A day before the start of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, workers are putting the finishing touches on the red carpet in preparation for Wednesday night's gala screening of the opening film, Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby. Tourists are swarming the Croisette, snapping photos and revelling in the giddy, pre-party vibe. Critics fresh off the plane from various corners of the globe are shrugging off jet lag and greeting each other as if it's the first day of school after summer vacation (in other words: hugs, kisses, and the occasional snarky remark about a rival).
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Meanwhile, the sun is shining bright, inspiring some festival-goers to head for a dip in the turquoise Mediterranean waters before 4 days of anticipated—and already much-cursed—rain.
The atmosphere and players at Cannes don't change much from year to year. It's always an odd mix of glamour and grit, work and play, with leggy model types tipsy from too much champagne strutting amid journalists jittery from too much coffee, while publicists bark orders at terrified-looking interns and stern security guards reliably step in to prevent you from getting to where you want to go. In the background, inevitably, is the endless thump-thump of generic Euro-techno emanating from cars and night clubs temporarily set up on the beach.
What does change from year to year, of course, is the movies.
Cannes is reputed as the most prestigious and picky of all film festivals, with programmers whittling down a pile of nearly 1,800 submitted films to a 20-entry international competition line-up.
If every edition is different, this is the second consecutive year that Cannes artistic director Thierry Frémaux mentioned the distinct American flavor of the selection.
"This year's competition is proof that American cinema is currently very strong," Frémaux noted in an interview with FRANCE 24.
The prominence of American films in competition (five out of 20, compared to only one in 2011, for example) is not lost on US critics like Glenn Heath Jr., a San Diego native covering the festival for Indiewire. "Unlike last year, the Americans in the line-up [the Coen brothers, Alexander Payne, Steven Soderbergh, Jim Jarmusch, and James Gray] are major directors," Heath said, specifying that Gray's The Immigrant and Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive—along with Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin—are the works he's most eager to discover.
"The Immigrant [which tells the story of a Polish prostitute in 1920s New York] is a period piece, so it's a new direction for Gray," Heath said. "And Only Lovers Left Alive is about vampires, and stars Tilda Swinton, who's just such a strange and unique figure."
This year's edition is also notable for the prevalence of French directors in competition (six). Perhaps predictably, some observers aren't happy about the fact that a festival run by France is so prominently featuring the country's own filmmakers. "I find it strange that there are so many French films in competition at a time when French cinema is sub-par," said Helen Barlow, an Australian critic covering the festival for the online edition of SBS, a multilingual, Australia-based TV channel. "I'm appalled that there are no Australian or New Zealand filmmakers in competition. There should have been one, since there are 50 million French films."
In his interview with France 24, Frémaux addressed the notion that French cinema is over-represented this year. "There are many fine French directors who make beautiful movies that, by nature, are the kind of films typically shown at Cannes," he said.
"I find it strange that there are so many French films in competition at a time when French cinema is sub-par," said Helen Barlow, an Australian critic.
Frémaux was quick to point out France's generosity in supporting filmmakers beyond its own borders. "France counts many professionals and producers that help cinema abroad," he said. "A crazy number of films in competition [not directed by French filmmakers] benefitted from French funding."
Some critics, though, were enthused by this year's slate of films. "I'm thrilled with the line-up," said Senegalese-Lebanese Mehdi Omais, who writes for the French edition of the newspaper Metro. "I want to see everything."
If he had one minor complaint, Omais said, it would be that Lars Von Trier's upcoming Nymphomaniac, a racy-sounding movie tracing one woman's sexual history, was not selected.
"But you can't have everything," Omais said with a smile.
Frémaux himself acknowledged the strategic, sometimes contradictory process by which he, and a few others, choose the movies that end up on the final competition list. "I can love a film and say, 'No, it's not for Cannes', and be only so-so on a film and decide it deserves to be in competition," he said to France 24. "That's part of Cannes: It's not only a selection for ourselves, it's a selection for the rest of the world."