Isn’t it strange that the directors competing for the Palme d’Or are always those of entrenched repute?
Who makes the world’s best films, at least the ones fit enough to fight it out in the competition section of film festivals? If this year’s Cannes lineup is to be believed, it’s the same contenders. The festival opens with Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. It goes on to feature heavyweights like Leos Carax, David Cronenberg, Michael Haneke, Jacques Audiard, Ken Loach, Abbas Kiarostami, Thomas Vinterberg , Cristian Mungiu, Walter Salles, Carlos Reygadas, and the venerable Alain Resnais, who will be 90 this June, and whose first appearance at the festival was with the cause célèbre (and his first film) Hiroshima Mon Amour, all the way back in 1959, ten years before Wes Anderson was born. Even the second-rung (solely in terms of reputation and renown, not talent) directors have faced their fair share of flashbulbs – Lee Daniels with Precious, Jeff Nichols with Take Shelter, and Andrew Dominik with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Thousands of films are submitted, every year, to the selection committees of major film festivals, and yet, the competition lineup remains unvaried. Resnais, for instance, competed for the Palme d’Or with his previous film, Wild Grass, and picked up the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival for his film before that, Private Fears in Public Places. Michael Haneke, at Cannes, has won the Palme d’Or for The White Ribbon, Best Director for Caché, and the Grand Prix for The Piano Teacher. Scroll through some of the other names and we’re in the presence of a mightily incestuous group, as often seems the case with literary prizes: a big-name talent has but to announce a film, and a nomination is instantly assured. We could call it the War Horse Syndrome, after Steven Spielberg’s film, which opened to wildly mixed reviews (The New Yorker, for instance, called it “a little daft” and a “bland, bizarrely unimaginative piece of work”) but nonetheless found a place in Oscar’s Best Picture category.
There is, of course, a small strain of young blood fighting to spill out and cause a splash, never more so than in 2010, when the Palme d’Or went to Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and inducted Apichatpong Weerasethakul into the pantheon. (The Thai auteur had won prizes at Cannes earlier, but was never duly enshrined; he returns this year with Mekong Hotel, which is part of the Special Screenings section.) But the question refuses to go away: Does this small, select group of directors make the most nomination-deserving films every single time, or has Cannes, over the years, become symptomatic of the over-reliance on big name draws that characterises festivals the world over? Because reputed filmmakers ensure excitement and media coverage, Cannes appears to have become the Gallic equivalent of the Oscar red carpet – only this time the directors are the Brad Pitts, the George Clooneys, the Nicole Kidmans. And like any star system anywhere, it appears that the old order will only very gradually yield to the new.
An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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