By JUSTIN CHANG/FILM CRITIC
It’s been a remarkable season of ups and downs for the world’s most prestigious film festival.
The Festival de Cannes’ 2019 edition was hailed as one of its strongest in years, with the premieres of much-lauded titles including “Pain and Glory,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” “Atlantics” and the South Korean thriller “Parasite,” which won the Palme d’Or, the festival’s top prize.
Nine months later, “Parasite” clinched the Academy Award for best picture, becoming the first film to pull off that twofer since “Marty” (1955) and marking a rare symbolic convergence between Hollywood and the global film industry. Awards-season cachet isn’t everything, but it was still a striking turnaround for Cannes, which many in the industry had begun to discount as a significant Oscar launchpad next to its better-positioned rival festivals like Venice, Telluride and Toronto.
Anticipation was thus running higher than usual for Cannes 2020. That event was originally scheduled to take place May 12-23, with the director Spike Lee presiding over the competition jury. Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta,” Sofia Coppola’s “On the Rocks” and the Pixar animation “Soul” were among the major titles widely expected to premiere on the Croisette, the storied boulevard that runs along the beach through the French Riviera town.
But then came a startling reversal of fortune, as the festival was forced to postpone and then finally cancel its 2020 edition in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the first such major Cannes disruption since 1968, a year of sweeping political unrest that brought the festivities to a screeching halt.
Under the artistic direction of its delegate general, Thierry Frémaux, Cannes deferred its cancellation announcement for as long as possible. Even as other major events like South by Southwest and Tribeca pulled the plug, Cannes organizers remained optimistic about hosting some version of the festival later in the summer. But as the pandemic worsened and the French government extended its ban on all large-scale gatherings, it became clear the show simply could not go on.
Now, at least, we have an idea of what the show would have been. On Wednesday evening in Paris, Frémaux and the festival’s president, Pierre Lescure, unveiled a list of 56 films that had been chosen for the event’s official selection (which encompasses films that play in competition as well as sidebar sections including Un Certain Regard, midnight screenings, special screenings and out of competition).
It’s not exactly a picture of what the festival would have looked like without COVID-19. Some titles that may have played Cannes this year have instead opted to wait until next year (with Verhoeven’s film reportedly on that list), while others were removed from consideration as their backers set their sights on other events.
However, in the absence of a physical gathering, all 56 films in the official selection will now receive a Cannes 2020 label, a badge of honor that will accompany them to their premieres at later dates and possibly other festivals partnering with Cannes, including Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian and New York.
The first and least surprising title on Frémaux’s list was “The French Dispatch,” Anderson’s ensemble comedy set in the French foreign bureau of a Kansas newspaper, which conceivably would have brought Benicio Del Toro, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Bill Murray, Timothée Chalamet and other actors to the festival’s red-carpeted steps. The Searchlight Pictures release was originally scheduled to open July 24 in the U.S. but will now be released Oct. 16.
Another postponed title receiving the Cannes 2020 label is Pete Docter’s “Soul,” which features the voice of Jamie Foxx as a middle-school music teacher who has an out-of-body experience. Co-directed by Kemp Powers and originally due this month but now set to open Nov. 20 through Disney, “Soul” would have marked the third consecutive Cannes selection for Docter. His previous Pixar features, “Up” and “Inside Out,” launched to great success with out-of-competition premieres on the Croisette.
One Cannes 2020 selection likely to stir considerable excitement wherever it ends up is “Ammonite,” a 19th-century love story starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. It’s the second feature and the second LGBT romance from the English director Francis Lee after his much-acclaimed debut, “God’s Own Country.”
The Oscar-winning British filmmaker Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave,” “Widows”) had a remarkable two new features selected for Cannes 2020, both titles from his BBC/Amazon anthology series. They are “Lovers Rock,” a love story set at a blues party in the early 1980s, and “Mangrove,” an account of the Mangrove Nine, a group of British black activists who were arrested in 1970 after demonstrating against police harassment.
Frémaux acknowledged “Mangrove’s” particular resonance in light of recent headlines, and, in a statement released for the festival’s announcement, McQueen dedicated both films “to George Floyd and all the other black people that have been murdered, seen or unseen, because of who they are.”
Along with Anderson, Docter and McQueen, other Cannes alumni who would have returned to the festival this year included France’s François Ozon, with “Été 85,” and Maïwenn, with “DNA”; Japan’s Naomi Kawase with “True Mothers”; Denmark’s Thomas Vinterberg with “Another Round”; Spain’s Fernando Trueba with “Forgotten We’ll Be”; Lithuania’s Sharunas Bartas with “In the Dusk”; Belgium’s Lucas Belvaux with “Home Front”; Japan’s Kôji Fukada with “The Real Thing”; and the U.S.’ Jonathan Nossiter with “Last Words.”
Following the success of “Parasite” at a festival that has always paid strong attention to South Korean cinema, Frémaux also announced the selection of two Korean pictures: Im Sang-soo’s “Heaven: To the Land of Happiness” and Yeon Sang-ho’s “Peninsula,” a follow-up to his hit 2016 zombie thriller, “Train to Busan.”
Under normal circumstances, the press conference announcing the Cannes official selection lineup is an exciting, noisy and sometimes contentious affair. Journalists usually pepper Frémaux with questions about the glaring omissions of any films from this or that country, and also about the conspicuous absence of titles that were widely expected to have made the cut.
Wednesday’s live-streamed announcement proved inevitably quieter and more bittersweet, partly because the lineup was a purely theoretical one and partly because of COVID-19 physical distancing restrictions. No reporters were in attendance, which meant there were none of the usual questions and criticisms that have consistently greeted the Cannes selection.
Journalists have hammered Frémaux and his selection committee in recent years for the routinely low percentage of women directors who are chosen for the festival’s main competition. Those criticisms have only grown in intensity with the rise of the #MeToo movement — a movement that began partly in response to the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a longtime regular at Cannes — and the light it has shed on gender inequality throughout the film industry. (In 2018, Cannes committed to the 5050 x 2020 Pledge, promising to make strides for gender parity and greater transparency.)
The number of women directors who would have had films in competition this year is unknown, but 13 of the 56 films listed, or about 23%, feature a woman director. That percentage falls to about 20% if you consider that there are 64 directors named in the official selection, and 51 of them are men. (The reason for the discrepancy is that several films have multiple directors, including the omnibus film “Septet: The Story of Hong Kong,” which is credited to six directors, only one of whom, Ann Hui, is a woman.)
Cannes is also regularly criticized for its longtime loyalty to well-known “usual suspect” auteurs, sometimes at the expense of highlighting new talent. But the festival has made a strong effort to right that balance in recent years with a greater focus on younger, less established filmmakers, among them Mati Diop (“Atlantics”) and Ladj Ly (“Les Misérables”), who both won major prizes at Cannes last year.
In keeping with that commitment, the festival will grant labels to 18 features from first-time directors, including France’s Charlène Favier (“Slalom”), Armenia’s Nora Martirosyan (“Si le Vent Tombe (Should the Wind Fall)”), the U.S.’ Pascual Sisto (“John and the Hole”), China’s Wei Shujun (“Striding Into the Wind”) and Israel’s Dani Rosenberg (“The Death of Cinema and My Father Too”).
A number of international directors who have other features under their belt, but who are appearing in the official selection for the first time, include Lebanon’s Danielle Arbid with “Passion Simple,” Egypt’s Ayten Amin with “Souad,” Bulgaria’s Kamen Kalev with “February” and Canada’s Pascal Plante with “Nadia, Butterfly.”
Cannes 2020 would have hosted the international premieres of Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s well-regarded documentary, “The Truffle Hunters,” and Viggo Mortensen’s directing debut, “Falling,” in which he also stars. Both films premiered earlier this year at Sundance, one of the few 2020 festivals to go off without a hitch before the pandemic.
Cannes’ reluctance to cancel even in the wake of a global health crisis became its own magnet for ridicule in recent months, cited as the latest evidence that the festival is an arrogant monolith, stubbornly wedded to tradition and protocol in a fast-changing media environment. Well before the pandemic, industry observers took Cannes to task for its ongoing refusal to allow Netflix films to play in competition, due to rules requiring that competition titles play afterward in French theaters. (The streaming giant responded to the competition ban by skipping Cannes in 2018 and 2019. And though Frémaux recently told trade publication Screen International that Lee’s upcoming Netflix film “Da 5 Bloods” would have been an out-of-competition premiere this year, it was not included in the official selection announcement.)
While Cannes’ enormous film market is planning a virtual edition this year so as to keep business flowing during the pandemic, Frémaux has said that he never seriously considered the idea of taking the festival digital. That dogged commitment to the theatrical experience may mark Cannes as something of a dinosaur, but it has also marked it as one of the industry’s last remaining cultural and technological standard bearers. And that still means something: While it remains to be seen how the Cannes 2020 films fare on their own, the label will almost certainly ensure more than the usual media and industry attention as these films make their way into the outside world.
Frémaux noted on Wednesday that despite this year’s unprecedented disappointment and upheaval, many had expressed gratitude that he and his organizers hadn’t given up on Cannes so easily.
“We’re very much touched by the signs of affection,” he said before joking, “We’ve decided to call off next year’s festival. We get more compliments when we cancel.”
Here are the films announced in the Cannes 2020 official selection, along with their directors’ names and nationalities. The section names were provided by the festival itself.
THE FAITHFUL (or at least selected once before)
“The French Dispatch” - Wes Anderson (U.S.)
“Été 85” - François Ozon (France)
“Asa Ga Kuru (True Mothers)” - Naomi Kawase (Japan)
“Lovers Rock” - Steve McQueen (U.K.)
“Mangrove” - Steve McQueen (U.K.)
“Druk (Another Round)” - Thomas Vinterberg (Denmark)
“ADN (DNA)” - Maïwenn (France/Algeria)
“Last Words” - Jonathan Nossiter (U.S.)
“Heaven: To the Land of Happiness” - Im Sang-soo (South Korea)
“El Olvido Que Seremos (Forgotten We’ll Be)” - Fernando Trueba (Spain)
“Peninsula” - Yeon Sang-ho (South Korea)
“In the Dusk (Au Crépuscule)” - Sharunas Bartas (Lithuania)
“Des Hommes (Home Front)” - Lucas Belvaux (Belgium)
“The Real Thing” - Kôji Fukada, Japan)
“Passion Simple” - Danielle Arbid (Lebanon)
“A Good Man” - Marie Castille Mention-Schaar (France)
“Les Choses Qu’on Dit, Les Choses Qu’on Fait” - Emmanuel Mouret (France)
“Souad” - Ayten Amin (Egypt)
“Limbo” - Ben Sharrock (U.K.)
“Rouge (Red Soil)” - Farid Bentoumi (France)
“Sweat” - Magnus von Horn (Sweden)
“Teddy” - Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma (France)
“February (Février)” - Kamen Kalev (Bulgaria)
“Ammonite” - Francis Lee (U.K.)
“Un Médecin de Nuit” - Elie Wajeman (France)
“Enfant Terrible” - Oskar Roehler (Germany)
“Nadia, Butterfly” - Pascal Plante (Canada)
“Here We Are” - Nir Bergman (Israel)
AN OMNIBUS FILM
“Septet: The Story of Hong Kong” - Ann Hui, Johnnie To, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping and Patrick Tam (Hong Kong)
THE FIRST FEATURES
“Falling” - Viggo Mortensen (U.S.)
“Pleasure” - Ninja Thyberg (Sweden)
“Slalom” - Charlène Favier (France)
“Casa de Antiguidades (Memory House)” - João Paulo Miranda Maria (Brazil)
“Broken Keys (Fausse Note)” - Jimmy Keyrouz (Lebanon)
“Ibrahim” - Samir Guesmi (France)
“Beginning” - Déa Kulumbegashvili (Georgia)
“Gagarine” - Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh (France)
“16 Printemps” - Suzanne Lindon (France)
“Vaurien” - Peter Dourountzis (France)
“Garçon Chiffon” - Nicolas Maury (France)
“Si le Vent Tombe (Should the Wind Fall)” - Nora Martirosyan (Armenia)
“John and the Hole” - Pascual Sisto (U.S.)
“Striding Into the Wind” - Wei Shujun (China)
“The Death of Cinema and My Father Too” - Dani Rosenberg (Israel)
THREE DOCUMENTARY FILMS
“En Route Pour Milliard (The Billion Road)” - Dieudo Hamadi (Democratic Republic of Congo)
“The Truffle Hunters” - Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw (U.S.)
“9 Jours à Raqqa” - Xavier de Lauzanne (France)
FIVE COMEDY FILMS
“Antoinette Dans les Cévènnes” - Caroline Vignal (France)
“Les Deux Alfred” - Bruno Podalydès (France)
“Un Triomphe (The Big Hit)” - Emmanuel Courcol (France)
“L’Origine du Monde” - Laurent Lafitte (France) — a first film
“Le Discours” - Laurent Tirard (France)
FOUR ANIMATED FILMS
“Aya To Majo (Earwig and the Witch)” - Gorô Miyazaki (Japan)
“Flee” - Jonas Poher Rasmussen (Denmark)
“Josep” - Aurel (France) — a first film
“Soul” - Pete Docter (U.S.)