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Cannes 2019 preview: Horror, Hollywood and the Hand of God

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

After a troubled two years rattled by the #MeToo storm and the Netflix tussle, the world’s premier film festival is set for a bumper harvest this year with an exciting balance of big-name clout and fresh new talent – and Maradona thrown into the mix.

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The Cannes Film Festival's unique balance of glamour and art house cinema swung heavily in favour of the latter last year, as the race for the Palme d’or produced a slew of excellent films while Hollywood stars deserted the Croisette and headed to Venice instead. It was a dismal year for the all-important red-carpet photographers, who soon tired of shooting fashion models and social media starlets for want of movie stars. But this time, they’re in for a treat with Hollywood confectionery aplenty, coupled with legends from sport and music, all due at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, which opens on Tuesday, May 14.

The opening night alone will see the likes of Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop and Tom Waits on carpet and screen for the premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s zombie fest “The Dead Don’t Die”, which kick-starts the Palme d’or race. There will be another blast of star power later on when Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie show up for Quentin Tarantino’s intensely anticipated “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – 25 years to the day since “Pulp Fiction” picked up the Palme d'or, the biggest prize in cinema.

Festival organisers should be delighted they got what they wanted without caving in to Netflix, the streaming giant that refuses to abide by France’s strict rules on theatrical distribution – and therefore doesn’t get invited. It helps that Netflix had comparatively little to offer this year: no “Roma”, Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar winner, and no “The Other Side of the Wind”, the Orson Welles revival Cannes was so desperate to land last year.

The 2018 edition was the first since the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. It saw jury president Cate Blanchett lead an impressive equality march by 82 female film stars and executives on the red carpet – matching the paltry number of female directors who have climbed the famous steps since the festival’s first edition back in 1946 (as opposed to 1,688 men). Talk of the gaping gender gap has been noticeably absent in the build-up to this year’s event, which sees Mexico’s Alejandro Inarritu succeed Blanchett as head of the jury. But there are still only four women directors (out of 21) in the competition line-up, unveiled under the tutelary figure of the late Agnès Varda, who graces this year’s poster.

This year's poster shows Agnès Varda standing on the shoulders of a technician, shooting her first film "La Pointe Courte" in 1954 when she was 26.
This year's poster shows Agnès Varda standing on the shoulders of a technician, shooting her first film "La Pointe Courte" in 1954 when she was 26. Cannes Film Festival

Festival director Thierry Frémaux has promised plenty of romance and politics from a line-up that features four more Palme d’or laureates in addition to Tarantino – a record number matched only in 1949 and 1982. From the elite club of two-time winners, UK veteran Ken Loach will be aiming for a third Palme with his “Sorry I missed you”, about a delivery driver struggling in the Uber economy, as will Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne with “The Young Ahmed”, the story of a Muslim teenager who is radicalised by extremists.

Returning to Cannes eight years after his “Tree of Life” picked up a Palme amid more jeers than cheers, Terrence Malick has hinted at a welcome return to a more narrative-driven storytelling structure with “A Hidden Life”, about an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis. French-Tunisian auteur Abdellatif Kechiche will present part two of his “Mektoub my love”, a sunblessed study of adolescent summer romances of epic length. Some critics found the first part’s 186-minute duration a little overstretched. This time they’re getting a full 240 minutes.

A still from Terrence Malick's "A Hidden Life".
A still from Terrence Malick's "A Hidden Life". Cannes Film Festival

Kechiche’s 2013 “Blue is the Warmest Colour” fetched an unprecedented triple Palme d’or for the director and his lead actresses Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, both of whom feature in this year’s competition too (technically bringing the total of Palme laureates, actors included, to seven). As is often the case, the disproportionately small contingent of women directors account for much of the novelty on offer, with all of them newcomers to the Palme d’or contest.

Exarchopoulos features in Justine Triet’s “Sibyl”, about a psychologist (played by Virginie Efira) who becomes too emotionally invested in the hardships of one of her patients. Fellow French director Céline Sciamma, of “Girlhood” fame, is upgraded to Cannes’ main contest with her first period piece, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”, which stars Adèle Haenel as a young bride who falls in love with the artist commissioned to paint her wedding portrait. And French-Senegalese director Mati Diop brings her feature debut “Atlantique”, a drama about migrants’ desperate sea crossings, this time seen from Africa, making her the first female filmmaker of African descent to compete for the Palme d’or.

Adèle Haenel stars in Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire".
Adèle Haenel stars in Céline Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire". Cannes Film Festival

Another newcomer, Austrian auteur Jessica Hausner casts Emily Beecham and Ben Whishaw in her sci-fi outing “Little Joe”, about genetic engineering that carries disastrous consequences, one of a string of tantalising genre movies that dominate this year’s line-up.

Among the most eagerly awaited is “Bacurau”, by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, a mysterious Brazil-set Western set in a dystopian near-future, starring Sonia Braga and frost-eyed villain Udo Kier. In what is likely to be a similar vein, Romania’s Corneliu Porumboiu takes us to a prison island in the Canaries with “The Whistlers”, a crime noir with a deadpan comic twist.

Speaking of noir, we can expect another bleak crime story set in the Chinese badlands with “The Wild Goose Lake” by Diao Yinan (the 2014 Golden Bear winner with “Black Coal, Thin Ice”), about the doomed romance between a prostitute and the leader of a biker gang on the run. The only other Asian entry, “Parasite” sees Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho return to the Croisette two years after his Netflix-produced “Okja” caused a kerfuffle in the Grand Théâtre Lumière. Bong has suggested his latest family-based tragicomedy, about the growing divide between rich and poor in his country, may be “too Korean” for international audiences. But with Asian auteurs supplying many of the best Cannes films of late, this one is sure to be a contender.

Hu Ge plays the fugitive leader of a biker gang in Diao Yinan's “The Wild Goose Lake”.
Hu Ge plays the fugitive leader of a biker gang in Diao Yinan's “The Wild Goose Lake”. Cannes Film Festival

The always numerous French contingent this year adds crime stories to its usual batch of romantic dramas, with Cannes veteran Arnaud Desplechin having a crack at a new genre in “Oh Mercy!”, based on the true story of an old woman’s brutal murder in the director’s hometown of Roubaix. Roschdy Zem plays the local police chief in a heavyweight cast of French actors that includes Seydoux. There will be plenty more cops – and the social-realist punch required of all Cannes editions – in Ladj Ly’s “Les Misérables”, the French director’s competition debut, inspired by the 2005 riots in the Paris suburbs.

It’s hard to imagine a festival without Isabelle Huppert, who’ll be back on the red carpet for “Frankie” by American indie auteur Ira Sachs, in which three generations of a same family undergo a “life-changing experience” while holidaying in Portugal. Other Cannes habitués include Xavier Dolan, who is still only 30 but has already won a Jury Prize and a Grand Prix. He will be hoping to go one step further with “Matthias and Maxime”, a tale of friendship of which precious little is known. It marks Dolan’s return to acting, alongside Gabriel D'Almeida Freitas, and to his native Québécois after his troubled English-language debut “The Death & Life of John F. Donovan”.

The prolific Canadian has found time to make eight movies in the decade since veterans Marco Bellocchio and Elia Suleiman last showed up at Cannes. At 79, the Italian is back with “The Traitor”, about the first top mafioso to turn informant in the 1980s, while Suleiman charts his struggle to find an alternative homeland to war-ravaged Palestine in “It Must Be Heaven”, his first film in 10 years. Cannes stalwart Pablo Almodovar is also back with “Pain & Glory”, starring Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz in what appears to be a self-referential tale of a sixty-something filmmaker looking back on the decisions he’s made in life.

Out of competition, Cannes’ ritual auteur celebration will scale new heights with the screening of “The Best Years of a Life” by 81-year-old Claude Lelouch, which returns Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée to their former roles in the 1966 classic “A Man and a Woman”. As for this year’s honorary Palme d’or, it will go to another French film legend, Alain Delon.

In the end, even the most revered film stars could end up being upstaged when that most cinematic of sport (anti)heroes, Diego Maradona, struts his stuff on the red carpet. El Pibe de oro is something of a Cannes habitué in his own right, having hit the Croisette a decade ago with Emir Kusturica’s biopic “Maradona by Kusturica” – which, as the title suggested, was as much about the director as the footballer. This time the Argentine’s extraordinary life is in the very capable hands of British documentary maker Asif Kapadia, of “Amy” fame, who focuses on Maradona’s Neapolitan years, from the “Hand of God” goal to his cocaine-fuelled downfall.

In another sign of Hollywood’s return to Cannes, Paramount will be braving the festival’s notoriously pesky film critics with the premiere of Dexter Fletcher’s Elton John biopic “Rocketman”, starring Taron Egerton as the iconic artist – who is expected to perform on stage. And then there’s that other 72-year-old who won’t let the sun go down on his most famous action personas: Sylvester Stallone. Having prolonged the Rocky Balboa franchise with its spin-off “Creed”, Sly will be reviving his other burly hero, John Rambo, with snippets of the forthcoming “Rambo V”, in which the ageing Vietnam veteran trades his famous bandana for a cowboy hat as he battles it out with a deadly Mexican cartel. Bring them on.

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