Since June 6th, the Cannes film festival has been well underway, generating headlines about the revival of the prestigious screening venues (e.g. the Palais) and the latest provocations from European arthouse mainstays. New films from Paul Verhoeven, Wes Anderson, Sean Baker, and Julia Ducournau have steadily built anticipation and now must face their moment of truth. Many hope Cannes will provide these films with the necessary launchpad into their awards season runs. After Bong Joon-ho’s festival and awards juggernaut Parasite managed to ascertain both the Palme d’Or and maintain its momentum to sweep up Best Picture at Academy Awards almost a year later, critics, writers, distributors, and audiences are eager to sniff out the next film with long-term awards potential. Most recently, and at the center of much of this attention, has been Leos Carax’s highly anticipated new film Annette––a musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Thanks to the ardent fan base of its lead actor, the outlandish film by the even more outlandish director has already accounted for some of its crossover into the mainstream––the trailer currently has 1.5 million views. However, to expect a film by Carax (Lovers on the Bridge, Holy Motors) to appeal to the artistically conservative Academy voters is to misunderstand the respective goals of the films at Cannes and the Oscars. This bifurcation can be attributed to differing philosophies of cinematic achievement.
As with Parasite, there have been many films that successfully bridged the gap and temporal divide between festival premieres and awards season. Films such as Blackkklansman (dir. Spike Lee) and Nomadland (dir. Chloe Zhao) prevailed. Like Parasite, both managed to gain critical approval, capture relatively wide attention and were, in turn, financially successful. The last of these criteria is one that is uniquely important to award shows like the Oscars which usually considers box office when nominating films. At a place like Cannes, the success of a film is instead measured by its reception by cinephiles since many films are predestined for very limited appeal beyond the Croissette. This is where we can easily locate the divide between the two events: accessibility. Cannes, as with many other major European festivals, usually prides itself in celebrating the avant-garde. Although the festival has been used as a platform to premiere major studio pictures (e.g. Rocketman, Solo: A Star Wars Story), the heart of the festival remains in honoring the vanguards of contemporary cinema as well as auteurs revealing their latest creations (e.g. Gaspar Noe, Jessica Hausner, Jean-Luc Godard). Parasite was an anomaly in more ways than one. It was from a director with a distinguished track record, it was a financially successful international film in the U.S., was thematically and aesthetically accessible, and was the first Palme d’Or winner to receive Best Picture since 1955. Thanks to robust Oscar and promotional campaigns from NEON, Parasite remained revered in critical circles while being discovered by casual moviegoers.
The hopes of finding another Parasite seem premature and the chance of lightning striking twice is unlikely. Based on early reviews from the fest, Carax’s Annette will not straddle the line between cinephiles and the uninitiated as deftly––it is squarely in arthouse territory. Carax also doesn’t have the favorable standing in Hollywood that Spike Lee or Chloe Zhao share. Unlike Zhao, he is certainly not being offered any Marvel films. However, in other corners of the competition there are a few accessible Oscar hopefuls bolstered by name-recognition. Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is all but guaranteed to garner attention due to a cast favorable to North American critics (e.g. Timothee Chalamet, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray). Sean Baker’s new project Red Rocket could also make the leap given the success of his previous film The Florida Project at both venues. Less likely but not entirely inconceivable considerations are Andrea Arnold’s Cow and Todd Haynes’s documentary The Velvet Underground. However, just as the team behind Parasite could not have predicted their film’s astronomical success, we may see another international breakthrough. Asghar Farhadi’s new film A Hero might be able to build off of his previous stateside presence (e.g. A Separation, The Salesman) or Nadav Lapid (The Kindergarten Teacher, Synonyms) may make a breakthrough with Ahmed’s Knee, although neither project seems to be of an ilk attractive to the majority of North American audiences and Oscar voters.
Although Oscar front-runners may or may not be in the midst of this year’s Cannes lineup, the similarities or dissimilarities in the films chosen for competition for the Palme d’Or and those in the running for Best Picture is significant. Anytime the Palme d’Or (the most prestigious international film award) and the Best Picture Oscar (the most internationally recognizable and accessible film award) find overlap it is somewhat significant. Usually playing to different audiences, this bridging is a rarity. Equally rare is when an American awards show considers non-Western content for its top prize, bringing attention to international fare in a country that usually only celebrates its own. Parasite’s success might have been a fluke, however it also evidences the potential for non-English-language films in the West if distributors take the leap and play their cards right. A lot of the fervor in attempting to find the next Cannes success story might be driven by a desire to see international cinema attain some of the ubiquity usually reserved for Hollywood franchises. A tendency towards streaming might provide more opportunity in that respect. The Oscars don’t quite incentivize viewership as they used to, yet the brand is still employed in marketing “prestige dramas,” and arthouse films theatrically and on streaming platforms. Cannes might not turn out to be the awards launchpad as some hope, but it might just actualize as a launchpad for progressive distribution deals. However, when those marquis and Netflix queues might transform into reflections of an international and diverse film landscape remains to be seen.