How the 2021 Cannes Lineup Could Resuscitate World Cinema

Cannes is back — or so the festival organizers are insisting, announcing an official selection that’s bigger and more bullish than the (pre-pandemic) 2019 edition, boasting new films from Wes Anderson (“The French Dispatch”), Sean Penn (“Black Flag”) and Oliver Stone (“JFK: Through the Looking Glass”), to name three Americans from among a host of tantalizing international talents.

Festival topper Thierry Frémaux unveiled a staggering 65 titles at Thursday’s early-morning announcement — which is 20% more than the 54-movie lineup of two years earlier. And that’s not counting a promised beach-front blockbuster premiere (which Frémaux insists is not “West Side Story” or the new Bond movie, but something juicy all the same) or the closing-night film, whose title will remain under wraps until closer to the event, which was bumped from its usual early-May slot to July 6-17 this summer.

“Cinema is not dead,” he said at the press conference. From the look of it, Cannes could serve as the metaphorical defibrillator paddles needed to jolt the floundering corpse of theatrical exhibition back to life. Perfect. Consider this the ultimate fulfillment of the festival’s raison d’être, since Cannes has taken a hard line (against Netflix, for example, which was nowhere to be seen in this year’s selection) when it comes to protecting cinema as a communal art form to be experienced with others on the big screen.

That’s why Frémaux claimed not to have any regrets about the 2020 cancellation, even though it was seen as a crippling blow to world cinema at the time, and stood by the festival’s decision against scrambling to launch a virtual streaming alternative last year. It’s a gamble that seems to have largely paid off, as several A-list auteurs — including Anderson, Paul Verhoeven (“Benedetta”) and Leos Carax (whose Adam Driver-Marion Cotillard musical “Annette” will open the fest) — waited an entire year in order to premiere at the world’s most prestigious film showcase. That’s assuming Cannes does go forward as planned, of course, since anything can happen between now and early July in this unpredictable pandemic.

If it does, many industry professionals who’ve made it a career-long habit of attending will be sitting this one out, for a host of reasons ranging from health concerns to the logistical headaches of booking travel and lodging in the peak summer season. Frémaux hinted that the festival would be trying to arrange screenings of some titles in major cities — presumably for critics, buyers and the like — the goal being to insist that the films are being seen on the big screen, rather than have them (re)viewed using screening links.

But the lineup should be sexy enough to compel many — myself included — to hop on a plane and take the risk of rejoining our fellow cinephiles at the high temple of cinema: the Cannes Palais, where masks will become but another fashion statement on the red carpet, and Frémaux will likely forgo les bises (the traditional one-two cheek kisses exchanged in France) at the top of the stairs.

The festival has even added a new section this year, Cannes Premiere, which will screen in the Debussy theater (the event’s second-largest venue, and preferable in many ways to the Palais). This ploy serves multiple strategies at once, giving major filmmakers a chance to debut their latest work at Cannes without feeling obliged to screen in competition. That allows Thierry to redirect films by Arnaud Desplechin (“Tromperie”) or exasperatingly prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo (“In Front of Your Face”) to a parallel program, while making space in competition for younger and less established names like Sean Baker (“Red Rocket”) or Julia Ducournau (“Titane”) who have only screened in sidebars before. The inclusion of these two, plus next-gen talents Joachim Trier (“The Worst Person in the World”), Mia Hansen-Løve (“Bergman Island”) and Joachim Lafosse (“The Restless”), suggests one of the richest on-paper lineup’s in memory. Ironically, it actually seems to have been boosted by the year’s delay.

For many, the Palme d’Or is the highest prize in world cinema, more coveted than the Oscar. Both are chosen by filmmakers’ peers — in the case of Cannes, an elite jury, to be led by Spike Lee this year, whereas Oscars are awarded by the enormous and fast-expanding ranks of the U.S.-centric Academy, which had never chosen a non-English-language film until “Parasite” (riding on the momentum of its Palme win) and whose transparently political agenda (to pretend that there’s not a diversity problem in Hollywood) will undoubtedly mark the next decade or so of Oscar winners.

Not that Cannes juries are especially pure in their choices, influenced by everything from caprice to compromise among the nine deciding voters (as when “I, Daniel Blake” beat “Toni Erdmann,” the year after Jacques Audiard shocked nearly everyone by winning the Palme for his clearly sub-par “Dheepan”). But it represents a kind of World Cup of cinema, where every country fields their strongest teams and hopes for a shot at the prize.

Art ought not to be made with awards in mind, although few filmmakers can resist the competition, and Cannes’ egalitarian view toward world cinema — where all countries stand a chance, even if France enjoys the lion’s share of the lineup — signifies something more essential than ever as the whole world reels from a year of lockdown.

Just last weekend in the U.S., the astounding box office success of “A Quiet Place Part II” sent a powerful message to the industry: Paramount’s potentially risky gamble — one of the few recent American studio films to forgo offering audiences a day-and-date on-demand alternative in favor of an in-theaters-only approach — helped turn stream-at-home “movie-stayers” back into moviegoers. The results should give subscription-chasing companies like Warner Bros. and Disney renewed confidence in a big-screen release strategy.

Every country on earth is wrestling with how to responsibly reopen cinemas, including France, where COVID infection rates spiked in the spring, but distribution windows are mandated by law (one reason that Netflix’s paradigm-shifting strategy is so threatening). Frémaux said he respects what Netflix is doing — and certainly, he’d love to get his paws on Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” or Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe biopic “Blonde” — but the festival is existentially obliged to support the theatrical experience.

In theory, I’m excited by plenty of upcoming Netflix content, but the reason for my July pilgrimage to Cannes is the same as the festival’s raison d’être: to celebrate and support the in-cinema experience. I got my vaccination shots first chance I could because I simply can’t imagine a world in which movies are watched only in our living rooms (though I’m so grateful to be living in a time when it has been possible to experience them that way while the world shut down). How far would I go to participate in what Variety has taken to calling “the Big Restart”? Consider the 6,000 miles from Los Angeles to Cannes a first step in the right direction. I hope to see some of you there, and pledge to send French dispatches from the front to any who can’t make it.

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