Previewing Cannes 2013: a programmer’s perspective

For the programmer as for the critic, the Cannes Film Festival offers tantalising first sightings of new films by the great and the good of international cinema. Geoff Andrew, head of film programme at BFI Southbank, reveals the premieres he’s most excited about – and hints at possible future retrospectives at the BFI…

Geoff Andrew
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Cannes means different things to different people. For some it’s about glitz and glamour. For others it’s about deals, contracts and money. For others it’s about schmoozing, networking and parties. For me, it’s about the movies.

That may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but even the experience of watching the films can mean different things to different people, depending on their professional requirements. When I watch a movie in Cannes, it’s almost as if there are three separate individuals taking it in.

As with most people (but certainly not all, given how many hangers-on attend Cannes screenings in one capacity or another), there is the cinephile, the lifelong devotee of movies who just hopes to have a good time.

Like Father, Like Son

Like Father, Like Son

Then there’s the critic, the side of me that thinks about a film in various wider contexts and tries to analyse my emotional and intellectual response to it in some kind of ordered, articulate, dispassionate way.

Then there’s the programmer in me, who looks out not only for films to play at BFI Southbank (and to recommend to my colleagues working on the London Film Festival), but for themes, trends, actors or directors that might suggest a season, an event, a larger, longer-term project or whatever.

Of course, these three versions of yours truly constantly overlap; none of them really exists apart from the others. But while the cinephile and the critic in me are looking forward to all the films to a more or less equal degree, hoping they’ll be rewarding in themselves in one way or another, the programmer will also be asking himself questions along the lines of: how big an audience would I expect this film to attract to the BFI? How will it play with the audiences it does attract? Is the filmmaker’s oeuvre strong enough to warrant a season? Might we be able to get the filmmaker to London? Which British distributors are interested in the film, and what might their plans for its release be? And so on…

Only God Forgives (2013)

Only God Forgives (2013)

That said, this means that the programmer in me still has to try to be as open-minded as the cinephile and critic are about the films selected by Thierry Frémaux and the rest of the Cannes team. The great thing about Cannes is that anything might turn up. True, Alex Van Warmerdam, the Dutch director of Borgman, doesn’t come with the known creative form of, say, Nicolas Winding Refn (Only God Forgives), James Gray (The Immigrant) or Asghar Farhadi (The Past), let alone young veterans like the Coen Brothers (Inside Llewyn Davis), Hirokazu Koreeda (Like Father, like Son) or François Ozon (Jeune et Jolie). But then few of us had seen Occident, the debut feature written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, before his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days carried off the Palme d’or five years later.

So is there anything I especially look forward to? As a cinephile and critic, I’m probably most keen to catch the work of favourite directors like the Coens, Claire Denis (Bastards, playing in the Un Certain Regard section), Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Grisgris), Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin) and Roman Polanski (Venus in Fur).

As a programmer, I’ll be looking with particular interest at the new films by Farhadi, Koreeda, Alexander Payne (Nebraska) and Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) – all have enough films behind them now for a retrospective to be a possibility. But there are also plenty of new and/or lesser-known directors to consider. After all, nothing’s quite as exciting as discovering an unknown new talent.

Behind the Candelabra

Behind the Candelabra

Which reminds me. I haven’t yet mentioned Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra. He says it’s his final film, so it’s fitting that it’s premiering at the same festival that gave his own debut, sex, lies and videotape (1989), its top prize. My not name-checking him was nothing to do with my expectations of the new film, which are of course high. It’s because we’re already considering the possibility of a Soderbergh retrospective at BFI Southbank. Watch this space…

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