose The Paperboy wasn’t expected by Cannes lineup prognosticators, but who did previously appear in Un Certain Regard with Precious. Nearly as surprising is first-timer Yousry Nasrallah from Egypt with After the Battle. No surprise though, tops the remarkable leap of Jeff Nichols, who’s already managed something that is—at least recently—unprecendented: From Critics Week to Competition in one year.

In all of this, please note who’s missing: Women.

My colleague Eugene Hernandez compiled a tally of the number of women in the Cannes competition in recent years, and though the average is a bit over two names per year, the number in 2011 shot up dramatically to four, setting off headlines about Cannes’ year of the woman:

2011: 4
2010: 0
2009: 3
2008: 1
2007: 3
2006: 3
2005: 0
2004: 2
2003: 2
2002: 1
2001: 2
2000: 2

Festival selections are no places, nor should they be, for quotas of any sort. But Cannes is a place, maybe the place, where the cinema and festivals worlds take their temperature every year, to gauge the state of the art, for better or worse. Those of us who’ve argued that Cannes’ hothouse atmosphere isn’t a proper place to do this—indeed, perhaps the worst place to do this—have long ago lost the battle. Cannes is pretty much the center of our (local) universe, and is allowed to define standards and tendencies from there. This can be salutary: When Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or in 2010 for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, it not only marked the bravest Cannes jury decision in a decade or two (and shocked the establishment cognoscenti, always a good thing) but fully legitimized the entry of a new generation of radical moviemakers who had earned their due at smaller, more adventurous festivals, but not at Cannes.

So, given this set of facts on the ground, does the absence of women this year (only the third time in the past thirteen years) say anything about where cinema is right now? Unlikely. More likely, it’s a matter of (bad) timing, or, less likely, bad candidates. Besides, women are winning elsewhere on the festival circuit. One need look only at last year’s Locarno results, with Milagros Mumenthaler winning the Golden Leopard for her exquisite chamber drama, Back to Stay, and Valerie Massadian winning best debut work for her powerful, resonant Nana to get a sense of where overall trends are headed. Most likely of all, Cannes is just behind the times. (Another reason why it’s not the bet place to gauge the state of the art.) And it’s possible that the rumored titles by women, such as Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned, Susanne Bier’s All You Need is Love, Alice Winocour’s Augustine and Cate Shortland’s Lore, will pop up elsewhere on the Croisette before all the announcing is done.

Back to the guys for a moment. Given the number of vets in the lineup, are there patterns of these directors facing each other before? Yes, indeed. And this picture suggests most powerfully how entrenched much of the particular auteur pantheon of the official selection actually is.

Going back some fifteen years, a reasonable span of a cycle, directors in the current competition started facing off against each other on a regular basis, only with the names changing from year to year. In 1996, Audiard’s A Self-Made Hero and Cronenberg’s Crash confirmed their growing reputations. In 1997, Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry went up against Haneke’s succes du scandale Funny Games, and won. Vinterberg’s The Celebration was the talk of Cannes ’98, against Loach’s My Name is Joe and Claude Miller’s La classe de neige (the late Miller completed his final film, an adaptation of Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux and this year’s closer, just before his death in early April). Cronenberg was back in 2002 with Spider, against Loach’s Sweet Sixteen and Kiarostami’s Ten. Cronenberg—get a sense that he’s overdue?—vied again in 2005 opposite Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven, Haneke’s Cache and Hong’s Tale of Cinema. Reygadas returned two years later with Silent Light, with Seidl’s Import/Export and Mungiu’s Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days. 2012’s roster looks like a veritable reunion of the class of 2009: Resnais’ Wild Grass, Audiard’s A Prophet, Loach’s Looking for Eric all lost to Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Kiarostami returned for his fourth Palais stop the next year with Certified Copy, opposite Loznitsa’s first visit with My Joy. And there’s this: 2012 is the third time, following 2000 and 2009, when Haneke and Loach are both in competition.

The pattern is clear, of a (semi) old boys’ network, a sharly drawn camp of favored filmmakers. (The only women with a recent record of busting into the boys’ camp are Andrea Arnold, whose first two films, Red Road and Fish Tank were in competition, and Jane Campion.) Despite a seeming rigidity, this boys’ circle is somewhat elastic: Directors such as Peter Greenaway, and the late Raul Ruiz and Theo Angelopoulos, had long stretches of regular competition slots, which then faded, replaced by then-rising names like Haneke, Cronenberg and Reygadas. Cannes regulars who seem likely to follow Greenaway and others for permanent retirement from the camp are Wim Wenders (who now has a friendlier reception these days in Berlin) and Atom Egoyan (who will always have a home in Toronto).

With this pattern in mind, does it suggest who might win this year? We’ll check that out in the next posting...

FilmLinc.com will publish daily coverage from this year's Cannes Film Festival, May 16 - 27.

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