Cannes 2021 Lineup: 10 Surprises and Snubs, from Sean Penn to Park Chan-wook

“Cinema is not dead.” It was a fitting opening remark to begin the morning press conference announcement of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where festival director Thierry Frémaux announced 63 films from around the world set to premiere at this year’s July gathering. Arriving on the Croisette one year after the 2020 edition was canceled, the lineup delivers a dense assemblage of cinema from around the world, some of which has waited for its big moment since the days before the pandemic.

What we don’t know is how big Cannes will be. France’s own entry guidelines continue to evolve with the pandemic, and many countries still don’t know if they’ll be able to travel. However the practicalities play out, Cannes has thrown down the gauntlet with this year’s selection. It doesn’t emphasize movie stars, and it may not fuel constant Oscar buzz, but it compensates with work that’s passionate about cinema and some of its greatest contemporary filmmakers. Exhibition paradigms shift every day, but the Cannes selection is poised to highlight the resilience of the art form and some of its most treasured practitioners.

Still, that poses a challenge for anyone looking at this laundry list of titles and trying to figure out where to begin. With a selection finalized at the very last minute — even Frémaux forgot a few titles as he went through the list — the program can seem like a daunting challenge to even the savviest viewers, with 24 titles in Official Competition and 18 in Un Certain Regard, not to mention a smattering of other promising entries in new sections. Here’s an immediate starting point.

What We Already Knew

Last year, much of the “Cannes 2020” selection traveled to a handful of festivals that did take place in person, from San Sebastian to TIFF, including eventual Oscar winner “Another Round.” But Cannes held the door open for any of these titles that wanted to wait a year, and we’ve known for some time that at least a few of them did. “The French Dispatch,” Wes Anderson’s imaginary vision of 20th century journalists, has been one of Searchlight’s most promising new titles for some time. The movie was all set for a Cannes premiere last year and would have later played Telluride, among others. There was some uncertainty in recent weeks about whether Searchlight would decide to bring the movie this year, given the fall release date, but that was settled in recent days: Anderson will return to the Croisette in competition for the first time since “Moonrise Kingdom” opened the festival in 2012.

Marion Cotillard and Adam Driver on the cover art for “So We May Start” from “Annette”

Sony Music

Another 2012 alumni returns with an opening night selection of his own: The ever-surprising French auteur Leos Carax opens Cannes 2021 with “Annette,” a surreal musical drama starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard with music from cult U.S. band Sparks. The movie, which Amazon will release in the U.S., marks Carax’s first English-language production and promises a “day one” Cannes film certain to generate conversation even as it delivers some star power.

And then there’s “Benedetta,” the so-called “lesbian nun movie” from 82-year-old provocateur Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven’s first movie since 2016’s “Elle” follows a closeted nun in a 15th century Italian covent as a plague ravages the city. Early reports suggest a movie less controversial than meets the eye, but filled with complex historical details that will generate conversation. U.S. buyers got an early look, and IFC picked up the movie a few weeks ago.

American Cinema Is at the Forefront

Speaking of American companies and the movies they put out: Where is that “planetary blockbuster” that Frémaux promised Variety in an interview a few weeks ago? As always, the selection process for Cannes is fluid and subject to the whims of companies that often decide the high-pressure festival environment isn’t worth the risk. As a result, the American presence at this year’s festival has virtually no studio contingent, an outcome that may disappoint media outlets looking for the flashiest titles.

However, it’s still heavy with American cinema, U.S. distributors, and filmmakers making their English-language debuts, with some films that seem to have just barely made the cut. Fremaux listed 23 competition titles this morning and sounded like he was done, then added a twenty-fourth: Sean Penn’s “Flag Day,” which stars Penn, Josh Brolin, and Miles Teller in the story of a criminal father who runs con jobs and heists to support his daughter. Yes, it’s true that things didn’t go so well the last time Penn directed a movie that went to Cannes competition — the embarrassing mopey romance “The Last Face” in 2016 — but this is the same filmmaker who made “Into the Wild,” and once again has gone into adaptation mode with a script based off Jennifer Vogel’s weird-but-true memoir about her own dad, so there’s plenty of comeback potential here.

The First -- "Collisions" - Episode 106 - Laz attempts to sway an influential reporter who is critical of the Mars program. Aiko and Eitan test a solution to the MAV problem. An incident with Denise forces Tom to reconsider his priorities. Tom Hagerty (Sean Penn), shown. (Photo by: Paul Schiraldi/Hulu)

Sean Penn

Paul Schiraldi/Hulu

Another Sean in the lineup also came as a surprise: Sean Baker, the American naturalist behind “The Florida Project” and “Tangerine,” finished a cut of his Texas-set drama “Red Rocket” in the last few days just in time for Cannes to take a look and stick it in competition. That’s a big step for the filmmaker, whose “Florida Project” premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar before landing Willem Dafoe an Oscar nomination. With a cast of non-professional actors (or, as Baker prefers to call them, “first-time actors”) led by potential breakout Simon Rex, this story of a porn star attempting to reconnect with his estranged family holds a lot of potential to generate buzz even if its cast won’t look familiar on the red carpet.

But the red carpet will have a few other familiar faces to keep Penn’s film company. These include Matt Damon, who stars in Tom McCarthy’s Universal-produced “Stillwater” alongside Abigail Breslin in another desperate father tale — this one involving a father who attempts to help his incarcerated daughter get out of jail for a crime she may not have committed. After his Oscar-winning “Spotlight,” McCarthy directed the YA adaptation “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” for Disney+, so this entry marks his return to more adult fare. It premieres out of competition, though, a decision that will lead some to speculate about its quality.

And if Val Kilmer comes to Cannes, he won’t be there to promote a new role in the traditional sense. The actor lost his voice after a battle with cancer, but the new documentary “Val” — which A24 recently sold to Amazon — documents the extensive highs and lows of his career. A24 is one of the few companies to see major success with non-fiction cinema at the festival (future Oscar winner “Amy” premiere there, among others) and buzz on “Val” is strong. While Cannes doesn’t usually premiere a lot of documentaries, more snuck in than usual this year, including one from Kilmer’s old collaborators: Oliver Stone’s “JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass.” There’s also Cannes regular Andrea Arnold with “Cow,” an apparent non-fiction effort about a couple of bovines that sounds like a notable new direction for the “American Honey” filmmaker, and Todd Haynes’ long-gestating rock portrait “Velvet Underground,” which Apple picked up after footage was shared with buyers back at Cannes 2019. On the more personal side, “Jane By Birkin” promises a poignant tribute to Jane Birkin directed by her daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg (another Cannes regular).

Alongside Baker, there are a few other American directors whose Cannes presence this year stands a good shot of internationalizing their profiles. Justin Chon’s work previously started its journey at Sundance, with “Ms. Purple” and “Gook” both premiering there. Now he’s got Un Certain Regard selection “Blue Bayou,” the story of a Korean-American man working to build a life for his family in Louisiana. Sure to invite comparisons to last year’s “Minari” (at least on paper), the movie co-stars Chon alongside Alicia Vikander and Mark O’Brien. Then there’s Kogonada, the video essayist-turned-filmmaker whose delicate debut “Columbus” also launched his career at Sundance back in 2017. His A24-backed followup “After Yang” also heads to Un Certain Regard. The heady sci-fi movie co-stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith in the futuristic story of a broken A.I. assistant that complicates a family dynamic.

And U.S. Distributors Have Work to Do

While studios may be wary of Cannes, the arthouse entities have a substantial presence. A24 has several films throughout the lineup, including the Icelandic supernatural thriller “Lamb,” which stars Noomi Rapace returning to her native tongue. Neon, meanwhile, returns to the festival where it launched “Parasite” in 2019 with “Memoria,” the first English-language effort from Thai Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which stars Tilda Swinton as a woman with “exploding head syndrome.” Apichatpong is also one of the filmmakers behind the anthology feature “Year of the Everlasting Stories,” a series of shorts inspired by the pandemic that also features work from Asghar Farhadi. Neon previewed the movie as part of its slate weeks ago, and it provides Cannes with a handy means of acknowledging the events of the past year without overstuffing the selection with films based around that topic.

Other U.S. companies with a regular Cannes presence include Sony Pictures Classics, which has Eva Husson’s first English-language film “Mothering Sunday,” a British drama set in 1924 that co-stars Olivia Colman and Colin Firth as a well-to-do couple and Odessa Young as their maid. The out-of-competition entry brings SPC back to the festival after it launched Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” there in 2019. And in addition to “Benedetta,” IFC Films has Cannes heavyhitter Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 12th District,” a French variation on several short stories by New York graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, with a script co-written by Celine Sciamma.

Needless to say, as theaters reopen as American distributors assess an unsteady market, the Cannes brand still seems valuable for specialty releases.

But Netflix Is a No-Show

The biggest streaming platform on the planet continues to have an unsteady relationship with Cannes. After backlash for its presence in competition 2017, Cannes established a rule that required all competition films to have theatrical releases in France. That led Netflix to hold back all of its films from the festival, including “Roma” the following year. In 2020, Netflix was poised to return to Cannes with an out-of-competition screening for jury president Spike Lee’s “Da Five Bloods,” and while Lee is still the jury president this year, Netflix won’t follow him there. That may be in part because the streaming platform doesn’t want to accept the theatrical rule for competition, or deal with an out-of-competition slot that may seem like a lower-profile opportunity. “We regret this absence, this attitude, this desire, this will, not to negotiate about an out of competition presence,” Fremaux said at today’s press conference.

Jane Campion

The strong wording may in part have something to do with the absence of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” a Netflix production with a stacked cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Jesse Plemons. Campion, so far the only woman in history to win the Palme d’Or, for “The Piano,” would be a no-brainer for the Cannes selection. Her absence sticks out like a sore thumb and will likely stay that way as the Cannes/Netflix divide continues to fester. It’s also unfortunate for another reason…

Gender Parity Continues to Be a Problem

Despite various pledges and conversations about moving toward a more inclusive selection, Cannes has only four women directors in its competition: more than usual, but not exactly progress on paper (the festival does have a historic number of women directors throughout the selection, though). There will be much to explore about which films didn’t make the cut, or got shuffled into other categories, and IndieWire will continue to analyze this ongoing issue. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that all four of these titles hold a lot of potential, and all but one come from filmmakers making their debuts in Cannes competition. Hungarian director Ildiko Enyedi’s “The Story of My Wife” was a late addition in the programming process (some thought it was tipped for Venice) that finds the filmmaker following up her dreamy Oscar-nominated “On Body and Soul” with an English-language adaptation of Milán Furst’s novel about the romance between a sea captain and a woman he meets at a cafe. The film co-stars Cannes regular Léa Seydoux and Louis Garrel.

“Bergman Island”

Another long-gestating project, “Bergman Island” marks acclaimed French director Mia Hansen-Love’s first Cannes competition title, and the project has been generating intrigue for some time. Supposedly based around real events, the movie stars Mia Wasikowska and Tim Roth in the story of an American filmmaking couple who travel to the revered Swedish island to work on a screenplay as their relationship faces a series of strange hurdles. And then there’s Julia Ducournau, who follows her grotesque Cannes Critics Week hit “Raw” (the ultimate cannibal coming-of-age story!) with “Titane,” a French thriller about “biocompatibility” shrouded in mystery but sure to have some shock value in store (Vincent Lindon stars). Joining her, Catherine Corsini’s “Fracture” (her first film in competition in 20 years) revolves around a lesbian couple contending with a breakup over the course of a long night at a hospital. And these two French auteurs won’t be alone…

French Cinema Aims for a Comeback

There were hundreds of French films set for a 2020 release that held back, waiting for theaters to reopen. At the press conference, Fremaux called “for us to be united” in preserving French cinema, but behind the scenes there were a lot of fiery back-and-forth discussions about films jockeying for positions at a festival that goes out of its way to internationalize its selection. Still, five French films made it into competition and many others landed in other sections. A lot of the regulars will return, including the aforementioned Palme-winner Audiard (despite swearing off competition at Cannes a few years ago) and Bruno Dumont, whose “On a Half Clear Morning” stars Léa Seydoux as a journalist recovering from a sudden accident. Pressure will be high for these films to deliver strong results as they lean on the festival to launch them into French theaters on the wave of Cannes hype.

The Usual Gang Gets a Sidebar

Over the years, Cannes has faced a lot of pushback for stuffing its competition with the same club of auteurs each time out (Dardennes! Kawase! Loach!) instead of making room for rising filmmaking stars. And sure, many of the regulars will return to the section this time, from Audiard and Weerasethakul to Nanni Moretti, whose “Tre Piani” brings back to Cannes exactly 20 years after he won the Palme.

But Cannes has found an intriguing resolution to expanding its selection to more heavy-hitters without blowing all its competition slots on them. The new “Cannes Premiere” section creates a dedicated space for established filmmakers who have previously played at the festival. That’s where Arnold’s “Cow” documentary will go, alongside prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo with “In Front of Your Face,” and Kornél Mundruzco (less than a year after his Oscar-nominated “Pieces of a Woman” premiered in Venice) with his Phillip Roth adaptation “Evolution.” Cannes MVP Mathieu Amalric has “Hold Me Tight,” which stars “Phantom Thread” breakout Vicky Krieps in the story of a woman who may or may not choose to abandon her family. It remains to be seen if the films in this section actually deserved to compete for the Palme — or what that even means these days — but certainly provides additional space for many of the festival’s most reliable names to showcase their latest work.

A Strong Showing for the Middle East

Middle Eastern cinema comes and goes from Cannes, but there will be plenty of films from the region this year stirring up conversation, including three from Israel. After scoring Berlin’s Golden Bear for 2019’s “Synonyms,” Nadav Lapid graduates to Cannes competition with “Ahed’s Knee,” another apparently intimate story of a national identity crisis through the lens of a young filmmaker. Other Israelis return to Cannes in sidebars, including “The Band’s Visit” director Eran Korlirin’s Un Certain Regard entry “Let There Be Morning” and actor director Shlomi Elkabetz’s “Black Notebooks.”

Asghar Farhadi

Anne Thompson

Above all, most Cannes diehards will be pumped for the return of Asghar Farhadi to his native country. The Iranian filmmaker opened Cannes several years ago with the starry Spanish-language “Everybody Knows,” and found a mixed reaction (though the film performed commercially worldwide). Now, he’s back at the festival with the Iran-set “A Hero.” The plot is still under wraps (Farhadi’s work tends to have a lot of slow-burn surprises) but Amazon recently acquired the movie and set it for a prime fall season release date — much like it did with his Oscar winner “The Salesman,” which is a good sign.

An African Showcase

Cannes has a spotty record when it comes to African cinema at the festival, but there are several compelling entries from the continent this year. Competition regular Mahamat-Saleh Haroun returns with the Chad production “Lingui,” about a Muslim woman attempting to get an abortion despite the country’s strict prohibitions. Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch makes his competition debut with “Casablanca Beats,” the story of a hip hop artist. And versatile Brazilian director Karim Ainouz (“Invisible Life”) addresses themes of the diaspora with his essay film “Mariner of the Mountains,” in which he revisits his father’s roots in Algeria.

Missing Pieces All Around

As usual with a Cannes selection, the high-profile films that didn’t make the cut are often as intriguing as those that did. What, for instance, happened to genre maestro Park Chan-wook’s “Decision to Leave,” the saga of a detective who meets the ghost of a murdered man? Some have speculated that the movie — not quite finished yet — could wind up in the Venice lineup. That could give him a leg up (at least in theory) since Venice’s jury will be chaired by fellow Korean director Bong Joon Ho. (Venice has no issue with possible conflicts of interest, as “Roma” premiered there when Guillermo del Toro chaired the jury.)

In fact, Venice is rumored to have invited numerous films for its fall gathering, which follows last year’s successful launch for “Nomadland.” Among the expected Venice titles that some may have predicted for Cannes: Paul Schrader’s Oscar Isaac thriller “The Card Counter,” Pablo Larraín’s Kristen Stewart-as-Princess-Di drama “Spencer,” Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s Woody Harrelson-on-a-cruise comedy “Triangle of Sadness”…and, hey, let’s go ahead and predict Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” too. Venice and Netflix tend to play nice.


However, the Cannes selection hasn’t exactly reached the finish line. While it’s hard to imagine the official selection adding much more to its already-stuffed lineup, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics Week have yet to finalize their selections. It’s here where we might see new works from the likes of Joanna Hogg (“Souvenir Part 2” and another movie she shot during the pandemic), Ari Folman (the animated “Anne Frank’s Diary”), the kooky Nicolas Cage revenge drama “Pig” and more exciting genre efforts from new filmmaking talent, like the Finnish body-horror effort “Hatchling.” All of which is to say: Watch this space. For all the movies that Cannes promised us today, there is still more to come.

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