Panning for gold: Cannes 2019 Palme d’Or contenders

Malick, Tarantino, Dolan... and zombies! Our Cannes veteran rounds up the 2019 contenders for the biggest prize on the international film calendar.

14 May 2019

By Geoff Andrew

Little Joe (2019)

It’s that time of year again when cinephiles are inspecting the competition line-up of the Cannes Film Festival and wondering which of the contestants is going to carry off the coveted Palme d’Or. I myself have been attending this particular festival for far too long to make any foolhardy predictions. I haven’t yet seen any of the competing films, and, even if I had, my own response is inevitably as subjective as that of each of the nine members of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s jury. How on earth would anyone know what they are going to like?

What I can tell you is that only four of the 21 movies in competition are directed by women, that fans of Asian cinema might feel a little short-changed this year, and that Thierry Frémaux and his programming team have again, as last year, attempted to forestall any charges that it will just be the same old filmmakers walking up the red carpet by introducing a fair few unfamiliar names into the mix. Moreover, some recent Cannes regulars – Bruno Dumont, Christophe Honoré, Nicolas Winding Refn – have films screening out of competition or in the Un Certain Regard strand, while others – Bertrand Bonello, Takashi Miike, Rebecca Zlotowski and Lav Diaz – will be having their films premiere further down the Croisette, away from the official selection in the Directors’ Fortnight. Even Werner Herzog’s latest plays in a ‘special screening’ rather than a competition slot.

That said, the line-up is an intriguing one, and it’s probably fair to divide it into several categories. So here is an easy-peasy guide to the form of the various contestants for the 2019 Palme d’Or.

The Cannes Veterans

The Dead Don't Die (2019)

Jim Jarmusch

The Dead Don’t Die

This year’s opening film – very probably the first ever zombie movie to be granted that accolade – is by one of the most truly independent of all US indie filmmakers, Jim Jarmusch, who first made his mark on the film world back in 1984, when Stranger than Paradise – playing in the Directors’ Fortnight – carried off the Camera d’Or prize for the best first feature in any of the festival’s various strands. Jarmusch’s next film, Down by Law, secured him a place in the 1986 competition, and since then nearly all of his features have premiered there. Broken Flowers won the Grand Prix (widely regarded as the second prize) in 2005, and 2016 saw Jarmusch present not one but two films in Cannes: Paterson in competition and Gimme Danger out of competition. The Dead Don’t Die will be his eighth nomination for the big prize.

Ken Loach

Sorry We Missed You

One has to wonder whether anyone has been selected for the Cannes competition more often than Britain’s Ken Loach. Since he first appeared on the Croisette with 1981’s Looks and Smiles, he just keeps being invited back; by my reckoning this will be his 14th film in competition (and there are a few more which screened in other slots). He’s won a fair few prizes, too, and is one of the very select group of directors who’ve been awarded the Palme d’Or more than once: for The Wind that Shakes the Barley in 2006, and for I, Daniel Blake exactly 10 years later.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Young Ahmed (2019)

Young Ahmed

Made after a series of documentaries, the first two features by the Belgian brothers bore scant resemblance to their ‘mature’ work, though Falsch (1987), the first, did screen in Cannes in a survey of French cinema. The Dardenne style proper first manifested itself with La Promesse (1996), though it was not until their next film, Rosetta, that they made their Cannes competition debut and carried off the 1999 Palme d’Or. Six years later, with L’Enfant (2005), they were again awarded the top prize. Since La Promesse every single feature made by the Dardennes has been selected for the main competition (and quite a few have won prizes); Young Ahmed is the eighth to compete.

Pedro Almodóvar

Pain and Glory

Though it took quite a few films before Spain’s bad boy was elevated from premieres in San Sebastian and Berlin to competing in Cannes, once there he became very much a regular fixture. His first appearance in competition, in 1999 with All About My Mother, was a triumph and won him the Best Director prize; since then most of his films have been selected (though 2004’s Bad Education, as the opening film, played out of competition), though as yet he’s never been awarded the top prize. Perhaps this latest – his sixth in competition – will change that.

Quentin Tarantino

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Though Cannes likes to depict Tarantino as a loyal son of the festival – and admittedly his debut Reservoir Dogs (1992) received a special screening there two years before Pulp Fiction won the 1994 Palme d’Or – since that triumph only two of his subsequent films have played in competition. Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) screened out of competition, while of Death Proof (2007) and Inglourious Basterds (2009), only the latter picked up an award (the Best Actor prize for Christoph Waltz). But the new film is set in the world of filmmaking, so who knows?

Arnaud Desplechin

Oh Mercy!

France’s Desplechin made it into the Cannes competition with his very first feature – La Sentinelle, back in 1992 – and has been a regular contestant ever since; this is his sixth attempt for the Palme d’Or, though it must be said he hasn’t been too lucky on the awards front to date, notwithstanding some fine films like My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument (1996) and A Christmas Tale (2008). Ironically, however, when My Golden Days (2015) played in the Directors’ Fortnight, it won him a prize.

Marco Bellocchio

The Traitor

The veteran Italian was first feted in the Cannes competition with 1980’s A Leap in the Dark, which won both Michel Piccoli and Anouk Aimée Best Actor prizes. Since then Bellocchio has featured in competition pretty regularly with titles like The Prince of Homburg (1997), The Nanny (1999), My Mother’s Smile (2002) and — arguably the finest of his competing films so far – Vincere (2009).

Occasional Visitors

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Elia Suleiman

It Must Be Heaven

The Palestinian director first attracted international attention when his first feature, Chronicle of a Disappearance, won a prize at the 1996 Venice Film Festival. Every feature he’s made since has played in the Cannes competition, but since this latest is only Suleiman’s fourth feature, that means his only previous attempts for the Palme d’Or have been in 2002, with Divine Intervention, which won him the Jury prize (often described as the third prize), and in 2009, with The Time That Remains.

Terrence Malick

A Hidden Life

The famously (at least until recently) far-from-prolific and reticent Malick has had films play in the Cannes competition just twice: in 1979, when Days of Heaven was awarded the Best Director prize, and in 2011, when The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or. That victory, of course, seemed to encourage the quiet American to step up his pace, though subsequent films have premiered in Berlin or elsewhere. This latest, largely made in Germany, has been announced as a return to tighter scriptwriting – that said, with its three-hour running time it is the second longest entry in the Cannes competition. 

Bong Joon-ho


While he doesn’t exactly churn them out, Korea’s Bong is rather more prolific than Malick and Suleiman, but because he tends to work subversive variations on popular/mainstream genres, that hasn’t made him an obvious candidate for the Cannes competition. Still, The Host played in the 2006 Directors’ Fortnight, he first appeared in the Un Certain Regard strand in 2008 as one of the three directors of the portmanteau film Tokyo! and followed that up the next year with Mother. His only previous contestant in the Cannes competition was 2017’s Okja.

Abdellatif Kechiche

Mektoub My Love – Intermezzo

Despite having made some fine films (La Faute à Voltaire and L’Esquive, were particularly good), it was only with his fifth feature – Blue Is the Warmest Colour – that Kechiche finally had a film play in Cannes; he made up for lost time by winning the 2013 Palme d’Or (which, in a one-off, was awarded not only to the director but to the two lead actors, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos). His next film, the similarly lengthy Mektoub My Love – Canto Uno, premiered in Venice in 2017; this new film, reportedly a continuation of that story, is said to run around four hours.

The New Guard

Matthias and Maxime (2019)

Xavier Dolan

Matthias and Maxime

Though he only recently celebrated his 30th birthday, the Québecois Dolan almost deserves to be regarded as something of a Cannes veteran. Just 10 years ago his feature debut, I Killed My Mother, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight, since then all but two of his features have played in the official selection: Heartbeats (2010) and Laurence Anyways (2012) in Un Certain Regard, and Mommy (2014) and It’s Only the End of the World (2016) in the main competition. 

Jessica Hausner

Little Joe

The first English-language feature by Austria’s Jessica Hausner may be her first film in the main Cannes competition, but she goes back a very long way with the festival. In 1999 her short film Inter-view was in the Cinefondation selection, and two years later she had a hit with her debut feature Lovely Rita, in the Un Certain Regard strand, which subsequently found room for both Hotel (2004) and Amour Fou (2014). As it happens, though, Hausner’s biggest international success to date, Lourdes (2009) premiered in Venice.

Céline Sciamma

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Like Hausner, Sciamma – recognised in France not only as a director of note but as a writer who has collaborated very fruitfully with other filmmakers – may be making her debut in competition, but her associations with the festival have long been important. Her first feature, Water Lilies, was a major discovery in the 2007 Un Certain Regard strand, while 2014’s Girlhood made a great splash in the Directors’ Fortnight.

Corneliu Porumboiu

The Whistlers

An important contributor to the development of the ‘New Romanian Cinema’, Porumboiu first attracted international attention when his 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) screened in the Directors’ Fortnight and won the Camera d’Or. Subsequently Police, Adjective (2009) and The Treasure (2015) played in the Un Certain Regard strands, the former winning a couple of awards. The Whistlers marks Porumboiu’s first appearance in the main competition.

Bacurau (2019)

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles


Having already made quite a few shorts and documentaries, Brazil’s Mendonça Filho caused a stir at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival with his first feature, Neighbouring Sounds — enough of a stir, in fact, to pave the way for his next feature, Aquarius, to screen in the Cannes competition. His latest contestant for the Palme d’Or is made in collaboration with producer and production designer Dornelles. 

Diao Yinan

The Wild Goose Lake

Though this fourth feature by Diao marks the Chinese director’s first appearance in the Cannes competition, he made his debut at the festival back in 2007 when his second feature, Night Train, was selected for the Un Certain Regard strand. To date, however, he’s probably best known for his third feature, Black Coal, Thin Ice, which won the Golden Bear at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival.

New Faces

Sibyl (2019)

Ira Sachs


Hardly a new face, really, given that Sachs has been around for a while, his debut The Delta having been well received at the 1997 Rotterdam Film Festival. Of the films he’s made since then, Love Is Strange (2014) and Little Men (2016) are probably the best known. So why is he suddenly making his debut in the Cannes competition? Having Isabelle Huppert in the lead role might have helped.

Justine Triet


France’s Justine Triet is not, strictly speaking, a Cannes neophyte: her feature debut Age of Panic screened during the 2013 edition of the festival as part of the ACID (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema) programme; subsequently, her next film, In Bed with Victoria, was selected for the 2016 Critics’ Week. This, her third feature, marks her entrance into the official selection and the competition itself.

Mati Diop


Though Diop’s first feature – seemingly a dramatic reworking of a story she dealt with in a documentary short a decade ago – is also, inevitably, her first contestant for the Palme d’Or, she is not an entirely unfamiliar face to cinephiles, since she was the lead actress is Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008). Moreover, that name may sound echoes of familial antecedents in the cinema: her father is the Senegalese musician and film composer Wasis Diop, and her uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty, director of the 1973 classic Touki Bouki and the 1992 Palme d’Or contestant Hyenas.

Ladj Ly

Les Misérables

The solitary first film in the main competition – even Diop has made a number of shorts and documentaries – this debut by Malian-born actor-turned director Ly is not, it seems, another adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, but about the riots in Paris in 2005. As such, it suggests that the Cannes programming team is continuing, in its own slightly cautious but undoubtedly cinephile way, to ensure that the festival continues to deal with pressing social and political issues.

  • Little Joe and Sorry We Missed You are both backed by the BFI Film Fund.
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