Plug up that geyser at Yellowstone and lend Cannes the name Old Faithful. How else can one describe a nearly 80-year-old institution that has held true to an overarching vision for as many decades? Find a better sobriquet for the crop of Palme d’Or contenders who will arrive on the French Riviera boasting seven trophies among them, and with a middle age, not for nothing, of about 63 years old — not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Quite the opposite in fact, as the 76th edition feels in no small part like a milestone of loyalty rewarded, a victory lap closing out a cycle that began a half-decade prior — the year current jury president Ruben Östlund graduated to the art-house big leagues with his Palme d’Or winner “The Square;” when the Netflix logo was jeered ahead of Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja,” kicking off a chill that nips until this day; and when the US press began to wonder aloud whether the Croisette could stretch all the way into the Oscar race.
Well, what a difference a half-decade makes! As returning directors Bong and Östlund (as well as Class of 2018 revelation turned 2021 prizewinner Ryusuke Hamaguchi) reset the awards debate, Cannes also kept the faith in an historic and collective model of film exhibition threatened by two years of pandemic shutdowns. While studios experimented, Cannes stuck to its (top) guns, lending the upcoming theatrical releases for Pixar’s “Elemental” and Martin Scorsese’s Apple-produced “Killers of the Flower Moon” an additional veneer of vindication. As to the box-office futures of the 20-odd films competing for this year’s Palme d’Or, certainly none will reach the international highs of James Mangold’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” but then, none were ever expected to .
Instead — and at its best — Cannes works as a sophisticated shell game, channeling the glamor of the red carpet and the frenzy of 40,000 accredited guests to make glitzy international events out of existential Turkish dramas like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “About Dry Grasses,” existential Finnish dramedies like Aki Kaurismäki’s “Fallen Leaves” or intimate two-headers about 19th-century French gastronomy like Tran Anh Hung’s “The Pot au Feu.”
Other Palme d’Or contenders will come with built-in SEO, as Wes Anderson’s more-star-packed-than-usual “Asteroid City” threatens to saddle red-carpet rubberneckers with a permanent case of whiplash once the Texan auteur’s full repertory company mounts the Palais steps alongside new additions Tom Hanks and Scarlett Johansson.
That all the aforementioned filmmakers could walk those Palais steps in blindfolds is another notable element of an official competition marked by staggering high fidelity. That fidelity cuts both ways, as Cannes remains loyal to Palme-wielding eminences Ken Loach, Nanni Moretti and Hirokazu Koreeda, while directors Jessica Hausner, Alice Rohrwacher and Todd Haynes have made the South of France their destination of choice for about the past decade. That Haynes’ Mary Kay Letourneau-inspired “May December” boasts the hint of scandal alongside stars Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore should come as a particular delight for the media-hungry festival.
With that pattern in mind, one can’t help but read the selection choices as augurs. “Paris, Texas” director Wim Wenders might have his Palme d’Or, but he hasn’t cracked the Cannes competition in nearly two decades. What promise does his Japanese-language “Perfect Days” hold? Might “Four Daughters” Director Kaouther Ben Hania or “Youth (Spring)” Master Wang Bing join Michael Moore and Jacques Cousteau as only the third documentarians to win a Palme d’Or? what will make Este award ceremony different from every other one?
From the sidebar sensations that put new faces on the map (here’s looking at you, “Aftersun”), to the high-profile bellyflops that cut flourishing careers short (it wouldn’t be polite to name names), the Cannes Film Festival defines and shapes the year that will follow, sending a select and happy few down paths sometimes paved with gold.
More so than most, German star Sandra Hüller seems especially primed to break out this year. The lead in 2016’s “Toni Erdmann,” Hüller will return to Cannes with starring roles in Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” and Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” two of the most eagerly awaited Palme d’Or contenders, both splashing Up onto the seaside palace atop hefty waves of superlative buzz. One thing is certain: Should either of those films break big, should Hüller or any of her colleagues set down a gilded path, you can expect the road to wind all the way back to the French Riviera in future years. Cannes, after all, is faithful.