Bigger, greener, wiser? Cannes Film Festival returns after 2020 washout

Jury head Spike Lee graces this year's festival poster.
Jury head Spike Lee graces this year's festival poster. © Eric Gaillard, Reuters

After skipping a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the world’s premier film festival returns to the French Riviera for a bumper edition running through July 6-17. FRANCE 24 lifts the curtain on the crucial – and trivial – things you need to know about the 74th Cannes Film Festival. 


When cinema’s hotshots and wannabes last gathered along Cannes’ palm-tree-lined Croisette in the spring of 2019, the world’s most glamorous film festival opened with a droll but dire warning of impending doom: a man-made apocalypse of zombies stirred from their slumber by polar fracking.

By the end of that year, the apocalypse had duly struck – not in the shape of Jim Jarmusch’s amiable zombie hordes, but in the more sinister form of a deadly virus that would soon sweep across the globe, killing an estimated four million people (to date), shutting down entire economies, and putting a lid on social and cultural life the world over.

The coronavirus pandemic served as an ominous reminder of the direct link between biodiversity loss and vital threats to humanity. It’s a warning the Cannes Film Festival has vowed to put at the heart of its programme as it returns to the French Riviera this week after a virus-induced gap year.

Festival organisers have made clear this year’s edition will be unlike any other. Rigid sanitary protocols and a vast testing centre on the Croisette will offer a constant reminder of the enduring threat of Covid-19, while a slew of environment-themed movies will emphasise the fact that this is no time for complacent stargazing alone.

The all-important red-carpet photographers pictured at the last festival in 2019.
The all-important red-carpet photographers pictured at the last festival in 2019. © Christophe Simon, AFP

But Cannes is also keenly aware of the need for some relief and merriment after a seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns and curfews – and of its own role as the glitzy showcase of an industry that has been hit especially hard by the pandemic.

“Cinema is not dead,” said a defiant Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s longtime artistic director, as he unveiled a bumper line-up last month, stacked with established auteurs, exciting young talent and Hollywood confectionery aplenty. 

With cinemas shuttered throughout much of the pandemic, the tussle between the Big Screen and streaming platforms has swung heavily in favour of the latter. Now more than ever, Cannes is keen to play up its role as the guardian of the theatrical experience – meaning Netflix is, once again, absent from the party.

The Palme d’Or race

Not that Cannes needs the digital upstarts. A direct consequence of 2020’s no-show is the unprecedented abundance of films on offer this year. Several top auteurs waited an entire year in order to premiere at the world’s top film fest, such is the enduring power of Cannes. They include A-listers Wes Anderson (“The French Dispatch”), Paul Verhoeven (“Benedetta”) and Leos Carax (“Annette”), whose musical drama starring Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver will provide this year’s suitably glamorous curtain-raiser. 

Anderson’s film alone should ensure the 74th Festival de Cannes is worth the trouble for the all-important red-carpet photographers, with the likes of Timothée Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Benicio Del Toro, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux and Tilda Swinton – to name but a few – expected on the crimson walkway, assuming they are allowed to travel.

Aside from the typically numerous French contingent, the roster of 24 films vying for the Palme d’Or covers an especially broad spectrum of world cinema, with Iran’s Asghar Farhadi (“A Hero”), Chad’s Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (“Lingui”), Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul (“Memoriam”), Japan’s Ryusuke Hamagachi (“Drive My Car”), Russia’s Kirill Serebrennikov (“Petrov’s Flu”) and Australia’s Justin Kurzel (“Nitram”) also in the running.

Other familiar names include Italy’s Nanni Moretti (“Three Floors”), the 2001 Palme d’Or laureate, and Sean Penn (“Flag Day”), who returns to the Croisette five years after his woeful “The Last Face” was torn to shreds by critics. They will be joined by an exciting roster of newcomers to the competition, including Israel’s Nadav Lapid (“Ahed’s Knee”), Moroccan-French helmer Nabil Ayouch (“Casablanca Beats”), Belgium’s Joachim Lafosse (“The Restless”) and US indie darling Sean Baker (“Red Rocket”).

Mirroring the wider competition, the home country’s contingent of seven directors mixes habitués like Jaques Audiard (“Paris, 13th District”) and François Ozon (“Everything Went Fine”) with some intriguing new faces. It accounts for three of the four women directors in the running, with Catherine Corsini (“The Divide”), Julia Ducourneau (“Titane”) and Mia Hansen-Løve (“Bergman Island”) ranking among this year’s hottest tickets. 

With Hungary’s Ildiko Enyedi (“The Story of My Wife”) the only other woman in the race, the festival is yet to make progress in addressing the chronic gender imbalance in its main competition. Instead, organisers have stressed the near-parity in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, designed to showcase younger and edgier fare, while women outnumber men in the main jury presided by Spike Lee – the first Black filmmaker to preside over the Cannes festival jury.

Spot the woman: Jane Campion, the only female director to win a Palme d'Or, pictured with other past laureates at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.
Spot the woman: Jane Campion, the only female director to win a Palme d'Or, pictured with other past laureates at the 70th Cannes Film Festival. Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

A female director is at least guaranteed to take this year’s honorary Palme d’Or, with Jodie Foster due to pick up the award on the festival’s opening night, 45 years after she first showed up in Cannes, aged 13, for the premiere of Martin Scorsese’ “Taxi Driver”.

Greening the red carpet

In order to make space for newcomers in the main competition, while also rewarding old-timers for their fidelity, Frémaux and his team have added a whole new section – “Cannes Premieres” – to showcase the latest works by festival stalwarts, like South Korea’s prolific Hong Sang-soo (“In Front of Your Face”), who have earned their permanent slot.

They have also followed other film festivals in giving greater space to documentaries, particularly those that carry big-name clout. This year’s roster includes Oliver Stone’s revisitation of his classic “JFK”, Todd Haynes’ portrait of “The Velvet Underground”, and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s tribute to her mother, Jane Birkin. 

Cannes’ music-heavy line-up also features Audrey Estrougo’s eagerly awaited “Suprêmes”, about the godfathers of French rap, NTM, and Valerie Lemercier’s long-delayed Céline Dion biopic “Aline”. In perhaps the quirkiest musical option, Bill Murray will be reciting contemporary numbers in collaboration with a German cellist and piano trio in Andrew Muscato’s "New Worlds, the Cradle of a Civilization".

This year, a further six documentaries are slated in a new section focusing on climate change and environmental degradation, along with Louis Garel’s feature film “The Crusade”, starring the French actor and his partner Laëtitia Casta. The docus include Aïssa Maïga’s “Above Water”, on the impact of global warming in Niger, and Rahul Jain’s “Invisible Demons”, which tackles air pollution in New Delhi.

“There are documentaries that describe how we’re destroying our planet, documentaries on how beautiful it is, and others that look at how ‘boomers’ must engage with the younger generations,”  Frémaux told FRANCE 24 ahead of the festival. 

Aside from the movies, the festival has a mountain to climb when it comes to bolstering its green credentials. As the glitziest stop on the film world’s endless circus of festivals and parties, the Cannes Film Festival has long been an ecological hazard. It has also fallen behind other gatherings, such as the Berlinale, which recently adopted red carpets made of recycled fish nets.

This year's Cannes red carpet will be half the size of that last seen in 2019.
This year's Cannes red carpet will be half the size of that last seen in 2019. © Alberto Pizzoli, AFP

To make amends, Cannes organisers have promised to halve the volume of their famed red carpet and make it from recycled materials rather than the usual PVC. They have also banned plastic bottles, deployed a fleet of electric cars, and instituted a €20 contribution from each festival-goer to offset some of their carbon footprint.

Martinez, where’s the party?

But going green involves a delicate balancing act for a festival that is wary of throwing a wet blanket on celebrations. Cannes knows that it is as much about the glam as the films. It is heavily reliant on film stars flying in from across the globe and on festivities that tend to generate mountains of trash. 

This year’s green push has found an unexpected ally in pandemic restrictions, which are set to bar numerous film buffs, celebrity-watchers and industry workers from attending, while dissuading others from taking the risk.

Despite high hopes for the festival after a lengthy pandemic closure, Cannes’ numerous hotels are still far from fully booked – and that’s without counting the Carlton, which is closed for renovations. While France’s last curfew has been lifted, some international travel restrictions are still in place, meaning French visitors are set to outnumber the high-spending foreigners. Meanwhile, social distancing rules are likely to make it even harder to get past the doorman as party organisers opt for smaller, more exclusive crowds. 

"We are not going to have a lot of parties and big gatherings that could create difficult consequences," Cannes Film Festival President Pierre Lescure warned ahead of the event. "It's our responsibility to everyone – the festival, the town, the participants – that this post-pandemic event goes smoothly.”

Habitués of the Carlton will have to find another haunt this year.
Habitués of the Carlton will have to find another haunt this year. © Valéry Hache, AFP

Jewellers Chopard, who make the annual Palme d'Or trophy, have already cancelled their grand party – a traditional highlight of the festival nightlife – in favour of a few select get-togethers on the terrace of the exclusive Hotel Martinez. It’s a move many in the business are welcoming.

"A new era is dawning. The Cannes parties often had lots of people who had no business being there," veteran party host Albane Cleret, who will be taking over the roof of the swanky Mariott Hotel, told AFP. "Now we can have dinners where we put the world to rights, and really talk business."

With this year’s unusual July slot guaranteeing balmy evenings on the Croisette, even the cliquish rooftop parties could be upstaged by Cannes’ beachfront cinema. Festivalgoers will no doubt be fighting over the deckchairs on July 14 for the double bill of Bastille Day fireworks and the premiere of the latest instalment in Hollywood’s action-packed blockbuster franchise “Fast & Furious”.

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