Cannes 2019 – the triumphs and the fallout

Mati Diop director of the Grand Prix winner Atlantique with two of her actors

When I saw the results of the 2019 Cannes Jury judging process I was pleasantly surprised by what appear to be some interesting and seemingly well-supported decisions. Here are the main awards for 2019:

Palme d’Or: Parasite, dir. Bong Joon-ho (South Korea)

Grand Prix: Atlantique, dir. Mati Diop (France-Senegal-Belgium)

Jury Prize (tie): Les Misérables (dir. Ladj Ly, France) and Bacurau (dirs. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles, Brazil-France)

Best Actress: Emily Beecham, Little Joe, (dir. Jessica Hausner, Austria-UK-Germany)

Best Actor: Antonio Banderas, Dolor y gloria (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

Best Director: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, (Le jeune Ahmed, Belgium-France)

Best Screenplay: Portrait de la jeune fille en feu, Céline Sciamma (dir. Céline Sciamma, France)

Special Mention of the Jury: It Must Be Heaven, dir. Elia Suleiman (France-Qatar-Germany-Canada-Turkey-Palestine)

I haven’t seen any of the films, but I am familiar with most of the directors and the two actors in the list and on that basis I’m very happy with the results.

But the main question is how do these results affect the way Cannes as a festival is judged? The second question is what happens to these titles now? How many of them will be shown in the UK and how long will they take to get here?

I’ll deal with the most dispiriting news first – which both feeds a current debate and dismays me as a filmgoer. The film I perhaps most want to see is Atlantique and I’ve already seen a tweet suggesting that it has been sold to Netflix. What this actually means is not clear as the film appears to have a French theatrical distributor. France seems to handle this much better than the UK. I want to see the film in a cinema and I want a DVD I can use for teaching. Will this be a similar case to Roma? Possibly not but Mati Diop is the first black woman to win a prize at Cannes as a director and that ought to generate some interest even in the UK market. I remember Ms Diop as an actor in the wonderful Claire Denis film 35 rhums (France 2008) and as the director of a short 16 mins version of Atlantique released in 2009.

The prize for Atlantique is also noteworthy in the recognition of female filmmakers at Cannes. Alongside Mati Diop, Céline Sciamma has won the script prize for a film she has also directed and Jessica Hausner has directed the film which produced the best female performance by Emily Beecham. I’ve already seen comments that though these results are welcome, why have no women won best director or the Palme d’Or since Jane Campion in 1993? Several commentators have also noted that women have won the script prize for the last three years (Lynne Ramsay in 2017, Alice Rohrwacher in 2018), each time for a film they have also directed. Is there a reluctance to award them best picture or best director? I understand all these points and I’d like to see a much more even share of prizes as recognition of women’s creativity and skill in the film industry. But it’s going to take time to improve the the number of Cannes screenings of films by women. The whole enterprise could backfire if the overall quality of entries was affected by attempts to ‘fast track’ particular writers/directors. The juries have become much more diverse in terms of gender, sexual orientation and nationality but perhaps more does need to be done in the selection process for film titles to go into competition? Overall I think Cannes is making progress.

Bong Joon-ho winner of the Palme d’Or with Jury chair Alejandro Iñárritu

What else is notable in these results? East Asia wins the Palme d’Or again, this time an overdue win for South Korea and Bong Joon-ho. I have been a big fan, but not able to see his last two films because they haven’t had a proper release in UK cinemas. Parasite has been acquired by Curzon, which means it won’t play in Bradford but I should be able to see it in Manchester. I’m also a fan of Céline Sciamma, the Dardenne Brothers and Elia Suleiman (bravo for a Palestinian filmmaker getting recognition). Curzon has also picked up the Céline Sciamma film – and the intriguing Romanian title The Whistlers set on the tiny island of La Gomera in the Canaries. I haven’t yet seen who has acquired Le jeune Ahmed or It Must Be Heaven for the UK.

Jessica Hausner is the Austrian director who directed Lourdes (2009) which won prizes at Venice. That film was in French and she has also made features in German and now English. Little Joe, a UK co-production, stars Emily Beecham, winner of the best female performance prize. She is mainly known as a TV actor in the UK but I remember her performance in Daphne (UK 2017). I didn’t like that film for several reasons but I was impressed by Emily Beecham’s lead performance so I’m looking forward to Little Joe. The film attracted some BBC funding which means that we should see it in UK cinemas. As an SF/horror film about biotechnology it should find a UK audience.

The other two prizes offer contrasting stories. Antonio Banderas playing an ageing gay film director for Pedro Almodóvar is guaranteed a strong UK reception surely – even during the Brexit madness? The film is distributed in different territories by Sony, Warner Bros. and Pathé but I’m not sure who will bring it to the UK. The final prize (the Jury Prize) is split between the Brazilian film by two directors who collaborated on Aquarius in 2016 (and Neighbouring Sounds in 2012) and the updated version of Les Misérables by Ladj Ly. This last title is a début fiction feature by a black documentarist from the Paris banlieues. It certainly sounds like something I would want to see and which again should find a UK market. Selecting the film also highlights one of the other questions that always hangs around Cannes.

Cannes is a French festival but is it too focused on French films? Looking down the list of prize-winners it seems clear that if you are a filmmaker from anywhere else in the world, you are best advised to at least consider a French co-production deal as a way of getting a Cannes competition screening. Only US or UK films (because of their financial muscle/market importance) or films from securely established auteurs like Almodóvar stand much chance otherwise. This year the Americans have really suffered with Terence Malick winning only a minor prize and Quentin Tarantino ignored altogether. I’m not going to try to analyse why that is. It’s good of course that French support for East Asian directors has brought further recognition for Bong Joon-ho following on from Kore-eda Hirokazu last year. Asian titles always seem to get more support in Paris than in London and it’s no surprise that, following Asghar Farhadi, Kore-eda has now made a film in France, The Truth (2019) with Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche. I think this might appear at Venice? But Cannes still struggles to showcase Indian film industries – something arguably more a problem caused by institutional failures in those industries rather than the festival itself?

We’ll try to see as many of these 2019 Cannes titles as possible in a cinema. I hope the London, Leeds and Glasgow festival programmers will bring them to us even if they don’t all get UK releases.

One comment

  1. keith1942

    Thank you Roy, very interesting. I did wonder if ‘Brexit’ may accentuate this problem of accessing such titles. However, I suspect the underlying problem is to do with at least two factors. One is culture seems increasingly dominated by the mainstream. Second is the practices of distribution and exhibition in Britain. In West Yorkshire there are only effectively two exhibitors that screen films like those that Roy discusses. The Hyde Park Picture House appears to have decreased their presence in the programming. There are more and longer runs of mainstream titles and key foreign language films are missing. The Media Museum in Bradford has even less variety. The latter is taking back under the auspices of the Museum come October but there is no sign yet that this will improve the situation. I see most of the films that come under the labels of ‘art’, foreign language’ and ‘classic’ at festivals. I know people who regularly watch films in DVD or Blu-ray or download. I did think this was a poor alternative to the theatrical screening. However, I am starting to change my mind. The reason is the general lower quality of digital in Britain. This is partly that almost all releases are in 2K which I am sure is not equivalent to 35mm. And it is partly that too many distributors are willing to upload masters produced for digital video rather than theatrical standard projection. And to this add the diminishing pool of trained projectionists. The last is a problem that affected last year’s Film Festival in Leeds. I do not see an easy solution.

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