The Cannes Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday, beginning 11 of the most exciting days of the cinematic year for arthouse devotees. Even if you can’t go, catching up with the daily reviews from the first screenings of major auteurs’ latest films is the cinephile equivalent of watching the ESPNEWS ticker for the latest scores (which is just as fun and ultimately pointless as it sounds). And with that anticipation comes the customary slew of essays about how Cannes has lost the plot, only appeals to a tiny group of people and doesn’t impact film culture, etc.
I’m not interested in constructing a passionate defense of the often marginal movies I love, or probing the fascinating fact that Cannes is the only place in the world where Manoel de Oliveira can receive almost as much coverage as topless starlets on the beach. But I would like to point out that the idea that the festival has been concentrating on less and less relevant films over the years is nonsense. If anything, their track record has improved. Does that mean Cannes went from darkness to light? Of course not, but within the limits of what Cannes was pretty much born to do — show the best films in the world first, which these days means ignoring a lot of mainstream product outright — it’s more on point than ever.
If you don’t believe me, look at this handy list of every year’s competition films. There is obviously a lot of information that could be extrapolated from this, and I’m not even going to attempt a synoptic overview. A few things, though, can be readily noticed. Example: the ’50s contained a lot more starchy Hollywood movies (“The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit,” Delbert Mann’s “Bachelor Party”) that, after the various New Waves, were largely relegated to non-competition parts of the festival. The slates from the last 50 years contain most of the biggest names in international film, but the further back you go, the more you see titles and names that have long been forgotten. No matter how dedicated a film viewer you are, for example, you may have trouble remembering 1995’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” or Mircea Daneliuc’s “Senatorul Melcilor.” Or take the slate for, say, a revolutionary year like 1968, where half of the titles are utterly unknown quantities from foreign names, plus a movie by future Cannon Films mastermind Menahem Golan.
Certainly some of these names are ripe for rediscovery; for example, speaking of 1968, I’ve been told that Valerio Zurlini has been unjustly forgotten by history and will return to haunt us yet. And yes, surely some of these 2010 titles are just competition bloat, the kind that enters every festival in the world every single year. But Cannes’ roster over the last decade has boasted a solid mix of established masters and hot new voices. The films may not cross over with mainstream audiences, but they definitely excite festival movie fans. And having that many established names makes you more curious and confident in the up-and-comers. If it’s safe to predict anything (it usually isn’t), it’s safe to say these slates will hold up better in 20 years than those of the festival’s alleged apex.
[Photos: “Femme Fatale,” Warner Bros., 2002; “The Man In The Grey Flannel Suit,” 20th Century Fox, 1956.]